Beyond Babel

Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1975. (507 pages, Hardback)
(Online price for used paperback from $AU10).

Reviewed by Ted Witham

George Steiner reminds us what a wonderful and impossible task translation is.  Steiner takes us to the source of the problem, which is our ignorance of what language is: neither the philosophy of language, nor the science of linguistics has come close to unravelling this mystery.

Words are certainly not a one-for-one description of an object.  There is nothing simple about the relation between the word “dog ” and the animal lying at my feet.  In addition, every word comes with its history, some of its inscribed on its surface, and some of it in deeper resonances.

Language is certainly not the simple giving of information, like the alarm signal one chook gives to the group that a hawk is overhead. Animals, Steiner claims, never lie.  In contrast, most human speech utterances are designed to conceal as much as they reveal.  As social animals, human beings present their best face by shaping their words for many and mainly hidden purposes.

Even the  instant interpretation bilinguals provide for their monolingual friends which has the addition of facial and bodily gestures is a very loose communication.  It reminds us, however, that language is far more than words on the page.  Written language is analogous to a musical score.

Steiner illustrates history’s ambivalence about translation from the history of Bible translation. There have always been those who claim that Hebrew (or is it Greek?) is God’s language, and any attempt to translate it into the vulgate will despoil its sacredness.  Against those have always been others urging the translation of sacred texts as part of spreading the good news contained in them.

So translation is a daunting task.  If every word has its own history in its own language, then how can it be translated into the words of another language?  Playwrights in English, for example, have echoes of Shakespeare.  If you are translating a modern playwright into French, the Shakespearean allusions will inevitably be lost.  One solution is to make the French translation thick with invented resonances like those of an invented French Shakespeare lending his echoes to the current translation.

How can translators know all the context of a text they are translating into their own language?  Many years ago I took it on myself to translate Ionesco’s Le Roi se meurt into English.  At the time I was immersed in Ionesco’s existential contemporaries Camus and Sartre, and I think I was aware of some of the psychological dimensions of the piece: the King as self. But I knew very little of Ionesco’s Romanian history and only a tiny bit about the Dadaist and absurdist sources for his work.  How could I, or any one translator, be deeply immersed in all of that?

Translators need some grasp of how we understand, hermeneutics, and consciously use that knowledge in their translation.  Specifically, Steiner commends a fourfold movement:

  •  We begin in an approach to the text drenched in love and trust.  This text, we say to ourselves, has something worthwhile to say at least to us. 
  •  We then move to attack mode, analysing the text.  How does it communicate through meaning, syntax, and sound and thought?
  •  Then we transform, rendering the text into a new form lying somewhere along the continuum from literal to literary. 
  •  The fourth movement, Steiner names “compensation” or ” all that “.  In some way, our translation has to revalue the original for a new audience.

This is not to suggest that Steiner’s is primarily a technical manual.  He raises questions rather than describes methods.  He takes the philosophy of language and the then infant science of evolutionary biology to its limits and finds only mystery.  His critiques of Chomsky’s generative grammar and Steven Pinker’s proposition that there is only one human language underlying the hundreds of languages still stand in 2012.

He gives outstanding examples of good translations.  He presents in inter-linear form Pierre Leyris’ breathtaking translation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty which so moved me that I copied it out.

But above all, After Babel swirls with rich ideas about language and how we share it with others.  What is Babel? Is the multitude of tongues, which our planet experiences as the norm, actually preferable to the hegemony of just one language? Is Babel the attempt to impose politically correct language to the private version of language each individual speaks? The Bible presents Pentecost as Babel’s antidote, and the miracle of Pentecost is precisely the mutual understanding of many languages.

It may be that the translator, whether interpreting a text from a far off culture and language, or explaining a passage from Jane Austen, is doing her part to bring in Pentecost.


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