The Misery and the Splendour of Translation II: The Two Utopianisms

José Ortega y Gasset

Two UtopianismsIn this second part of José Ortega y Gasset’s essay “La miseria y el esplendor de la traducción”, the Spanish philosopher delves deeper into the question of untranslatability. The fact that translation is impossible, Ortega y Gasset argues, does not mean that it should not be attempted, but it must be approached with an attitude that he describes as that of the “good utopian”: the translator who tackles the task of translation in full awareness of its impossibility.

When conversation is not a mere exchange of verbal mechanisms whereby people act almost like record players, but rather, the interlocutors actually speak the truth on a matter, a curious phenomenon occurs. As the conversation goes on, the personality of each speaker becomes progressively split: one part of it listens to what is said and contributes to the discussion, while the other, drawn to the subject itself, like the bird to the serpent, withdraws increasingly into the most intimate depths to ponder the matter. With our spoken words we live in society; with our thoughts we live alone. But in this kind of conversation we do both at once, and as the discussion progresses we do so with growing intensity: we listen to what is being said with almost dramatic excitement and at the same time we delve further and further into the solitary abyss of our meditation. This growing division of the personality cannot be kept in a permanent balance, and so such conversations generally reach a dead faint when a thick silence descends. Each speaker becomes absorbed in thought, and for so much thinking is unable to talk. Dialogue has engendered silence, and the social exchange has given way to solitudes.

This happened at our meeting, after my last words. Why? There can be no doubt as to the answer: this spring tide of silence that washes over the dialogue occurs when the development of the topic has reached its extreme in one direction, and the conversation must turn on its keel and set a course for a different quadrant.

“This silence that has fallen upon us has a funereal character,” said someone. “You, sir, have murdered translation, and we are sullenly attending its burial.”

“Oh, no!” I replied. “Certainly not! I was greatly concerned with stressing the miseries of translation, and especially with defining its difficulty, its improbability, but not to stop there, but quite the contrary: to use it as a ballistic spring that would hurtle us towards the potential splendour of the art of translation. It is thus the right moment to cry out: ‘Translation is dead! Long live translation!’ Now we must row in the opposite direction and, as Socrates said on similar occasions, we must recant.”

“I fear that you will find that very hard,” said Mr. X. “Because we won’t forget your original assertion, in which you presented the task of translating as a utopian operation and an impossible proposition.”

“Indeed, that is what I said, and more besides: every human endeavour has a similar character. You needn’t fear that I will try now to tell you why I hold this opinion. I know that in a French conversation one must always skirt round the main point, that it is wiser to remain in the temperate zone of intermediate questions. You are all most kind in tolerating and even encouraging me in this disguised monologue, despite the fact that the monologue is, perhaps, the most serious crime one can commit in Paris. That is why I speak with a certain inhibition and with my conscience weighed down by the impression of committing something resembling an abuse of innocence. My only reassurance is the conviction that my French drags its feet too much to allow the agile contredanse of dialogue. But let us return to our subject, to the essentially utopian condition of all things human. Rather than supporting this notion with solid reasoning, I will do no more than invite you, for the pure pleasure of an intellectual experiment, to assume it as a basic principle and to consider human endeavours in its light.”

“And yet,” said my dear friend Jean Baruzi, “strong criticism of utopianism is frequent in your work.”

“Frequent and substantial! There is a false utopianism, which is the exact inverse of the one I am considering now; a utopianism based on the belief that anything a human desires, plans or proposes is, quite simply, possible. There is nothing I find more repugnant than this false utopianism, which I see as the greatest cause of all the suffering that afflicts our planet today. In the humble matter that now concerns us we can appreciate the opposite meanings of the two utopianisms. The bad utopian, just like the good utopian, considers it desirable to correct the reality of nature that imprisons human beings within the confines of different languages and hinders communication between them. The bad utopian thinks that since it is desirable, it is possible, and from there he is only one step away from believing it is easy. Such a notion leaves little room for pondering the question of how best to translate; instead, the task is begun without a second thought. This is why almost all translations completed up to now are poor. The good utopian, on the other hand, thinks that because it would be desirable to liberate humans from the distances imposed by languages, there is no probability of it being achieved; therefore, the best thing to do is to achieve it approximately. But this approximation may be infinitely greater or lesser, and this opens up unlimited possibilities in our efforts, always leaving room for improving, surmounting, perfecting; in short: for ‘progress’. All human existence consists of endeavours of this kind. Imagine it otherwise, that you should be condemned to doing only that which is possible, that which can be achieved of itself. What anguish! You would feel as if your lives had been drained of substance. Precisely because your activity achieved what you proposed, it would seem to you as if you were doing nothing. Human existence has something of a sport, of effort pleasing in itself and not because of its results. World history shows us the incessant and inexhaustible capacity of humans to invent unrealizable projects. In our efforts to realize them, we achieve many things, we creates innumerable realities that so-called nature is incapable of producing for itself. The only thing that humans never achieve is, precisely, what we set out to do—and this is a human virtue. This wedding between reality and the incubus of the impossible gives the universe the only growth we may expect of it. This is why it is very important to stress that everything—by which I mean everything worthwhile, everything that is truly human—is difficult, very difficult; so much so, that it is impossible.

“As you can see, it is not a dismissal of the potential splendor of the translator’s task to assert its impossibility. On the contrary, this quality vests it with the most sublime of dimensions and reveals to us that it is meaningful.”

“By that argument,” interrupted a professor of art history, “you would tend to think, as I do, that the true human mission, that which gives meaning to our endeavours, is to go against nature.”

“I am indeed very close to such an opinion, provided that we don’t forget the distinction I have made, and which for me is fundamental, between the two utopianisms: the good and the bad. I say this because the essential character of the good utopian in radically opposing nature is to acknowledge nature and not to delude herself. The good utopian commits to being, first and foremost, an inexorable realist. Only when she is certain that she has seen reality clearly, in all its bitter nakedness and without the slightest illusion, is she fully prepared to take it on and strive to reform it in the direction of the impossible, which is the only direction that has any meaning.

“The opposite attitude, which is the traditional one, consists of believing that what is desirable is already there as a spontaneous fruit of reality. This has blinded us from the outset from understanding human affairs. Everyone, for example, wants humans to be good, but Rousseau, with whom your people afflicted the rest of us, believed that this desire had already been realized long ago, that humans were innately good by nature. This idea spoiled a century and a half of European history that could have been magnificent, and we have had to suffer infinite anguish, enormous catastrophes – as well as those yet to come –to rediscover the simple truth, known for almost all time before it, that humans, in themselves, are nothing but evil beasts.

“Or, to return finally to our subject: stressing the impossibility of the occupation of translation is so far from depriving it of meaning that no one would ever deem it absurd for us to speak to each other in our mother tongue, and, nevertheless, that is also a utopian exercise.”

This statement in turn produced a bristling of objections and protests.

“That is extreme, or, rather, what grammarians call ‘inordinate’,“ said a philologist, who until then had been silent.

“It seems an excessive statement and quite paradoxical,” exclaimed a sociologist.

“I see that the bold little vessel of my ideas runs the risk of shipwreck in this sudden storm. I understand that for French ears, even yours, as benevolent as they are, it is hard to hear the assertion that talking is a utopian exercise. But what can I do, if it is irrefutably the truth?”

Translated by Martin Boyd

Go to Part Three of the essay: “Of Speech and Silence”

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