Translating Religious Texts - Forward by George Steiner

Translation lies at the heart of speech. Every semiotic exchange, every communicative and reception of meaning entails the model of translation. The receiver of any act of signification must, as

4 years ago

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Translation lies at the heart of speech. Every semiotic exchange, every communicative and reception of meaning entails the model of translation. The receiver of any act of signification must, as best he can, decipher the message. Such decipherment demands the transfer of the signals which he has received into what he judges to be the context, the equivalences, the frames of reference most faithful to them. Necessarily, he performs this carry-over (literally, translation) with the formal and psychological instruments which constitute the wider semantic field which he shares with the other speaker (or writer, or painter or composer).

The resulting decoding will be more or less homologous with the emitted message. It will never correspond to it totally. The intentionalities of a speaker, in even rudimentary discourse, are never tautologically transparent even to himself. The connotative context of even a 'simple' proposition always comports a hidden narrative, this is to say, an ambiance of memory, association, phonetic choices, subconscious impulses or repressions, rigorously singular to the individual. The receiver 'reads' this vital sub-structure and surrounding as far as he is able. But the quotient of partial understanding or misprision can never be eliminated in any natural language-act. Only mathematical symbolism and meta-algebraic algorithms of formal logic are transferable, that is translatable in their totality.

Translation within the same tongue is indeed carried out more or less spontaneously. But its process and the obstacles encountered are paradigmatic of all translation. It is poets and dramatists, it is the masters of prose fiction who intuit that verbal and written exchanges between men and women, between women and men are, more often than not, only fragmentarily or erroneously deciphered. Extreme pressures of love and pain attend on the asymmetries, on the radical incongruency of language-usage between parent and children, between generations. Inside the same society, different social classes, different faiths, different professions find it difficult to communicate, to interpret more than a certain proportion of each other's language. When schooling of diverse levels, where region accent interpose, the decipherment is even more fragile and subject to error. We existentially and concretely 'mis-take' the other. His ache and ironies, his refinements or argot, escape us. Thus, translation between languages is, formally and substantively, a special case of translation within the same language. To attempt understanding is to attempt translation. Put forward in my After Babe (Oxford, 1975), this view has been very largely adopted.

The centrality of translation to the phenomenology of speech and of meaning and the location of the investigation of language at the very focus of recent philosophy (what philosophers call 'the language-turn') has meant that translation is now of prime concern to philosophers, logicians, and psychologists, as well as to linguists stricto sensu. In such thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Heidegger and Quine, the possibilities or impossibilities of translation come to stand for the problematic nature of meaning itself. Under pressure of the 'Heidegger case' and the 'untranslatability' of certain texts in the modern canon - Paul Celan's poetry is, in this regard, a touchstone - Paul de Man and Derrida have closely engaged the study of translation. At the same time, the failure of the claims invested in machine-translation (except the grossest level of approximate transfer within narrowly defined speech-fields) has underlined both the complexity, the intuitive generation of this 'exact art' (Wittgenstein's phrase) and our almost complete lack of access to its eventual neuro-physiological foundations. The human brain decodes messages, however imperfectly, at levels of efficacy and of nuance altogether beyond our analytic grasp or mechanical simulation.

To metaphysical-religious sensibility in the West, certainly after the Fourth Gospel, the neo-Platonists and Hamann and Herder, this inadequacy of analytic or 'scientific' grasp is an imperative banality. It declares the ontological transcendence of the source of being of language. It identifies the linguistic capacity of man and of woman with their humanity. We are the 'language-animal' (zoon phonanta). But the gift of speech, which distinguishes us from the rest of the animal order, is the manifest of our provenance out of an act of creation and apprehend the meaning of meaning, is to partake of the existence in its non-organic essence. Hence the cardinal interplay of doctrine and metaphor in the concepts of 'being' and of 'saying' from Parmenides to the Fourth Gospel, from St John to Heidegger. It is this interplay wich is crystallised int he term Logos.

Myths and taboos attach to the translation of religious texts. One tradition has it that the Septuagint is the direct product of angelic concordance. But the Megillath Taanithh (first century AD) records the belief that three days of darkness enveloped the earth in mourning for the translation of the Law into the profane Greek. Even more than lyric and epic poetry, religious texts are rooted in orality. The first, and in many cultures insuperable, transgression - where 'transgression' is itself a motion of transport, of translation - is that which crosses the line between oral and written. Transcribed, the Ur-text has suffered irreparable derogation and, very likely, falsification. It is no longer numinous. It need not have its assurance of life in human inwardness, in the guard of exact memorisation. It is now part of a general and impure textuality, subject to amendment and circumstantial revision. It is the unwritten which is sacred. So, in a celebrated defiance, proclaims Sophocles' Antigone. Within the religious domain itself, a complex web of regret and of fear in the face of the second-hand haunts Judaic tradition concerning Moses's destruction of the first Tables of the Law which has been immediate to divine dictation and written in letters of fire. All dictation, all graphic setting-down thereafter, whether inspired or not, runs the evident danger of error. And it is, opines the Kabbala, via one minute erratum in the writing down of the Law (one false consonant, perhaps) that evil enters the hitherto sanctified cosmos and descends on man.

Further inhibitions arise over the issue of the interlingual rendition of religious texts. In numerous 'primitive' societies, one's true name is kept jealously from the knowledge of outsiders. In strict analogy, a priesthood or its immediate flock will seek to prevent the uninitiated, the stranger, from obtaining access to its sacred books and myths and rituals they contain. Translation then becomes an act of sacrilegious larceny (strong traces of this dialectic of taboo and appropriation can be made out in Roman 'capture' of Etruscan religious and magical manuals and prophetic books). Here again, the intralingual and the interlingual vexations are exactly parallel. In the English tradition, retranslations of Scripture after the Authorised Version has provoked incessant malaise and a sense of grievous loss. It is the voice of 1611 which, for millions still, rings (be it opaquely) with the near-echo of origination. Later translations, whatever their scholarly edge, convey the letter and muffle the spirit.

Here we flounder in deep waters. If a text is 'revealed', if its initial encoding is then transferred into a mundane and fallible sign-system, that of secular and post-Adamic speech, to what truth-functions, to what correspondent faithfulness can any translation aspire? Is there not a covert but intractable 'contradiction of categories' (to use Aristotelian terms) in the mere notion of the translation of revealed text? As in the case of great poetry, but with graver implications, is it not the primary life of meaning which is left behind by the most skillful of translations? Very few have squarely addressed the dilemma. Benjamin encircles it with darkly lit metaphor. Emanuel LĂ©vinas subtly and astutely makes of Talmudic commentaries the only legitimate process of translation. The violence done ineluctably to the infinitely modulated, to the self-withdrawing real presence (that God's enunciation) in the revealed text by even the most pious of translators, is debated in the Rosenzweig-Buber correspondence. These rare expositions are primers for any seriously concerned with the antinomian tenor of the revealed and the translatable. But they do not hope to resolve the contradiction.

The great majority of working translators of religious writings do not, I imagine, dwell on these perplexities. The actual concept of the 'revealed' leads only a vestigial, somewhat embarrassing after-life in the semiotic and deconstructive grammatologies now prepotent. We have, since Benjamin and Maritain, all but relinquished the idiom in which to formulate the challenge of revealed textuality. (It is just this challenge which seems to me to enforce itself on the reader in respect of, say, Job, of deutero-Isaiah, of Ecclesiastes, of passages in the Gospels and Pauline epistles, in ways which - but where, what is the discrimination to be felt and made? - do not enforce themselves on the reader of, say, even Dante or Shakespeare.) Today, translators get on with their task knowing that difficulties of a philological, stylistic, historical sort are so arduous as to make superfluous the invocation of transcendence. And it is to this professional scruple that we owe, during recent decades, the growing availability in the West of religious books from other faiths and cultures, notably oriental. It is to this ' adjournment' of the fundamental question - what is revealed in a revealed act of discourse? - that we owe the sequence of endeavors, scholarly, philanthropic in the true sense, to retranslate our Bible so as to make it 'at home' in the demythologised and positivist climate of our speech-worlds. Fundamentalist malice (but need it be only that?) would, to be sure, suggest the the utter mediocrity of the results obtained proves how damaging, how intellectually and even technically mendacious, is the avoidance of the underlying issue. How is the 'word of God', the Logos, to be translated into Newspeak? Should it be?

Nothing is more enigmatic in that book of secrets we call the New Testament than the moment (unique) in which Jesus writes in the dust at the feet of the woman taken in adultery. He at once effaces his inscription. In what language did he write? What was the message? This, it may be, is the enduring parable of necessary unknowing at the heart of translation.

Daniel Sanderson

Published 4 years ago