Friday, August 13, 2010

"After Babel: Aspects of language and translation" by George Steiner

Quotation from

Oxford University Press, 1998

Translation in communication in general

Steiner's concept of translation is more comprehensive, as far as I know, than any other's. He sees translation not just in communication across different languages but also in communication in general. Behind this idea is his emphasis on intricacy and complexity of speech even in a 'monolingual' situation.

Any model of communication is at the same time a model of trans-lation [sic], of a vertical or horizontal transfer of significance. No two historical epochs, no two social classes, no two localities use words and syntax to signify exactly the same thing, to send identical signals of valuation and inference. Neither do two human beings. (p. 47)

'Private' aspect of human speech

Of more emphasis is a 'private' aspect of human speech.

Each living person draws, deliberately or in immediate habit, on two sources of linguistic supply; the current vulgate corresponding to his level of literacy, and a private thesaurus. The latter is inextricably a part of his subconscious, of his memories so far as they may be verbalized, and of the singular, irreducibly specific ensemble of his somatic and psychological identity. (p. 47)

Against the trend in the current linguistics

This emphasis on peculiarities of speech is not shared by the current linguists, who prefer to see regularities in language. Steiner's approach to language is unconventionally radical.

Much of current linguistics would have things neater than they are. Before conceding that the deeper, more important proceedings of language lie far beyond the level of actual or potential consciousness (Chomsky's postulate), we must look to the vital disorders of literature in which that consciousness is most incisively at work. To know more of language and of translation, we must pass from the 'deep structures' of transformational grammar to the deeper structures of the poet. (p. 114)

We only speak 'at the surface' of our selves.

A corollary of this approach is denial of complete understanding in communication. We only communicate 'superficially', with the complexity and subtlety of our mind mostly untapped.

In short, whether consciously or unconsciously, every act of human communication is based on a complex, divided fabric which may, fairly, be compared to the image of a plant deeply and invisibly rooted or of an iceberg largely under water. Active inside the 'public' vocabulary and conventions of grammar are pressures of vital association, of latent or realized content. Much of these content is irreducibly individual and, in the common sense of the term, private. When we speak to others we speak 'at the surface' of our selves. We normally use a shorthand beneath which there lies a wealth of subconscious, deliberately concealed or declared associations so extensive and intricate that they probably equal the sum and uniqueness of our status as an individual person. It was from this central fact of the dual or subsurface phenomenology of speech that Humboldt derived his well-known axiom: 'All understanding is at the same time a misunderstanding, all agreement in thought and feeling is also a parting of the ways.' (p. 181)

Translation is no mechanical decoding/encoding.

So, in a sense, this is an argument for 'private language', but not in the sense Wittgenstein argued. And this prompts Steiner to believe that every act of communication involves some aspect of translation, for we have to infer or interpret the private and thus unspoken part of the speech of the other.

Thus, in a general sense, though not in that of the Wittgenstein-Malcom argument, there is 'private language' and an essential part of all natural language is private. This is why there will be in every complete speech-act a more or less prominent element of translation. All communication 'interprets' between privacies. (p. 207)

Language describes and creates the world.

Steiner departs from the conventional view of language in logic as well as from that in linguistics. He does not see 'falsity' as of lesser importance than 'truth' in linguistic expressions.

My conviction is that we shall not get much further in understanding the evolution of language and the relations between speech and human performance so long as we see 'falsity' as primarily negative, so long as we consider conter-factuality, contradiction, and the many nuances of conditionality as specialized, often logically bastard modes. Language is the main instrument of man's refusal to accept the world as it is. Without that refusal, without the unceasing generation by the mind of 'counter-worlds' -- a generation which cannot be divorced from the grammar of conter-factual and optative forms -- we would turn forever o0n the treadmill of the present. (p. 228)

For Steiner, language is not just a means to describe the world truthfully in a standardized way; it is more of an attempt to express the inexpressible, and to create the world as the speaker wishes to see it.

Dialectics of translation across languages

Given this view of language in general, it is no surprising that Steiner's idea of translation is much more complex and subtle than conventional ideas. If we are to see much behind a common language, we'll see far more that is to be understood in translation behind a different language.

Given the difference of the language, some thoughts may compromise the authenticity of the home language into which a person translates the text; the translation may distort and disfigure the home language. In defence of the authenticity of the home language, the translator may cripple the potentialities of the meaning of the original text. Indeed, "Traduttore, tradittore" (Translator, traitor).

However, out of this dilemma arises a linguistic creation. In translation, people experience the emergence of new expressions between the constraints of the home language on the one hand and the substance to be expressed in the foreign language.

In translation the dialectic of unison and of plurality is dramatically at work. In one sense, each act of translation is an endeavour to abolish multiplicity and to bring different world-pictures back into perfect congruence. In another sense, it is an attempt to reinvent the shape of meaning, to find and justify an alternate statement. The craft of the translator is, as we shall see, deeply ambivalent: it is exercised in a radical tension between impulses to facsimile and impulses to appropriate recreation. In a very specific way, the translator 're-experience' the evolution of language itself, the ambivalence of the relations between language and world, between 'languages' and 'worlds'. In every translation the creative, possibly fictive nature of these relations is tested, Thus translation is no specialized, secondary activity at the 'interface' between languages. It is the constant, necessary exemplification of the dialectical, at once welding and divisive nature of speech. (p. 246)

Translating a foreign language and evolving the mother tongue

One of the best translators, as Steiner sees, is Hoelderlin [do forgive me for not using the umlaut], who evolved the German language out of his attempt to translate Greek classics.

Hoelderlin's genius reaches its final realization in translation because the clash, mediation, and dialectic fusion of Greek and German were to him the readiest, most tangible enactment of the collisions of being. The poet brings his native tongue into the charged field of forced of another language. He invades and seeks to break open the core of alien meaning. He annihilates his own ego in an attempt, both peremptory and utterly humble, to fuse with another presence. Having done so he cannot return intact to home ground. (p. 349)

Translation as a communal act

The act of translation that may even evolve the home language is an communal act. If the whole purpose of a translator is to understand the text herself, she doesn't have to translate (or finish translating) the text. Commitment to translation is commitment to the community of the home language, as a language that never ceases to evolve.

Undoubtedly translation contains a paradox of altruism -- a word on which there stresses both of 'otherness' and of 'alteration'. The translator performs for others, at the price of dispersal and relative devaluation, a task no longer necessary or immediate to himself. But there is also a proprietary impulse. It is only when he 'brings home' the simulacrum of the original, when he recrosses the divide of language and community, that he feels himself in authentic possession of his source. Safely back he can, as an individual,discard his own translation. The original is now peculiarly his. Appropriation through understanding and metamorphic re-saying shades, psychologically as well as morally, into expropriation. (pp. 399-400)

Translation that never ends

Yet, given the complexity and subtlety of the original language and the evolving nature of the home language, one is never to believe that any translation is ultimate. Ideal translation is impossible. However this impossibility drives another attempt of translation, an act of domestigating/naturalizing the foreign and of foreignizing/alienating the domestic.

Understanding is always partial, always subject to emendation. Natural language is not only polysemic and in process of diachronic change. It is imprecise, it has to be imprecise, to serve human locution. And although the existence of a 'perfect translation' or 'perfect exchange of the totality of intended meaning' between two speakers is theoretically conceivable, there could be no way of verifying the actual fact. For how would we know? by what means except an alternate formulation and explicative rephrasing could we demonstrate that the case in point was indeed 'perfect'? Yet such demonstration would necessarily reopen the question. In other words: to demonstrate the excellence, the exhaustiveness of an act of interpretation and/or translation is to offer an alternative or an addendum. There are no closed circuits in natural language, no self-consistent axiomatic sets. (p. 428)

Overall, this book is a great attempt to grasp the richness of translation. In the age when reasonable machine translation is readily available, we should consider sophisticated aspect of translation, and for such a purpose this book is a must.

Go to Questia Online Library

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