Translation as Phantom Limb

Originally published in Marilyn Gaddis Rose, ed., Translation Horizons: Beyond the Boundaries of Translation Spectrum, 25-44. Translation Perspectives IX. Binghamton, NY: Center for Research in Translation, 1996. Collected in Douglas Robinson, What Is Translation? Centrifugal Theories, Critical Interventions (Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1997), 113-31.

"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" (79).

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":

A translated text is judged successful — by most editors, publishers, reviewers, readers, by translators themselves — when it reads fluently, when it gives the appearance that it is not translated, that it is the original, transparently reflecting the foreign author's personality or intention or the essential meaning of the foreign text. . . . Fluency tries to check the drift of language away from the conceptual signified, away from communication and self-expression. When successfully deployed, it is the strategy that produces the effect of transparency, wherein the translation is identified with the foreign text and evokes the individualistic illusion of authorial presence. (4)

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 text.

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" of

pity this busy monster,manunkind,


anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did.

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:

Hang it all, Robert Browning,
there can be but the one "Sordello."
But Sordello, and my Sordello?
Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana.
So-shu churned in the sea.

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:

The sense of the body, I told her, is given by three things: vision, balance organs (the vestibular system), and proprioception — which she'd lost. Normally all of these worked together. If one failed, the others could compensate, or substitute — to a degree. In particular, I told of my patient Mr MacGregor, who, unable to employ his balance organs, used his eyes instead. . . . And of patients with neurosyphilis, tabes dorsalis, who had similar symptoms, but confined to the legs — and how they too had to compensate by use of their eyes. . . . And how, if one asked such a patient to move his legs, he was apt to say: 'Sure, Doc, as soon as I find them.'

Christina listened closely, with a sort of desperate attention.

'What I must do then,' she said slowly, 'is use vision, use my eyes, in every situation where I used — what do you call it? — proprioception before. I've already noticed,' she added, musingly, 'that I may "lose" my arms. I think they're one place, and I find they're another. This "proprioception" is like the eyes of the body. And if it goes, as it's gone with me, it's like the body's blind. My body can't "see" itself if it's lost its eyes, right? So I have to watch it — be its eyes. Right?' (47)

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 deficits.

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.
From the author's point of view first, then: here we have to imagine a person who has written something that isn't yet "enough" in the "original," is somehow significantly "absent" or, to stay with the leg analogy, inadequate for "walking on"; and who has another language that somehow wants to overpower or supersede the "original." This might be the case with Samuel Beckett writing in French — wouldn't his original have an English phantom? English was his native language, French was a foreign language that he wrote in originally in order to break the unconscious (somatic) hold his native language had on him; wouldn't Waiting for Godot then have "become real," even before he wrote it, by having En attendant Godot's English phantom incorporated into it?

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 The 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:

Pimeys odottaa. Vieras odottaa.
Kartoittamattomien ulottuvaisuuksien merellä
maailmana maailmojen veroisena
haaksirikkoudun muita maailmoja vastaan.
Mustat vaunut tulevat. Seudut kukkivat sumuun.
Minuun Jumalat vajoavat. Minuun hiljaisuudet vaikenevat.

The dark waits. The stranger waits.
On an undimensioned sea, a world to reckon with,
I am shipwrecked against worlds.
The black chariots come. The fields push flowers into the fog.
The gods plunge into me. Silences sleep with 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 spot.

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 counterhegemonic experience.

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 them?

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. "Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers." In Das Problem des Übersetzens, ed. Hans Joachim Störig, 182-95. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1963. Trans. Harry Zohn, "The Task of the Translator." In Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, 69-82. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1982.

Berman, Antoine. L'Épreuve de l'éstranger: Culture et traduction dans l'Allemagne romantique. Paris: Gallimard, 1984. Trans. S. Heyvaert, The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany. Albany: SUNY Press, 1992.

Cheyfitz, Eric. The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Copeland, Rita. Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages: Academic Traditions and Vernacular Texts. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. "Des tours de Babel." In Difference in Translation, ed. Joseph F. Graham, 209-48. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Trans. Graham, "Des Tours de Babel." In Graham, 165-207.

__________. Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles/Eperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche. Trans. Barbara Harlow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Haavikko, Paavo. Sillat. Helsinki: Otava, 1978.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. The Violence of Language. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Levine, Suzanne Jill. The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction. St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1991.

Niranjana, Tejaswini. Siting Translation: History, Post-structuralism, and the Colonial Context. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Robinson, Douglas. American Apocalypses: The Image of the End of the World in American Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

__________. "Classical Theories of Translation from Cicero to Aulus Gellius." TEXTconTEXT 1 (1992): 15-55.

__________. The Translator's Turn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Sacks, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, And Other Clinical Tales. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. "Ueber die verschiedenen Methoden des Uebersezens." Lecture 3 of Abhandlungen gelesen in der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften (207-45). In vol. 2 (1838) of Schleiermacher, Zur Philosophie, 149-495. 9 vols. (reprinted in 4 vols. [1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-9]). Berlin: G. Reimer, 1835-1846. Part 3 of Friedrich Schleiermacher's sämmtliche Werke. Trans. Douglas Robinson, “On the Different Methods of Translating,” in Robinson, ed., Western Translation Theory From Herodotus to Nietzsche, 225-38. Manchester: St. Jerome, 1997.

Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Venuti, Lawrence, ed. Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

__________. "The Translator's Invisibility." Criticism 28 (Spring 1986): 179-212.


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