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The Art of Translation (Preface)

Revisiting the Philological Approach to Foreign Language Study

by Gabrielle Anderson


‘To study the uses of a language not only in its past or its present forms, but as something that is continuously changing, continually moving from the past through the present and into the future, turns out to be a fundamentally interdisciplinary task.”


(Philology of the Future, Futures of Philology, Helge Jordheim, 2004)


“Real intercultural communication, understood as a dialogue between equal parties, presupposes highly developed linguistic competences and a profound knowledge of culture and history enabling ‘translation’ from one context to another.”


(Foreign Language Studies and Intedisciplinarity, Hans Lauge Hansen, 2004)


One of the paradoxes generated by the democratic transformation of traditionalist philosophies throughout the 20th century was the duplicity of Science with regards to what is indisputable and what is relative. Science has evolved as a vast field that, on the plan of spirituality and psychology, has been working assiduously to contain all opinions, assumptions, and extrapolations into the manageable matrix of (usually indisputable) “scientific knowledge”; and yet, on the other hand, in the social and political spheres — fields that were once associated with “culture” —  Science has been expanding tremendously in order to promote relativism.


Relativism, as a term, came into being in the shape of a revolutionary scientific theory, and it has gradually spread its webs into our everyday thinking by means of democratically-driven artistic productions and increasingly licentious approaches. At first, relativism seemed only to reassert, under the new scientific clout, some of the age-old wisdom of European religions that had been stifled by dogmatic rules. Over the past two hundred years, however, relativism has thrived beyond any anticipated limits (especially in the postmodern West-European and transatlantic cultures) as a propitious medium for multiple voices to come alive with equal strengths and rights to persuasion in the realm of social and cultural mores and in the interrelated sphere of politics. The democratic energies released through this process — and the new philosophy asserting that anybody could achieve any desired goals given the appropriate instruction — have raised Western civilizations’ level of material wellbeing to peaks that would have been impossible in the aristocratic, pedantic societies of yesteryear.


Ultimately, it is undeniable that relativism, this grandchild of Enlightenment reasoning, has empowered modern societies with channels for social and artistic expressiveness that have made us know each other as human beings — and, especially, fulfill our individual potential — much more profoundly and on a much larger scale than ever before. Despite the current self-bashing on topics such as the lowering of standards in education, there should be no doubt that the West’s prosperity was built on the intrinsic value of relativism — without which democracy would not have been possible; relative values have allowed for more social equality, and relative quality has allowed for more production (implicitly, more selling options and larger, more diverse markets, ultimately resulting in higher material profits for every citizen).


Successes, as always, come with (relative) drawbacks, and one of the minuses usually deplored by many experts nowadays is the depreciation of intellectual standards in the field of humanities where a variety of interests — many of them political — have bypassed the conservative rigors of meticulous learning.


As that famous 19th century tale by Christian Andersen goes: the beauty of the clothing, and sometimes even the clothing itself, is just in the eye of the beholder…. True cultivation is a regal mantle that takes many many years to weave and is utterly visible in its splendor when it exists; merely pretending that it is there will not make it happen. By analogy: studying “for the credits” — as the habit goes in too many conventional schools — and often paying school fee for credits that are not even backed by any serious knowledge will not get a student too far in his/her life. The superficiality of such a scholastic approach mimics the void in the fabled emperor’s wardrobe.

It seems that nowadays in the United States little has been left of the classical fields of study once decided by austere honor-bound teachers whose only ambition in life would have been to pass their Renaissance moral values onto the open minds of their students; gone are the times of wise teachers sworn to devote themselves to the noble task of refining new spirits who, subsequently, would prove capable to build on the achievements of prior generations of scholars and artists. Many critics of the contemporary methods of teaching humanities (which include subjects like writing and translation) claim that these methods are missing the substance inherent to true cultivation, that “the emperor wears no clothes,” and that we are deceiving ourselves into believing that a multiple-choice test will reflect more than flimsy knowledge backed by momentary luck.

When applying this situation to the filed of translation, one could find that multiple-version (i.e. relative) translations are nothing more than creative ego-affirming approximations, too…. An insightful article by writer Lee Siegel summarized this academic problem as seen below:

“Literature changed my life long before I began to study it in college and then, in a hapless trance, in graduate school. Born into modest circumstances, I plunged with wonder into the turbulent emotions of Julien Sorel, the young romantic striver of Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black.” My parents might have fought as their marital troubles crashed into divorce, but Chekhov’s stories sustained me with words that captured my sadness, and Keats’s language filled me with a beauty that repelled the forces that were making me sad. Books took me far from myself into experiences that had nothing to do with my life, yet spoke to my life. Reading Homer’s “Iliad,” I could feel the uncanny power of recognizing the emotional universe of radically alien people. Yeats gave me a special language for a desire that defined me even as I had never known it was mine: “And pluck till time and times are done/The silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun.” But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts.” (“Who ruined humanities,” Lee Siegel, The Wall Street Journal, 2013)


The contemporary educational impasse frequently captures the headlines in the United States, a Western society in which, fortunately, religion is still neither minimized nor denied the way it has been in many European countries.


And the educational impasse can be solved. Someday, perhaps sooner than we may think, political orientations towards a reconnection with the wisdom of older epochs  — such as a reconnection with times that preceded the Theory of Relativity and other modern, post-modern, and hubristic theories — could “unearth” and reactivate those plain inexpensive tools that our ancestors used successfully to create the great works we nowadays admire only in museums and on the Classics shelves. That day we will have to acknowledge once more that the majority of those great works were at first inspired by nothing more – and nothing less — than the harmonious art of words.


Today, just as for millennia before, words matter because not only do they pass messages that reflect our mundane experiences, but they are like vessels of electrical, magical, magnetic content we release into this world with impacts we are still in wonder about, impacts that brainwave science is yet to satisfactorily explain. Refined words — with their sounds, shapes, and intricate links — still continue to matter for the same reasons for which they were once held to be more sensible and justified than coarse words (although for a few decades now entire societies worldwide have chosen to obliviously promote the latter in their pop cultures).


At their best, words become alive on pages according to the description of this celebrated writer:

“For the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, human beings and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings which one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents that one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and one did not grasp it (it was joy for someone else); to childhood illness that so strangely began with a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars – and it is not enough if one may think all of this. One must also have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not until they have turned to blood within us, to glance, to gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: A Novel)


From the viewpoint of a translator, I feel confident that what Rilke implies in this poetic description of the act of writing is a rather inflexible position. His implicit position seems to be that the mere one verse, once finally born, inspiration allowing — after having undergone a painful pearl-like growth out of the myriad of personal memories and feelings inside the mind of a writer — would be so amazingly unique as to expect and certainly deserve only the most faithful translation into another language. And how could that be achieved when Rilke’s own words are likely to reach even his German readers in a myriad of ways according to as relative criteria as: levels of poetic sensitivity, personal imagination, intellectual cultivation, and subjective transitory mood…?


To answer that questions, we would have to look back in time. At the root of understanding the humanities field we’ll find the ability to understand words and their complex formation. Beyond the postmodern perspectives of the 20th century, the art of translation was as old as that of writing, and contemporary translators should find it useful to remember that the classical tradition that seeks to promote ultimate accuracy in translation actually sprang and developed from ancient scholars’ research and religious exegeses. Some of these sources aimed at understanding the “Word” (as in Biblical, ancient religions) through the pursuit of many intellectual objectives — including the goal of demystifying the translation process itself. Therefore, the study of words for the love of words and reason, otherwise known as philological study, represents an indispensable tool to anyone who would contemplate the job of translating even one paragraph in a manner that would honor that paragraph’s author.


From the viewpoint of a reader, the comparison between various translations of a foreign text into a particular language represents a precious method that can provide insight into the role of semantic nuances. Eventually, the presence of significant variation among several translation versions will raise analytical questions with regard to the reasons underlying each translator’s semantic choices. In addition to that, comparative analyses between several translations of one text into various languages (especially into languages sharing the same linguistic family with the original text) can shed light not only on the way in which the respective translators employed certain etymologies, but also on their diverse interpretations of the author’s psychological profile (his/her creative genius) as sensed by each translator according to subjective cultural backgrounds.


Nowadays, just as in the past, the question that will eventually linger on the back of most readers’ minds will be: which translation – if any – is the most compatible with the original work. And it is doubtless that only a convincing answer would manage to assuage foreign readers’ regrets at not being able to comprehend the original text on their own…. It is also reasonable to accept the fact that genially accurate translations have always been produced, and that a philology-initiated admirer of a writer who would happen to be fluent in the writer’s language would ultimately be able to distinguish — based on classical criteria of linguistic and emotional appeal — the best translation among several translation versions….


Ensuring complete accuracy in translation should be seen now, just as centuries ago, as the primary duty of a translator, a mission in which the translator should relentlessly search for the tools that can demystify – or shall I say “de-relativise” — the translation process.


The philological tools that I employ in this book are based on classical philology as it is still studied in European “old schools”, especially in some conservative East-European academic environments. In writing it, I tried to skip the complexities of linguistic theory, and I focused instead only on the practical use of philological tools and knowledge as applied to the art of translation. In this book, the philological approach method is applied to the English language in reference to a comparison of translated excerpts from three Romance languages: French, Italian and Romanian.


The most importat outcome of employing the philological method in translation is quasi-perfect accuracy. From a translator’s viewpoint, the changes that have occurred in the English language — and particularly in American English —  during the 20th c. should not justify licentious translations meant to accommodate the common denominator of the general public rather than the author’s own terms (such as in the example I provide in Chapter 7, where a recent New York version of Tennessee Williams’s play “A Streetcar Named Desire” introduced a conventional “English translation” of an English phrase that, presumably, in 2006 could not elicit anymore the same effect as in the 1947 play….) Rather, any postmodern changes should be subtly reconciled with the original text in ways that would preserve the timeless value of the original work and convey the author’s meanings in the most sensitive detail to a universal audience.


Philology has dealt with the concepts of form and multi-level meanings in linguistic expression, therefore it combines the study of languages with the study of literature, history, grammar, lexicology, psychoanalytic criticism, and politics. Classical philology has been studied in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Persian, etc, and it is particularly important in the Hebrew exegesis, but it started to be promoted as a scholastic subject under the European Renaissance when the first  European philological traditions were established in various countries.


The 20th century developments in linguistics initiated by Ferdinand de Saussure and Chomsky have had the effect of diminishing the importance of  lexically-intuitive, “word-power”-oriented approaches that one can find in Homer and Cicero for instance; and instead, these postmodern scholars and their followers focussed on another (medieval, e.g. esoteric) tradition: an exegesis that emphasized the importance of quantifiable associations, thus of syntactic patterns meant to reveal the inner structure of texts through mathematical logic. With regard to the field of translation, their work paved the way to various trends including our postmodern enthusiasm about the future of computerized translation and the current tendency of some to see translation as an unpretentious rendering of words into other languages.


While that important “quantifiable” perspective is given weight also in the philological approach described in this book, the translator will have to be permanently aware of the danger of mechanical word conversion. In the absence of human intuition, that basic translation method would not produce satisfactory results i.e. faithfully conveying all the hidden meanings and subleties intended by the author. In literary translation the basic approach cannot be applied even to apparently simple — “childish” — texts (an example in this sense is analyzed in Chapter 3 offering three comparative translations of “The Little Prince”); therefore it would be dangerous and, indeed, sad for our generation and the students who are nowadays being educated in humanities programs in our schools, to indulge in the expectation that a computerized translation of Rilke would ever be “better”, or even comparable, to a translation performed by a human translator of literature who  would know all Rilke’s work on account of philological study and who would feel personally atuned to it….


Often enough I have had friendly debates on this topic with science fans without reaching successful conclusions, their answer being always ” the computer science will progress and take over.” I have few scientific arguments against that scenario…. One argument I like to offer is this story: in the 1990s, while performing simultaneous English interpreting at an international conference conducted in a small room with no other equipment than a microphone, I noticed a couple of Australian female experts listening intently to my Romanian sentences, an unmistakable expression of disapproval on their faces. The conference was about children with cerebral palsy who had lived secluded in East-European orphanages; having had the opportunity to study extensively the topic, I was sure that my translation was accurate. During the break I ventured to make an inquiry: I friendly greeted the two ladies, then discretely asked if indeed they were concerned about my translation and, if so, why — given that they acknowledged they could not understand Romanian (in fact, some Romanian listeners who were fluent in English had assessed my interpreting as irreproachable). The ladies’ equally friendly reply was prompt: I was not projecting to the audience “the spirit” of the Australian biologist whose lecture I had been interpreting….


Now that was a surprise! As every conference interpreter knows, simultaneous interpreting contractual conditions require — as a mark of professionalism — that the translator should display at all times an impersonal voice and attitude capable of shadowing the voice of the lecturer without ever covering it or mimicking it, so that the spotlight should remain constantly on the lecturer. But these ladies’ observation spoke volumes, too, with regard to what the translator’s duty still remains, despite official prescriptions on what a translator’s professional demeanor should be (rules which are also relative to diverse cultures)….


A translator’s/interpreter’s duty is to maintain faithfully the original “spirit” of the translated work by sharing in the author’s own emotions, whether that were a piece of prose, a poem, or a scripted scientific lecture delivered with pathos for the sake of raising funds. It was not that I had been expected to falsely sound as loud as the lecturer, or to copy her voice, or to mimick her gestures. However, by attempting to remain (computer-like) “professional” in my accurate translation of words and sentences, I had overlooked the simple fact that the soul of that entire lecture that was dedicated to orphan children, ultimately relied on my ability to transfer the emotional appeal of the ordinary English words into an equally electryifying Romanian appeal. It was not a matter of intonation, voice or facial expressiveness (which a computer screen can provide too) — but a matter of truly caring about that topic, literally putting in my inner human energy to support their cause… During the next session, I gave up the agency-recommended impersonal style, and allowed myself to proceed in sync with the emotional drive of the dedicated biologist as if I had written the biologist’s lecture myself, all along never missing or altering even one word of her carefully prepared text. It worked with surprisingly successful fund-raising results.


A product of experiences such as the one described above, and of knowledge I have accumulated in over twenty-five years of philological study and translation practice, the present book brings back to the attention of English-speaking readers and translation students a series of basic tools derived from classical philology. These tools are: etymological references, literary psychoanalytic criticism and historical/political analyses; phonetics, syntactic and morphologic analyses; rhetorics, and comparative literatures analysis. Though it may appear complicated when described as above, this philological analysis approach is performed in a deliberately simple manner, by means of an incursion into the world of 19th century – early 20th century literary masterpieces. To represent them, I have selected text excerpts translated into four languages: English, Italian, French and Romanian (the English version only is analyzed philologically, while the Romance language text excerpts are included in full, as well, to facilitate the cross-analysis). Although no knowledge of any of the Romance languages is needed in order to benefit from this overal analysis of the translation art, one may discover that one’s familiarity with English Latin cognates can acquire new dimensions after this incursion into three Romance languages. At the end of the book, one will also feel empowered with a reliable methodology to better appreciate the difference in quality between multiple translations of a text, according to classicist criteria of hermeneutics that one will have learned to identify.


This chapter started by singling out one paradox of the 20th century: the relativist path of value acceptance. In truth, as a linguist, I would not completely disagree with that path (only with its mannerisms…). Specifically, I would agree that free thinking, emotion, and talent are as inherent to the translation process as they are to creative writing. But literary translation should eliminate relative pathways and, instead, strive for classical one-way clarity once again….


I am fully optimistic about the future of literary creation and translation being won by human minds in the age of computers, and my conviction relies on another paradox of our time: namely that, while language — a volatile body animated by its users — is fragile, fluctuating, and perishable, it is also extremely resilient in its ability to preserve and revive insidious meanings, and in its amazing versatility for cross-border enrichment… If living today, the genius of a Shakespeare or Twain would probably bask in the vast avenues of lexical riches that the British English and the American English dialects have spread between the heights of academic lingos and the sharpest edges of the slums; and out of this democratic brew of linguistic possibilities such a genius would still bring forth works of philosophy, poetry and fiction able to challenge and, perhaps, transform and balance again the general mentality of our world that today is as mired in relativities as it was once in rigidities.