In which I let Rabassa and Barnstone duke it out about memory, error, and the ethics of translation

In his book If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, Gregory Rabassa asserts lots of interesting and valuable stuff, then this clinker on pp. 61-62:

The completion of work is best done in translation, where the translator can work at things denied the author in his own language, even the way Saint Jerome mistakenly implied the cuckoldry of Moses which Michelangelo then wrought in enduring stone.

In case you don’t spend hours a day considering the history of Christian Anti-Semitism, Rabassa is referring to St. Jerome who mistranslated the Hebrew word for “ray” to mean “horns,” leading to a tradition of picturing Moses with horns coming out of his head, which Michelangelo then made flesh (marble flesh) in his famous statue of Moses. Horns on the head are, in some pagan traditions in Europe, understood to mean than the man wearing them has been cuckolded—that is, his wife has had sex with other men.

That cuckold charge, which is not common when discussing Jerome’s “horns,” is not as important to me as Rabassa’s assertion that the mistranslation which came to be both a statue and a common, enduring myth that Jews had horns was a good thing, a “completion” of something the original text could not say. Huh?? The issue is that the Hebrew “couldn’t say” that Moses had horns, or that his wife/wives were not faithful? Are you kidding me? And that’s without understanding that plenty of Christians see those horns as images of the devil, not images of a cuckold.

While translations do build on each other across time, this is not, by far, always a positive thing. Mistranslations, for nefarious, controlling, purposes, can be introduced into texts and mutate from there until the product people “know” is more a history of prejudice or ignorance than a translation. For a crystal clear example of this, I turn to translator Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation, to his sub-chapter “How through False Translation into and from the Bible Jesus Ceased To Be a Jew.” While his argument, incredibly well-documented, is lengthy, these little excerpts carry the spine of it:

Since early Christian leaders, saints, and followers were both Jews and gentiles, pursuing the Jewish dream of an announced Messiah, how could two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism be based largely on their Scriptures, that is, on the New Testament, a collection of revolutionary texts born from the depths of the rabbinic tradition?

By sleight-of-hand editing and translating, only certain figures of the Christian Scriptures remain clearly identifiable as Jews—not John the Baptist, not Mary, not Jesus, nor James and Paul: even their names are not Biblically Jewish. This disguise is in place by the time of the Greek Scriptures and is reinforced in translation into other languages. […] The Christian scriptures are different because, in the Jewish world that they describe, all the good people are Christians and the evil ones Jews. […] How could Jewish authors produce such a fearful world of fatal hatreds? They did not. The original stories, in the process of telling and writing, redaction, and translation, were transformed to produce a narrative that excluded Jews from the messianic happenings in their land.

Barnstone continues, showing how yeshua (Joshuah) became Jesus, mashiah became Christ, and rabbi became Master, all intentional mistranslations to erase Jews from the text, and how “Jew” was slyly transformed description to the name of the enemy. Eventually, Barnstone says, the people who are allied with Jesus are just people, while the people who oppose him are “the Jews.” As Barnstone summarizes,

Christian anti-Semitism begins with and derives historically from the New Testament, from the falsifying translations into and out of the Christian Scriptures in which Jesus ceases to be a Jew. The result of this transmission of the history of Joshua the Messiah has been two millennia of hatred and extermination, from diasporas and ghettos to pogroms and holocaust.

So what has that to do with Rabassa’s St. Jerome saying “something” in translating that the original text “couldn’t say”? This: translating matters, and because it matters, it must be aware of culture, bias, social power, linguistic power, prejudice, hatred. To assume that my job as a translator is to say what the author couldn’t say in her/his culture seems dangerously arrogant, especially since I am the citizen of a (declining) superpower and the speaker of a language whose culture is an invasive species, wiping out native tongues and cultures daily. My job is NOT to say what some other culture couldn’t say, but to show, value, bring into my language what their culture CAN and DOES say, know, value, communicate, worship, want, need. The line from scriptural sources to St. Jerome to Michelangelo was not a good thing for my people, the Jews, which is certainly one big understanding I carry into this new skill I am building.

Against Rabassa’s assertion of finishing an author’s work by adding what a different culture knows, I assert Barnstone’s linguistically AND socially responsible analysis of the power of language to be used as a weapon:

The primary method of destabilizing and deracinating a people is to rename them and their land. Consequently, the first strategy of the recorders and translators of the Christian scriptures was to remove Jesus from his Jewishness.


Note from my own political life: one of the first actions of the Zionist government in the new state of Israel was to erase all Arabic village, street, and place names and replace them with Hebrew names, thus trying to physically erase Arab/Palestinian history from the land itself. For more information on this, see the wonderful Israeli activist group Zochrot (Remembering). In the photo below, Zochrot members are restoring the name of a Palestinian mosque in Arabic and in Hebrew.

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Rabassa: evergreen words

One of the real struggles in translation is to match diction. Is the original text light, snide, slang-filled, formal, technical, intentionally heightened, obsessively literary? If so, the translator needs to match that tone in the second language, to carry the flavor of the text. But you also don’t want to create something that is so “hip,” so contemporary, that it will feel horribly dated in only a few years. How to balance that? Like every other decision, it is a value judgment, but here’s some thoughtful advice from Rabassa:

Translators, then, are placed in the difficult position of having to be careful not to nail their translation onto the period in which they are living. If the work under way is something contemporary the effect won’t be quite so bad since the original text might well become archaic even sooner than the translation. Like the leaves on trees, words age, yellow, and drop off after a time, although languages, like trees, are divided into different species and the words in one may hold their meaning longer than those in the language into which they are being translated. When I come to translate a “classic” I try to find what we might call “evergreen” words. Translating Machado de Assis […] I try hard to find words that are equally valid in his time and in ours and which, we hope, will endure beyond both ages. A good translation of Cervantes, and there are quite a few, must not be so contemporary that it will eventually become archaic because Cervantes as read today in Spanish is only mildly so. Motteux can sound archaic because he was a contemporary of Cervantes, Putnam cannot. Where Motteux messed up was in not finding as many evergreen words as Cervantes had used. Perhaps he didn’t let Cervantes lead him linguistically. As I discovered translating Machado de Assis and Garcia Marquez, the masters will enable you to render their prose into the best possible translation if you only let yourself be led by their expression, following the only possible way to do. If you ponder you will have lost the path.

From Gregory Rabassa If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, 2005, New Directions Books

translating as writing

From Gregory Rabassa If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, 2005, New Directions Books

The translator, we should know, is a writer too. As a matter of fact, she could be called the ideal writer because all she has to do is write; plot, theme, characters, and all the other essentials have already been provided, so she can just sit down and write her ass off. But she is also a reader. She has to read the text closely to know what it’s all about. Here is where she receives less guidance or direction from the text. It is a common notion to say that if a work has 10,000 readers it becomes 10,000 different books. The translator is only one of these readers and yet she must read the book in such a way that she will be reading the Spanish into English as she goes along, with the result that her reading is also writing. Her reading, then, becomes the one reading that is going to spawn 10,000 varieties of the book in the unlikely case that it will sell that many copies and will be read by that many people.

that bugbear of timid technicians: the value judgment

Welcome to the next of many future posts about the issues and theory of translating. I have quite the intimidating list of hard-core theory books to read, and I need to be making sense of them even as I try to make sense of Shez’s Hebrew and create poems in English that are honest, riveting translations of them.

First up, Gregory Rabassa’s If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, 2005, New Directions Books. This is a memoir, a reflection of his many decades of translating, mainly from Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. I’ll be posting some of his more interesting statements, ones that resonate and ones that screech like nails on a chalkboard. Among the latter is his condescending casual sexism—he uses only “he” and “his” while making fun of attempts to be gender neutral, and the only women he has described as far as I’ve read are copy editors whom he claims to respect but then describes as “fresh-fased Smithies and Cliffies.”

Umm, Greg – respect and contempt are two entirely different kinds of diction which ought not to be in the same text.

So, as a translator of his ideas to you, I’ll be freely replacing the he/his with she/her whenever I feel called to do so. And Rabassa (along with way too many other people) uses “schizophrenic” to mean feeling split or divided, which is willfully ignorant of the experience of people living with actual schizophrenia. In a poetic mood this morning, I’ve decided to translate his error into “dislocating duality.” Sue me.

Anyway, first up, an interesting passing on the role of value judgments, which are, in fact, utterly necessary to translating. The more I read and translate Shez, the more I feel that certain words in English are the right words because they feel to me how her poetry feels to me. This isn’t a question of dictionary definition, but a judgment (one that might later change as I go further into her work. Here’s what Rabassa has to say:

The translator must put to good use that bugbear of timid technicians: the value judgment. In translation as in writing, which it is as we have said, the proper word is better than a less proper but standard one. […] Translation is based on choice and a rather personal one at that. Long ago I discovered a funny thing: if you ponder a word, any word, long enough it will become something strange and meaningless and usually ludicrous. I suppose this is some kind of verbicide, bleeding the poor word of its very essences, its precious bodily fluids, and leaving a dry remnant that could pass for a five-letter group in a cryptographic message. When we snap out of it and retrieve the meaning of the word, we have, in a sense, deciphered it. This is as far as I would go in turning translation entirely over to reason since so much of it should be based on an acquired instinct, like the one we rely on to drive a car, Ortega’s vital reason.