Translation: Processes & Attitudes

by Burton Raffel

Neither cognitive science nor creativity research has as yet discovered translation. It is in some ways a minor art form: one cannot translate without the prior existence of an original, previously and fully created. Can we even unravel, let alone say useful things about the cognitive processes involved in the transference, or transformation, of an extant verbal text in one language into a “new” but ultimately dependent verbal text in another language? Is creativity in fact involved in these processes, and in what ways and forms? Indeed, is psychology itself a relevant tool for analysis of and comment upon translation?

Ever since the development of speech, translation has of course been a fact, often a powerful fact, of human existence. Verbal communication long pre-dates the development of written texts, which did not come into existence until roughly five thousand years ago. We do not have even an approximately reliable date for the development of speech. Philip Lieberman concludes, and gives impressive evidence for, the highly probable fact that “the last phase of hominid evolution appears to involve among other things the appearance of human speech,” but sensibly leaves the date at “somewhere between 100,000 and 400,000 years ago” (72, 76). Given the archeological and other evidence of ancient, prolonged human dispersion around the globe, there has plainly been opportunity for different human groups (cultures) to produce enormous variations in the speech systems they employ (languages). Whenever, wherever, and however these literally thousands of mutually incomprehensible speech systems meet and interact, translation inevitably occurs. Louis Kelly declares no more than a self-evident truth when he declares roundly that “Western Europe owes its civilization to translators” (1). But the process may not always be a friendly one: as Huck Finn puts it, “aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it” (Twain 362). My youngest daughter, when very small, neatly framed this equally basic aspect of linguistic confrontation. Spoken to in anything other than English, she would frown and declare: “Daddy, don’t talk language.” Traduttori traditori, “translators are traitors,” is a very old joke.

It helps to realize that what the translator is doing, whether turning political oratory, on the fly, from one language into another, or laboriously lifting a thousand-page novel out of the language and culture in which it was written and depositing it into some other language and culture, is not creating so much as re-creating. Speaking of literary translation, as I will be, here, Robert Wechsler affirms that it “is an art,” explaining that “What makes it so odd an art is that physically a translator does exactly the same thing as a writer. … The translator’s problem is that he is a performer without a stage, an artist whose performance looks just like the original … [yet is] nothing but ink on a page” (7). To put it differently, re-creation is subsidiary creation, but for all that is still creation. It is no accident that my 1973 “conversation about translations” is titled Why Re-Create? (Raffel 1973).

Even within literary translation there are large and important differences both in approach and in purpose. Again, it is no accident that after writing The Art of Translating Poetry (Raffel 1988), the same translator wrote The Art of Translating Prose (Raffel 1994). There are translators of epic poetry; there are translators of lyric poetry. So too there are translators of stories and translators of novels, translators of books about rather than of literature. There are translators of plays. And there are immense differences between and among, say, those who render poetry “literally” (usually in prose) and those who strive to capture poetry rather than mere lexicon. There are formalists of every variety, including translators who struggle to adhere to alien meter and rhyme, and some who believe with J.R.R. Tolkien that old poems should be translated into old words. “If you wish to translate, not rewrite, Beowulf, your language must be literary and traditional … because the diction of Beowulf was poetical, archaic, artificial (if you will) in the day that the poem was made” (Clark Hall xvii). I will not soon forget the pre-publication reviewer of a book of translations from Nikolai Gumilev (a largely forgotten Russian poet who was the first husband of Anna Akhmatova),  who approved the book but was unhappy that in one two-stanza poem, the first stanza of which displayed a special form of Russian verb, the other of which displayed yet another distinctive and, in  English, totally nonexistent form, the translators had neglected to reproduce the irreproducible in their translations (Raffel and Burago 1972).

To keep from engaging in a summary of what I have already written about basic translational matters, let me first quote and briefly comment on my own  summary of the argument of The Art of Translating Poetry and, second, just as briefly indicate the important modification required by the somewhat different necessities of translating from prose works:

    • 1. No two languages having the same phonology, it is impossible to re-create the sounds of a work composed in one language in another language.
    • 2. No two languages having the same syntactic structures [syntax=patterns of sentence- and phrase-formation], it is impossible to re-create the syntax of a work composed in one language in another language.
    • 3. No two languages having the same vocabulary, it is impossible to re-create the vocabulary of a literary work of a work composed in one language in another language.
    • 4. No two languages having the same literary history, it is impossible to re-create the prosody literary forms of one culture in the language and literary culture of another.
    • 5. No two languages having the same prosody [system of versification], it is impossible to re-create the prosody of a literary work composed in one language in another language.
          • (Raffel 1994 ix)

These are restrictions and limitations imposed by the nature of language. They are most emphatically not meant as prohibitions against translation. Indeed, my position is and has always been a joyous affirmation of Thomas Mann’s deeply affirmative proclamation: “Yet who would wish to discourage the peoples of the world from translating, merely because it is fundamentally impossible? … All in  all, I am inclined to think that you lose less by reading a work in the original than by reading it in your own language, but not much less, if the translation is decent” (Mann 211).

I have argued, when it comes to translating prose -- though without denying the linguistic home truths set out abovethat there is an “umbilical link between syntax and meaning … [and] while conceding each form of expression [poetry and prose] its own logic, the logic we associate with prose is linear and the logic we more often than not associate with poetry is nonlinear” (Raffel 1994 16).  Syntax is not reproducible in translation. But tracking syntactic movement, the outline, overall shape, and general movement of syntax is not only possible, it is essential, for a prose writer’s style is as dependent on syntactic movement as it is on diction and lexicon. In discussing the style and the Englishing of Don Quijote, for example, arguably not only the best but the most stylish novel ever written, I observe that “failure to transmit these important aspects of Cervantes’ novel [syntactic movement]—meanings so central to the overall meanings of the novel that not to transmit them in English amounts as I have said to substantial failure to actually translate the book—constitutes not casual error but serious betrayal” (Raffel 1994, 136).

Accordingly, it is necessary to understand that translators, as well as translations, come in more shapes, sizes, and colors than those who use translationstypically, non-translatorshave ever imagined. I have read a book-length version of a French law treatise, as “translated” by someone totally fluent in both languages but completely ignorant of either the legal culture of France (Napoleonic Code, abstract, based on principle rather than practice) or that of Anglo-America (a common law approach, heavily based on precedenti.e., on practical social consensus). The attempted translation was three hundred pages of neatly typed gibberish, and had to be scrapped in toto.

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