‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world.’ Today, in our increasingly inter-connected, multi-media world it’s harder to believe Wittgenstein’s statement. We have the impression of easy access to other ways of being and seeing. The array of sensory experience available to us seems endless. We can physically travel or have virtual second lives. We regularly taste foreign foods, watch films or news clips and hear music whose content or effect might not be easily expressible in our own idiom. Even if all we feel is a sense of bafflement at some of these things, that too is valid, because everything that we encounter increases our frame of reference, pushes at the boundaries of how we view the world. Though finally, Wittgenstein is right, language remains the most meaningful frame through which we can contextualize that view.
But language itself is far less limited and limiting than we might imagine. It is often described as a living thing, ever growing and evolving, influenced by everything from immigration to popular culture to personal whim. Each generation can see this in the strange cartwheels of words spinning through the chatter of the next. Today in the UK, streetwise urban youth greet each other with a growling ‘wagwan?’ and say ‘choong’ or ‘buttuz’ to indicate how a girl looks. Meanwhile, less people use expressions like ‘okey-dokey’, ‘natter’ or ‘crickey’.
Every industry and profession has its own special jargon. Every couple has their own private lingo. So, even if we only speak one language, we speak different versions of it depending on the circumstances. Good translators, perhaps more than any of us, cross and re-cross the various terrains of language and venture regularly into the liminal space at the edges of vocabulary. They are like explorers charting new territory, who brave the high seas of foreign discourse and navigate islands of meaning, to bring us land-bound natives the riches of other cultures.
Ina Rilke was adamant that ‘everything can be translated’. If this is really so then some tremendous wrestling matches must take place to make a language bend and stretch so that it can convey as much as possible of the original. Imagine translating from or into Chinese, which has no singular or plural and no verb tenses. Or Finnish, which has fifteen cases. And these are just linguistic technicalities – there are still the cultural nuances and sensitivities of the text to be negotiated.
Shelley said that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Over the course of The Chronicles, I’ve come to feel that translators, in a similar way, have an incredibly important but undervalued status. During this project, a bright shaft of light penetrated the polygon of my mind and illuminated a neglected corner. And now, my outlook will never be quite the same again. I believe that to read a translation without a mental nod to the translator is to diminish the act of reading. Literature is primarily experience lived through language, and if you’re wiling to consider, even for a few minutes, how the language might have been altered to produce the version you’re reading, you will enrich your understanding of the text. And if you, like me, conceive of yourself partly as the product of all that you have read, then this small gesture has even more significance.