On translating

Translating by definition is falsification and, ultimately, betrayal. Languages are not parallel so all translation is marked by what is lost, not by what is gained. All translators know this because it is their job to understand, interpret, and compromise as they switch a text or discourse from one language to another. There is no such thing as a literal translation, and all bilingual people understand this chasm between languages that cannot be bridged by translating. Translation is about changing a text is such a way that it might be understandable to people who don’t speak the original language. All translation is about loss. As I look at an English translation of Dante’s Inferno, I can only lament the loss of rhythm, sound, and rhyme. We get the “gist” of what Dante is saying about sin and shame, ego and pride, but his art as a poet is lost forever: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, / ché la diritta via era smarrita. Translating and translation are about the translator turning a blind eye to the myriad and multiple meanings that cling to the original words and sacrificing the author’s creativity and originality so that the text might be accessible to others who fall outside the circle of the author’s language. Yet, translators prevail, get hired, and they do their jobs with little shame or humility. Translations are as ubiquitous as taxes and death. Could it be, all along, that translation is the world’s oldest profession? The problem, of course, is not translation, but the multiple languages the people of the world speak, that Tower of Babel from which we are doomed to inhabit forever. Yet, I am not in favor of making one language a required, dogmatic official language. The more common norm is for people to live in multilingual societies. Even today there are many areas of the world where people speak two, three, or even four languages according to the demands of the social situation. Being multilingual does not solve the problem of translation but it does eliminate the need for translation. If a person speaks Italian, reads Italian, then anything they experience in that language is self-explanatory even if the person’s first language might be German or French. Translation only occurs if the original language is a barrier to understanding the text, or conversation, or song. The only way to approach translation is to assume failure before you even start, and by assuming failure, the translator can only produce a new text which was inspired by the original. In a sense all texts are failed translations of other texts, and there exists no ur-text or Q manuscript which might have been original. Misreading, misunderstandings, ambiguity, mistakes, lacunae, accidents, double-entendre, obscurity, complexity, prejudice, bias, and misinterpretation all plague the translator who cannot avoid or evade his/her own human condition as imperfect translator. In the end, all translators must recognize their failure, ignore the imperfection of their work, and move forward to the next sentence with the understanding that failure is the best they can do. In a larger sense, this is the existential question of the human condition–translator as failure.