In French and English, the Latin verb traducere—“to transfer,” “to convert,” “to lead across,” but also “to expose to shame,” “to defame,” “to disgrace in public”—diverged into two very different derivatives, each reflecting only one aspect of the etymon. The principal meaning of the French traduire is “to translate”; that of the English traduce is “to malign,” “to demean,” or “to slander.” Now, as it happens, I like to think that some invisible intelligence is at work behind the ramifying furcations and mutations of linguistic evolution, composing an ingenious polyphony of echoes and ironies out of what we hear only as the tumult of Babel; but, even if one believes these things are all only a matter of chance, one should be able to appreciate the artful aptness here.
All translations of texts, not only the inaccurate or slovenly ones, are slanders of the originals, at least to some degree. The very worst translators are not necessarily those who are most awkward or inept—the intelligent reader can often make an intuitive vault over mere stylistic deficiencies—but those who let their own sensibilities intrude too ostentatiously between the reader and the original text, thus subordinating the idiom of the original authors to their own.
But even the scrupulous, competent, and self-effacing translator is engaged in a kind of well-intentioned treachery. This is true even in those rare fortunate cases when great works find translators whose gifts are comparable (or superior) to those of the original authors: Thomas Urquhart’s Rabelais, for example, or John Florio’s Montaigne, or Tobias Smollett’s Cervantes; or even in those still rarer cases when an author is improved by conversion into another tongue. (The reason the French labor under the bizarre misapprehension that Edgar Allan Poe was a great poet, for instance, is that so much of his verse was translated by Baudelaire.)
What even a translator of genius can never give us, however, is the original author’s true likeness. Even the best translation is a darkened mirror, in which one glimpses only a partial figure moving among shadows. At times the mirror becomes very obscure indeed, at others delightfully bright; but at no time can any translator permit us to meet the artist face to face.
The problems of translation have been in my thoughts a great deal lately, for a variety of reasons. The most trivial of these is that I have been dipping into foreign versions of some of my own books, as well as I can, and sighing at the frequent accidental deformations of meaning. It is not that I feel myself greatly aggrieved by the mistakes I find; the texts in question are not exactly deathless masterpieces to be dithered over reverentially by their poor translators. I have, however, begun to wonder whether such distortions of meaning are not inevitable.
If nothing else, seeing what has become of my own words at the other end of the linguistic alembic has begun to make me doubt the profit in the whole enterprise of translation, even as I grant the necessity of that enterprise. In my last book but one, for example, there is a passage in which, simply by flinging out a smirking succession of interrogatory sentence fragments, I cast scorn on Christopher Hitchens’ claim that religion poisons “everything.” I ask, for example, whether Hitchens’ accusation applies: “To the music of Palestrina and Bach, Michelangelo’s Pietà, ‘ah! bright wings,’ San Marco’s mosaics, the Bible of Amiens, and all that gorgeous blue stained glass at Chartres?”
Now, there were three problems with the Polish translation of my book, of which perhaps only one could have been avoided. I suppose I cannot complain about its somewhat leaden phrase “the verse of G. M. Hopkins,” since few Polish readers could be expected to recognize the flash of those wings. I would rather the translator had not turned my un-italicized reference to the Cathedral of Amiens—Picardy’s “Bible de pierre”—into a reference to Ruskin’s splendid book The Bible of Amiens. In fact, though, it is only the part about Chartres that causes me real concern, even though I cannot hold the translator to account. What is missing from the translated version is simply the particular and I imagine untranslatable intonation of the original: the wry and maybe slightly effete waspishness of the “all that” and the “gorgeous,” and the faint hint of mockery they are meant to convey.
But, then again, this stubborn autochthony of tone is an old story. “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” says Robert Frost. No poem has ever really been translated, though occasionally a new poem has been successfully hung upon the frame of the old. Vladimir Nabokov was probably right, in his edition of Eugene Onegin, to produce an exactingly literal line-by-line gloss, polished but drab, and to inform his Anglophone readers that the actual experience of Pushkin’s poetry was closed to anyone not fluent in Russian. It is everything that cannot be captured in the glass of a gloss that gives a poem life, or that endows even a mildly lively sentence with whatever vigor it may possess.
My quandary just at the moment, however—and this is the principal reason I have been pondering these matters—concerns not the elusive subtleties of poetry, but the polysemous mysteries of sacred literature. I have recently agreed to undertake a translation of the entire New Testament, and in making notes on obscure passages have found myself occasionally wondering whether any translation of the text could ever be much more than either a private interpretation or a dogmatic confession.
Of course, all ancient scriptures are great archives of words with inexhaustible connotations and associations, coming as they do from the distant past and largely alien cultures, expressing metaphysical and spiritual concepts of their nature irreducible to simple definitions, and (most important) attempting to name realities that lie beyond words. As the opening sentence of the Tao Te Ching has it, “Tao k’o tao, fei ch’ang tao”: “The Tao [or Way] that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” Then again, that translation hardly skims the surface. Quite apart from the vast range of meanings contained in that humble word tao—metaphysical, religious, moral, poetic, or what have you—there is the condensed, oracular paradoxicality of the phrasing: Of the six ideograms, tao appears three times, so that one might almost translate the subject as “the Tao that can be tao’d”; and, in that second instance, the ideogram can mean “uttered” or “talked about,” but also “trodden” or “walked.” The most mundane rendering of the verse, come to think of it, might be “The eternal Path is not the sort of path you go walking on.”
That, however, is not something I need to worry about just now; at the moment I am wondering how I should deal with the first verse of John’s gospel. Certainly no English term can begin to capture the depths and scope that the term logos had acquired in the philosophical and religious cultures of Hellenistic late antiquity; Word is so inadequate as to be practically meaningless. And how is one to capture the verse’s crucial distinction between the articular and inarticular forms of the word God—ho theos as opposed to theos—which many Christians, Jews, and pagans of the time would have read as a distinction between God Most High and a merely derivative or subordinate manifestation of the divine, but which mysteriously disappears altogether in the twentieth chapter when Thomas addresses the risen Christ as ho Theos? And how . . . ?
Well, I shall have to decide later.
I suppose I should take some comfort from the thought that the translator’s dilemma is only an acute instance of a chronic condition. The “indeterminacy of translation” (to borrow a phrase from one of my least favorite philosophers) is a universal reality, one that cuts across not only our efforts to make sense of foreign tongues, but even our daily labor to make sense of one another, or even to understand what we ourselves mean when we speak. In fact, our quandary is not even limited to the ambiguities of language: All experience is already an interpreted reality, transmitted through the patient intellect’s docile apparatus of perception, composed by the agent intellect’s transcendental and formal power. The Ding an sich, the verum essentiale of a thing—or what have you—comes to us only through the mediation of senses and concepts, and through the elaborate encodings of culture and language.
Thus the soul’s primordial appetite for truth in itself, its orientation toward a horizon of perfect understanding and immediacy, has here only shadows—though often golden shadows—to feed upon. I suppose that is why perhaps the loveliest and most absorbing promise in Paul’s letters is that one day we will not only peer into a glass, darkly, but see face to face: The original author, having translated himself into a human idiom, will translate us into the idiom of the divine, without loss, confusion, or separation; and the restless human desire always to understand yet more (of which the imperfect art of translation is one small manifestation) will at last achieve satiety, because we will at last understand even as we are understood.
Not that this gives me any better idea what to do with the word logos.
David Bentley Hart is an editor at large for First Things. His most recent book is The Devil and Pierre Gernet.