International Translation Day Excerpt: On Translation

By Alison Fox, on 30 September 2017

This excerpt, by Andre Lefavre, is taken from Poems of Guido Gezelle: A Bilingual Anthology, where it is entitled “Translating a National Monument”

I think that of all the activities open to those who like to think of themselves as literary scholars, translation is the most scientific. I know this goes against all received opinion, and yet if one accepts, with current philosophy of science, that the demarcation line between the scientific and the non-scientific is inter-subjective testability, it is easy to see that what a translator does to a literary text is much more easily testable than what a critic, for example, does to it. I try to translate accordingly.

I believe that what I should do is to give readers the most complete set of materials for their concretization of the text. How they use them (i. e. what the text eventually comes to signify for them) is none of my business. I have no poetics of my own to justify distortions of the source text; what is more, I am not allowed to have one. Again contrary to received opinion, I do not create: I transmit. What I do is as ‘artistic’ or ‘non-artistic’ as what any translator of any text does. Of course I have to know about literature in order to translate it, but does that give me the right to call myself a ‘literary’ translator and cordon myself off from the common herd?

Others have to know about chemistry, say, or biology in order to be able to translate a text. Does that make them ‘chemical’ or ‘biological’ translators? The main thing to me is what is now more and more called the ‘pragmatics’ of the text, which roughly amounts to what used to be called something like its ‘total impact’. This means that I try to find out what effect a text makes on its readers in the original language. But that is not the end of it. I also try to imagine, in some cases, what effect it could have, and I try to find ways to remedy the fact that it does not have that effect. This also means that I translate texts, not words or sentences. It means, moreover, that I translate texts written by very specific writers at a very specific time, not ‘anonymous’ texts.