Against Translation (I)

On the provincial reader.

 “L’incompetenza totale offre a chi ne gode il vantaggio di potersi porre di fronte a un gesto d’arte senza pregiudizi o sospetti, come un innocente all’estero, docile solo al flusso primario delle emozioni.”

Gesualdo Bufalino

I have discovered in my catalogue of faith, a hidden conviction that has nourished many of my intellectual proclivities and aspirations for as long as I can remember and even if for a period of time (especially about my doctoral studies), a certain democratic impetus guided my desire to vindicate the then very fashionable elevations of translation and its dignities to the same parnassus in which original works and their authors dwelled in eternity, I could not but continue to hold translation to be no more and no less than a hopelessly inadequate device meant to amend the intellectual deficiencies of the reader and never to be taken as a legitimate expression of the original.

I know with some degree of certainty that the first work I ever visited in its original language–or rather–in a language other than its translation into my native Spanish was the Tanakh. It is not unusual for revealed text to be the strange country where one finds out that one’s language is profane and one’s thoughts were born in exile.

Yet, it is a more modest memory that predates the great departures of Adam, Esau, Noah, Abraham, Jacob or Moses by two or three years, what represents the most decisive encounter with the immemorial silences that language, my language, hid.

I could have been no more than five when sitting on the floor between my parents’ bed and their black and white television set, I watched a man exit an helicopter during the morning news and say to the camera a few words in what I assume now was English. I asked my mother’s maid why the man spoke like he did and she explained–and these words would forever remain with me–that the man had not yet learned Spanish. The echoes of that response still stun me and since that day, in the rumor of the years gone I continue to ask her why would he or anybody need to learn Spanish.

I presume that there was a response to that question but I simply have no memory of what that might have been. The response would have been, in any case, vain as it is the memory of terra firma that sprouts from the dark water tormented by the gale. I have now the sense of having searched for the floor underneath my legs to test its solidity but that is probably untrue.

Even today, half a century or so later, I can still hear the noise of scattering shards of the crystalline substance that the woman, whose name I no longer know, broke making visible the uncanny invisibility of my maternal language with the humble words “not yet learned”. Those were the words–at least this is the way in which memory offers me my intellectual biography–that made my language a language among languages and my words a minute fragment of all the words that could be said. Showing me what the man on the screen had not yet learned, my mother’s maid also showed me all that I could and had not yet learned.

Translation as betrayal

It was in that moment or perhaps in the posterior life of that moment as memory that the sense of translation as betrayal began its slow germination. By the time that in my second or third year of elementary school I was given my first book of Genesis in Hebrew, filling my mouth with the strange consonantal forms of foreign words had already become an opaque pleasure mostly encouraged in the sounds of Fred Bongusto and Mina, Vinicius, Al Jolson and ABBA that populated my domestic life. In comparison, their substitution with the stale sounds of Spanish–I remember the Spanish version of Chiquitita as a particularly egregious assault on my young ear–had already taken the texture and taste of disappointment. Spanish with its compendious ability for conveying meaning could not but quell the deep mystery of sound. Meaning, I learned in those days, was a destroyer of language.

Sometimes some form of memory possibly of the same kind that is conjured to restitute to the tender humidity beyond the nose a scent from long ago or to the softness of the blinded eye the impression caused by a certain type of light in a certain city allows me to taste again, if tenuously, language not yet inundated by meaning. If I pay attention to the memory of the rocking movement of My Bonnie’s chorus which I was taught when I was not yet in elementary school, I can still run my finger over the strange cleavage. I have the sense of having sung the chorus swinging from one line to the next as I held fast onto the crisp consonants and vowels that where the material of which the movement of an euphoric joy was made.

I believe I remember that rocking movement pushing me sideways along with a body next to mine, possibly a friend, who I held by the shoulders as we both shouted into the wind sounds that we had heard and been allowed to say for the first few times of many many to come: brinbac, brinbac… The meaning of that sound and its semantic constitution would come much later as later still would come its orthography and grammatical articulation. But once they did I was made to see something that could not be unseen ocluding the texture of those sounds that I had conjured without meaning.

Sounds without meaning and meanings without sound

Sound is not the expression of a form of sanctity that meaning desecrates anymore than the materiality of sound corrupts the purity of meaning, as both physical and metaphysical mystics like to suppose. Even if one can promptly understand the priority of sound to meaning especially in the order of experience of languages that to us are foreign, one should also have a grasp of the sibylline interstice in which I am meaning something for which the word, momentarily perhaps, cannot be found. What I am referring to here is the rather mundane experience of not finding the word.

No being able to find the word for a meaning we already hold shows, not the priority of meaning to sound, but presumably their divisibility. The strange land of mute meaning, which is germane both to the practice of poetry and of to the practice of aging points, I believe, to the equiprimordial aesthesis of sound and idea as well as to their mutual independence.

And it is indeed with the benefit of hindsight possibly afforded by the imperious need to find words that correspond to what we intend to sound and to what we intend to mean that words loose their transparency and make themselves visible, if we pay attention to their singularity.

A bloom and a flower are not the same thing. Blooms exhale the fragrance of bygone days, they hold delicate declinations of tones that overflow the proper names of colours, they rest sometimes leaning sideways as if forever posing for a delighted eye. Furthermore, the bloom is born in the soft caress that the upper lip offers the lower lip in the exercise of the bilabial stop, it opens up in a faint syllabic expression of delight of the kind that a woman wearing a bergère might offer the unexpected agglomeration of unfamiliar shapes and shades when found in the early morning sun after a night of rain that only promised verdant reflections under a lugubrious overcast. The bloom wilts in the first sound of our biographical alphabet and dies in the slumber of lips finding rest against each other. It dies in a murmur with a softness, with a kindness, that accepts no mourning and leaves behind its traces of a season or an afternoon perhaps among tea cups and crumbs of cake on porcelain plates. In short, the bloom is not a flower.

What cannot be said

We never merely intend to mean; we intend to sound in particular ways and this cannot be achieved with the arid clarity of the word’s acception. The echoes, glares, gestures, scents and textures that the saying of the bloom in the broad landscape is afforded by the hundred eyes of memory make the bloom a bloom. We can possibly account for these vast territory of intermingling impressions with ulterior adjectival forms but even then, this accounting would offer its own refractory silence. Clarification, as it has been said in very boring philosophical attempts at defoliating blooms, cannot clarify.

Let me suggest, and I can only assume that this point must have been made before, that it is precisely the refractory silence that resides in the bosom of saying, which is what all text shelter in their abstruse notation and what defeats clarification, explanation, elaboration, simplification and elucidation. It is also the refractory silence of sound when meaning, of meaning when sounding, of memory when witnessing, of seeing when remembering that makes translation impossible.

In short, I assume that this silence is the silence of aesthesis and it is this sanctum sanctorum that hides in the abstruse notation that demands a skilled executant to hear (even if not always mean) the lydian cadence as different from a Burgundian cadence. The native reader, skilled in the unmediated–or at least unaware–recognition of these variations has at his disposal a vast landscape of silent intermingling impressions that the author adumbrates beyond acception. This is a form of communion of souls, which resists no permutations.

Perhaps here resides the betrayal of translation. it allows the silence of aesthesis to pass for lack and, of course, while silence and lack share an aphasic nature, silence is full while lack is empty. This, in slightly more complicated terms than the ones I could muster back then, was indeed the offence of the translated work, which I could not forgive and this was the sin of the foreign readers I learned not to trust: the pretence that all that ought to be heard could be heard in the acception and nothing beyond.

A masculine sun and a feminine moon

And yet words are incapable of mere acception so every sentence is encompassed by a broad horizon in which the effervescence of mute impressions cloths the sentence with its mists. What does an English reader makes of Pierrot’s moon, when her name carries no scent of her femininity, the one that any French child would instinctively summon from the tenderest of ages. What does the German speaker makes of “Gießt Nachts der Mond in Wogen nieder…” when the wine is poured by a masculine moon, like the loyal companion of lost nights spent on the shores of drunken tables? The silent acquiescence of the English reader to the emanations of a sexless moon just as the tacit recognition of the masculine moon by the German listener conceal the inexactitud of the word moon or Mond to express the tastes, sounds, perfumes and textures de la lune.

“Without translation” said George Steiner “we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.” But perhaps it is worth noting that with translation condemns us to live in provinces bordering on silence disguised by the sounds of our own voice. In translation, the reader shouts into the wind and is pleased when he happily thanks the wind for bringing voices from the distance. Translation does not resolve but, rather, conceals the silence where meaning is birthed and with which it is fed. Translation condemns the reader to the provincial wits that cannot but understand the universe as little more than a set of permutations of native sounds, native ideas and native proclivities. So the sin of translation is, as are all other forms of betrayal, to feign loyalty while the sin of the reader who reads in translation is to feign meekness.

Of course, this sense of betrayal did not prevent me from reading translations. Understanding the importance of acquiring some familiarity with works whose language was (or was to remain) beyond my reach or aspirations, I did what every other reader in my situation would do and put my faith on the honesty of those with presumed competence to tell me what Chekhov had written or what Netsume Sozeki had meant. The fact that more often than not, their names hid in the dark recess between cover and book, a terra incognita where, counting with the willing intention of the reader, intellectual sins and felonies can be confessed, did not help to inspire confidence in their honesty and good offices.

In fact, the more distant the original work was the more difficult it became to trust the good offices of the translator. It was somewhat simple to see Checkov’s fears to be native to the woods of Cordoba, where the short piece was first read to me but it was almost impossible to believe that even after crossing the pages of La Presa, I had actually read Kenzaburo Oe at all. Yes, the landscape was exotic but the familiarity of the words, their order and their rhythm left a lingering taste of claustrophobia. The sentiment was pithily expressed by Joseph Brodsky who, concerning the Russians, observed: “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”