What's Lost in Translation, and What's Not (part 2)

As if I were addressing a room, rather than casting my bread upon the waters of cyberspace, I'll start with an anecdote, one which I find funny.  Hopefully you will also see the somewhat dark humor in it.

Several years back, Alasdair MacIntyre was on some panel at the Modernity:  Yearing for the Infinite conference at Notre Dame.  I entirely forget what the discussion was about, but remember well a remark he interjected, or at least its essential content.  So, in Thucydidian reformulation (having the characters in one's narrative say not what they really said but what they ought to have said, given their ethos) :
When I was a boy, we were beaten if we did not learn Greek irregular verbs well.  I am not defending beating children.  In fact that is a very bad thing to do, both for the children and for those beating them.  It was painful, and produced anxiety.  But now . . . I can read Sophocles and you can't.
A fellow philosopher Dave O'Hara and I started a conversation on Twitter about languages and translations in philosophy, one which I am certain just as much on his side as on mine, reverberates with countless conversations he carried out with other people down the years. When students in class, other professors, parishioners in study groups, fellow travelers passing the time with talk, and the host of other seemingly chance interlocutors find out that you can read a text in its original language, a language they do not know, there are some standard lines in which the discussion typically develops.  Guiding, understandable, but mistaken assumptions come to light.  Sometimes I point them out.  nowadays, I usually just pass over them and allow the conversation to go as the other person seemingly needs it to proceed.


Most people, even those who have at one time or another taken classes in other languages, conjure up a particular image in their mind when they think of the act of translation, and of the products of that act, translations. There's two main recurring elements to this picture, constant across variations of text and language.

One is that translation is a one-to-one finding and mapping of words or expressions onto each other.  A text, in this view, is a long set of units of meaning, which can be fully understood in isolation from each other, and those units in the original language can be correlated to the corresponding units in the languages into which one wishes to translate the text.  Unless, of course, the new language is lacking corresponding terms -- a condition which lies behind those unknowledgable about translation informing us, whether earnestly or pretentiously, that Inuit possess all those words for different kinds of snow (overlooking that if we can can count and distinguish them, we've got corresponding expressions, which, granted, don't capture all specialized nuance, even all of the connotative force, but which do allow us to understand at least in broad outline what's being talked about).  If the second language lacks the terms, well then one can do what Cicero willingly chose and advocated when realizing Latin's lack faced with philosophical Greek, coin new expressions.  Alternately, one can circumlocate. 

What's forgotten or neglected about language?  A number of truths, for instance that words assume some of their meaning from the other words with which they are coupled, that sentences assume theirs sometimes through their context, the genre in which they appear.  All of this is just Linguistics 101.  From a host of literary theories, ranging from gentle hermeneutics and reader-response through to witty, precious, cynical, snarky deconstruction (and actually the self-congratulatory 20th century forgets all too easily they were not the first to realize this), comes an insight that texts' fuller ranges and multiple dimensions of meanings are neither simply there on the surface, lying like dead fish on the shore, no longer even flopping, ready to be collected up, nor merely hidden however far below the surface like inert jeweled metal treasures to be unearthed.

Words are not -- except in certain kinds of writing (which are not usually the interesting ones to read or translate) -- lifeless, passive things, so many counters to be exchanged for others. Those reading them bring to them agency, reactivate the words, phrases, sentences, and meaning -- the kinds of meanings that can be reforged from language to language -- emerge not always through immediate, mechanical or instinctual, reformulation, but through lingering, mulling over, inhabiting that portion of the original language, then shaping the words in one's own, back and forth over multiple moments that look to each other, in a fashion much more craftlike.

One experience from my prison-teaching days, when I was fortunate enough not only to schedule philosophy but also religious studies classes, emblemizes a mistakenly reductive attitude towards translation.  One of my students in a New Testament class had secured himself a Greek New Testament and a Greek-English lexicon, and some days later triumphantly thrust a piece of paper at me.  "They didn't translate it right," he crowed.  "The Greek actually says. . . ."  I read the passage he had decoded -- a very different operation from translating -- and of course, the Greek words he had chosen could be indexed to selected meanings from the lexicon and then (since the sentence structure is different from English) could be combinatorically rearranged to yield what he'd written, and what he desperately wanted to find in that passage (since when strained in just the right way it would give some glimmer of textual support to his own peculiar theology).  But such an exercise could just as well yield a hundred other equally dubious "translations."

The idea of one-to-one mapping of (what are assumed to be) univocal terms from one language to the next is one mistaken element in many people's conception of translation.  Another related element in this conception is the notion that, in its essence, what the act of translation consists in is more or less faithfully, exactly, literally, copying the thinker's otherwise unproblematic, unambiguous, straightforwardly clear text from the original language into the other language. 

How often have I heard, when my partner in conversation finds out I can read Greek:  "Then you can read the New Testament (or Plato, or Aristotle or. . . ) , exactly as its written.  You can read the real thing, not just some translation.  You never know if the translation is a good one or not. . . ."

The idea lurking in the background is that a good translation is one in the new language that is as close to the original text as possible, not adding anything, not leaving anything out, clinging right by it line by line, even if it becomes readable only with difficulty.

I must admit that I used to rather pedantically espouse something along these lines myself, and translate -- and assess others' translations -- accordingly.  A translation should read like a translation," I would insist emphatically, concerned that a French-less, German-less, Latin-less reader might be seduced into thinking that they were actually in genuine, reliable contact with the author and his or her thoughts expressed in their native tongue.  Unattractive, culpable, shortsighted pride in exclusive expertise lent one motivation to this stance, I'll also admit.

Interestingly, it was not solely a therapy of the passions, casting the antiseptic sunlight of the mind's gaze on vicious character traits that weaned me away from this perspective (if it waited on that, I'd still be of that opinion!).  Nor was it my years of studying semiotic, deconstructionist, and critical theory (which, though this is by no means a a necessary result, certainly did not lead to a moral reformation away from pridefulness in me!).  Instead, it was the cumulative effect of countless conversations with colleagues about translation, plenty of hours in the trenches bleary-eyed in front of the screen translating away, and reflection on some telling experiences of reading original texts and translations.

It's becoming clear to me that this post would soon reach unreadable length should I attempt to pack in all the reflections about the values of translations I'd originally intended, so I'll narrate just a few of those experiences, after reaffirming my assertion made in an earlier post that certain translations which do deviate from the original, adding to the original, should nonetheless be regarded as good translations.

One important experience fairly early on came through proofreading and then translating for the Aquinas Translation Project, at first exclusively with Thomas Aquinas' Commentaries on the Psalms.  Now, "proofreading" is perhaps not quite the right term, since it typically means looking over a manuscript to note and correct errors in spelling, grammar, format, or stylistic infelicities.  We did do that with each participant's translations, to be sure, but we were also, line by line, determining whether it was a translation faithful to Thomas' text, to his thought.  At times, this was difficult, because even as clear an author as Aquinas can be occasionally obscure. Sometimes, we discovered by putting our heads together and communicating back and forth, the problem definitively resided on our side, for instance in lack of background knowledge about some matter Thomas assumed his reader would know (for instance, since I had a strong interest in Aristotle's Rhetoric, I could tell the more seasoned and theologically better informed members that in this place, Thomas is invoking a distinction found. . .  . .).  It might also lie in some theological difficulty, in some assumption from medieval physical or medical theory.

We also discovered numerous typos, the best of which became a running gag, transposing Jermoe for Jerome (and, philosogeeks as we were, we began our emails by invocations of Saint Jermoe preserve us!).  At times the case of a word had been misread by the translator, changing the meaning of the passage altogether.  Occasionally, a word, even a sentence would not be translated at all.  We suggested alternate word choices, periphrases, explanations to each other.

Lessons I learned in the process included just how easy it is for errors to creep in even for the most experienced translators (for me, this always remained a sideline, but other members were hardcore Thomists), how invaluable it is, when attempting to draw a thinker out of their original language into your own native tongue, to have collaborating interlocutors, as well as the leisure needed to back away and look at the text anew as often as it requires.  I also started to learn the beginnings of lessons about humility's importance to translation, a topic whose unpacking could perhaps occupy an entire blog post.

Another revelatory experience occurred in graduate school, during a semester-long reading class with a classicist, in which we read through Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics in Greek.  A number of passages in that book employ richly ambiguous language (something difficult to bring across in translation), and the professor suggested that  we ought to consult translations just to see how other, presumably better classicists had rendered them.  Since I read French readily, I went to the University library and dug up a facing-page Greek/French edition of the Ethics.  It was unlike the English translations I had seen that attempted to remain fairly close to the Greek text (reflecting at times philosophical assumptions and preferred language of the translators).  The French (I wish I had burned into my memory whose translation it was) was very loose, highly periphrastic, shot through with interpretive boldness.  It also routinely employed French words which themselves translate into English with some degree of difficulty (e.g. comporter).  What I came away with was a stronger sense for the fullness of meaning that might be unpacked from texts, particularly when they are not simply translated into one language (and into one intellectual culture of translation), but into several, which  might be productively compared, perhaps even generate a shadow dialogue between translators.

The publication process, both of earlier commissioned translations from French, and then through the years with the Aquinas Translation Project, and finally as I negotiated my manuscript of translations from the Christian philosophy debates through the sometimes innumerable-seeming obstacles standing in the way of going to press, forced me to repeatedly (and eventually seriously) consider the value and demands of readability.  But since that consideration will come up again in the next post about translation, I close this one by opening that matter.