26 October 2008

Infinite richness

I've been trying to work out what I think of Ilan Stavans' claim that "There are more Quixote possibilities in English" and Michael Orthofer's questioning of the way in which the former presents his case (regarding English translations of the classics in general). Happily, the reading that I've been doing this morning has helped me understand things a little better.

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.

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.
If (as Charlotte Mandell says) translation is "the truest form of reading," one can replace "reader" with "translator" in this passage of Iser's:
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.


Eric Dickens said...

My fundamental question here is: why does the same work need to be translated umpteen times into the same language in order for that language to gain in vocabulary?

Would it not be more felicitous if many different works from different countries and epochs were translated? The challenges set to the many translators from the many languages would bring in a lot more interesting new phrases and neologisms, rather than endlessly translating the same novel, e.g. Don Quixote.

Spanish is not the only foreign language, so if you are out to "undermine the hegemony of English", this can be more successfully done by bringing on board ways of saying things from many languages.

What also rather amuses me is that anyone would want to undermine the hegemony of English. That hegemony doesn't exist at all in countries where English is not spoken by a majority of native-speakers. English is an excellent international "Esperanto" (as that artifical language failed miserably). This whole debate is held in too much of a climate where the debaters only speak English, and have rarely, if ever, translated anything themselves.

amcorrea said...

First off, I apologize if I came across as prescriptive on any of this. The classics tend to be retranslated for the benefit of each new generation, not to specifically lend "vocabulary" to the target language. I was simply commenting on the situation and the wide variety of possibilities that a source text contains. It doesn't "need" to happen, but over the centuries it has (probably due to the importance and inherent power of the works themselves). This is the nature of the infinite possible readings of a single source text.

Yes, *of course* the ideal is for "many different works from different countries and epochs" to be translated. Again, I didn't mean to imply that priority should be given to retranslation of the classics, I just meant to speculate a little on why this happens.

Also, I never meant anything so ridiculous as claiming Spanish to be "the only foreign language." (Yikes!)

As an experienced translator, it would be interesting to perhaps see what you think about Lawrence Venuti's book and what he has to say about foreignization and the subversive potential of "minority" source texts.

I just read the first post of the blog you began last year and would be very interested in reading more.

Thanks for the comments!

Eric Dickens said...

I haven't followed the "venutiæ" of translation for a long time. Many years ago, I listened to a paper he gave at a conference at Warwick University (UK).

I shall try to get hold of Venuti's book and then comment, but I vaguely remember the "foreignisation" versus "assimilation" argument (or whatever the two poles are called).

I am always a little prickly about many attempts to describe the psycho-linguistic, etc., ways that translation works. As you point out, I actually translate (rather than talk about it). Venuti is, of course, a translator himself, but I feel that he is working in a culture - the English-speaking academic one - where shockingly little contemporary European literature is translated into English for people to read. And yet academics construct complex theories about the art / craft / skill / ambience of translation. I wish they'd do more translation, rather than philosophise about it.

If the statistic of roughly 3% of British and U.S. books being translations, the empirical base on which the superstructure of theory is built is a very small one, compared with most literate European countries. Hence my idea that a classic need not be translated every decade, as every classic re-translated means one fewer publisher's slot for a new book.

I think there is something of a fetish about classics in translation. It sometimes borders on snobbery. People will go into orgasm mode about Balzac or Tolstoy or whomever, yet totally ignore books from the same countries being published now. (There is, for instance, little appetite for authors such as Nothomb or Tolstaya in Britain today, from what I gather.)

As you no doubt know, I translate a few modern classic authors from the Estonian. When I'm working on works by Jaan Kross, Mati Unt or Friedebert Tuglas (authors about whom very few people in Britain and the USA have even heard), I have plenty of opportunity to come up with a slightly foreignising phrase, neologism, clever pun, etc. But the books I translate are new to the English speaking nations.