Thursday, March 15, 2007

Illusory Interpretations

A friend of mine, who knows about my intent to translate a Philosophy book from English to Spanish, told me about it. Apparently, some people (translators, philosophers, I think) believe that in order to translate someone’s work one must, first, be fully knowledgeable of the author’s philosophy. Otherwise, one will fail to translate properly certain terms or concepts, perhaps a group of them, or else. I think this view is wrong, and that it stands on a mythical view of what interpretation and translation is.

First of all, the view presupposes that interpreting and translating are radically different processes, which they are not. It is not true that interpreting and understanding an author is somehow ‘more objective’ than translating, such that, later on, your understanding serves as a proper basis for your translation.

Leading to the second problem: it presupposes a mythical view of language, a very platonic one. It presupposes, for example, that there is some such thing as English independently of English-speakers, but common to every one of them. All empirical research, however, points to the fact that every single speaker develops her own communicative strategy. Thus, as I said, to understand someone else you must already translate.

Third, and last, it presupposes a mistaken view of translation. Every translation is an interpretation of the original text, but so is any single reading of it. There is no way you can escape from this fact. Translation is not a mindless activity where you simply put words for words, signs for signs. Of course, there is no way a translation may be exactly as the original. But then again, no single reading will be exactly as the original. And so, becoming an X scholar before translating X just is a fancy, bureaucratic distinction that will not help you getting a closer translation. It will, at the most, yield a different translation (or get you a job in a Philosophy Department). Furthermore, it will perhaps give you a more biased translation given that, by then, you will have picked up more and more habits from your reading the text.

To say that one must first understand Mr.X before translating his work, is just like saying that one must first translate Mr. X before translating his work, or that one must first understand Mr. X before understanding him. It seems to me that all this is nonsense, and the kind of nonsense that someone that is trying to justify his translations as the work of higher cognition would offer. I should call it, then, arrogance.