Le signe n’est-il pas autre chose qu’un étant, n’est-il pa la seule “chose” qui, n’étant pas une chose, ne tombe pas sous la question “qu’est-ce que”? La produit au contraire à l’occasion?
(Derrida, “La voix et le phénomène”)
It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through the decayed barriers of his own language” (Benjamin “The Task of the Translator”)
I spend a lot of time with dead languages. In fact, I probably spend too much time with them, given that I prefer to think of them as languages not currently in use. Thinking about my difficulty with translation and Old English, I can't help but wonder if my ambivalence with translation of late is a part of the larger problem: I don't know if the necessity of translation helps or hurts these dying languages, particularly when there is no way to keep them from being pushed out of linguistic currency by the 83 global languages. (Mary Kate Hurley, on In the Middle , 9/19/07)
I am thinking about a set of disagreements I am having with a trained-as-a-linguist reader and translator (NOT MKH or anyone you know, dear readers--this person may in fact be fictional) of Old French over some of the difficulties that arise which are common to events of translation between any two languages when one is “dead” and the other “living,” one is analytic and the other synthetic. I would like to frame one aspect of this debate theoretically, with reference to the problem of the Real and with recourse to pedagogy.
If one encounters, say, some Marie de France—because it has some “famous” passages--:
“Mut est Lanval en grant esfrei;/ de s’aventure vait pensaunt/ E en sun curage dotaunt,” one might encounter a whole host of regularized translation options—for an often-translated and often-read text, to boot. What stands out to me as an initial decision, is a choice concerning word-order. Lanval est mut en grant esfrei would run better in Modern Fr. and Eng. The “literal” translation, preserving as much word-order and syntax as possible is lambasted as un-poetic. One says that this poem follows poetic conventions in one language and should also follow them with respect to the destination tongue. Now, Benjamin saw his concern for pure language brought down most importantly to the level of the word—and in a way, this allows a certain freedom with word-order. Now, this is philological in the love of the word, but less so in terms of the love of the traditions of rhetoric that the great philologist-critics (read Auerbach, and hell, even Lewis) employed. The linguist, to get the “meaning” right demands a little less faithfulness to individual words, so that idiom can be better accounted for. But all of these practices to me seem to work to keep the volatility of one language clashing with another under control. All of them want to work with the kind assumption—desiring to help readers and translators as much as possible—that the text is a thing which exists in a real world, and that its words and phrases are things with being that can be explained by equivalent words and phrases. Anything which “is” can be identified, categorized, and labeled to an Aritstotealian “t.”
Now, before I go on—I realize the place and the importance of linguistically-informed translation, of these sorts of “scholarly” translations. But, my contention is that these efforts conceal a more problematic effort to contain the possibility of an event harbored by translation, by allowing the effect a bit of writing intends on one language to come to blows with another (and here, I am following Benjamin to the letter). In a class teaching the reading and translating of OF, of Latin, or OE, we are often taught, for examination purposes especially, certain procedures to follow by which an instructor can determine that a student has perceived the proper linguistic information in the source language. So, William Kibler writes in his An Introduction to Old French that one should translate “Qui sor atrui mesdit et ment/ Ne set mie qu’a l’ueil li pent” as “If one slanders and lies about another/ He cannot see beyond the nose on his face.” This translation demonstrates that one perceived that this statement is hypothetical, denoted by this “Qui” which is “followed by the present, future, or –roie form,” but also that in OF the word order was not a cause for concern. That, one can place “mesdit” and “ment” right after the subject of the sentence, and that in fact one should, to show that she understands this a clearly-stated sentence which can be rendered smoothly in English. This sort of thing happens perhaps most clearly when the narrative present and perfect forms are alternated with a compound past all in the same sentence. Because this was “normal” or “conventional” for a scribe to do, we are often told translate all of it in terms of past tense appropriate to the narrative moment. This makes sense on one pedagogical level, it demonstrates that a student “got” the reading.
But, if we listen to Benjamin, and read him more closely than himself, we cannot simply leave our attention on just the level of the word. Old French provokes something in modern English. Something simultaneously and uncannily (untimely) the same and different from the language. It can do something to English which makes us recognize the language as English, but at the same time see it differently: I am willing to hazard that this is the provocation of an event. This would be an event that fully strips these poems of some magical ontology, but opens them to a truly difficult (in the beautiful Caputo-ian sense of the word) hermeneutic event/opportunity.
So: “Who(ever) of an other ill-speaks and and lies/ doesn’t know a bit what before his eye hangs”
sounds perhaps archaic, or clunky, or just like bad verse, or whatever. But perhaps it offers the possibility of letting off of the containment operation surrounding the scandal of translation—that the text is not an answer to a question that begins with what(qu’est-ce que). That a text is much more spectral than that, and so are its potential effects. These pedagogical practices, left unchecked creep into all of our translating, into our reading and thinking about the texts we work with, and into our problems of thinking of the problems of the difference or sameness of the past (when the text is indeed an old text). But what if the meeting of a dead and a living language can be a event which allows a temporal fold or short-circuit, inscribing dead within living and living within dead without recourse to a religifying discourse? Moreover, it can recall, in discussions of the sameness or difference of the past in relation to a specific text, the possibility of the past as a “not-yet” as calling into a possible future. When two languages are allowed to meet, they might clang like a bell in their clashing, which lets loose a trembling—the sort that that might provoke the kind of event Baudriallard hopes for in saying “make illusions to make events,” after he has perhaps reductively—but nevertheless productively—put the whole world into two camps: those that believe there is something, and those that do not. But there may be room to have the cake and eat it too. Who ever said “nothing” wasn’t hopeful?