The problem of translation has been analyzed, schematicized, theorized, and polemicized – but it has always been howled out in pain. In the now rarely printed 1611 Preface to the King James Version of the Bible, “The Translators to the Reader,” an architectural translation elicits a less-than-hoped-for reaction from the Israelite public: “The temple built by Zerubbabel after the return from Babylon was by no means to be compared to the former built by Solomon: (for they that remembered the former wept when they considered the latter).”
Weeping is a severe response, and the fact that the Translators mean for the example to be representative of the damage registered in any version 2.0 – including their own – ought to warn us that translation is a serious business. And serious business it has remained in the intervening 400 years: modern literary theory puts translation in terms of infinite exile, or worse, expatriation from a motherland (mother tongue) that never quite existed in the first place. Language itself is a long, echoing gallery of loss: words cast off old ontological ties to meaning, acquiring sense only in contrast and context with each other. That sense of monumental loss of origin is best expressed, for me, in the opening lines of a poem by Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”:
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
A translator, then, plies her trade as a writer of obituaries – one loss after another, piled onto a page like a mounting heap of truncated prosthetics. Why bother, I wonder, with the impossible task of translation – why endure the pain of an inevitable diminishment? Yet the KJV Translators find, as one telegrammatic subtitle in the preface insists, “Translation necessary.” This, coming from the craftsmen of the most popular and aesthetically acclaimed translation of the most translated text in history, grips me, I admit, inexplicably; the Translators’ resolute affirmation of the necessity of their work, following close on the heels of such a bald reckoning with pain, is the stoic stuff of Hemingway and Seneca – not the hopeful take-home message of the Gospel.
Of course there are those with other, more optimistic attitudes towards the efficacy of translation. Borges, for example, always maintained that the English translation of Don Quixote was the better version of the original Spanish. In saying this, Borges anticipated late 20th-century literary theory’s radical structural reconception of text: What was written on the page was not the whole story – a text lived outside its paper projection, changing and being generated in turn by its intersection with readers and their readings.
Surprisingly, there are hints of that same conception in the 1611 Preface: “Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.” Translation, they say, is window dressing: good thing, too, given language’s tyranny – its grammatical structures that govern what is permissible to think and to say; its changeability, its entrenchment in particular a culture, place, and time. But if language is not the thing in itself, then translation ceases to affect content and becomes a useful tool – a tool that, like dissolving stitches, discreetly disappears after being used. The opening of a text into a different language is precisely that – an opening into a text that remains separate and therefore uncompromised by whatever flubs and mistranslations a translator is capable of injecting.
The only problem with this optimistic view is that the question of quality (or, as the case may be, the absence of quality) remains: Surely some tools are better than others – are certain translations better? By what criteria do we judge – aptness, truth, fidelity, aesthetics? How do I deal with the reality that all are still imperfect?
It makes sense to circle back to the original problem of fallibility, this image of translation as a teetering temple on stilts. The Translators waste no time in laying down the party line: “We do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession … containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. …A man may be counted a virtuous man, though he have made many slips in his life.” Or, as we might say, a translation might be considered “good” despite its blunders and strayings, given that it contains – or better yet, is – the text.
The reason why the mere fact of being the text counts so heavily in favor of any translation is that translation is an art with a practical purpose: the facilitation of understanding. “How shall men meditate in that which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue?” The Translators insist upon a practice that is a service and an ethics – an ethics in service of the living – so that we might say the translated text itself is “living.” It’s at once a text that reproduces itself in translation and revision, as well as a text that is practiced. Here the traditional literary production scheme, in which an author produces a work which is then received by the reader, is inverted and brought around into a circle. The reader generates, does the practicing, requires the translation. She is the ethos, and her humanness – her dependence and entrenchment in language – dictates the terms on which the translated text appears.
Her humanness, however, guarantees the failure of every translation – our answer to the question of quality. Never mind the humanness of the Translators: even a perfect translation, free of the “imperfections and blemishes” would fall on the deaf ears of a reader of incomplete understanding. A translation in itself, regardless of quality, is always powerless to convey truth: that only comes in a moment of grace, a revelation, a lifting of the veil. It is “He [who] removeth the scales from our eyes, the veil from our hearts, opening our wits that we may understand his word” [italics mine]. Grace is the assurance that what’s most important will be conveyed and understood, whatever the merits of the translation itself: “Whatsoever things are necessary are manifest,” says Saint Chrysostom. It is grace that allows the Translators to write, in full justification, “A man may be counted a virtuous man, though he have made many slips in his life.” It is the “Spirit of grace, which is able to build further than we can ask or think” that slides the burden of efficacy off the shoulders of the translator – and what a relief! For the work of the translator is forever asymptotic – there is always a gap, some blank margin that skirts the realm of the human text, marking the boundary between language – its beautiful flaws – and perfect understanding.
Here, pressed against the margin, we’re faced with a hard and earnest reckoning with the difficulty of difficulty – that is, with the fact that life is hard, and translation but an abstracted taste of what it means to live in a world that is loss, pain, incomprehensibility, and disparity. But we’re told translation is necessary – as an art, an exercise in pain not merely for its own practical purposes but as a practice that clears space amid the rubble for redemption and grace. The losses it manifests are emblematic of the losses sustained in any individual’s life: Even as it bleeds and oozes, it acknowledges its situation within the reality of a fallen and imperfect world. It attempts to heal; it bumps up against its human, cultural, structural limitations; and just as it seems most in danger of collapsing under its accumulated weaknesses, it passes under a generous swooping salvation. It emerges, a small miracle of transformation; and the wider gap, the greater the canvas for the work of grace.
G. Tiao ’08 is a History of Science and English and American Literature and Language concentrator in Currier House.