Translation as Phantom Limb
"Es ist daher," Walter Benjamin
writes in "Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers," "vor allem
im Zeitalter ihrer Entstehung, das höchste Lob einer Übersetzung
nicht, sich wie ein Original ihrer Sprache zu lesen" (166)
or, as Harry Zohn translates that, problematically (and I want to return
to explore its problems in a moment), "Therefore it is not the highest
praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say
that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language"
This principle, first practiced (so far
as we know) by such early Roman writers as Naevius and Livius Andronicus
in the third century before the Christian era, and given its fullest modern
articulation by German romantics from Herder through Novalis and A. W.
Schlegel to Schleiermacher, Goethe, and Humboldt, remains today the guiding
light of some of the most exciting and innovative translation theorists
around. In a book that has been enormously influential among intellectuals,
L'Épreuve de l'etranger (1984), and that recently appeared
in Stefan Heyvaert's English translation, The Experience of the Foreign
(1992), Antoine Berman defined a "bad translation" as a "translation
which, generally under the guise of transmissibility, carries out a systematic
negation of the strangeness of the foreign work" (5). In his introduction
to Rethinking Translation, Lawrence Venuti attacks the normative
ideology of translational "fluency," which translates, as he
makes clear, as "invisibility":
And as more and more scholars have begun
to explore the political functioning of translation as a channel of empire,
the "assimilative" or "appropriative" translation
has been thematized indeed, dogmatized as intrinsically
imperialistic. Because, as scholars like Eric Cheyfitz and Tejaswini Niranjana
have persuasively shown, colonizers in America and India and elsewhere
have typically assimilated indigenous legal and cultural articulations
into their own exogenous languages in order to seize control of the colony's
political and emotional institutions, any translation that "feels
native" in the target language, "reads like an original"
in the target language, is politically exploitative. The only politically
acceptable translation is one that seeks to retain what Berman calls the
experience of the foreign, an alien roughness or strangeness in the target
This position has obvious logical problems.
It is a non distributio medii it excludes hugely interesting
middles by proposing that all A is B, therefore all B is A
and I want to explore some of those middles here. But the middles are
astonishingly hard to talk about. For all intents and purposes, they don't
exist. Translation has been circumscribed by the non distributio medii
at least since Cicero and Horace in the first century B.C.E., when the
poles were called "free" and "slavish," and since
Jerome in the fourth century of our era it has been etched in the stone
of Christian dogma under the Hieronymian terms sense-for-sense and word-for-word.
Either cling to the alien feel of the original text or assimilate everything
in the original to a reductively blank or transparent target-language
expression. Nothing else is translation. If you reject or resist the hegemonic
pull of flat, denatured target-language articulation, what Venuti calls
"fluency" or "invisibility," your only choice is to
foreignize, to cling to the strangeness of the original.
What I want to suggest here is that the
middles excluded by this reigning translatological non distributio
medii are all in fact assimilative, all appropriative they
do appropriate foreign "properties," make them feel like the
target culture's "own" but that they do so without reducing
the texts to easy transparency or fluency. In fact, to add to the passage
I quoted from Venuti a sentence that I ellipsed out, these middles sound
like texts originally written in the target language while not eschewing
the linguistic roughnesses Venuti claims all such translations eschew:
"they [do not] pursue linear syntax, univocal meaning or controlled
ambiguity, current usage, linguistic consistency, conversational rhythms;
they [do not] eschew unidiomatic constructions, polysemy, archaism, jargon,
abrupt shifts in tone or diction, pronounced rhythmic regularity or sound
repetitions any textual effect, any play of the signifier, which
calls attention to the materiality of language, to words as words, their
opacity, their resistance to empathic response and interpretive mastery"
(4). Many good translations, I want to argue, revel in all those things
Venuti claims assimilative translations weed out but they also
sound as if they had originally been written in the target language.
In the first place, many texts that were
originally written in the target language revel in those things too. This
is the simplest objection to the polarization of "familiarity"
and "strangeness" that translation theorists both hegemonic
and counterhegemonic have perpetrated, and thus a good place to start
though it will only lead us to more complicated problems, and thus
more interesting formulations. I grew up with e. e. cummings' poetry,
and feel quite comfortable with the superficial "strangeness"
Ezra Pound's assimilative translations and fascist politics have made him a choice target for the new anti-imperialist attack on assimilative translation Pound was a fascist who appropriated foreign expressions for Anglophone modernism, ergo all translational appropriation is fascist! but much of Pound's original poetry has a strangeness that feels eerily right in English:
Here we have the "current usages"
and "conversational rhythms" that Venuti associates with translational
transparency, but they are usages and rhythms that collapse quickly into
what Jean-Jacques Lecercle calls the "violence of language,"
the nonsensical "remainder" that is typical of ordinary
speech but can never be reduced to the tidy syntactic or semantic patterns
of formal linguistics. "But Sordello, and my Sordello?"
what does that mean? I don't know, but my ignorance doesn't bother me;
it feels right. Then we go into Provencal, Sordello's language, which
I don't understand, but I've lived and traveled abroad enough not to be
too bothered by that either. And then, perhaps associationally, like the
uncannily natural progression of a dream or a Monty Python sketch, we
shift to So-shu churning in the sea, which I need a footnote to tell me
refers to Chuang-Tzu, but why Pound gives us the Japanese transliteration
of the Chinese name, and what churning in the sea has to do with anything,
I have no idea.
This is the kind of "foreign"
strangeness that the German romantics and their recent avatars want translators
to produce in the target language but it is from a poem originally
written in English. What happens, then, when a poem is not originally
written in English is written, say, in Provencal by Arnaut Daniel
but when translated into English sounds as if it had originally
been written in English, and also sounds strange, and strangely familiar?
Let's now look back at that quote from
Benjamin that I began with, and Harry Zohn's rendering of it. Zohn's translation
of Benjamin is universally despised by postromantic Germanists because
it is so assimilative, and thus so unBenjaminian; Zohn calmly ignores
Benjamin's own strictures, so that his translation of Benjamin's text
into English "reads as if it had originally been written in that
language." What Benjamin's supporters want is not slavish literalism,
but some feel of the strangeness of the German text in the English, some
sense of the flow of Benjamin's ideas in German without radical assimilation
to English syntax. In the sentence I began by quoting, for example, Zohn's
most significant syntactic assimilation is the resequencing of the main
clause so as to bring the "not" up to where it seems most natural
in English, "it is not the highest praise of a translation . . ."
Benjamin sets it up differently: "Es ist daher . . . das höchste
Lob einer Übersetzung nicht, sich wie ein Original ihrer Sprache
zu lesen," which sounds a bit like cummings' "pity this busy
monster,manunkind, / not," or, as I would prefer, like Wayne and
Garth's now-famous negation on Wayne's World, the original Saturday
Night Live sketch and the two explosively popular movies: "It
is therefore . . . the highest praise of a translation NOT!
that it reads like an original of its language."
But notice what this does: rather than
fetishizing strangeness, foreignness, I've assimilated Benjamin's elitist
postromantic German text to an extremely antielitist masscult American
text, a text that typically gives us the "unEnglish" NOT! after
a chipper parody of elitist academic discourse. Is Wayne and Garth's
NOT! unEnglish or not? It probably does still feel alien, syntactically
malformed, to many native speakers of English, especially those who don't
watch Saturday Night Live, who don't like or don't approve of that
kind of humor, who would find Wayne and Garth's breezy populist antiacademicism
repellent. Since I never miss an SNL if I can help it, and have
taken my kids to see both movies, and use the Wayne-and-Garth NOT! with
all the time in everyday speech, it feels very English to me.
The excluded middle between static strangeness
and static familiarity that I am working toward, here, is a dynamic sliding
between strangeness and familiarity, a becoming-familiar that yet retains
an air of alterity an appropriation that I want to compare to a
physiological sense called proprioception, that sense that makes us feel
our body as our own. This connection occurred to me recently while reading
Oliver Sacks' book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, a series
of wonderful case histories that attempt to explore what it must feel
like to be plagued or, in many cases, blessed with various
neurological losses and excesses, transports and simplifications. Sacks
tells the story of Christina, for example, who suffered damage to her
proprioceptive fibers and couldn't feel her own body:
I had that experience once myself, briefly:
in for a cystoscopy, I was given a spinal block and a curtain was rigged
at my waist, so I couldn't see what was being done to me. When the operation
was over, I watched over the curtain as a nurse lifted a leg across my
field of vision from left to center, then lowered it beneath the top of
the curtain. I panicked: whose leg is that? It took me a moment to realize
that it was my own that I couldn't feel it because of the spinal
block. Sacks tells many such stories, like the one about the man who awoke
horrified to find a strange leg in bed with him, threw it out on the floor,
and was even more horrified to find himself flying after it because
it was attached to him!
Where all this begins to connect up with
translation, though, is in Sacks' sixth chapter, on prosthetics and the
strange proprioceptive phenomenon of the "phantom" which
Sacks defines as "a persistent image of memory of part of the body,
usually a limb, for months or years after its loss" (66) and
the striking fact that, as Sacks quotes Michael Kremer as saying, "no
amputee with an artificial lower limb can walk on it satisfactorily until
the body-image, in other words the phantom, is incorporated into it"
(67). If we take this, provisionally, as a metaphor for translation, the
translation would be the prosthetic device an artificial, mechanical
contrivance designed to replace a textual limb "lost" through
the target-language reader's inability to read a text in the original
language that only comes to feel real, native, strong enough to
"walk on" or live through, when a proprioceptive "phantom"
is incorporated into it.
This would constitute a tentative explanation
of how a foreign text can be appropriated "strangely" into the
target language: what makes any text feel "at home" or "one's
own" in any language is not the mere fact that it was written (originally
or otherwise) in that language, nor the mere fact (or illusion) that it
was written in the kind of reductively and unproblematically "fluent"
or "transparent" idiom that normative linguists like to reify
as "ordinary language" but the incorporation into it
of a proprioceptive phantom, some nexus of felt experience that charges
the text, any text, with the feel of reality, of "one's-ownness,"
of proprioception. A text that is charged with that felt experience
by individual readers, by groups of readers, by whole cultures
will feel real whether it is an original or a translation, whether it
is domesticated or foreignized, whether it is easy or difficult to read.
A text that is not charged with that felt experience will be like my leg
above the curtain, like Christina's body: a dead thing, a foreign object.
The advantage of thinking about "appropriation"
along these lines is that it shifts our conceptual center of gravity from
the intrinsic "properties" of texts to the reader's active construction
of meaning a shift similar in import and ideological history to
the one Sacks himself models from the traditional neurological thematization
of the patient as an object to be prodded and tested and diagnosed in
terms of objective "deficits," to the empathic construction
of the patient as a complex experiencing subject. In the reificatory intellectual
traditions of the West, a phenomenon only becomes "real" when
it can be thematized as inert, a thing: a text to be analyzed in terms
of its forms, its structures, its properties; a patient to be diagnosed
in terms of its (not her or his) symptomatologies, its syndromes, its
Still, if thinking of a translation as
a prosthetic device that must be infused with a proprioceptive experiential
phantom solves some problems, it raises far more. For one thing, it seems
to perpetuate the old hegemonic conception of the translation as an artificial
substitute for the original as real thing and in fact only seems
to supplement that conception with a mystified illusion of reality that
is manipulated through art or science, like the real-seeming prosthetic
arms in The Return of the Jedi or Terminator 2, so real
that we're shocked when we see they're prosthetics. For another, even
if we stick closely to the neurological event and see the phantom not
as artifice but as a body-image generated by our proprioceptive sense
no less real than the sense of our limbs that we have before they're
amputated (or anesthetized) how exactly would that work with translation?
If a translation becomes "real" by having a phantom incorporated
into it which would be a process sort of like Pinocchio becoming
a real boy? whose phantom is it, and who does the incorporating?
Let's consider the possibilities. Suppose
the translation is a dead thing, black marks on the page, that has to
be "brought to life" by a reader, infused with proprioceptive
meaning by a real person. It would then make an enormous difference for
our understanding of translation as prosthetic and as phantom limb if
the real person bringing the inert marks to life were (a) the author,
(b) the translator, or (c) the target-language reader.
When I was living in Finland I was once
asked to write an introduction to a collection of student essays in Finnish,
and complied with a piece called "Hyvä lukija!"
or, in the phantom title that my native English instantly generates (even
when I'm not writing for readers who have no Finnish), "Dear Reader."
When the collection came out, I read through my piece, which had been
lightly edited, and discovered that in the editing process a certain construction
had been rendered ambiguous, so that it could easily be read to mean the
opposite of what I intended. I suppose you might say that the editor had
a phantom text that s/he needed to incorporate into mine. Be that as it
may, a year later a similar collection was brought out in Swedish, and
the editors of that later collection decided to include my introduction
in Swedish translation. I was sent a draft of the translation for approval;
since I have almost no Swedish, my inclination would ordinarily have been
to sign off on it sight-unseen, but something, some phantom, wouldn't
let me. I knew already how susceptible that one edited construction was
to misreading; I knew, to put that differently, that in that one place
(that I knew of; there must have been countless others), due to the ambiguity
introduced by the editor, the Swedish translator would have been faced,
in a sense, with two phantom texts, the one I wrote and the one the editor
wrote. That's not quite it, but it's almost it; I suppose the competing
phantoms that I imagined the translator facing were both my phantom,
my sense of the conflicting interpretive constructs the translator might
put on the passage, a sense growing out of my engagement with the passage
when it first appeared in print and tried to figure out how the editor
could have done such a thing. In any case, I checked that one spot carefully,
despite my almost total ignorance of Swedish, using my German and what
little I'd learned about the differences between Swedish and German
and it did seem to me that the Swedish translator had translated the other
phantom, the editor's phantom, not mine (but remember that all this was
my phantom as the reader of my own text!). So I took it to my then-wife,
who reads Swedish, and checked it with her; she agreed, and helped me
construct a new translation for that one passage that fit my phantom better,
and I sent that off to the editor of the volume with a note explaining
what I wanted, which was for the translator to redo the passage not exactly
as my wife and I suggested (since neither of us is good enough at Swedish
to dictate a translation), but to take our retranslation as a signpost
to an alternative textual phantom, and translate accordingly.
A more recent experience, which is still
mostly in my "head" (my proprioceptive sense), involves the
possible translation of my book The Translator's Turn into French,
a language that I know about as well as I do Swedish. A week before this
writing I received a postcard from Robin Orr Bodkin in France, saying
that he was translating sample passages from it to show to French publishers,
hoping to convince one of them to publish it. My ignorance of French makes
it difficult for me to imagine what the translation will be like, what
French readers will see in it; and I find that as I try to imagine it,
the phantom French readers that haunt my imagination keep turning into
Finns! This is almost certainly tied not only to my fourteen years in
Finland and fluency in Finnish, but also to the fact that I cannibalized
Translator's Turn from an earlier book that proved unpublishable,
a bilingual book in English and Finnish called "The Tropics of Translation/Kääntämisen
kääntöpiirit." I wrote it first in English, then translated
it into Finnish, with the intention of publishing it in both languages,
face en face; but as I did the Finnish translation, I found that my
different conception of my Finnish audience kept pulling the Finnish text
away from the English, kept "turning" it in interesting new
directions, and I willingly followed it, eventually trying to work my
way back to the English, but sometimes only after eight or ten pages of
"new" or "divergent" writing. For me it was a way
of exploring, and of demonstrating, the practical significance of the
translator's "turns" that I was theorizing in the text
a way of practicing what I preached. But nobody would publish it: the
Finnish was too exotic for Anglophone publishers, and the book as a whole
was too unscholarly for Fennophone (academic) publishers (and too scholarly
for Finnish trade publishers). I remember thinking then that, given the
existence of books like Derrida's Spurs, I would have had no difficulty
publishing it in the U.S. if only the other language had been French.
How ironic, then, that I should cannibalize the English sections for The
Translator's Turn, get it published, and then have it translated into
French in effect making that phantom English-French bilingual book
come true! Even more ironic that the English-French book was, and remains,
a very faint phantom, almost a will-o'-the-wisp; in fact the French translation
will be impossible for me to walk on; it'll probably feel more like Derrida's
leg than mine, "Des tours du traducteur." Meanwhile the strong
phantom, the one that feels like an amputated leg that should still be
there, with the painful hangnail that wasn't taken care of before the
leg was cut off the English-Finnish book shows no sign of
taking on prosthetic reality.
Now suppose the operative textual phantom
is the translator's, a target-language phantom for a book experienced
as one's own in the source language. Here the prosthetic/phantom analogy
seems to break down, since for the translator (as for the author who never
imagined her or his work in another language), nothing's been amputated.
If anything it's an additive process, like fitting a patient with a prosthetic
device s/he has never experienced as necessary, or even possible, and
trying to convince her or him that it's essential. But no, that would
be the translator-as-doctor; what about the translator-as-amputee? What
limb has the translator lost that s/he feels as a phantom and wants to
infuse into the prosthetic target-language text?
I don't know. What I do know is that
when I pick up a book of Finnish poems, say Paavo Haavikko's Sillat, I
can't read in the poems without starting to translate them in my mind;
and that when a poem resists my efforts to translate it, when the pressure
of translation begins to make it feel flat or banal, cheap or superficial,
I lose interest and turn the page. In translating I make the poem mine,
assimilate it to my own experience, my proprioceptive sense of myself
in the world, a process that involves a continual expansion of that proprioceptive
sense through immersion in the other. I "reject" a poetic limb
and turn the page not because it's alien the alienness of these
poems, an uncannily familiar alienness, like a voice to me out of a dream,
is what makes them feel so alive to me but because its alienness
feels unreal, contrived, merely clever, "unfelt." But then I
stumble onto a poem like this one, and I feel a receptive shiver go through
me, a feeling that I know this poem, or it knows me:
Looking back at this translation with
the critic's analytical eye, I find much to pick at. Vieras is
both "stranger" and "guest." Kartoittamattomien
ulottuvaisuuksien merellä is "on a/the sea of uncharted
dimensions," not "on an undimensioned sea." Maailmana
maailmojen veroisena is "as a world equal to worlds" (I'm
a world, and I'm equal to, or a match for, other worlds). Vaunut could
be "carts" as well as "chariots." Seudut kukkivat
sumuun is "regions blossom into the fog." Minuun Jumalat
vajoavat is "into me (the) Gods sink" as into mud,
or quicksand. Minuun hiljaisuudet vaikenevat is difficult, because
we have no verb in English for "to be silent," but it might
be something like "into me (the) silences fall silent."
But looking back over those analytical
landscapes, they feel like my dead leg hovering over the surgical curtain.
If anything they feel less alien than my translation, more cautious: a
sea of uncharted dimensions could be charted, the egalitarianism of worlds
sounds like grade-school citizenship, the regions look to my mind's eye
like colored squares on a map, the kind of map that you have to learn
to chart in order to become a good citizen. I don't like the Gods-capital-G,
and while the idea of gods-small-g sinking rather than plunging into me
tugs at me, feels good, though different, the necessity of rendering both
hiljaisuus and vaikeneminen by "silence" renders
that last sentence utterly banal unless I do something drastic, like render
vaieta as "sleep."
In fact, looking back over the translation
not through an analytical lens but through the proprioceptive feel of
my phantom, sleep or sleepiness begins to dominate it: sleep, an image
I slipped or sank into unconsciously at the end, looking for an alternative
to vaieta, now feels like the key to the whole poem. It's a poem,
I now suspect, about falling asleep, or about dying as falling asleep,
a sailing into an undimensioned sea where the dark and the stranger wait,
where black chariots come and gods plunge into me (I'm sinking; they're
plunging I really do have to insist on that "plunge"
now), where my dead or sleeping body pushes up flowers into an undimensioned
fog where I am shipwrecked against worlds. The one thing that still bothers
me is "a world to reckon with," since it seems to imply mathematical
or other mental calculations, as if the foggy undimensioned world were
either a palpable force that I could outwit ("a world to deal with
in some deliberate way") or a calculus to apply to other problems
("a world to calculate with"). But then, working through a phantom
rather than an abstract calculus, I don't feel compelled to understand
everything, or to reduce everything to a nice tidy consistency; it doesn't
even bother me if my phantom has a calculus in it.
But is this working from or through a
phantom only true of literary translators? Specifically, is it only true
of literary translators who choose their own texts to translate, and are
at liberty, as I have been with the Finnish poems I've been translating
for a collection of contemporary Finnish lyric poetry I'm calling "Turnings,"
to reject poems that feel wrong, that are too easy to appropriate? I don't
think so. Last summer, when Wendy Knox of the Frank Theatre in Minneapolis
asked me to translate a Finnish play by Maaria Koskiluoma, based on Maria
Jotuni's novel Huojuva
talo ("Tottering House"), I could accept or reject the
commission as a whole, but I couldn't very well skip over parts that seemed
stupid to me; I had to do something with all of it. It is an extremely
strange play in Finnish, steeped in archaic, unidiomatic, often grotesque
expression, and as I started to translate it, without planning or reading
ahead, I found myself mimicking that strangeness by sticking closer to
the Finnish syntax and idioms than I ever had with a translation
doing what Benjamin and his postromantic followers insist the translator
should always do. And maybe what I was doing was a good Benjaminian postromantic
translation, rich with alterity. At the same time, however, I couldn't
do it without appropriating the original's alterity to my own sense of
the grotesque, the weird, in English which may in fact have been
the phantom I needed to do the translation, weird plays and movies I've
seen in English, Waiting for Godot and A Night on Earth,
weird books I've read and written, weird things that I've said and had
said to me. What would stop me as I translated, typically, wasn't a weird
passage, but a flat one, an "ordinary" one, which felt all the
weirder in context, like a sociopath pretending to be a decent citizen.
Then I'd have to sit there, uneasy, almost quivering with the need to
shift or expand the phantom I'd been working from and the difficulty of
doing so, until I'd unconsciously made whatever adjustments in that proprioceptive
sense and felt I could go on.
And isn't this a fairly typical experience
among translators? I think it must be: we all carry around with us a kind
of translation automatism, a nervous tic that sets us to translating the
texts that come across our desk, a kind of dim phantom that drives us
to keep at this work that is so ill-paid and unrecognized; and we all
work easily on some texts, with difficulty on others, but even in easy
ones we will occasionally come across a spot that stops us dead. These
moments are traditionally theorized as a mental blockage of some sort,
an information deprivation: we need a certain word or phrase and can't
think of it, so we plow through dictionaries and thesauri in search of
it. And that's all true, up to a point; it's just that I can't shake the
intuitive sense that something else is going on while I'm ransacking my
reference library, some kind of front self is flipping through dictionaries
while a back self is quietly panicking, "What'll I do? What'll I
do?" and trying to put itself "in character" for the trouble
It's like those panicky moments everyone
has upon waking in a strange bed, or even in the same old bed, or any
place or time of the day, even when teaching a class or giving a talk
at a prestigious conference that you don't know who you are, where
you are, what you're doing there, what you just said. Who is that person
in bed with me? Oh yeah, my wife. Who are those people looking up at me?
Oh yeah, my students. You suddenly lose your proprioceptive sense, and
experience total disorientation fortunately, for most of us, only
momentarily. Then you're back "in body." Then you can go on.
And the same happens when I translate probably when you translate
as well except that there the disorientation is often stimulated
by the original text. It shuts down my target-language phantom, hits the
off switch on my proprioceptive sense of the target text's body, casts
me physiologically adrift.
And it happens with all kinds of texts,
not just literary ones. I won't go into detail with nonliterary examples;
there are, in any case, plenty of them in The Translator's Turn.
We have to have textual phantoms when we translate weather reports, business
letters, technical documentation, scholarly articles, advertising copy,
and the like; and every text we translate, no matter how mundane, has
the power to throw us off track, to make us stop and shift or expand phantoms.
If this weren't true, machine translation would be a huge unqualified
success. The only way machine translation works today is when computers
are fed texts carefully pre-edited by humans to facilitate the mechanical
replication of stable, abstract calculi when computers are protected
against the kinds of proprioceptive breakdowns to which human beings are
susceptible, and for which most of us have developed coping strategies.
And what about the target-language reader
who appropriates the translation, makes it her or his "own"?
How does this work? Where does the phantom come from then? Think of the
King James Bible, which has an almost overpowering proprioceptive sense
for English literature. In fact, without the King James Bible modern English
literature wouldn't have a leg to stand on. George Steiner has explored
this phenomenon at length in After Babel, the process by which
a translation is so thoroughly assimilated into a culture that it seems
that it was always there, that it was originary for the culture
that, say, God was an Elizabethan Englishman. What he didn't explore was
the ideological construction of the readerly phantom that keeps the King
James Bible alive in and for Anglophone culture: the hegemonic myelination
of the proprioceptive fibers in millions of Bible-readers' and church-goers'
nervous systems through the sheer force of coerced and normative repetition.
You have to go to church, you have to read the Bible, you have to believe
what you hear in church and read in the Bible, and what you hear and read
is all formulated by the translators for King James, so that what "feels
right" in Anglophone Christianity, what feels like the "body"
of your religious belief, is an ideological program that runs inside your
skull with numbing reliability "The Lord is my shepherd, I
shall not want," "and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive
those who trespass against us" even when you reject Christianity
intellectually, even when you haven't read the Bible for years, even when
you dilute the King James with Today's English Version or The
New International Bible or Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch Version.
But then, what does happen when you retranslate
the Bible into English? Do the new translations become prosthetics, which
only begin to feel real only become good for walking on
once the King James phantom has been incorporated into them? This is certainly
true of the Revised Standard Version and its successors. Can another phantom
be incorporated into them instead (or in addition) a contemporary
colloquial English phantom, say? This would be Eugene Nida's explicit
ideal for Today's English Version but how does that work?
And what does all this have to do the deadening and revivifying of linguistic
sensation, which I discussed at length in the subversion section of The
Translator's Turn? Is it like the patient Sacks describes, who has
to "'wake up' his phantom in the mornings: first he flexes the thigh-stump
towards him, and then he slaps it sharply 'like a baby's bottom'
several times. On the fifth or sixth slap the phantom suddenly
shoots forth, rekindled, fulgurated, by the peripheral stimulus. Only
then can he put on his prosthesis and walk" (67)?
Certainly the translation's "invisibility"
as translation in the target culture is controlled by a well-established
ideological phantom of this sort, a group fantasy disseminated and inculcated
by hegemonic forces in society that want you to believe you're reading
Homer, not Lattimore or Fitzgerald or, a fortiori, the Bible, God's
Word, not some fallible translation committee's interpretation of the
Bible. This is the phantom that governs the reviewing of translations
as if they were originally written in the target language, or as if the
reviewer and her or his reader were reading the work in the source language
as if translation didn't exist, and didn't need to exist. It is
the phantom that governs courses in comparative literature that proceed
as if the translation were the original work.
This is the phantom that the postromantic
foreignizers attack, of course, and it is indeed a behemoth of startling
proportions; but as I see it, it does no good to blame the perpetuation
of this phantom on assimilative translators, who in many cases have to
have access to that phantom to translate at all. The question, I'm suggesting,
is not whether you translate by recourse to a proprioceptive phantom;
the question is whose phantom you're going to use, and how you're going
to use it. The target text has to feel real, feel alive, for the translator
to write it; but the proprioceptive "reality" and "life"
imparted by hegemonic forces in society is quite different from that arising
out of rebellious, deviant, idiosyncratic phantoms of the translator's
What then of the target-language reader's
idiosyncratic phantoms? What of my love when I was about eighteen for
Hermann Hesse's novels in English, despite a German teacher's insistence
that the translations were better than the originals which in his
opinion were crap? What of my Finnish students' love for John Steinbeck's
novels in Finnish, despite my insistence that the originals were crap?
Parents, ministers, teachers, advertisers, hundreds of other hegemonic
forces in society attempt to drum normative phantoms into our heads
Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe are great, Literature-capital-L
is timeless, television and trash lit will make you stupid, etc.
but it doesn't always take. Our experience always overflows the institutional
channels constructed for its proper use. Even the best role robots, the
perfectly repressed little obedient boys and girls who obey all authorities
in everything they do, cannot contain and sustain the normative phantoms
without residue, partly because authorities conflict, generating disruptive
cognitive dissonance, partly just because we are neurologically, and thus
humanly, far more complex than any system ever invented to simplify us.
This suggests, for one thing, that assimilative
interpretive practices are not necessarily the worst thing a student can
bring to a foreign literary text. Shaped by an entire civilization's theocratic
pressures to worship an objectified Bible, literary critics transfer those
pressures to their students in the secularized form of the demand that
they worship an objectified literary classic: that they see it purely
through the eyes of the foreign culture in the period it was written,
and above all through the normative channel of authorial intention, and
not assimilate it to their own experience, not construct it as relevant
to their own lives. If you agree with Friedrich Schleiermacher that readers
should be taken over to the foreign author and should not haul the author
over to them, you will have been rather appalled at my assimilation of
Benjamin to Wayne's World (as by much else in this article), even though,
and this is the delicious irony about that example, I "assimilated"
Benjamin specifically by following his syntax in an unEnglish way.
The thing is, I don't see how we can
see, except through our own eyes; how else we ever confront the world,
except through our own bodies. The complication and expansion of our proprioceptive
cultural sense through interaction with other bodies, other voices, other
texts can and almost always does take us beyond autism, which is the absolute
blockage of all external input; the opposite of autism is the uncontrolled
flooding of a drowning or drowned self with otherness, and the clinical
word for that is schizophrenia. The healthy middle that is excluded by
those pathological extremes, the middle in which most of us live our lives,
involves a fluid but persistent self reaching out in empathic response
to others, and having to adapt to the reachings out by others.
And why is this so hard for us to embrace?
Why is translation theory so ravaged by fruitless battles over the best
kind of neutral instrumentality total submission to the author's
transcendental designs on the target-language reader, or total submission
to the textures and flows of the author's verbalizations that we
find it almost impossible to theorize what's right in front of (let alone
behind) our noses? What are the deep-seated phantoms that drive theorists
in one camp to vilify any translation that isn't flat and ordinary and
perfectly accessible to the General Reader with a fourth-grade education,
and theorists in another camp to vilify any translation that isn't difficult
and cumbersome and unpleasant to read?
And above all, what can we do about these
phantoms that continue to dominate our debates? How can we poke fun at
them, parody them, say NOT! to them, thumb our noses (and whatever's in
front of our noses) at them and begin, gradually, to work past
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