Rosmarie Waldrop on translation: “Joy of the Demiurge”

The space between two languages is a space like no other. (Anne Carson)

Writing anything at all is a work of translation exactly comparable to that of transmuting a text from one language into another. (Paul Valéry)


This essay originally appeared in Translation: Linguistic, Literary, and Philosophical Perspectives, edited by William Frawley, published in 1984 by the University of Delaware Press (pp. 41-49), and in Dissonance (if you are interested), published in 2005 by the University of Alabama Press.

When Goethe has Faust sit down to translate St. John’s gospel, Faust is restless and discontented. Concentrating on how to render logos clears up some of his own attitudes and problems. In fact, his solutions anticipate the course of his life and the play. “Translation is evidently something of importance, not only to the reader but also the translator himself,” Leonard Forster throws out.1

I have often asked myself why I go on translating instead of concentrating exclusively on writing my own poetry. The woes of the translator are all too well known: little thanks, poor pay, and plenty of abuse. To this traditional triad we may add that American publishers at present seem even less eager for translations than for original poetry — if this is possible. I am not speaking of commissioned translations, of course, but of the situation where a translator chooses to translate a work of literature.

Occasionally, translating has helped me when my own work was stalled, much as it helped Faust. But this alone would hardly have sustained me through five volumes of Edmond Jabès’s Livre des Questions nor get me through the last two, which remain to be done. Is my choice to continue translation a matter of wanting to assume the The noble role of the mediator? Maybe. But if I cared most about the readers I would serve them better by teaching them the language. Is it a matter of personal circumstances? An immigrant to the United States, I came to a point where I could not go on writing poems in German while “living” in English. Translating (from English to German, at that time) was the natural substitute. What finally made me bold enough to try writing in English is difficult to trace (except for some foolhardy encouragement), but writing in my adopted language came before translating into it, so that even my particular state as a person between languages cannot altogether account for my persistence in this seemingly unrewarding, nearly impossible activity.

The reason must lie deeper, must lie in my relation to the original work. Renato Poggioli holds that “like the original poet, the translator is a Narcissus who in this case chooses to contemplate his own likeness not in the spring of nature but in the pool of art.”2 This simile amuses me because it makes me, who claims to be both poet and translator, a veritable nymphomaniac of narcissism contemplating my own likeness in anything at all! But Poggioli is right. Only, he does not go far enough in his indictment. As I read the original work I admire it. I am overwhelmed. I would like to have written it. Clearly, I am envious—envious enough to make it mine at all cost — at the cost of destroying it. Worse, I take pleasure in destroying the work exactly because it means making it mine. And I assuage what guilt I might feel by promising that I will make reparation, that I will labor to restore the destroyed beauty in my language — also, of course, by the knowledge that I do not actually touch the original within its own language.

The destruction is serious. Translating is not pouring wine from one bottle into another. Substance and form cannot be separated easily. (I hope we do not have to go again over the false dichotomy of “les belles infidèles,” which assumes that one could be “faithful” to a poem by rendering ugly or dull what it “says.”) Translating is more like wrenching a soul from its body and luring it into a different one. It means killing. “We grow old through the word. We die of translation,” says Jabès in Retour au Livre.3 His words are not an author’s facetious despair at bad translation, but part of a more serious meditation on time and the word, on the book of flesh. Death, it is true, is more certain than resurrection or transmigration. There is no body ready to receive the bleeding soul. I have to make it, and with less freedom than in the case of the most formal poem on a given subject. I have to shape it with regard to this soul created by somebody else, by a different, though not alien, aesthetic personality.

Let me stay with the analogy to metempsychosis for a moment. It does not hold very far. In translation, the progress of the “soul” is not toward greater perfection. Alas, the new body will never fit altogether. Nor is the goal Nirvana, although Walter Benjamin, arch-Hegelian in spite of himself, envisages the afterlife of the original work as a progress through translation into “a higher and purer linguistic air, as it were,”4 a step farther toward “pure language” stripped of all the characteristics of particular languages. This concept of a “pure language,” of a central relationship between languages through “what they want to express,” is indeed confirmed by the fact that translation is possible at all. But the progress of the work through translation is not toward this abstraction, but, on the contrary, toward another embodiment in a concrete, particular language. Or we might say that the work moves through “pure language” understood as translatability into another concrete embodiment. Here “pure language” would function as a kind of black box like Eugene A. Nida’s “transfer mechanism,” which I will talk about later.

However, “soul” is an uncomfortable word, both too vague and too laden with religious associations. Perhaps we can turn the idea of the afterlife of a work of literature toward biology and consider translation as the offspring of the original, less handsome than the parent, but true kin. (This analogy, which also does not bear to be pressed very hard, has curious implications for the time gap that often exists between the original publication and the translation and that compounds the cultural differences.) The first task of the translator would be to find the “genetic code” of the work, to get from the surface to the seed which, in our terms, would mean getting close to the nucleus of creative energy that is at the beginning of a poem.

Concretely, this means that translating is more than a triple matching of words, grammatical structures, and cultural contexts — which in itself would already be a formidably complex process. Eugene A. Nida speculates that it is likely that “the message of language A is decoded into a concept, and that this concept then provides the basis for the generation of an utterance in language B.”5 If we widen “concept” into “conception” this statement is, I think, accurate for literary translation and applies both to detail and, most importantly, to the structure of the work as a whole. In other words, the unit of translation is the whole work rather than the single sentence or line — let alone the single word, as Benjamin suggests.

This last idea is so absurd that we need to consider its background. Benjamin makes a stand against translations that try to sound as if they were works written in the host language, in which the transfer is unnoticeable. He invokes Goethe as an ally and Hölderlin as a counterexample. Instead, Benjamin wants the translator to “expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language.”6 I share this desire. I too like “some strangeness in the proportion,” a trace of the foreign in the translation. But if it gets too strange it will not affect its medium, but will simply be rejected as quirky. This was the case for Hölderlin’s translations from the Greek, which are Benjamin’s model along with interlinear Bible translations. I hardly need to remind anybody that no interlinear version ever became a translation event as the King James version did, which indeed expanded the scope of English prose. Following the foreign syntax word for word seems to me to show rather dubious respect for the original.

In our own days, Celia and Louis Zukofsky’s Catullus7 provides an example of this attempt, compounded by the desire to keep also the sound structure, nearly phoneme by phoneme. Their translation, says the preface, “follows the sound, rhythm, and syntax of his Latin — tries, as is said, to breathe the ‘literal’ meaning with him.” This most ambitious and impossible undertaking to transfer everything intact has brilliant successes like “Miss her, Catullus” for the famous “Miser Catulle.” Here, both the single sound and the whole poem enter into the translation because “missing her” is indeed at the root of Catullus’s misery. But when the line goes on with “don’t be so inept to rail” for “desinas ineptire” I am much less convinced. Even just the preponderance of Latinate words in their translation makes for a heaviness that to my ear is much worse than giving up the sound structure (whose effect in English is at any rate very different from what it is in Latin). But if it is a failure it is a grandiose one and immensely fascinating. When I find, for instance:
            minister wet to lee, pour the Falernian
for:        minister vetuli puer Falerni (27)
I am immediately tempted to try this kind of surface transformation as a method to mine foreign texts for strange combinations of words. But I do not think English usage will be much affected, nor will translation practice — although Anne-Marie Albiach has used the method to translate Zukofsky’s “A 9” into French (in Siècle à mains 12, 1970).

Faust’s effort to translate the first line of St. John goes through four versions. “In the beginning was the word” and “in the beginning there was sense (Sinn)” are both speedily rejected in favor of “in the beginning there was strength (Kraft),” which is finally narrowed to “act (Tat).” If I may for a moment forget the function this sequence has in the play and pretend that it refers to translation, I find here a perfect support for my view. Neither the single word nor the sense, the meaning, can be the center of translation. Neither element can be at the beginning of a text. It must be the Kraft, the energy or, more specifically, the creative act that brought the particular words and meanings together and that will have to be duplicated by the translator.

This also means that beyond a few rules of thumb there is as little prescription for translation as for original writing. Nida sets up a neat diagram of how a message in language A is decoded by the receptor and re-encoded into a message in language B. But in the center of the diagram is the process he labels “transfer mechanism.” Regarding this process he has to admit that “if we understood more precisely what happens in this transfer mechanism we should be better able to pinpoint….”8 It is the crux of the problem that we do not understand the central process of translating any better than we understand the creative process in general.

The parallels between the two processes of writing and translating are often overlooked because on the surface they seem to work in opposite directions. Translation starts out from a given articulated structure and works down to what I have called the genetic code of the work or its creative core, whereas original writing would seem to begin with a vague energy and work wholly toward the articulation of surface and structure. To state it this way, however, disregards the destructive aspect of all creation. There are always structures that are undone in the process of writing. It is perhaps most obvious on the level of detail, when time-hallowed combinations of words are broken apart to form “fresh” ones or when the traditional combination of elements in a genre is disarranged. On the most general level, the structure of experience is transformed. Jabès has the narrator of The Book of Questions ask his protagonist: “Have I betrayed you, Yukel?” The answer has to be: “I have certainly betrayed you,” for writing cannot but betray experience:

It is I who force you to walk. I sow your steps.
And I think, I speak for you. I choose and cadence.
For I am writing
and you are the wound.
Have I betrayed you, Yukel?
I have certainly betrayed you.9

I could marshal nearly all the symbolists here, who were very explicit about the destruction inherent in creation, from Blake’s “printing in the infernal method, by corrosives…melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid,” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to Mallarmé’s letters to Lefébure, which proclaim that “destruction was my Beatrice.” Translation makes the destructive aspect more obvious because the structure of the original work is perceptible whereas, for instance, the experience or experiences transformed into a poem cannot be traced by any means. This might make us hope that analysis of translation would provide significant insight into the creative process in general because some of the elements are more measurable, but I fear that the difference in the process of choice (which is so limited in translation and so infinite in the case of original work) takes this hope away. Not to mention the creative core of both processes, whose resistance to analysis throws us back to images and analogies.

The fact that the original work is evident in a way that experience underlying a poem is not gives translation a sense of reference. This brings me back to Benjamin. Translation at its best, says Benjamin, “does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.”10 I agree with this except for the part played by “pure language.” The work, rather than moving toward this abstraction, “pure language,” seems to me to undergo something more like erosion. It is weathered by the passage into another language as a statue might be by the passage of time. The extremities—puns and other wordplay, very specific cultural connotations—are particularly vulnerable, but everything is worn down to some extent. Yet there are compensations. Have we not all admired some of those worn faces where the original traits were only a suggestion, but as such, in their indistinctness, infinitely fascinating? Thus—and here I agree with Benjamin—a translation that can suggest the lost beauty of the original is preferable to a smooth replica that pretends to be the original itself. This means, however, that while this kind of translation does not block the light of the original, it is not completely transparent either. The ravages of time and translation will be visible. Even the most faithful of translations will bear the mark of the translator, of her time, of her cultural background. “One cannot translate in a vacuum,” says Richmond Lattimore.11

Michel Leiris12 tells the story of a young dervish who stands out by his piety and mystical gift. The old monk who is his spiritual director tells him: “you are very advanced in the mystical life, but not yet at the last stage. There is another border. You are ready for it: if you want you can see the face of God.” The young monk is violently disturbed and for a long time refuses the suggestions of the old monk. He is not worthy, he says; the idea of finding himself face to face with God fills him with horror. Eventually, though, he complies and sets out for the old ruined mosque. When he is not back the next day, the old monk goes to look for him and finally finds him looking ravaged, terribly upset. Did he go to the mosque and through the prescribed prayers and rituals? He did. Did he see the face of God? He did. What did the face of God look like? At this question the young dervish remains silent and starts to tremble. Pressed, he finally answers, shaking with terror: it was his own face.

This sacrilegious joy of substituting one’s own face for God’s—without for all that making it any less God’s—is the real reward of the translator, though she too may (innocently or hypocritically) seem to be frightened by it.

1. Leonard Forster, “Translation: an Introduction,” in Aspects of Translation, ed. A. H. Smith (London: Secker & Warburg, 1958), p. 1. back
2. Renato Poggioli, “The Added Artificer,” in On Translation, ed. R. A. Brower (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 139. back
3. Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions: Vol. I, p. 362. back
4. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations, ed. H. Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (1968; New York: Schocken Books, 1986). back
5. Eugene A. Nida, Toward a Science of Translating (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1964), p. 146. back
6. Benjamin, p. 81. back
7. Celia Zukofsky and Louis Zukofsky, Catullus (London and New York: Cape Goliard & Grossman, 1969). back
8. Nida, 146. back
9. Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions: Vol. I, p. 33. back
10. Benjamin, p. 79. back
11. Richmond Lattimore, “Practical Notes on Translating Greek Poetry,” in On Translation, ed. R. A. Brower (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 54. back
12. Michel Leiris, “Le Caput mortuum ou la femme de l’alchimiste,” Les Cahiers du double: Constat, no. 1 (Fall 1977), pp. 63 ff. back