Who wants to be invisible? In this era of the individual, where self-declaration is
encouraged, celebrity is envied and people become famous for their mediocrity,
it’s hard to imagine voluntary self-effacement going hand in hand with the
pursuit of excellence.
All of us, I think, want to leave some mark of ourselves on the world. And every
day we do leave traces, though mostly ephemeral ones. Imagine doing something
in which you could not leave any sign of yourself. And I’m not talking about
murder. Rather, a painstaking labour, which requires weeks, months, maybe even
years of your time. You draw from your deepest reserves of language, knowledge
and experience to complete your task – and yet you must remain hidden behind
your creation. This, I started to realize during The Chronicles discussion
yesterday, is the lot of the translator.
Translating can be a type of Stanislavsky-style method acting where the translator
completely submerges himself in the period, style or subject relevant to the
work of the moment. This is the sort of camouflage behind which the translator
operates, like an agent on a sensitive and secretive mission. And then, once the
mission is accomplished, the costume is discarded and the translator is free
to become someone else. Quite unlike writers who must find their very own
unique mode and then develop that, while seeking to convey within it the great
multiplicity of life.
Ina Rilke described herself and fellow translators as ventriloquists. It’s an apt
description: the translator as the frozen-lipped vessel through which the foreign
writing is received and understood. Of course, given the inevitable losses that
occur as meaning moves from one language to another, we have to remember
that often, in J. M. Coetzee words, ‘what comes across in translation is, at best,
overheard rather than heard directly’. But how wonderful that it can be overheard
at all. Having access to other societies and cultures through their literature
enriches our own lives and sensibilities. And, as Peter Bergsma pointed out during
our discussion, translation can enhance the host language by forcing it to absorb
new modes of expression or pushing it to new heights of beauty and lyricism.
Babies have the potential to speak every language – all languages – like a
mother-tongue. This potential is, and of course never can be, fully harnessed.
As we are shaped by our environments, and adhere to one or two languages,
we lose that infinite ability. But what we never lose is the ability to understand
language, and through it ourselves, better. This is what we do when we read good
literature, whether translated or in the original. And this is what our little group
of Chroniclers have had tremendous fun doing over the last couple of days. Over
the bustle of the Strand and the bang of building works outside the Poetry Society
there have been regular bursts of laughter – that deliciously contagious sound
which never needs translation.