The Misery and the Splendour of Translation I: The Misery

José Ortega y Gasset

JoseOrtegayGassetThe essay “La miseria y el esplendor de la traducción”, written in 1936, is to this day one of the most widely quoted essays on translation ever written in the Spanish language. In the essay, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) sets out his highly insightful perspective on the significance of translation for revealing the semiotic gaps that exist between different languages. Many of the ideas expounded in this essay have become key issues in the field of translation studies, particular since the “cultural turn” of the 1980s. Over the next few months, my translation of this landmark essay will appear here, split into the five sections into which the author himself divides his reflections. In the first part, “La miseria”, Ortega y Gasset explores the concept of “untranslatability”. Ortega y Gasset’s extremely personal writing style is both a pleasure and a challenge to translate. Hopefully, my translation is bold enough to subvert the great philosopher’s rather uncharitable description of translators as “timid individuals”.

At a gathering attended by professors from the Collège de France, along with other academics and intellectuals, someone commented that it was impossible to translate certain German philosophers and, speaking generally on the topic, suggested that a study should be conducted to determine which philosophers could be translated and which could not.

“This seems to suppose, with excessive conviction, that there are philosophers, and writers in general, who can in fact be translated. Isn’t that unrealistic?” I ventured to suggest. “Isn’t translating itself an irredeemably utopian task? The truth is that every day I resign myself more to the opinion that all human activity is utopian. We dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge without ever succeeding in knowing anything fully. Our attempts at justice invariably result in some act of villainy. We believe that we have loved and then realize that in fact we got no further than promising to do so. Do not take these words as moral satire, as if intended to criticize my colleagues because they fail to do what they set out to. My intention is precisely the opposite; rather than blame them for their failure I want to suggest that none of these things can be done, that they are by their nature impossible, that they can go no further than mere intentions, vain endeavours, and failed ventures. Nature has endowed each animal with a program of actions that can be performed satisfactorily without difficulty. This is why it is so rare for an animal to be sad. Only among the higher species – the dog or the horse – can any sign of something like sadness be detected, and it is precisely in such moments that they seem closest to us, most human. Nature’s perhaps most bewildering spectacle, for its equivocality, can be found in the mysterious depths of the jungle – the melancholy orangutan. Animals are normally happy. Our fate is the opposite, as we are always melancholy, maniacal and frantic, afflicted by all those diseases that Hippocrates called sacred. And the reason for this lies in the fact that all human tasks are unrealizable. Our fate – our privilege and honour – is never to achieve what we set out to and which is pure intention, a living utopia. We set out always for failure, and even before entering the battle we already bear the wound upon our brow.

“This is just what happens in that modest occupation that is translation. In the order intellectual endeavours there is none more humble, and yet, it proves to be all too ambitious.

“Good writing involves picking away constantly at the grammar, at the established usage, at the accepted norms of the language. It is an act of relentless rebellion against social conventions, a subversion. Good writing entails a certain radical daring. But translators tend to be timid individuals. It is out of humility that they choose such a lowly occupation. Thus, with the vast regulatory apparatus of grammar and standard usage looming over them, what will they do with the rebellious text? Is it not too much to ask them likewise to be rebellious, and on behalf of another? Faint-heartedness will win out and instead of breaking those grammatical bonds they will do quite the opposite, and lock up the translated author in the prison of standard language; that is, the author will be betrayed. Traduttore, traditore.”

“Nevertheless, books on mathematics and natural sciences can be translated,” responded my interlocutor.

“I do not deny that the difficulty is less, but I do deny that it is nonexistent. The branch of mathematics most in vogue in the last quarter century was Set Theory. Now then, its creator, Cantor, baptized it with a term that there is no way of translating into our language. What we have had to call ‘set’ he called Menge, a word whose meaning is not entirely covered by the meaning of ‘set’. We should thus be careful not to overstate the translatability of the mathematical and physical sciences. Having made this qualification, however, I am prepared to acknowledge that renderings of such texts may achieve greater proximity than those in other disciplines.”

“You acknowledge, then, that there are two classes of writings: those that can be translated and those that cannot?”

“If we speak in broad terms, such a distinction is acceptable, but in doing so we shut out the real problem that every translation poses. Because if we ask ourselves the reason why certain scientific books are easier to translate, we will soon realize that in such books the authors have already begun to translate themselves from the real language in which they ‘live, move and have their being’ into a pseudo-language made up of technical terms, a linguistically artificial vocabulary which the authors themselves need to define in their books. In short, they translate themselves from a language into a terminology.”

“But a terminology is a language like any other! Indeed, according to our Condillac, the best language, the most ‘well-constructed’ language, is science.”

“Forgive me, but on this point I differ radically from you and from the good Abbot. A language is a system of verbal signs that individuals use to understand each other without prior agreement, while a terminology is only intelligible if the writer or speaker and the reader or listener have come individually to a prior agreement regarding the meaning of the signs. I therefore call it pseudo-language, and scientists have to begin by translating their own thoughts into it. It is a Volapuk, an Esperanto established by a conscious agreement among those who practice the discipline. That is why these books are easier to translate from one language to another. Indeed, in every country these books are now written almost entirely in the same pseudo-language, to such an extent that they seem inscrutable, unintelligible or at least very hard to understand for genuine speakers of the language in which they appear to be written.”

“To be honest, I have no choice but to agree with you, and to confess that I am beginning to discern certain mysteries in verbal interaction between humans that I had not noticed until now.”

“And I, in turn, discern you to be a kind of knight errant, the last survivor of a vanished race, as you are capable of believing that a person other than you may be in the right. Indeed, the discussion of translation, if we choose to pursue it, will lead us into the darkest depths of the wondrous phenomenon that is language. Even if we confine ourselves to the most obvious aspects of the topic, we will have plenty to consider. So far I have based my description of the utopianism of translation on the idea that an author of a book (not of mathematics or physics, or perhaps even biology) is a writer in some positive sense of the word. This means that the writer has used her native tongue with a truly deft touch, achieving two things that seem impossible to reconcile: to be clearly intelligible, while at the same time changing the ordinary usage of the language. This dual operation is harder to achieve than walking a tightrope. How could we demand it of the average translator? But behind this first difficulty posed by the rendering of personal style appear further layers of difficulties. Personal style, for example, consists in the author deviating slightly from the habitual meaning of the word, pushing at it so that the range of objects that it designates do not coincide exactly with the range of objects which that same word normally signifies in its ordinary use. The general tendency of such deviations in a writer is what we call the writer’s style. But it is also true each language compared to another has its own linguistic style, what von Humboldt used to call its ‘internal form’. It is therefore utopian to believe that two words in two different languages, which the dictionary tells us are each a translation of the other, refer to exactly the same objects. As languages are formed in different landscapes and by different experiences, their incongruity is natural. It is wrong, for example, to assume that what in Spanish is called a bosque is the same thing that in German is called a Wald, and yet the dictionary tells us that Wald means bosque, and that bosque means forest. If all were willing this would be an excellent occasion to offer an aria di bravura comparing the forests of Germany and Spain. I am joking about the song, but I will affirm what its outcome would be: a clear appreciation of the vast difference that exists between the two realities. So great, in fact, the incongruity is abundantly evident not only in the forests themselves, but in almost all their intellectual and emotive resonances as well.

“The images of the two meanings do not match up, like the photographs of two people superimposed one over the other. And, just as in such a case our vision waivers without settling on one image or the other or establishing a third, we can imagine the distressing vagueness we experience when we read thousands of words affected in this manner. For the causes that produce this phenomenon of flou in a visual image are the same causes that produce it in language. Translation is the permanent literary flou, and since what we otherwise tend to call nonsense is nothing more nor less than the flou of thought, we should not find it strange that a translated author should always seem a little foolish to us.”

Translated by Martin Boyd

Go on to Part Two of the essay: “The Two Utopianisms”

1 thought on “The Misery and the Splendour of Translation I: The Misery

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