In other words
The perfect translation is still an utopia.
by Jekatherina Lebedewa
The french philosopher Voltaire put it straight: translations, he thought, were like women: either faithful or beautiful. It’s translation studies that are devoted to the more complex problem of translating, an interdisciplinary subject which includes linguistics, literary and comparative studies as well as informatics, psychology, and neuroscience. Since it’s not enough to translate word by word, it is regarded as imperative to preserve the “spirit of language” in the translation.
In the allegory of the “Tower of Babel” God separates men by different languages. The proverbial “Babylonian confusion“ refers to the helplessness and the incapacity which is generated by linguistic isolation. Translators and interpreters are bridge builders, who connect – men and cultures — separated banks. But which way must a bridge be constructed hence the exchange works? By which way does the rendered reach the other border, and what is grasped over there? These are questions asked by “translation studies“. As a synonym often acts the expression “translation science“, which is vague but adopted.
Translation science is about a markedly young and interdisciplinary science, which emerged only in the 20th century und remained a mystery, even for some colleagues from the classic language and literature. This applies too for the University of Heidelberg – though Heidelberg alongside the Humboldt University Berlin and the University Leipzig belongs to the three centers of translation and interpreting with international charism.
The initially “translation science“ called subject unfolded only after 1945 as an autonomous scientific discipline. One of the first journals, “Babel“, is published in Amsterdam since 1955. Until the 60’s the translation science in Western Europe stayed focused on contrastive linguistics. About two decades ago eventually the understanding gained acceptance that translation and interpreting science as an interdisciplinary subject must include linguistics, literature and comparative studies. Modern translation science covers informatics, communication, psychology and neuroscience, too.
In contrast to Western European translation science, which primarily mainly concentrated on linguistics, the translation science in Russian culture already in the 1920’s was guided by literature. Western European translation science benefited from Russian theory: in the wake of the Russian „formal school“, the Czech structuralism and the Russian culture semeiotics, the Western European translation science likewise came to the conclusion that the basics for translation are not single words and sentences, but the total, the text.
Each text needs interpretation
The Russian semeiotic Roman Jacobson contributed the aspect of interpretation into the translation theory. Since each text depends on interpretation and the intellectual personal contribution ,necessarily produced by each translator, is the interpretation – together it is the most ignored, opaque, disregarded and even forbidden translating performance. In the tradition of Roman Jacobson and the Russian formalists the translator must determine what is the „dominant“ of a text, the elements relevant for the text, for example a certain technique of rhyme, or the function of the text, which must absolutely be preserved in the translation. With this „translator’s determination“ and interpretation as opposed to the mechanical faith the impact on the reader got into the focus of translation theory. The reader of the translation has a different background as the reader of the original text. In case of a mechanical copy, a translation word by word, a reader with a different cultural context might misunderstand a lot and grasp much skewed.
Important contributions were provided in the 80’s by Professor Hans J. Vermeer of the Heidelberg Institute for Translation and Interpreting. With his performance-based approach, the „Skopos theory“, he put the focus on the purpose (greek skopos/στόχος ) of translational acting und the translator as expert, who is accountable for the ideal achievement of this purpose. This translator must be an authority on the original and the target culture, and therefore on the intercultural communication. Linguistic barriers are also comprehension, knowledge and culture barriers, which can be broken down by the translation of the cultural context. If you consider the text a verbalized component of a social culture, then translating implies to translate the text of an original culture into a different target culture, hence to reformulate it. The historico-cultural embedding of cultural features in intercultural context is required for bypassing communicative gaps by translation. The comprehension and transfer of a text implies, apart from understanding words and structure, as well to capture the analogue as a component of a social culture. „The words are correctly translated, but it kills the words,“ Hans Vermeer drafted in the early days of the 80’s. To explore and to impart standards and mores of the original and the target culture together with its textual structures and not the decorative extras of the translation are central components of translation-scientific research and education.
Western Europe owes its civilization to translation
The history of translation in the different eras of mankind and linguistic areas of the Egyptian Empire down to the present day hasn’t been adequately researched. In the Egyptian Ancient Empire one believed in the supernatural powers of the interpreter, who could not only mediate between men but also between men and gods. The most popular witness of ancient interpreting dates from 196 B.C. and was found in Rosette in 1799, a small village in the western Nile Delta. The „Stone of Rosette“, which nowadays can be viewed in the „British Museum“ in London is unscripted in two languages (Old Egyptian and Greek) and in three forms (hieroglyphics, Demotic, Greek). The Toledo school of interpretation was regarded the first to teach theoretical lectures, too. After the overthrow of the moorish rule in Toledo (1085) the extraordinary book collection became accessible for Christian scholars, and translations from Arabic into Latin began to rise. Thus Europe could benefit from Arabian science and – via these – from the performances of antiquity, reflected in the founding of the first European Universities.
The principles of translating theory have been transforming since antiquity. Ancient translators and interpreters tried to outrank the original aesthetically and rhetorically; nowadays it is important to approach the function and the effect of the original. Elementary for the conceptions proved to be Martin Luther (Bible translation). Friedrich Schleiermacher (translation of philosophical articles) and Wilhelm von Humboldt (translation of texts on art).
Martin Luther described his translation principle in „An Open Letter On Translating“ of 1530 with the famous phrases: „We must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, by the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them.“ Luthers „translating into german“ principles of interpreting focused on the target language and the target culture, demanding „to be guided by their language“. This translating strategy is called the „domestication“ or „naturalization“ as well.
The first thoughts on an autonomous „translation science“ derive from Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, Professor on Theology at Berlin University. In his essay „Ancient Literature“ published 1814 he demanded: „Everywhere theory is the order of the day, but yet there appeared no theory of translations based on defined fundamental phrases, same consequences and completely conducted (…): Only fragments were established and yet, as certain as there is an ancient science, as certain there must be a translation science, too.“ In his paper „On the various methods of the interpreter“ !1813), the most important article on translation in the german speaking area of the 19th century, Schleiermacher addressed problems that a theory of translation had to deal with, for example different types of texts with various requirements to the translator. Schleiermacher distinguished for the first time between the act of translation, referring to business, and the translation of texts from science and art. For him texts in which language was just a medium for transferring facts offer problems which differ from texts in which the form of language and the included content unite to cross the border to the next higher order (creative texts). Unlike factual texts, the „textual substantiality“ of prose and philosophic articles was not quantifiable and perhaps rectifiable by objects and facts. Thus Schleiermacher considered texts of science and arts to defy translation.
This perception which Wilhelm von Humboldt shared with him is a problem for translation science to date. According Schleiermacher “the spirit of the original language“ must be communicated to the reader even in the translation. The translation must focus, pursuant Schleiermacher, as far as possible on the language of the original, hence the original language and the source culture. This method of “disassociation“ characterizes “an attitude of language, which is not ordinary, but which makes you feel that it did not grow naturally, in fact it was bended into a disassociated similarity.“ The charge of “clumsiness“ had to be accepted, for the “esprit of language“ could not survive being transferred from the source to the target culture.
In the preface of his translation of „Agamemnon“ of Aeschylus, published 1816, Wilhelm vom Humboldt was engaged in translation disassociation, too. He distinguished between „foreignness“ and „the foreign“: „Unless not the foreignness but the foreign is felt, the translation has reached its highest purpose, but where the foreigners appears itself and perhaps even the foreign is obfuscated, there the translator reveals that he doesn’t match the original.“ Humboldt’s concern is, as well as Schleiermacher’s, the extension of language and culture.
Translators live on the edge
Today literal translators are divided into adherents of disassociation as well as adherents of naturalization. It’s crucial which purpose (skopos) the translator favors, whether he (or her) introduces foreign elements into the target culture, or/and wants to make the thoughts of the source text comprehensible for the target group (naturalization). Since the standards of language conditions of reception are subject to permanent modifications, the linguistic challenge varies, too. Each translated text already bears the request for new translation.
Even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe compared the fundamental translating principles: “There are two dictums for translation: one demands that the author of a foreign nation is brought across to us to such an extend that we can consider him one of us; the other conversely demands us to get over to the stranger and enter his conditions, his way to speak, his idiosyncrasies.” Both translation principles have something in common. Whether we get the author across to us or we bring us to him — in each case we have to trans-fer to the other shore.
That’s risky. For not each translator reaches the other shore. The profession of the translator is a dangerous profession, the problems of which were expressed by Martin Heidegger as follows: “Here the trans-ferring becomes a transfer to the other shore, which is barely known and lies beyond a large river. This quickly turns into an odyssey and usually it results in shipwreck.” Thus the translation maintains the function of a ferry or it builds a bridge between different languages, different cultures, countries, occasionally even continents. For slavonic speeches it is primarily the bridge between Eastern and Western Europe.
In context with the millennia old literary translation practice reflections emerged, that can apply as a pre-scientific preoccupation with translation theory. Thus the poet Christoph Friedrich Haug (1761 – 1829) made sense for himself and ourselves of the translation: “Will the germanization come of it? — I have no doubt; For each homicide is revealed.” Arthur Schopenhauer considered the faithful translation in most cases to be dead and artificially. A sophisticated notation for the conflict originates from Voltaire: He compared translation with women, who were either beautiful, but not faithful, or were faithful but neither beautiful. Due to philological and other experience we might guess that wisecracks hit the core of a problem, but they don’t represent the variety of life.
Christian Morgenstern combines a refreshing mixture of skepticism and confidence in his ironical proposition: “In the excessive antipathy to bad translations and to translations in general, there is a certain mollycoddle. Great Masters shine brightly forth even from clumsy reproductions incorruptibly.” As well promising appears Goethe’s comment: “Whatever one might say about the inadequacy of translation, it is still one of the most significant and grave businesses of the general world.”
Goethe, who was a passionate translator himself, didn’t consider the basic question of how to translate like Voltaire a question between faith- and beautiful, but between word-for-word and corresponding. Using the example of St. John’s prologue, Goethe analyzes the problem in “Faust” as “translation science in rhymes”:
I feel impelled, its meaning to determine, —
With honest purpose, once for all,
The hallowed original
To change to my beloved German.
„Tis written: “In the Beginning was the Word.” (greek: logos)
Here am I balked: who, now can help afford?
The Word?— Impossible so high to rate it;
And otherwise must I translate it.
If by the spirit I am truly taught.
Then thus: “In the Beginning was the Thought”
The first line let me weigh completely,
Lest my impatient pen proceed too fleetly.
Is it the Thought which works, creates, indeed?
“In the Beginning was the Power,” I read.
Yet, as I write, a warning is suggested
That I the sense may not have fairly tested.
The Spirit aids me: now I see the Light!
In the Beginning was the Act,” I write.
(Gutenberg Project Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I, pp. 120/121)
With this Faust-citation we’re at the heart of the translation topic. It demonstrates the eventuality of understanding one and the same word in multiple ways, to percept, to interpret — and that it is essential, when germanizing foreign texts, to look for equivalences which correspond less to the unreliable shell, “the chameleon-like word”, but to its innermost thoughts, aspire to its sense which meets the word, and for the spirit which coined the word. A word can have various meanings. Which shall the interpreter be devoted to? Already Goethe pointed it out: Each translation is also interpretation.
By behalf of the tsar
Interpretation bears risks – for the text and for the translator. The translator Etienne Monet, say, was burnt at the stake in 1546 because of a translation. He had Sokrates say that after death there was nothing else. The university of Paris charged Dolet with having questioned the immortality of the soul, namely by words, which were not to be recognized in the original. After all Dolet had not been translating word by word, but had translated the meaning. His principle said: „Those who attempt to translate line by line and word by word are idiots.“
Dolets translating principles proved to be immortal. Not merely in Western Europe but also in Russia, where 150 years after his death they even were elevated to „the tsar’s order on translation theory“: 1709 Peter I. opposed literal translation, because it concealed the meaning. The main meaning of a transfer was to familiarize the Russian reader as good with the original that the usual procedure can be followed. In his order to the translator Zotoy it reads: “Mister Zotoy! We have read the book on the fortification complex which you have translated, and we are of the opinion that you have transferred the relevant explanations in a good and gently way, but how the complex shall be erected, […] that remains in the dark and opaque. […] in the translation should not survive word-by-word, but the meaning adequately captured and represented in our language as clear as possible.” Translation Science today calls this a “result-“ or “function-oriented translation.”
Latest research projects of our department are working on basic issues including literary and cultural translation. For cultural translation issues often lead to disputes between source and target culture, we combine research on literary translation with imagology, the examination of self and external perception of cultures, which determine our interaction with foreign texts and their translations. The research of translation processes, cultural phenomenons, identity and cliché formation, self and external perception of cultures, which reflect historical and current experiences of intercultural encounters between reliance on tradition and modernization, supports the dialogue between cultures. How does the national identity building as an affinity for foreign cultural and civilization approach and/or their defense work? Are culturally dominant seeming terms like “Europeanization”, “westernization” or “Verwest-lichung” (westernization in german, translator’s note) even good for depicting the complexity of cultural translation processes? These examinations are supposed to make aware of the correlations between interpretation and linguistic and cultural translation. Each translation assumes the interpretation of texts and cultures: translation is culture, culture is translation. Due to translation a new cultural capability arises, which combines the source and the target culture. In reference to other cultures basic characteristic of each culture can be found, which therefore can be delineated after the model for translation.
Expand Cultural Spaces
The Europeanization trials of Peter I. could be understood as a striking example for cultural translation. He enforced a draconic modernization agenda on Russia, which imported Western European items to make up the technical, civilizational tardiness of Russia. Peter ordered cultural translations. Even the Russian capital was “transferred” to the Finnish bay. A further example of this repressive culture. translation is the Western Europe clothing and hairstyle standard coerced by Peter I.: The wearing of a beard symbolized the orthodox ecclesial culture of Peter’s era. That’s why he forbid by law the wearing of beards as a symbol for the backwardness of Russia. If Russian aristocrats weren’t poised to shave their beards, Peter I. already himself resorted to scissors, for enforcing the lagging “Europeanization refusers” to accept the beardless innovation. The beard ban under Peter I. turned into a Russian symbol for enforced cultural transfer. For most Western Europeans the world famous beard of Leo Tolstoi appears only as a peculiar exoticism, at the best as an attribute of male beauty. Though experts of Russian cultural history consider the wild beard growth a symbol of resistance against a repressive cultural translation from the West to the East.
On the topic of cultural translation Wilhelm von Humboldt put an essential key consideration on paper: “The difference of languages is not one of signs, but a difference of world views themselves (…) Thus the learning of a foreign language ought to be a production of a new stance in the previous perception of the world …”.
It is possible, despite imminent shipwreck, that translations reunite separated shores. Translations are capable to overcome abysses, walls and borders, whether they are of political, geographical, historical, economical or ideological character. Translation is a dangerous but influential activity. It applies perhaps for the beautiful and simultaneous translation as for all ideals and utopias: In pure form they are rarely to be found. Translation theory frames this rather prosaically: “In the same vein, the comprehension of a text never can be ultimate, but always only comparative and mutable, the untranslatability of a text is always comparative.”
Each translation problem even close to being resolved reduces the level of untranslatability and is a step toward the utopia of an unflawed mediation of the original, towards a theoretical and practically impossible “perfect translation”. Modern translation sciences enhances the translator and the interpreter, too, as autonomous, self-confident and -assured, who, redeemed from the fetish of faith, serve the original, bit not too servile. This autonomous perspective is reflected in a book by the author and translator Umberto Eco, who came off with a seldom bridge building between theory and experience of translating. The brilliant german translation is entitled “Experiences in translation” (translated by Alastair McEwen, translator’s note).
Prof. Dr. Jekatherina Lebedewa studied slavonic, romance, anglistic, interpreter-/translation and literary studies at Humboldt University, Berlin. She did her doctorate in the significance of 19th and 20th century guitar lyrics, prose and drama for publishers and theater and habilitated at the Viadrina University, Frankfurt (Oder) on “Russian Slavophilism of the 19th century as a phenomenon of culture”. Since 2014 she holds the professorship for translation science for Russian at the department for translation and interpreting of the University Heidelberg.
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