Translation's fruitful struggles are not new
Lately I’ve been dipping into Rita Copeland’s ABC: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics and Translation in the Middle Ages, in which she examines how scholars of the Middle Ages considered the works and culture of Greek and Latin Antiquity, and dissects in formidable fashion how rhetoric (argument, convincing, thus invention) and grammar (fidelity, thus structure, tradition) informed and shaped translation, fashioning a kind of struggle between the same and difference, between the authority of the original text (presumed or constructed) and the positionality of the interpreter or translator as a historically bound actor. And, further, how exegesis (hermeneutics, positioning and explaining) in Medieval times moved translation into the vernacular and opened it to other languages, releasing it from the hold of Latin.
What intrigues is that so many of the struggles and energies of that time echo in the struggles and energies of our own era. Necessary, fruitful struggles!
“…Roman theory,” writes Copeland, “conceives translation [from Greek, of course] as a rhetorical activity: the object of the translation is difference with the source, and the act of translating is comparable to the act of inventing one’s own argument out of available topics. The aim of translation is to reinvent the source so that, as in rhetorical theory, attention is focused on the active production of a new text endowed with its own affective powers and suited to the particular historical circumstances of its reception.… As a rhetorical act, literary translation seeks to erase the cultural gap from which it emerges by contesting and displacing the source and substituting itself.” (30) At the same time, grammar, and fidelity to movement and sinew of language, is also in attendance. Exegesis, necesssary to reconcile the forces at work, “continually refashions the [studied] text for changing conditions of understanding.” (64)
Sounds a bit like translation into English, to me, unless we tread carefully and let the forms and sounds of the original create a reverse effect, and affect.
Yet, as Copeland says, ahough translation is “necessarily replicative” in trying to “match form and substance in a different language,” in the end, “translation arises from an acknowledgement of difference.” Not from mastery, or from an argument of “loss” or of “untranslatability.”
As she concludes, she sums up the work of the critic, or translator as critic: “the vernacular translation that emerges out of exegesis… introduces interlingual transfer, thereby opening the project of translatio studii to linguistic diversity and exposing the unifying claims of Latinitas as a myth serving the interests of cultural privilege. By introducing linguistic disjunction, translation undermines a more fundamental claim of exegetical practice, its construction as self-effacing service to an authoritative text.” (223)
There is a Moebius-like fold here, where exegesis, the top, ends up on the bottom, when seen through the optic of translation. Hello Derrida! (Though it also can readily end up on top again, for by eliding the translator’s act it “appropriates the text” in ways complicit with traditional orders. But there’s possibility there…. one that post-structural thought opens…)