The Misery and the Splendour of Translation V: The Splendour

In this, the fifth and final part of his essay on translation, Ortega y Gasset defines translation as a means of accessing other perspectives on the human experience. In this way, translation is viewed as an essential element of a grand humanist project to develop our understanding of what it truly means to be human, a project that can only be achieved by learning about human lives fundamentally different from our own. With this in mind, the Spanish philosopher advocates a style of translating that brings out the peculiarities of the source culture in the target text: an approach that in contemporary translation theory is most commonly identified with Lawrence Venuti’s concept of “foreignizing”.

“It is getting late,” I said to the great linguist, “and this meeting must come to an end. But I would not like to miss the chance to hear what you think of the task of translation.”

“I think as you do,” he replied. “I think that it is very difficult, that it is improbable, but, for that very reason, it is very important. Moreover, I believe that for the first time we are coming to be able to attempt it on a large scale and in a thorough manner. It is worth noting in any event that the heart of the matter was set forth more than a century ago by the eloquent theologian Schleiermacher in his essay “On the Different Methods of Translating”. According to Schleiermacher, translation is a movement that may be attempted in either of two opposite directions: either bringing the author to the language of the reader, or taking the reader to the language of the author. In the first case, we translate in a way that is not truly translation; strictly speaking, we do an imitation or a paraphrasing of the original text. It is only when we uproot readers from their own linguistic habits and compel them to experience those of the author that there is true translation. Up until now nothing more has been done than pseudo-translations.

“On this basis, I would venture to formulate a few principles that could define the new enterprise of translation which, now more than ever, and for reasons I will explain later if there is time, should be adopted.

“And we ought to begin by correcting at its very foundation the idea of what a translation can and should be. Is it to be understood as a magic manipulation by virtue of which a work written in one language suddenly appears in another? Then we are lost. Because such transubstantiation is impossible. A translation is not a duplicate of the original text; it is not, and it should seek to be the same work using a different lexicon. I would say that the translation doesn’t even belong to the same literary genre as the text translated. It is well worth stressing this and affirming that translation is a literary genre apart, different from all others, with its own norms and ends. And this is for the simple reason that a translation is not the work itself, but a path towards the work. If it is a poetic work, the translation is really an apparatus, a technical artifice that draws us close to the work without ever attempting to repeat it or replace it.

“To avoid confusion, allow me to refer to the type of translation which should matter to us most, which, in my opinion, we are in greatest need of: the translation of ancient Greek and Latin works. These works have lost the character of models for us. It is perhaps one of the strangest and gravest symptoms of our time that we live without models, that our ability to view anything as a model has atrophied. In the case of the Greeks and Romans, perhaps there is a benefit in our present irreverence, because in dying as standards and guides they are reborn to us as the only example of humanity radically different from our own into which—thanks to the abundance of works that have been preserved—we can delve deeply. Ancient Greece and Rome offer the only complete voyage in time that we are able to make. And this is the most important kind of journey that can be attempted today for the education of the Western mind. The effects of two centuries of education in mathematics, physics and biology have demonstrated that these disciplines are not enough to civilize humankind.

Education in physics and mathematics needs to be integrated with a genuine education in history, which does not involve learning lists of kings and descriptions of battles or statistics on prices and daily wages in this or that century; rather, it requires… a voyage to a foreign land, to that absolutely foreign land that is another very distant time and another very different civilization.

“Alongside the natural sciences we need today a rebirth of the ‘humanities’, but of a different nature from that which they always had before. We need to turn again to the Greek and the Roman, not as models but, on the contrary, as exemplary errors. Because the human being is a historical entity and every historical (and thus not definitive) reality is, for the time being, a mistake. To acquire a historical awareness of ourselves and to learn to see ourselves as a mistake are one and the same thing. And as this—to be always, for the time being and relatively, a mistake—is the truth of humankind, only a historical awareness can lead us to our truth and save us. But it is vain to hope that humans today, merely by looking at ourselves, will uncover the mistake that we are. The only way is to train our eye to see human truth, to see genuine ‘humanism’ by making us see, closely and clearly, the mistake that others were and, above all, the mistake that the best of them were. For this reason, for many years I have been obsessed with this idea that it we need to recover the whole of Greco-Roman Antiquity for reading—and to this end a gargantuan enterprise of new translations is essential. Because now it would not be a matter of rendering in our contemporary languages the works worthy of being models in their genre, but all works, indistinctly. They interest us, they matter to us—I repeat—as mistakes, not as teachers. We do not need to learn from them for what they said, thought, or sang, but simply because they were, because they existed, because they were poor folk like us who flailed about desperately in the perennial shipwreck of living.

“Hence the importance of orienting translations of classical works in this direction. Because as I said before that it is impossible to repeat a work, and that translation is merely an apparatus that leads us to it, it follows that a single text may produce different translations. It is impossible, at least it almost always is, to approach every dimension of the original text all at once. If we want to offer an idea of its aesthetic qualities, we will have to give up almost all the content of the text in order to transcribe its formal graces. This is why it will be necessary to split up the work and make divergent translations of the same work based on the sides of that work that we want to translate with precision. However, in general, their quality as reflections of life in Antiquity is such an outstanding feature of such texts that we can do without their other qualities without serious loss.

“When a translation of Plato, even the most recent, is compared with the original, it amazes and irritates, not because the delights of Plato’s style have evaporated in the process, but because three quarters of the things, the very things that vibrate in the philosopher’s phrases, the things that he stumbles upon in his living thought, that he insinuates or brushes against as he goes, are lost. It is for this, and not, as tends to be believed, for the amputation of its beauty, that his writings interest the contemporary reader so little. How can they be of interest when they have been emptied beforehand, leaving only a vague outline with no substance or movement? And this affirmation, I assure you, is not mere supposition. It is a well-known fact that only one translation of Plato has been truly productive. And that translation is none other than Schleiermacher’s, and it is precisely because, in a purposeful plan, he gave up the idea of a beautiful translation and sought, in a first approach, to do what I have been saying. That famous version has been of great service, even to philologists. Because it is wrong to believe that such works serve only those who know no Greek or Latin.

“I imagine, thus, a type of translation that is ugly, as science always is, that makes no pretences to literary grace, that is not easy to read, but is nevertheless very clear, even if such clarity requires copious footnotes. The reader needs to know beforehand that when reading a translation she will not be reading a book of literary beauty, but will be using an apparatus that is quite aggravating, but will truly transport her into the inner workings of the poor man Plato, who twenty-four centuries ago struggled in his own way to keep above the surface of life.

“The people of ages past saw the ancients as necessary in a pragmatic sense. They needed to learn many things from them that were of use to them in their own time. It is thus understandable that translation should attempt to modernize the ancient text, to assimilate it to the present. But our need is the opposite. We need them precisely insofar as they are dissimilar to us, and translation should underscore their exotic, distant character, making it intelligible as such.

“I cannot understand how any philologist would not consider it an obligation to translate some ancient work in this way. In general, rather than disdaining the occupation of translating, every writer should complement her own work with a translation of the ancient, medieval, or contemporary. We need to revive the prestige of this work and to extol it as an intellectual endeavour of the first order. If we did this, translating would become a discipline sui generis which, cultivated constantly, would carve out a technical approach of its own that would greatly broaden our range of intellectual pursuits.

If I have focused especially on Greek and Latin translations, it is only because the general issue in their case is more obvious. But in one way or another, the terms of the matter are the same for any other era or people. The decisive factor is that, when translating, we must try to go from our language to the other and not the other way round, which is the way it is usually done. Occasionally, especially in the case of contemporary authors, it will be possible for the translation to have, in addition to its virtues as translation, a certain aesthetic value. That will be the honey on top of the hojuelas, as you Spanish say, probably without having any idea what hojuelas are.”

“I’ve been listening to you with great pleasure,” I said, by way of conclusion. “It is clear that a country’s readers do not appreciate a translation rendered in the style of their own language. For that they have more than enough with the production of their own authors. What they appreciate is the opposite: by carrying the possibilities of their language to the very edge of intelligibility, the particular form of expression of the translated author can be made transparent. The German translations of my books are a good example of this. In only a few years more than fifteen editions have been published. This would have been inconceivable without giving four fifths of the credit to the accuracy of the translation. And this is because my translator has pushed the grammatical tolerance of the German language to the limit in order to transcribe precisely what is not German in my form of expression. In this way, the reader finds herself effortlessly making mental gestures that are uniquely Spanish. She thus takes a little rest from herself and enjoys being someone else for a while.

“But this is very hard to do in the French language. I am sorry that my last words at this meeting should be involuntarily aggressive, but the topic of our talk requires them to be said: of all the European languages, the one that least facilitates the task of translating is the French…”

Original article published here: Dialogos