In researching the translation theory essay I'm (supposedly) writing, I've discovered the work of Wolfgang Iser. His essay "The reading process: a phenomenological approach" (anthologized in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, edited by David Lodge and Nigel Wood) is giving me some insights into the nature of translation:
The fact that completely different readers can be differently affected by the 'reality' of a particular text is ample evidence of the degree to which literary texts transform reading into a creative process that is far above mere perception of what is written. The literary text activates our own faculties, enabling us to recreate the world it presents. The product of this creative activity is what we might call the virtual dimension of the text, which endows it with its reality. This virtual dimension is not the text itself, nor is it the imagination of the reader: it is the coming together of text and imagination.This may sound a bit obvious, but the distinctions he makes have very interesting implications. As David Albertson says in this profile,
For Iser, the reader does not mine out an objective meaning hidden within the text. Rather, literature generates effects of meaning for the reader in a virtual space created between reader and text. Although reader and text assume similar conventions from reality, texts leave great portions unexplained to the reader, whether as gaps in the narrative or as structural limits of the text’s representation of the world. This basic indeterminacy "implies" the reader and begs her participation in synthesizing, and indeed living, events of meaning throughout the process of reading.If (as Charlotte Mandell says) translation is "the truest form of reading," one can replace "reader" with "translator" in this passage of Iser's:
Such a theory of aesthetic response denies the simple dichotomy of fiction and reality. According to Iser, fiction proposes alternate worlds created within the virtual reality of the text’s meaning. In other words, in literature the actual and the possible can exist simultaneously. Literature thus takes on a greater human function of imagining beyond the given constraints of experience.
For this reason, one text is potentially capable of several different realizations, and no reading can ever exhaust the full potential, for each individual reader will fill in the gaps in his own way, thereby excluding the various other possibilities; as he reads, he will make his own decision as to how the gap is to be filled. In this very act the dynamics of reading are revealed. By making his decision he implicitly acknowledges the inexhustibility of the text; at the same time it is this very inexhaustibility that forces him to make his decision.This can help explain what Ilan Stavans was talking about in the article on the multitude of translations of Don Quixote:
All this is to say that, while it might seem preposterous to suggest that the fanciful adventures of Don Quixote are far richer in English than in Spanish, the proof is in the pudding. By rich, I mean abundant and comprehensive. There are more Quixote possibilities in English.(via The Literary Saloon)
I think this goes along with what Jacques Delille meant (back in the 18th century) when he wrote, "I have always thought of translation as a way to enrich a language. If you write an original work in a particular language you are likely to exhaust that language's own resources, if I may say so. If you translate, you import the riches contained in foreign languages into your own, by means of a felicitous commerce."
But multiple translations do not only "enrich" a target language. As Lawrence Venuti writes in The Scandals of Translation,
Foreign texts that are stylistically innovative invite the English-language translator to create sociolects striated with various dialects, registers and styles, inventing a collective assemblage that questions the seeming unity of standard English.So (although it may sound paradoxical) the act of translating a work into English can also help to undermine the hegemony of English.
This means that Stavans could've (should've?) taken it one step further. As Iser writes,
With all literary texts, then, we may say that the reading process is selective, and the potential text is infinitely richer than any of its individual realizations. This is borne out by the fact that a second reading of a piece of literature often produces a different impression from the first. The reasons for this may lie in the reader's own change of circumstances; still, the text must be such as to allow this variation.In this light, one can begin to see that eighteen translations of Don Quixote consitute eighteen different readings--and many more are possible.
So in reality, it isn't simply that "the fanciful adventures of Don Quixote are far richer in English than in Spanish"--but that the various translations help to reflect the infinite richness of Don Quixote itself.