Discussion Questions

The text we read for today was not only translated from French to English, but also from the form of a lecture into the form of a written transcript. Given the complexity of Derrida’s writing as well as the numerous double (or triple) meanings he uses, how do we approach the text?

How much concern should we give to what is lost both in terms of linguistic ambiguity and context as well as the performative aspects of the original speech?

Reading notes 9/29/2016

p. 365 “If I dare approach this subject…it is because of this very discouragement…” Classic Derrida. Weird apologetic preamble. Capable of the most pompous forms of modesty.

p. 366 ‘…too confident in the now canonical distinction between mention and use’ I think one of Derrida’s best qualities is the way that he seems to take seriously certain idea without allowing them to pin down his own or become too ingrained. There is something to be said–particularly when it comes to something as slippery as language–of a practiced skepticism toward overly ‘cannonball’ explanations.

p. 367 Such skepticism is warranted because “the independence of the word remains a mysterious thing, precarious, not quite natural…”

p. 369 Hypothesizes about the perfectly knowledgeable translator with infinite time, but reaches the conclusion that this would amount to more of what today we would call a ‘reading’ of a text rather than a translation that accounts for the primacy of the word.

p. 370 Puts translation at the level of the word but not in a word for word or word to word, but word by word: this is interesting and at times Derrida meanders toward clarity on the point but it is hard to really and clearly see it.

p. 371 “…unintelligible economy…” Well, definitely unintelligible.

p. 372 introduces the idea of translation that enables mediation between other languages. This is interesting but also seems dangerous. It seems likely to result in the over-fitting of certain concepts or the generalization of said concepts in order to facilitate this equivalence.

p. 377 Reference to bund-in addition to being the German word for bond is this an illusion to Jewish Bundism? Or even the German-American bund? seems like just the multiple meanings that Derrida loves.

This long analysis of The Merchant of Venice seems like a whole lot of lead up for what doesn’t seem to me to be the greatest of punchlines. It’s so meandering and repetitive and yet the repetition never clarifies (as I’ve come to expect with Derrida). At the end of it all, I am hard pressed to honestly say much about the essay. There are flashes here and there of ideas that seem interesting but they don’t really hold together. I’m sure there is some generous interpretation that says this is part of the intended effect of Derrida’s speech (btw, it is incredible that this is was given as a lecture/speech; I can’t possibly imagine following this as a listener), but all in all I have mixed feelings about the piece, as I do with almost all of Derrida’s work. There is something there, but it often seems to solipsistic–entirely incapable of getting out of its own way and actually leading the reader toward a more productive understanding of translation.



Reading notes 9/27

Three kinds of translation:

  1. Intralingual (rewording) – resorts to a circumlocution, not complete equivalence.
  2. Interlingual (‘translation proper’) – substitutes messages from on language to another–not code units; entire messages
  3. Intersemiotic-  verbal signs to non-verbal signs

p. 128 Still use Ptolemaic imagery; does not imply rejection of Copernicus.

“All cognitive experience and it’s classification is conveyable in any existing language.” BOLD statement. ‘Conveyable’ is doing a lot of work in that sentence. To be conveyable does not imply equivalence, and doesn’t preclude deformation in the conveyance.

p. 129. Forgot about dual forms. Such an interesting grammatical feature.

Difference in what languages can and must convey: this is an interesting point but it seems overreaching and seems to rest on the claims further down in the paragraph that all cognitive data can be rendered verbally. This doesn’t seem obviously true to me. Language mediates and shapes much of our experience, but it clearly is not the same as cognition. There are reports of people with micro-seizures who lose language faculties temporarily. Afterwards, they claim that they were still able to think clearly, even without language.

p. 130 Masculine/feminine discussion: always curious why we call masculine and feminine ‘genders’. I mean, if you think about it, in a given language thousands of words are declined a certain way and only a handful of them refer to men, but those handful determine that the gender is ‘masculine’. Some language make animate/inanimate distinctions instead.

I wonder if the relationship is in the opposite direction of that implied by Jakobson: gender of nouns is created based on linguistic features (morphology, phonology, etc.) but the designation also hits social categories (men and women for example) and the characteristics of these categories are then reflected onto all other nouns which share their declension system.

Deforming tendencies example

Two of Berman’s tendencies are relevant for discussion of my example: the first is his eighth (the destruction of underlying networks of signification) and the second is his 10th (the destruction of vernacular networks).

I attempted to find pdf versions (or any version where I could get at the raw text)of the examples I wish to use, but a combination of DRM restrictions and local purchasing restrictions (i.e. I could not buy an ebook of the translated version because the translation is not licensed in the US) means that I don’t have the actual example text to show. No matter though, as my analysis is really only a single word and the deformation that occurs when it is translated from English. The work in question is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the word is ‘goblin’.

‘Goblin’ is Kobold in German and just about any English to German Dictionary will tell you this. The translator likely exerted no individual agency in this decision as the equivalence of the two is a normative matter. (There is something to be said for normative equivalence. For example Deutschland –> Germany is a simple norm that provides a number of practical benefits, even if the former comes from Old High German and the latter comes out of Latin (or Greek) and carries with it a certain historical baggage given the relationship between the Romans and various Germanic tribes.)

The one to one correspondence of actually existing living things is difficult enough given that not all species exists everywhere and the relative importance/commonality of a given animal varies wildly. When it comes to mythological creatures the problem is even larger.

The problem becomes clear if we attempt to back translate in a naive fashion (i.e. if we did not know what the English text said). Here we would run into issues. While ‘goblin’ –> ‘Kobold’ seems pretty direct, the reverse is not true. For starters, English uses the word kobold or cobold in reference to the specific German mythology. So we could end up translating the reference back into English as if it had originally been a specific evocation of German myth. Secondly, a number of other words which are distinct in English seem at risk of being conflated with Kobold (depending on the dictionary I refer to): leprechaun, imp, elf, gremlin, and even troll.

It seems obvious that the translation of mythological names is very likely to destroy underlying networks of signification. While many of the above terms relate to small, potentially evil or at least devious creatures, they are associated to greater and lesser degrees with specific cultures and the mythologies and larger semantic fields that they possess.

They also destroy the vernacular implications of such mythologies and create a de-exoticized Western European mythos in which all particularities have been smoothed away until each part is interchangeable.

The translation in this case is more of a side effect than the cause of this flattening, but it seems possible and perhaps even plausible that translation was one of–if not the– most powerful mechanisms of cannibalizing difference and forging common national and then pan-European identity at various points in history and in other realms besides mythology.

Berman reading notes

p.240 Trial of the foreign: “in a double sense.”

1.  Establishes relationship between Self-same and foreign through aim of                   opening up foreign work to us in its foreigness.

2. Trials for the foreign as well: a kind of exile in which the foreign work is                uprooted. This test can “reveal the work’s most original kernel.”

p.241 Berman quotes Foucault on two kinds of translation; claims that the literary domain only seems to recognize the second type. Far fro “trial of the foreign”, it becomes naturalization.

p. 242 ”the analytic of translation” the foreignness in this turn of phrase is evident.

Berman undertakes this ‘analytic’ by looking at twelve deforming tendencies which prevent the trial of the foreign.  Couched in terms of unconscious and psychoanalysis.

The list is also interestingly foreign in that the numbers are bare [i.e. 1 rather 1. or 1)] and the list items are not capitalized.

p.244 Rationalization (1) – “bears primarily on the syntactic structure of the original” This seems to be concerned with changing punctuation or clause structure in a way that reverses ‘its basic tendenct’

p. 245 Clarification –  a form of explicitation in my understanding. Basically making the translation “a little clearer than the original.

p. 246 Expansion – related to the last two but Berman highlights the way that individual additions, while adding clarity in specific instances, undermine the texts of modes of clarity and therefore obscure on the level of the text as a whole.

p. 246. Ennoblement – stylistic rewriting of the original to rid it of original ‘clumsiness’ or ‘complexity’. Seems like a possible description for the symbolist poets’ (e.g. Mallarme) translations of Poe, which many consider to have unlocked the true artistry in Poe’s clumsy English.

p.247 Qualitative impoverishment – gives examples of phonetic power or emphasis that is lost, but is unclear if this only bears of the phonetic or also includes the shades of meaning that a given word connotes and which may not be entirely present in any same-language synonym or foreign language equivalent.

p. 247. Quantitative impoverishment- reducing multiple signifiers to one. This loss of multiplicity however often requires compensation that increases the overall length of a translation. (interesting idea but I’m not sure I can come up with a good example that would demonstrate it)

p. 248 Destruction of rythms- pretty self-explanatory. How does this relate to the phonetic concerns in qual. impoverishment?

p. 248 destruction of underlying networks of signification- destruction of the ‘hidden dimension’ or ‘underlying text’ where various words correspond and link up. Seems mostly concerned with a subtextual relationship, but it seems impossible to posit that kind of link without also having a metatextual relationship that allows one to ‘notice’ that certain words have a meaningful correspondence.

p. 249 destr. of linguistic patterning- combines elements of the first three into a patchwork of writing styles that improperly homogenizes the text, while paradoxically making it more incoherent. The first part I get, but the second is, again, something that sounds quite interesting but for which I struggle to find an obvious or concrete example.

p. 250 destr. vernacular networks or exoticization – very interested to see the concept of the exotic juxtaposed with concepts of the foreign. Something I haven’t seen much yet in our discussions of the foreign and something that has been nagging me. One of the more important ethical questions: how do we respect difference without imposing radical otherness on those not like ‘us’?

p. 250 destr. expressions and idioms – such phrases are embedded within a culture and even when there is an equivalence in another language, it does not capture this embedded aspect.

p. 252 destruction of superimposition of language- translation can erase heteroglossia or linguistic conflict within the original text. Berman give Mann’s Der Zauberberg as an example. I’ve read the book in two translations (why I decided that once was not enough, I’ll never know) and they actually handle differently the point Berman makes: in the first the french spoken is preserved, in the second it was translated into English, completely erasing this aspect of the original text and changing entirely the function of those conversations.




Discussion question 9/13

Schleiermacher reframes the central opposition of translation as movement of the reader toward the writer vs. movement of the writer toward the reader. He contrasts this with the standard sense for sense vs. word for word dichotomy. What do we make of this way of considering the question? What are the implications? Does it change Steiner’s point that discussions of translation all to often seem to return to the same questions no matter how much ‘theory’ we attempt to inject?

Reading notes 9/13

Schleiermacher – “On the Different Methods of Translating”

interpretation v. translation: The distinction he uses seems somewhat over broad (e.g. he claims that written accounts of business transactions are ‘only a record of a spoken exchange’). There is a point here but there is also a problem of simply being able to dismiss any counterexamples as ‘interpretation’. After all aren’t Homer’s works supposedly derived from oral tales? But of course, I doubt Schleiermacher would call translation of the Odyssey interpretation.

p. 45 ‘There will scarcely be any doubt that cannot easily be remedied as as to which expression in the one language corresponds to any given expression in the other’  How much of this is colored by the similarity between language and cultures that he may be familiar with? Even something as simple as a business transaction may have massive cultural baggage associated with it, so that simply relying on natural equivalence (as he more or less seems to be) could see to massive miscommunications.

p.47 ‘One understands an utterance as an action of the speaker only if, at the same time, one can feel where and how he was seized by the force of langauge.’ An impossibly high standard that very few would ever claim today, I imagine. Post-Freud and all that that entails, no modern person is even willing to lay a strong claim to being able to accurately recall the ‘where and how’ regarding the origin of our own speech.

p. 49 Either leave the write in peace and move the reader; or leave the reader in peace and move the writer. He admits of no (real) possibility of combining the two with any success. The first movement is preferable to the second and he later explains the extent to which the second invites too much arbitrary decision making by the translation.

p. 50 Some discussion of the stages of appreciation of translation within a culture. Interesting, but not sure how accurate. English likely has more works translated into it than any other language simply given the commercial power of the American and other Anglophone markets, but is still seemingly in the first stage discusses here. There is not real appetite for foreign works at least not insofar as they are foreign. At least in my experience, there is little distinction made by the lay reader between translated and untranslated.

p. 55 Makes a claim that translation can influence the entire intellectual development of a nation. Steiner makes some similar claims and had a few good examples regarding the translation of Marx into certain languages as well certain literary movements. I wonder how true this is anymore. English seems to have grown to such imperial size in many intellectual fields that it has actual cannibalized other languages abilities to develop academic language, particularly in smaller languages and particularly in the sciences. Even some ‘proud’ European languages are forced  to force create and foist artificial vocabularies onto their citizens in the hopes of pushing out English loan words.

p.57 “As long as the mother tongue has not yet grown to fit these needs…” Too much risk here of intellectual/linguistic hierarchy/imperialism. Might not be a problem though.  Implicit aesthetic appeals to nationalism probably won’t contribute to warped national identities and notions of racial superiority that will cause huge problems several decades after he writes this.

p.58 See first note above on interpretation v. translation. He totally uses it as an out: “…they truly fall not within the domain of the translator but rather –shall we say?– that of the interpreter”

p. 60-1 Talks about the difficulties of moving the author. This seems to get at the idea that the only true way to achieve a real degree of symmetry in this case would be a radical adaptation (e.g. a story about the treatment of Native Americans by colonial settlers written in English becomes in Dutch a story about the atrocities committed in the Congo)

p. 62 So more cultural nationalism. Coupled with an interesting discussion of how translation might add more rigor into a language.





Discussion Question: 9/8/2016

Steiner talks about trust as the first part of his four. Where does this trust come from? Steiner seems to discuss it mainly from a semiotic or linguistic perspective, ignoring the economic, social, and cultural forces that also cause us to trust certain texts. How might the source or cause of our trust influence they way we translate?

For a simplistic example, it seems obvious that we would approach a novel differently if we knew that it was written by a famous award winning author than if we came across a random book in a foreign language and decided to translate it.