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On the problems of translation
Recently the scholar and editor Sharmila Sen wrote a short essay on translation (, by way of motivating the release of a new series of medieval texts in facing-page translation. The following paragraph, which stands alone, beautifully (!) articulates something brought up, both as text and subtext, in many discussions around this site:

But then I think of the beautiful infidel. I confess that I am vulnerable to her charms. In case you haven’t heard about her, the story goes like this: In the seventeenth-century, a Frenchman by the name of Gilles Ménage memorably described a work of translation by Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt as a woman he had known in Tours. She was beautiful, but unfaithful. Translations, apparently, are either beautiful or faithful, but never both. A translation is the original text’s wife. If too pretty, the translation must be cheating on her husband, the text. If faithful, the translation must not be very pretty.

The image applies not only to translation of texts but to interpretation more generally, and even to translation in a kind of metaphysical sense. To give three very different examples:

(1) What is the role of the translator in particular, and the artist in general, in representing and interpreting. (Would you agree with my putting these verbs so close together?)

(2) Think of the impossible, but culturally resonant, role often assigned to women of literally embodying a kind of divine purity which is to attract men to holiness -- the catch being that they should do so without appearing in so many words, beautiful: they are supposed to reveal a beautiful soul while entirely negating (or covering!) the beautiful body, which is somehow suspected of being too opaque (!) to let holiness through, as if glances get stuck on the body without ever making it through to the original, i.e. the divine. Here the burqa discussion is relevant.

(3) The basic question: how would you respond to this quoted analogy? Is there any way out of the dilemma?
An elegant dilemma...but perhaps also a bit of a canard?  Epistemological and ontological considerations aside, are the roles of the author and his/her translator really all that different?  Is either one primarily interested in simply capturing the story?  Or is their job processing it, albeit from separate starting points?  And in that process, (invoking and rejoicing in the oral tradition!), neither beauty nor devotion/faithfulness are significantly imperiled as long as the story is re-told.

From Dr. Sen's post (thanks for sharing it!), another cool image:  "Translation as two-way traffic can lead languages to mutually transform each other; it can cause ideas to move across time and space; it can change the past, present, and the future. If fidelity represents a certain kind of stasis, then the beauty of a translation lies in the very promise of infidelities it can inspire."

And that's where our taxonomies diverge.  I'm of the conviction that, writer or re-writer, when it concerns a well-told tale, beautiful is faithful, and faithful beautiful, grammar and syntax be damned.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty", said Mr. Keats.

In response to Iľja Rakoš
Perhaps part of the problem is that even to re-tell the original story in the original language is not exactly faithful; indeed even to tell it after having experienced it represents a loss. Or at the very least, a departure. Memory brushes its lips against a past reality that it can barely reach. This came up in a discussion of Chekhov elsewhere on the site...

In response to Mia Vialti
A loss, indeed, Mia.  A graceful, degenerative connection with the narrative/the past is as significant as it is essential when parsing and recasting a text.

A friend of mine likes to lead me around on walks through the best old neighborhoods of Kyiv, and he has me convinced that the thing that makes an architectural ensemble beautiful is not really the architect's original intent for that place, but of its ruin.  The wonderfully crusty, cracked, and stained exterior walls of a tsarist era house look so much better without that fresh, new coat of paint.  Is it what Walt Whitman had in mind?

Women sit, or move to and fro -- some old, some young;
The young are beautiful -- but the old are more beautiful
than the young.

Reiteration is how the Creator hard-wired us.  It's what we do.  Imitate the Inimitable.  Losing something with every phoneme. There's beauty in loss.  Humanity.  Especially, I suppose, when you consider that we don't really have a choice.

I'm all over the place on this, Mia.  But I like the way you think.  Thanks for keeping me company on some long walks.
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