The Translation of Philosophy
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New Literary History 32.2 (2001) 223-257



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The Translation of Philosophy

Jonathan Rée


Translators have a habit of feeling rather sorry for themselves. The problem is not just that they are badly paid, though they often are; nor that their contribution to culture is constantly slighted or overlooked, though it usually is. What depresses them, above all, is the question of their creative identity.

Like any other writers, translators are always striving to give their work an air of preordained rightness--it should all end up fitting neatly together, like a properly folded map. But even when they are quite satisfied with their work, translators can never taste the pleasures that come to other writers--to genuine authors, that is to say. Obviously, their source material is not their own, but--what is worse--neither is their style. Like ghostwriters and forgers, translators must deny themselves the gratification of developing a special personal way of writing, a recognizable idiom, a characteristic "voice." Novelists are supposed to sound like novelists, each in their own manner, poets like poets, and essayists like essayists; but a translator should never sound like a translator, or have an original way with words. There is something essentially humbling about being a translator, therefore. Like the classically feminine woman, you are expected to have no character at all. You should be the soul of self-effacement, faithfully repeating the movements of his majesty the text, removing nothing and adding nothing. Translation, conventionally conceived, is the art that conceals the translator.

Along with forgery and ghosting, translation is the only kind of writing that will be condemned for giving signs of being what it is. If diction, word order, or figures of speech betray a work as a translation, then--it will be said--it must be a bad one. The worst thing a translator can do, that is, (apart from flatly misunderstanding the original) is write in a kind of pidgin--"translationese" as it has been called, or a "translation language" 1 --where alien phrasings are ploddingly transliterated from the source-text, and awkward angularity replaces an original flowing grace. That is why translations are always easy game for carping critics: without any study at all, they can automatically ridicule them for sounding like a translation. [End Page 223]

But it was not always so. Before the twentieth century, translators were permitted to relax and be themselves. Chapman's Homer, North's Plutarch, Golding's Ovid, Dryden's Virgil, Urquhart's Rabelais, for instance: none of them is prostrated by the two stern ideals of faithfulness and naturalness. They are recompositions, in a style chosen by the translator, and they brim with locutions strange to the English language; yet they have been accepted as classics of its literature. The same applies to the Bible--but with one profound difference: no translator, however confidently creative, could openly presume to amend the Word of God, or make it sound unnatural in its new language. No one would praise the translator of a sacred text for recomposing it at will, or making it sound foreign. The unfortunate modern translator, however, is expected to treat every text as Holy Scripture, with an absolutely faithful rendering, and an absolutely natural style.

But complete faithfulness in translation is an obvious impossibility. As everyone knows, any text can be interpreted in innumerable ways. Even the humblest readers need to make critical judgments, conscious or unconscious, as to what kind of work they are reading, before they can begin to make sense of it. In the same way, translators too must make some general interpretive choices before they can start to translate. There is no translation without interpretation, that is to say; and since the possibilities of interpretation are never exhausted, it follows that no translation can ever be final. Even if a new translation is an improvement on its predecessors, it need not make them redundant, any more than a brilliant musical performance consigns all earlier ones to oblivion. They can all take their place alongside each other, as revelations of different possibilities in the original work...