Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Translation and Virtue

I am interested in the idea of translation and virtue and whether there is any relationship between the two. Do you have to lead a good life in order to be a good translator or is it immaterial what kind of life you lead? To understand this question better, I decided to enlist the help of some colleagues in the field of literary translation, and this was their response (thanks to them all):

Peter Robertson, UK:
I have never believed that translators can lay claim to virtue more than the practitioner of any other craft. The definition of what constitutes virtue is necessarily moot, but I am thinking that the writer – and I believe that any accomplished translator is a writer by definition – could be limited by going down too virtuous a path. After all, it is part of any gifted writer’s stock-in-trade to have a deep understanding of the sum total of the human condition, and that includes the tendency to depravity.

John Deane, Ireland:
Yeats suggested a choice, between the work and the life. But I think there is only one choice: the work. The life will look after itself… or not. Translation is an art as well as a skill and is work! But you can find a rapscallion do the work and live a weird life outside the work. Better, of course, to have work and life one and virtuous, but the impossible can be difficult to achieve. Simone Weil believed that a great work cannot come out of a wicked life, but I know some…

Nicholas Caistor, UK:
I’m not sure that a translator has to live a “good life”, but the virtues of a good translator are patience (you have to put in the hours at the computer), humility (you always have to remind yourself it is not you who is writing the thing) and determination (you have to derive pleasure from wanting to make something as good as you can).

Dimitris Allos, Greece:
We can draw some conclusions on this only if we consider the premises on which the translator bases his work: an excellent knowledge of the languages he uses together with an advanced philological culture, a feeling for the text (namely the ability to enter the different roles the text proposes), respect for the author (in other words the modesty not to overshadow the author’s presence with his own ego) and, last but not least, the patience and responsibility to dedicate to the translation all the time it needs. All these things are equally necessary to achieve a good result. Theories that underestimate the value of any of these are simply a cover for irresponsibility.

Jean Boase-Beier, UK:
If you believe there are universals of right and wrong that transcend conventional systems, then you probably have to aspire to the right in order to be good at anything. I have just been reading John Gray’s Straw Dogs, which ridicules the idea that the right and the good can ever be the same; for him, that is a myth that depends on the idea of a God. Notwithstanding this, translators assume some things are universal, so why not ethics? And translators have to be ethical. So if virtuous means being ethical (and there are indeed ethics which go beyond the local and specific), then, yes, you’d have to be virtuous in the sense of behaving ethically. Otherwise you’d be a bad translator.

Kiril Kadiiski, Bulgaria:
Translation and virtue are two linked categories that often don’t depend on each other. Good morals (to which category human virtue belongs) are not enough to give rise to great works (to which literary translation belongs). Example: countless well-mannered graphomaniacs. On the other side of the coin: Villon, Verlaine, Yesenin, the Beat poets. However, faithfulness to the ideas of the author being translated, the lack of any manipulation of the text with a view to your own understanding of things or, even worse, the pursuit of political aims, can be described as virtue and put on a level with translation.

It seems to me that translation (by which I mean all human activity) is a spiritual act in which the Spirit works through us. As the Bulgarian critic Vladimir Trendafilov said to me, we have to be open in translation, to be passive. The question is: will the Spirit reward those living a good life? On the one hand, I think not: our salvation depends not on our righteousness, but on God’s righteousness (and God’s perception of our virtue may be very different from our own or someone else’s). On the other hand, there is no denying that once we turn to Christ (the Word), our eyes are opened to things we didn’t see before (about ourselves, about the world around us, about language) in an experience that for me was akin to passing through the sound barrier. Language fell apart in my hands and was reconstructed. To go back to my old ways would be to sully that gift; forgiveness of sins is not a reason for sinning. As my wife, the Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova, pointed out, some of the best translators in the past were monks striving to lead a virtuous life (and write is surely close to virtue).

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