Words that shrink distances between cultures

Stephen Greenblatt is university professor of the humanities at Harvard University and the author of "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare," a finalist for the 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in biography.

"Perhaps people will soon be persuaded that there is no patriotic art and no patriotic science," Goethe wrote in 1826, toward the end of his long life. "Both belong, like everything good, to the whole world and can be promoted only through general, free interaction among all who live at the same time." These noble words lie at the heart of what Goethe called Weltliteratur, world literature, which he conceived of as a ceaseless process of exchange across the borders of nations and cultures.

At the center of this process is the work of translators, for, though it is highly desirable to be multilingual, the range of cultural access even among gifted linguists is inevitably small in relation to the enormous number of languages in the world. In addition to the flood of new works in translation, classics from the Iliad and the Odyssey to "Madame Bovary" and "Death in Venice" are constantly translated anew. None of this could occur without a huge cohort of go-betweens, many of them virtually anonymous, through whose incessant labors something one might term "cultural mobility" is facilitated.

Cultural mobility is the process by which the symbols, self-conceptions, modes of expression and ritual actions of people rooted in a specific place, time and society are detached from those roots and set in motion, to reach other places, different times. There is a paradox, or perhaps a tangle of paradoxes, here: People tend to admire cultural forms that seem autochthonous, sprung from their native soil. These forms have a distinctiveness, a rich specificity bound up with their origins. And yet such distinctive forms are also appreciated away from their native soil and hence require a whole range of displacements, repackagings and transformations that enable them to travel. Even on one's home ground, this principle of displacement applies after the lapse of only a few years -- for the past, in the novelist L.P. Hartley's famous words, "is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Moreover, under careful scrutiny, it turns out that the supposedly native and unchanged forms are themselves products of a prior translation process, less visible but no less real than that which allows us to encounter whatever is alien to us.

The emblem of world literature, for Goethe, was his ability to be drawn into a Chinese novel, recognizing a surprising at-homeness among characters who superficially seem entirely different: An apparently unbridgeable distance vanishes, and "one very soon feels oneself as one of them." This experience, the sense of entering an alien world and eerily feeling oneself at home in it -- or, alternatively, the sense of being addressed directly and personally by people you could not possibly have known, from a world outside your own -- is at the heart of literary culture. It is also, as St. Paul understood, close to the heart of any text-based religion: Reading the Hebrew Scriptures, written centuries earlier in a strikingly different cultural and political setting, Paul nonetheless felt that "these letters" were written directly to him. In turn, generations of the faithful who read Paul's words not in the original Greek but in languages that did not even exist in the time he wrote have had the same experience.

What this means is that cultural mobility is pervasive and that it quickly hides its own traces. There may be markers of distance -- exotic settings, unfamiliar turns of phrase, novel concepts -- but the successful work of translation almost always renders these markers incidental, in order to promote the absorption that fascinated Goethe or the startling intimacy that fascinated St. Paul. Both pervasiveness and concealment have been greatly abetted by the increased speed of modern communication that Goethe already marveled at 200 years ago, so that people everywhere in the world seem to share the same moment of time. If such global simultaneity runs the risk of flattening everything out onto a single plane, as if history had come to a standstill and all human differences had been erased, the triumph of the present moment can be at least partly restrained by continually looking back at what has been left to us and reminding ourselves that what we are encountering is the product of people and cultures long dead.

The effect, Goethe ardently hoped, would be a new cosmopolitanism, an unregulated free trade in expression and feeling, an epoch of global respect founded on the conviction that "poetry is the common possession of humanity and that it emerges everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of people." The German mentality and the German language, he felt confident, were particularly well suited to this capacious, tolerant encounter with the unfamiliar.

Since these words were written, there have been murderous wars almost too numerous to count, wars in which the Germans -- for whom Goethe reserved a particularly honorable role in the coming Weltliteratur -- have played a particularly terrible part. So it is possible to dismiss his vision as an idealistic illusion. A global culture, however robust, is no substitute for democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law. But it would be a mistake to abandon the hope that lurks in the ceaseless enterprise of translation.

We should not underestimate, though, the enormous difficulty of the task. Certainly, translators themselves do not underestimate it. In the "translator's notes" that accompany almost all new translations (and that very few people bother to read), one theme recurs with numbing regularity: the virtual impossibility of translation. "The closer I got to feeling that I was beginning to 'know' a line or a passage," writes W.S. Merwin in his recent verse translation of Dante's "Purgatorio," "having the words by memory, repeating some stumbling approximation of the sounds and cadence, pondering what I had been able to glimpse of the rings of sense, the more certain I became that -- beyond the ordinary and obvious impossibility of translating poetry or anything else -- the translation of Dante had a dimension of impossibility of its own."

"The ordinary and obvious impossibility of translating poetry or anything else:" Language is treasured for its rootedness in the life-world of particular people in a particular time and place. An elderly Sicilian I chatted with years ago in Agrigento categorically denied that anything called "bread" could possibly resemble what he lovingly called "pane"; he simply refused to believe it. And translating complex literary masterpieces -- not only Dante, with the special problems posed by the interlocking rhyme pattern known as terza rima, but also novels by Proust, Dostoevsky or Mann -- only intensifies the sense of impossibility. The syntax, the intimate rhythms, the diction -- everything that makes the works seem distinctive and irreplaceable to those who love them in their native language -- must inevitably be lost in translation.

But Merwin and others who declare the impossibility of translation go ahead and cheerfully prove themselves wrong by producing works that bear more than an accidental relation to their originals and that have in many cases extraordinary literary power. The pessimism repeatedly voiced in the translator's notes gives way to what a recent translator of "Don Quixote," Edith Grossman, calls the "infinite optimism" that fuels such a utopian task: "utopian in the sense intended by Ortega y Gasset when he deemed translations utopian but then went on to say that all human efforts to communicate -- even in the same language -- are equally utopian, equally luminous with value, and equally worth the doing."

I have never struggled through "Don Quixote" in my faltering Spanish, but I am convinced that I have read and admired not a novel by Edith Grossman but one by Cervantes. I cannot read a word of Russian, but I believe I have heard in "Anna Karenina" the voice of Tolstoy and not of the most recent translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Though I would surely be a better (or at least a better-educated) person if I could read ancient Greek, I console myself with the thought that blind Homer still sings for me in the English of Robert Fitzgerald, Stanley Lombardo or Robert Fagles. If I gave up all other pleasures, I might, before the dawn of a new decade, be able to read in German all 1,770 pages of Robert Musil's novel "The Man Without Qualities," but I have decided to settle for the startlingly adventurous English prose version by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. A native speaker of Italian unquestionably has far more access to the riches of "The Divine Comedy" than I do, but I have enough Italian to know that Merwin's "Purgatorio" and Robert Pinsky's "Inferno" (to take only two of the recent spate of Dante translations) are not only beautiful poems in their own right but also poems that convey much of Dante's meaning.

What we have is an endless series of approximations, some better than others, constructed out of a tangle of pessimism and hope, driven by fascination, desire and love, and serving the overarching project of cultural mobility. Several of the major translation projects of recent years have gone so far as to abandon even the search for a single authorial voice: Hence, to challenge C.K. Scott Moncrieff's translation of Proust's multi-volume "Remembrance of Things Past," Penguin has commissioned, under the general editorship of Christopher Prendergast, seven volumes by seven different translators. Certain terms are consistent across the whole vast work (the "Duchesse de Guermantes" in one book does not become the "Duchess of Guermantes" in another), but otherwise the editor decided to allow -- indeed, to welcome -- a certain inconsistency of style. Even the degree of aesthetic reverence varies: The translator of "Swann's Way," Lydia Davis, writes that she has tried to stay as close to Proust's "natural and direct" style as possible, while James Grieve, the translator of "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," complains that Proust, "a bungler of basics," is a "slipshod" writer who "never resolves his indeterminate narratorial point of view."

Another major translation project from the same publisher, "The New Penguin Freud," goes even further. The general editor, Adam Phillips, bids to replace James Strachey's monumental translation of Freud (the "standard edition," in 24 volumes) not with a comparable monument but with a dizzying succession of volumes, each with a different translator who may have a different way of rendering the basic psychoanalytic vocabulary. Freud the creator of a grand scientific system thus gives way to Freud the writer of a series of strange, unnerving books, each with its own peculiar vision. Here, perhaps because Freud's oeuvre has not quite achieved the status of a literary classic, the exceptionally interesting translators' notes do not rehearse the "impossibility" theme but grapple with the implications of, for example, giving the reader, in place of Strachey's famous coinages "id," "ego" and "superego," the "it," the "I" and the "above-I."

The most searching translator note in the large crop of recent works I have looked at is the one written by Robert Alter to accompany his extraordinary version, with commentary, of "The Five Books of Moses." The task, Alter argues, is not to make the Torah transparent and unambiguous: "Literature in general, and the narrative prose of the Hebrew Bible in particular, cultivates certain profound and haunting enigmas, delights in leaving its audiences guessing about motives and connections, and, above all, loves to set ambiguities of word choice and image against one another in an endless interplay that resists neat resolution." If it is a mistake to try to make the ancient text sound as if it were written late last night -- it needs to have a "slight strangeness" -- it is equally a mistake to make it sound so alien and opaque that there is no longer any access to its literary power.

The challenge (and here Alter is in accord with such notable translations as Pinsky's "Inferno," Fagles' Iliad and Seamus Heaney's "Beowulf") is to capture the work's "distinctive music." In the case of Biblical Hebrew, that music entails rhythms and repetitions that in modern English would be regarded as awkward: "And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son, and he split wood for the offering, and rose and went to the place that God had said to him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar. And Abraham said to his lads, 'Sit you here with the donkey and let me and the lad walk ahead and let us worship and return to you.' And Abraham took the wood for the offering and put it on Isaac his son and he took in his hand the fire and the cleaver, and the two of them went together."

Those sentences have come to us across an immense distance, and although Alter is a distinguished scholar who is looking intently at the Hebrew text, they are inevitably part of a long chain-letter of English translations, with one effort subtly influencing the next. Yet in such passages the echo chamber becomes still, the enormous linguistic and cultural differences recede into the shadows and it is possible to feel the uncanny intimacy of a direct encounter. This is the greatest gift of cultural mobility: the renewed and renewable wonder of world literature. *

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