- TranslationAn Exercise in Midrashic Reading, or Translating the Intentio
hybridity, identity, language politics, Yiddish, semiotics
I. Introduction: The Woes of a Translation
Set in motion by seminal theoretical work by Walter Benjamin, Roman Jakobson, and Jacques Derrida, translation studies has since expanded into literary and cultural studies. The realization that the focus of translation studies needs to expand is pointedly recapped by Jeremy Munday, who demands that more attention be paid to the “cultural and sociopolitical contexts in which translations are produced” (Munday 2012, 158). With a change in approach, the nature of the discussion has also changed, arguing that the unit of study needs to be bigger than the sign: it needs to incorporate the cultural identity of the speaker and the language while it separates itself from a structuralist approach.
However, along with an expended focus, an irresolution that is intrinsic to the nature of translation has also surfaced. The multilayered understanding [End Page 161] of translation was first addressed in Jakobson’s essay “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” with Jakobson differentiating between intralingual translations, interlingual translations, and intersemiotic translations (Jakobson 1959, 134). While the first category recognizes translations within one language (looking at homophones and homonyms, e.g.), the second category acknowledges translations from one language to another (coinciding with the common traditional understanding of a translation), whereas the third category endorses the necessity of including translations across codes (a metalinguistic pursuit). Jakobson’s third category, I believe, foreshadows the most vulnerable component of linguistic studies, namely the limitations and challenges that referential indexicality imposes on the language system. While the denotational meaning of a word is sentence dependent, referential meaning is determined by its point of reference. The subject of the sentence “Tom walked down the street” can be assessed within the sentence, arriving at the understanding that (1) Tom must be able to walk down the street, and (2) Tom is male. This assessment follows basic semantic rules: the rule of lexical semantics and the rule of compositional semantics, which Apter refers to as “the logic of grammar” (Apter 2006, 11). While lexical semantics addresses the meaning of words, compositional semantics analyzes how the meanings of individual units combine to form the meaning of larger units by establishing the relationship between the word and its referent. In the response to the demand for a wider scope of studies in translation studies, one could also understand that the word “Tom” establishes meaning metalinguistically, building a reference point to a being (human or nonhuman [dog]) in a particular cultural setting. This broader pursuit makes the text more context dependent, something Apter acknowledges as “the limitations of reference.” Both levels, sentence intrinsic as well as sentence extrinsic, demand to be integrated into the translation of a text.
Instigated by this demand, an inherent irresolution plays out on separate levels—it does not only affect the “what” that is translated but also the “how” it is translated. It introduces a shift from a more static to a dynamic approach of translation, challenging even the notion that a text can ever be translated successfully. This has set up the concept of the “untranslatable,” proposed first by Apter (2006, 3), which has moved the discussion into the realm of [End Page 162] adaptation; translation studies has to a certain extent distanced itself from literal translation supporting the notion of adaption. An adaptation accepts that a translation always strives for a likeness to the original in sharing the same intention, but it allows for a different manifestation (nonliteral). Walter Benjamin uses the example of the word “bread”; the intention to build a reference point to the actual object and label it is the same in French as in German. However, what Brot means to the German speaker differs from what pain means to the French speaker (Benjamin 1968, 74). This capriciousness inherent in translation is not only caused by the arbitrary nature of languages but is also increased by the distinct cultural semiotic system imposed on language; the language of the original as well as the cultural context from which the original text emerges have undergone changes with the result that the...