Translation and the Tower of Babel

from why translation matters by Edith Grossman, page 17

…translation […] dedicates itself to denying and negating the impact of divine punishment for the construction of the Tower of Babel, or at least to overcoming its worse divisive effects. Translation asserts the possibility of a coherent, unified experience of literature in the world’s multiplicity of languages. At the same time, translation celebrates the differences among languages and the many varieties of human experience and perception they can express. I do not believe this is a contradiction. Rather, it testifies to the comprehensive, inclusive embrace of both literature and translation.


a few thoughts on translating, from Walter Benjamin

drawn from Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” written in 1923. This version was translated into English in 1968 by Harry Zohn.

1. “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful.” Art, Benjamin says (and I’m leaving all his original gender markers here), “posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response.” [Note: Reader Response theory would come along a few years after this, so stick with him for the sake of the argument]. So therefore the point is not perfect understanding on the part of the reader, but that the artist creates and the reader experiences. Given this, how can a translation claim to be for readers who don’t understand the original? Only inferior translations seek to explain, and they are inferior exactly in the way they miss the transmission of art’s “inessential content.” Translation, therefore, should serve the art, not the reader.

But do we not generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to information—the unfathomable, the mysterious, the “poetic,” something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet?

2. Translation is a kind of afterlife, a transformation and renewal of something living, and in the process the original itself undergoes a change. Translation is not the sterile equation of one language to another, but is a literary form “charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.”

3. The transfer of all of a poem into another language can never be total, but what can carry is that elements in a translation which goes beyond transmittal of subject matter.”

Even when all the surface content has been extracted and transmitted, the primary concern of the genuine translator remains elusive. Unlike the words of the original, it is not translatable, because the relationship between content and language is quite different in the original and the translation. While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds.

4. The task of the translator consists in finding the intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. This is a feature of translation which basically differentiates it from the poet’s work, because the effort of the latter is never directed at the language as such, but solely and immediately at specific linguistic contextual aspects. [note: with the advent of language poetry, this may no longer true]

5. Sparks of Light—Benjamin used the Kabbalistic metaphor of the creation of the world being the breaking of a vessel which released sparks of light into everything. In this understanding, redemption will come when all of these have been found, released and gathered up. Out of this understanding, he writes about a kind of original “pure” language which survives behind the scenes in all resulting, scattered, languages.

In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel. […] On the other hand, as regards the meaning, the language of a translation can—in fact, must—let itself go, so that it gives voice to the intention of the original not as reproduction but as harmony, as a supplement to the language in which it expresses itself, as its own kind of intention. Therefore it is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language. Rather, the significance of fidelity as ensured by literalness is that the work reflects the great longing for linguistic completion. A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not black its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium to shine upon the original all the more fully.

6. The task of the translator

Rather, for the sake of pure language, a free translation [that is, one that isn’t literal] bases the test on its own language. It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.

Translating from a Language You Don’t Know

A wonderful interview with sister-poet Rebecca Howell about her translation “Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation”, by Amal al-Jubouri, posted originally at Arabic Literature (In English):
Translating From a Language You Don’t Know

from “Arabic Literature (in English)”

The folks at Arab Lit have gathered some very thoughtful advice about translating from a broad range of translators. Find them here: Rules for Translating.

My favorites so far are:

1. translate something you love

2. Don’t just read the text, listen to the voice in your head.

3. Be faithful in the first draft. Reproduce the surface. Don’t be an editor.

4. Don’t always translate every last word: leaving some untranslatable words or expressions that can add to the “local colour” of the piece but are comprehensible in context can actually enhance the text.

5. Always respect the author’s intention, even if you don’t always respect the vocabulary, syntax, rhythm, etc.

And these great questions from Elliott Colla:

1. Do you really have time to donate weeks or months of unremunerated labor, even if the cause is a good one?

2. Does this particular book really deserve a second life in another language? Why?

3. How would you compare the work to five other similar works in other languages?

4. Who is the English audience for the translation, and why would they be interested now? Do you have any evidence for believing this?

5. Are you doing this because of your love of Arabic literary culture, or your love of English?

6. Do you have a fool-proof system for knowing when you’ve gotten something wrong and when you’ve gotten it right? Would you share it with me?

Ben Belitt on translating

Ben Belitt, thoughts on translating from Edward Honig, ed, The Poet’s Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translation.

the seduction of translating

In this sense, translation takes translators far beyond the genre of their own recognizable styles and idiosyncrasies as poets. One of the disintegrative benefits of translation is that it compels or seduces one into writing poetry other than one’s own…

translation as pleasure

I would say I stumbled on translation simply in the process of trying to find something that was cognate with my experience of having thought about a poet, read him word for word and word by word, and found it hostile or hateful to paraphrase. Let us say I invoked a “pleasure principle” rather than a homiletic one, that my approach was hedonistic rather than Aristotelian, much as Coleridge’s is when he says the “immediate aim of poetry is pleasure not truth.” I would be quite ready to say that the immediate aim of translation is pleasure, not truth.

the sweaty labor of mediation

It’s the Platonism, the Idea of the Perfect Poem, or the Perfect Word, that I think interferes with the sweaty labor of translation, the sweaty empiricism in which everything is an action, a commitment, a deed, a choice, and refuses to exist abstractly in the realm of the Potential […] One has to intrude upon possibility; even the poem speaks in its own right, at its most expressive pitch, as a pure tissue of possibility. The translator provides the possibles, probables, utterances, and then tries to anchor the whole floating realm of epistemological possibility. I insist it’s an epistemological, rather than a semantic or linguistic: What kind of knowledge does poetry involve? What is the thing that translators can know, and how can their language know it? What is the syntax for its survival as either immediate pleasure or eventual truth? The knowledge must never be falsified: it is a confidence, a trust—but there is a human need to take a stand and mediate knowledge. All translation, at its best, is mediation rather than definition.

how does one judge a translation upon reading it?

What is the test […]? There is nothing as blue and red as litmus paper. There are signs, faits accomplis, reassurances: for one thing, volatility; responsibility, for another the certainity that all the elements have been subjected to atomic scrutiny—all the words as they pass from their moorings in the (original language) into the ink of the translation, with no leaps of convenience or deletions such as you might find in the Imitations of Lowell.

Imagination: the most dangerous faculty

Imagination isn’t a phenomenon that can be limited to the poem in its original state. As a translator, it is legitimate, it is imperative, to work imaginatively, joyfully, energetically, ingeniously, patiently, inventively, yourself. Imagination cannot be present in the original only, and absent from the equivalence. [Imagination is the most] risky and most daring, the most desired and mistrusted faculty: the most dangerous. We mistrust it but we can’t renounce it. How can we afford to renounce imagination in the midst of a process we know to be absurd and inimitable? Or avoid saying to ourselves, in the awful solitude of translation, with an upbeat of nausea and wonder: “Well, I don’t know for a fact what the poet knew, but I believe I can imagine how this might sound in my language.” That’s an honest and poignant transaction.

Translating – another version of paradox

from Edwin Honig’s introduction to his collection of interviews The Poet’s Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translations:

Is translation as self-transcendence still another version of the paradox: to know yourself, lose yourself in the other other? If voice is the instrument making it possible for poets to continue writing by giving immediacy and validity to whatever gifts they possess, it also exists in the constant collaboration between the language of the living and the language of the dead. Poets come to know that voice is both one’s own and not one’s own. As Antonio Machado observes, the poet, perceiving all the unbidden echoes in his personal language, realizes that his voice is not “mine” but “ours.” He senses that it resounds, as a collaborative instrument, and that the collaborators are the literary masters of many human languages, including many he does not know, as well as the special languages of trees, waters, and illiterate grandmothers.

Newly Released: Code of Good Practice for fair-play in literary translation

The European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations (CEATL) has just published six basic rules for fair-play in all business relations with literary translators, asserting that we ARE a creative force, we HAVE produced an original literary work and we SHOULD be paid a decent living for what we do. Imagine.

Hexalogue or Code of Good Practice

The Six Commandments of ‘fair-play’ in literary translation, adopted by CEATL’s General Assembly on 14 May, 2011. [pdf download]

1. Licensing of rights
The licensing of rights for the use of the translation shall be limited in time to a maximum of five years. It shall be subject to the restrictions and duration of the licensed rights of the original work. Each licensed right shall be mentioned in the contract.

2. Fees
The fee for the commissioned work shall be equitable, enabling the translator to make a decent living and to produce a translation of good literary quality.

3. Payment terms
On signature of the contract, the translator shall receive an advance payment of at least one third of the fee. The remainder shall be paid on delivery of the translation at the latest.

4. Obligation to publish
The publisher shall publish the translation within the period stipulated in the contract, and no later than two years after the delivery of the manuscript.

5. Share in profit
The translator shall receive a fair share of the profits from the exploitation of his/her work, in whatsoever form it may take, starting from the first copy.

6. Translator’s name
As author of the translation, the translator shall be named wherever the original author is named.

A few thoughts on dictionaries

A few thoughts on dictionaries
Elliott batTzedek

     Translating, and reading about translation, has made me hyper-aware of dictionaries. There are, in turns out, many different kinds, each with its own purpose and usefulness.

     The “dictionary” most of us know is a book that is a collection of words with information about those words. It is monolingual (or intralingual), and it exists to explain words to people who already understand the language. While most pretend to be neutral, they are not – to explore the editorial policy of a dictionary, look up any controversial cultural term – lesbian, abortion, sex, or any racial or sexual insults. Does the definition satisfy you or just make you angry? One linguist I know, the radical lesbian feminist writer Julia Penelope, once had a job as the “offensive usage” editor for a dictionary, deciding and marking which words were sexist, racist, age-ist, etc. Imagine using THAT dictionary, what values it would express! I only wish I could remember what dictionary it was….

     And, of course, we all know how dictionary definitions can be infuriatingly obtuse or self-referential. Look up a word like “afraid,” for example, and you might find “the state of being in fear.” All fine and well, IF you know what “fear” means. If you don’t, you’ve learned nothing. There is an amazing dictionary for adults learning English, the Oxford American Dictionary for learners of English, which defines words clearly and simply, and never uses a word in the definition of itself. It has photos, illustrations, and guides to types of language, such as which kinds of words are used in a resume vs a casual email. I had one, once, and spent hours leafing through, delighted with what I was learning about my own language, but gave it away to someone trying to refine his English enough to look for a better job. (I really wish I could find a similar dictionary for modern Hebrew, for I need the information about the qualities and contexts of words, not just their “definitions.”)

     Dictionaries also define only one word at a time, or at most a short phrase that carries a single unit of meaning. They are, in this way, like looking through a microscope, trying to get a sense of an animal by searching a single cell at a time.

     Bilingual (interlingual) dictionaries are a beast of a completely different nature. They are actually more a lexicon than a dictionary, in that they exist to map one word to another and not really to define words. They are based, in the words of Jorge Luis Borges, “on the hypothesis – obviously an unproven one – that languages are made of equivalent synonyms.” And of course languages aren’t, which is why using a bilingual dictionary is only barely related to understanding or translating a language. If I look up the word “run,” for example, it will list several Hebrew words, nouns and verbs. If I look up each of those, it may say only “run.” (With a pronunciation guide, and, for Hebrew words, the gender of the nouns and class of the verbs.) But what do I then know? Does the word mean to run, to jog, to sprint, to flee for one’s life, to give someone the run around, to run for cover?

     And, within those limitations, bilingual dictionaries, like monolingual dictionaries, have editorial policies. My Hebrew/English dictionary doesn’t have the word “fuck” in English or Hebrew, and that’s a word my poet uses, as well as related concepts also missing. I probably need a Hebrew slang dictionary, if such a thing exists, as well as a Hebrew for speakers of other languages dictionary. Online interlingual translation sites help fill some of those gaps for me, although I’ve not yet found a Hebrew equivalent of an “urban” dictionary with all the pop culture references and slang terms and usages.

     Contemplating all of this is only the background to actually translating! Some days, staring at a word that ought to make sense and doesn’t, and being unable to figure out why, I do wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. Translating is incredibly hard. It is also incredibly rewarding, the same “ahhh” as dropping the right piece of a jigsaw puzzle into place and having a whole section become clear. Well, it’s like that if what you have is a pile of puzzle pieces but no picture of  what you are building, only a title that gives you a general sense and lots of shapes that look familiar.

A few more thoughts on dictionaries, from the translator’s best friend, Willis Barnstone, in his The Poetics of Translation:

A dictionary is monolingual or bilingual in format and intralingual or interlingual in purpose. With it one confronts the unknown.

An interlingual dictionary is a bible for the translator, containing official law for transferring meaning between languages. Laws, however, even holy ones, are not always perfect. An interlingual dictionary enlightens and deceives.

An interlingual dictionary provides a mirror image of the unknown in a known language, but for there to be a meaning, to be semiosis, the translator must intervene with her interpreting mind, actively choosing what amid the new data provides equivalence.

A monolingual (or intralingual) dictionary defines by explanation and synonymity. A bilingual (or interlingual) dictionary seeks equivalence and does not primarily define. It tries to translate. It tries to do so faithfully and literally, but leaves the decision of the right choice to the translator.

A bilingual dictionary is not prepared to handle sentences, since it has no memory of syntax and cares nothing about grammar. A dictionary has a multitude of cyclopses looking out from its pages. When a lexical cyclops takes on a second or third eye right in the middle of its brow, the hybrid monster is so cross-eyed it cannot see or be seen unless one focuses in one eye alone.

God as Translator

two quotations from Willis Barnstone The Poetics of Translation, pp 130-131

God created through the word. And what did God do with that word? With its utterance God translated divine sound into matter and being, thereby bringing the cosmos, the earth, and the earth’s inhabitants, great and small, into temporal existence. Since clock time did not exist before this act of cosmic creation, of transforming significant noise into time and space, clearly the first act of translation in the history of the profession occurred with those sacred Hebrew words y’hi or: “Let there be light.” And just as the pious know that ultimately our souls will, on the day of judgment, be translated back into heaven, so on that first day of creation God initiated and spoke the first sentence for the history of translation.

Willis Barnstone

In the beginning was the word and the word was translation, and with it God translated the heaven and the earth. But the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the word moved upon the face of the waters, translating the light from the darkness.

Pierre Grange, “God the Eternal Translator,” Dream Time and Other Earthly Signs

The tools of a translator

I’m taking a “catch up on school work” day off from my job, and sitting at Bucks County Community College and studying while Sue is in her new grad course for the day. The backpack I hauled in to do this is incredibly heavy, and my Stuff spread out takes an entire table. What the heck IS all this?

Curious you should ask. Or that I should ask a question and then claim you have asked it. But just in case inquiring minds want to know, here’s the list of what a translator brings to a day’s work:

1. the original poems, in this case a PDF of a book stored on a jump drive. Most important part of the process, but essentially invisible

2. my translations, also stored on the jump drive. Also, files with lists of suffixes, prefixes, and a sheet of “tricky words” – those that are spelled the same but, depending on the vowels, are very different words.

3. Bilingual dictionary. I really need a single-language dictionary, too, but I’m not ready for that yet.

4. All-Important Verb Table Book, the single most useful tool I’ve ever purchased.

5. Google Translate. Vital to me, as I am nothing like fluent in Hebrew. Nothing Like. Google translate is amazing – not to actually translate a poem, but to give me a way in, to help me think outside of every place I get stuck trying to make plain sense of a line. As a way to help me edit, I’ve been taking my English version of a poem and using Google to translate it into Hebrew. I then compare that Hebrew to the original. This helps me see where I might be using more words in English than I need, or see if a word I’ve used has a corresponding word in Hebrew that ISN’T in the poem, such that I might not have chosen the right sense of the original word. This has also helped me find typos in my Hebrew (since I have to retype every poem from the original into Davka. Trying to make sense of the wrong word, or off something that isn’t a word, greatly increases the frustration level of this process!

Then I take Google’s Hebrew version and have it translated back into English, and then compare that to my English. What’s remarkable about this whole process is how close the versions can be! The machine will never replace the grunt work and inspiration of translating literature, but wow does it help. I can’t imagine trying to do this even a few years ago when such a tool didn’t exist. I don’t think I could have, not with my level of Hebrew knowledge.


7. Davka, a Hebrew word processing program, which allows me to type right to left and to use my English keyboard to produce Hebrew letters. I’ve been using it for years, originally to do Passover hagaddahs, and only this summer realized it has a “translate” button that will do one word at a time. Again, not perfect, especially for the images and abstractions of poetry, but it can help me identify word roots and which binyan (type) of verb a word might be so I know where to go looking.

8. The thick packet of translations with notes from my mentor, Ellen Doré Watson.

9. book of essays on poems by contemporary Hebrew poets

10. Dell laptop

11. eyeglasses

12. Zebra F-301 pen, without which I cannot write.

13. Patience. Again, mainly invisible, but it has never been a forte of mine so I have to pack a lot of extra with me whenever I sit down to do this.