Let’s make it short: “Why read translations?” Answer: “Because we cannot read all languages.” Full stop. Simple question, simple and complete answer. And this, please believe me, is serious and not an ironic or coquettish statement.
It is like this: We all are born in Babylon, we all have to look at how to get the good things, and it would be an act of truly idiotic self-hindering to renounce the huge cosmos of texts and works in foreign languages just because our knowledge of languages is naturally limited – that, I think, doesn’t need to be explained further now.
This is why so many wise people have always expressed their gratitude and appreciation for the often overlooked community of translators, a group of pioneers, virtuosos and scouts of international cultural exchange who are rarely in the limelight and are much too often not valued highly enough. They help us to get out of the inescapable limitations of our access to world literature (Goethe: “Weltliteratur”) and into the wisdom and truth of texts from all parts of the world and from all generations, and to whom we all owe so much.
Especially my house, the Goethe-Institut: How much could I learn on my various international posts from translators who, through their often so scrupulous and sustainable work, make more valuable and competent contributions to the dialogue among cultures than whole legions of curators, organisers and administrators of the international cultural jet set...
Now, there are always two standard statements that do fall when it comes to the special qualities of translation: The first is the metaphor of the boat, of the ferry that transfers the texts from one language shore to the other, which at the same time means the never avoidable transference losses, the always programmed failure of every translation in the sense of an ideal 1:1 transfer from the original language to the other.
This claim (or allegation), it is stated, is fundamentally to be abandoned, since it is guided by a false concept of language, which always has its own inherent qualities and is connected with the cultural world view of the speaking collective, which is never the same as the one of another. Examples such as the large number of Inuit expressions for snow and the absence of such a word in languages from tropical regions are often cited.
The second standard topos is that of the paradoxical success of translation in achieving a literary endeavour of its own, as a consequence of the problem just mentioned. What is then praised is the effect, which, in view of the limits of the translator’s job, namely to deliver a 1:1 translation, forces him to make his own literary effort, which in the end, at least occasionally, produces great works of translation in the sense of recreations or co-creations. Famous examples of this are the wonderful Shakespeare translations by August Wilhelm Schlegel in the late 18th century, which were extremely important and influential for the reception of the great Englishman in Germany, and are as well and rightly regarded as an independent masterpiece of German literature.
The other way round, of course, this means that translations can also fail! God knows, they can, as again very famous examples show: for instance, the long time standard translation into French of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which in the 1950s every second French student carried in his pocket. Until it became known that it was so bad that the entire French philosophy of those years, which was strongly influenced by Nietzsche, was based on a misunderstanding.
Not to mention Heidegger, who fascinated the French even more, and who, by the way, cannot be translated at all, since even the Germans cannot understand him. Hence the obviously unavoidable obligation that every generation must translate the great classics each time anew.
This is all well known and has been said many times before. Which is why I want to take these thoughts one step further, remembering a beautiful moment I shared with Jo Lendle, Sunandini Banerjee and Naveen Kishore not long ago at the Frankfurt Book Fair, when the superb series of translations from original books in German published by Seagull Publishing, the “Seagull Library of German Literature”, was presented.
Sitting on the podium next to Naveen and Jo and some of the important translators in this series was the filmmaker and author Alexander Kluge, himself represented with four books in the Seagull collection. And he again was using the metaphor of the boat, of the passage. He even spoke of an armada that takes the texts not only from continent to continent, but even more importantly, through the ages. The book-boats as time machines! However, and this is what interests me now, he was not talking about translations in particular – he was talking about books in general!
And thus he gives us an important clue to our topic: If we take the above-mentioned in regard to translations seriously, namely that their unconditional commitment to the source text, their fidelity to the original stands, always under the systematic reservation of possible failure, which means that the only chance of successful translation is the creative handling of this necessary aporia or internal contradiction, then this actually expresses not only the problem of translation alone, but the fundamental dilemma of literature itself.
And that means, taken seriously: Every text, even the one in one’ s mother tongue, is only understood within limits, and will be received differently by each reader and with each reading. In this respect, every reader is a translator, which we understand immediately when we read old texts, for example when I as a German have to translate an old German text into my contemporary German.
But even further: this applies not only to the act of reading, but also to that of writing. Is it not the case that even the production of the text in one’s own language always leads to the limits of what the author is capable of and of what language is capable of at all? There is the famous dictum of Friedrich Schiller from 1797, which says in approximate translation the following: “If the soul is speaking, then alas! the soul no longer speaks”.
This means the fundamental fact that there is no immediate identity of emotion and expression of it but an insurmountable separation. The only means given to us to express ourselves, apart from direct physical expression (such as crying or laughing), is language, which always and fundamentally separates the expression from the sentiment itself.
It is precisely this fact that is told in a completely different way in the story of the lost paradise. Paradise, that is the innocence that results from the unity of creature and nature. This unity is lost forever with the fall of mankind, the human being becomes a cultural being, is thrown into civilisation and language. And with this language it attempts, again and again and always in vain, to heal this loss.
So, if the soul is speaking, it is then no longer only the soul, but actually the language itself that speaks. And thereby, on a very complicated path, actually it is all those who have spoken and written along with this language.
The wisest authors have always reported to us on this topic. And the great texts always bear witness to this, to the great dilemma of writing, to failure, to the challenge arising from the limitations and calamity of language itself. But also, to the great moments of success which then, we all personally as readers know this moment, makes the miracle of literature happen, when we read and feel and say: “Yes, precisely, that’s it”.
And I believe that this can happen just as often and just as rarely in an original text as in a translation. Which is why we must make the same demand of both author and translator – they must be masters of their language.
Which, to come back to the claim or supposition of a borderless literature, makes things a little complicated: Because just as much as literature, whether translation or not, can cross borders, it must necessarily remain within the limits of language. The paradox of literature is the paradox of language – to be both a border and a delimitation, freedom and isolation, a dead-end and a journey into the open, at the same time.
Bertholde Franke joined the Goethe Institute in 1988. Since 2018 he has been the director of the Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi and Regional Director of the Goethe Institute in South Asia. He is the author of numerous essays on culture and politics.