Saturday, May 17, 2014

what is translation?

The great translator Ralph Manheim (namesake of a coveted award given to translators, the “PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, ” “likened his work...,” says the New York Times obituary, 1992—”likened his work to acting, saying a translator’s challenge was ‘to impersonate his author,’” not to impersonate the author, but to enown the author, “his author,” in the act of translation.

Is this the Act belonging to the translation; or is it the translation belonging to the Act of translating? The latter, of course. The translating is an enowning of the authorship, an intimacy with the authorship that results in a possession by the author (as best one can) of the text at hand. The author may say, in the intimacy of the writing—in gaining the time that is to let go of the writing and, in effect, saying in the Act of releasing the writing into the version of itself that is now, “This is the text that I’ve become, that I am for you through." In the intimacy of the writing, the author becomes of his/her text. The text born from the authorship is by the author of the text—the author understanding himself as of this text. The writing is alive in setting forth what is set up “now” as the text of the authorship, by the author who, relative to the text, has become the author of the text.

This improvisation would be found accurate (though convoluted) by literary authors: There’s an intimacy to the writing that belongs to the eventually-released text, and that intimacy is implicit to the text as lovingly written. The translator seeks to become possessed by that—alas, the literary reader seeks to become possessed by the text, seeking perhaps an intimacy with the text that is a resonant textual intimacy between reader and author.

In translation, it is also a “romance” of language: What English is most fair to the fairness of the German? If it’s German that has its own linguisticality in view—as does any literary writer, any poet, really: any devoted writer—what wording is truest to what the German says? (What is "the German”: Heidegger? the language?)

Consider some lines of verse, translated by Manheim from Heidegger’s German translation of Sophocles’ Greek, part of the “Ode to Man” chorus of Antigone: “And he has found his way / to the resonance of the word, / and to wind-swift all-understanding, / and to the courage of rule over cities.”

Now consider the following, later translation of the same German lines: “Into the sounding of the word, as well / and into wind-swift all-understanding / he found his way, and into the mettle / to rule over cities.”

Does Manheim show a superior sense of English phrasing than the later translation? Would one say that Manheim is perhaps possessed by the poetry in a way that the later translator is not? Also, the thought is different in the two translations: In Manheim’s, the finding of way prevails in what is found (i.e., what’s found is subordinate to the finding); in the second, the phrasing feels awkward (the finding is subordinate to what is found). In Manheim’s translation, courage is found; in the later translation, mettle.

The verse continues (Manheim): “He has considered also how to flee / from exposure to the arrows / of unpropitious weather and frost.”

The later translator: “He has considered, too, how he might flee / exposure to the arrows / of unpropitious weather and its frosts.”

In Manheim’s version, there’s a sense of belonging together of weather-and-frost (frosted weather), while the later version makes frost a possession, if not product, of the weather.

What matters here is: What was Heidegger intending? Manheim is translating Heidegger, so naturally we want to know what Heidegger read Antigone to be saying. The later translator is not attending to that, as we’ll see:

Manheim continues Heidegger’s continuation: “Everywhere journeying, inexperienced and without issue / he comes to nothingness.”

The later translation: “Everywhere trying out, underway; untried, with no way out / he comes to Nothing,” and the translator footnotes ‘Nothing’ to say that “The Greek that Heidegger translates....can be more conventionally translated....In other words, where Heidegger sees a paradox..., most translators would see....” So, what we have here is the translator making choices about the translation of Greek, rather than choices about the translation of Heidegger. This is why the English is inferior—very inferior:

Manheim: “Through no flight can he resist / the one assault of death / even if he has succeeded in cleverly evading / painful sickness”

later translation: “A single onslaught, death, he was unable / ever to resist by any flight / even if in the face of dire illness / deft escape should be granted him.”

Manheim’s translation of Heidegger is from his 1959 Introduction to Metaphysics, for Doubleday. It was reprinted by Yale UP, but then they let it go out of print, and a new translation appeared for Yale by Gregory Fried and Richard Polk, 2000. This duo has become a team with an agenda spanning several translation projects by now (but interpreting Heidegger appropriately isn't part of their plan).

After “The Ode on Man” translation (Heidegger’s reading of the Greek), Heidegger introduces what he’s about to do:

Manheim: “In the first phase we shall set forth the intrinsic meaning of the poem, that which sustains the edifice of words and rises above it.”

Fried/Polk: “In the first phase we will especially stress what provides the inner integrity of the poem and sustains and permeates the whole, even in its linguistic form.”

“Setting forth” happens to be a keynote of Heidegger’s 1930 essay “Essence of Truth,” distinguished there from “setting up.” For Heidegger, to set forth is very different from to-especially-stress. An interest in intrinsic meaning is very different from an interest in inner integrity. And the edifice of words rising is very different from linguistic form.

The Fried/Polk translation is an inferior sense of Heidegger’s thinking, I would argue, by going on with this kind of comparison. But I’ll stop. If you’re interested in Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, find a Manheim edition in your library.

Interesting here is that Introduction…, 1935, follows rather immediately after Heidegger’s lecture course on Hölderlin’s poems, which appeared in English, 2014 (previous posting here). His turn to thinking about intrinsic meaning in poetic expression was already deeply engaging him before his Introduction lectures.

This was also the period in which he wrote his first version of “The Origin of the Work of Art” (his preferred version, but he made second and third versions that would be more publically accessible; he put his first version in a drawer, and it wasn't published until a few years ago).

Clearly, in the mid-30s, Heidegger was searching for a valid basis for understanding what being German can best be, already rejecting what is, already striving to get beyond nihilism's destiny in an era of tragedy that was to become inconceivably greater than anyone anticipated in the 1930s. His turn to Hölderlin and, later, to other great German voices was all he could do, I guess, to keep alive with the people he loved hope for the future implicit in what had been lost from the past.

Says the chorus of Antigone (via Manheim), "He wends his way between the laws of the earth / and the adjured justice of the gods”— which would be what now? an historical destining? Our evolving as such? What may that be, without scientistic essentialism?

"Rising high above his place, / he who for the sake of adventure takes / the nonessent for essent loses / his place in the end."

Seven years later, 1942, Germany is suffering heavy bombing in the north. Heidegger, in the southwest, lectures again on Hölderlin—the "Ister"—and again, dwells with Sophocles' "Ode to Man," as if Heidegger was not only possessed by Hölderlin.

May the gods be with us.