The OF Blog: Saramago on writing and "translating"

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Saramago on writing and "translating"

It is a shame that Nobel laureate José Saramago's blog, El Cuaderno de Saramago, is only available in Portuguese and Spanish, as he updates his blog almost daily, often with some interesting musings, such as the one below on writing being a form of translation. I had a formal translation almost done, but I left it at work, so for now I'm going to post the entry and give a brief synopsis of it without being too literal to his text. Later, I'll edit this post with a more exact translation (the irony is something else, no?):

Escribir es traducir. Siempre lo será. Incluso cuando estamos utilizando nuestra propia lengua. Transportamos lo que vemos y lo que sentimos (suponiendo que el ver y el sentir, como en general los entendemos, sean algo más que las palabras con las que nos va siendo relativamente posible expresar lo visto y lo sentido…) a un código convencional de signos, la escritura, y dejamos a las circunstancias y a las casualidades de la comunicación la responsabilidad de hacer llegar hasta la inteligencia del lector, no la integridad de la experiencia que nos propusimos transmitir (inevitablemente parcelada en cuanto a la realidad de que se había alimentado), sino al menos una sombra de lo que en el fondo de nuestro espíritu sabemos que es intraducible, por ejemplo, la emoción pura de un encuentro, el deslumbramiento de una descubierta, ese instante fugaz de silencio anterior a la palabra que se quedará en la memoria como el resto de un sueño que el tiempo no borrará por completo.

El trabajo de quien traduce consistirá, por tanto, en pasar a otro idioma (en principio, al propio) lo que en la obra y en el idioma original y había sido ya “traducción”, es decir, una determinada percepción de una realidad social, histórica, ideológica y cultural que no es la del traductor, substanciada, esa percepción, en un entramado lingüístico y semántico que tampoco es el suyo. El texto original representa únicamente una de las “traducciones” posibles de la experiencia de la realidad del autor, estando el traductor obligado a convertir el “texto-traducción” en “traducción-texto”, inevitablemente ambivalente, porque, después de haber comenzado captando la experiencia de la realidad objeto de su atención, el traductor tiene que realizar el trabajo mayor de transportarla intacta al entramado lingüístico y semántico de la realidad (otra) para la que tiene el encargo de traducir, respetando, al mismo tiempo, el lugar de donde vino y el lugar hacia donde va. Para el traductor, el instante del silencio anterior a la palabra es pues como el umbral de un movimiento “alquímico” en que lo que es necesita transformarse en otra cosa para continuar siendo lo que había sido. El diálogo entre el autor y el traductor, en la relación entre el texto que es y el texto que será, no es solo entre dos personalidades particulares que han de completarse, es sobre todo un encuentro entre dos culturas colectivas que deben reconocerse.

And now for the translation that talks about "translation":

To write is to translate. It always will be. Even when we are using our own language. We transport what we see and feel (supposing that "see" and "feel," as we understand them in general, are something more than words which to us it's relatively possible to express what is "seen" and felt"...) to a conventional code of signs, writing, and we leave to circumstances and to the casualities of communication the responsibility of having it reach the intelligence of the reader, not the integrity of the experience which we propose to transmit (inevitably parceled in as much the reality from which it had fed), instead to the least a shadow from which in the depths of our spirit we know is untranslatable, for example, the pure emotion of an encounter, the bedazzlement of a discovery, that fleeing instant of silence before the word which will remain in memory like the rest of a dream which time will not erase completely.

The job work of a translator will consist, of course, in passing to another language (in the beginning, one's own) that which in the work and in the original language already had been a "translation," to whit, a certain perception of a social, historical, ideological, and cultural reality which is not the translator's, substantiates that perception, in neither a linguistic nor semantic framework which is his own. The original text represents uniquely one os the possible "translations" of the author's reality, being that the translator is obliged to covert the "text-translation" into "translation-text," inevitably ambivalent, because, after having commenced capturing the experience of the reality which is the object of his attention, the translator has to accomplish the greater labor of transporting it intact to the linguistic and semantic framework of reality (other) for which he has the burden of translating, respecting, at the same time the place where it came from and the place to where it's going. For the translator, the instant of silence before the word is well like the shadow of an "alchemical" moment in which that which is needs to transform itself into another thing in order to continue being what it had been. The dialogue between author and translator in the relationship between the text what is and the text what will be is not only between two particular personalities that have to complete it, it is above all an encounter between two collective cultures which ought to recognize it.

In this piece, Saramago notes that the very fact of writing is a form of translation. One cannot render exactly feelings such as uncovering of a mystery or a fortuitious encounter with a dear friend. A writer has to pick and choose from commonly-accepted verbal codes those sounds that emulate to some degree the breadth and depth of emotion. Writers seek to approximate the pure emotions that we experience on a regular basis. But it is but a translation, a carrying over from one, personal idiom/form into another. Inevitably, there is something lost when thoughts and feelings are "translated" into the written medium, with a greater risk of misunderstandings and mistranslations taking place as the medium of communication moves from the personal and transcendent to something that has to be altered in order for it to be processed by others.

Interesting thoughts, to say the least. Sadly, my own "translation" barely covers more than the merest hints of what Saramago says in full. Hopefully, my full, formal translation later will help fill in the blanks.


Hal Duncan said...

Great stuff. And weirdly, I wasn't seeing the connection with my ramblings on Jeff's blog when you mentioned it there (probably just because of the sprawling nature of those ramblings); but it immediately struck me as hugely pertinent to a post I was working on (even before you posted the initial summary). Almost synchronicitously so. Just posted it last night on my own blog actually -- sort of a crazy, left-field speculation on language which throws away the whole notion of the sign.

vacuouswastrel said...

I love Saramago's writing (in translation), but they're sadly conventional thoughts there. That's what everybody thinks - it's what everybody has thought for millennia. Wittgenstein refers to it as the Augustinian picture of language:

"Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak."

This "translation" model of language derives from the idea that words are symbols, that each symbol symbolises something, that the meaning of the symbol is what it symbolises, and that the meaning of sentences derives from the meaning of its constituent symbols.

Once we adopt that model, we will inevitably be forced to confront the primordial philosophical problem: the rectification of names (possibly the place philosphy began, both in China and in India/Europe). That is, if words are names (ie symbols) for/of things, speaking correctly is a matter of finding the right names. And this may be relatively easy to do in some areas, because the names can be fixed by consensus (if we ignore issues like connotation and etymology for the moment) - but in other areas, most notably in semantic fields referring to 'inner' or 'private' things, we cannot have a consensus, because we cannot, as it were, 'take out' these 'things' and show them to people and learn what they would call them. So we face this problem of having something in our heads - something meaningful - and struggling for the correct word to symbolise it. And we will discover that we can never find a word that symbolises it adequately - in part because without solid words pinned to our thoughts, we are not sure what it is that we really think. In part, indeed, because the entire concept of 'a' thought or 'a' feeling perduring from one moment to another is quixotic. We'll arrive at a Cratylic paradox: not only can we not step in the same river twice, we can't even step into the same river once. Cratylus ended up not speaking at all, and only lifting or lowering one finger...

Personally, I prefer the Wittgensteinian position to the Augustinian one: the meaning of the word is its use in the language, and then we can get rid of phantom entities. I don't want to argue that here, though. That's an argument that can never be done with.

I just would like it on record that what Saramago has said here is not an original idea - it's not really an 'idea' at all, I don't think. That is, it's the same idea that 99% of the population has, only most of them don't know it - Saramago has had the realisation that most people will have if they simply reflect a little, and expressed a little more distinctly an underlying preconception that is common.

Larry said...


I suspected you were working on something akin to this, which is why I posted that little bit on Jeff's blog to point you this way, as your comments there just reminded me of the "languages" involved in the thinking-to-writing conversion.


Saramago muses on his blog, so I think it was just a musing and nothing that he was claiming was "original." After all, Derrida in Of Grammatology argued much the same, just not in as clear of a language :P

vacuouswastrel said...

I'm sorry - as usual, I failed to make myself clear. I certainly wasn't criticising Saramago, or accusing him of anything. What I was saying was not "Saramago is misleadingly claiming to be original", but rather "let's not get carried away, these "interesting thoughts' aren't in any way surprising or unconventional". For me, a thought has to be original, or at least unusual, to be 'interesting'.

Of course, Saramago may or may not express those thoughts elegantly (I don't speak Spanish, so I can't tell - in my opinion, your translation wasn't particularly more elegant than you'd find in a philosophical article, although of course I was brought up Analytic and thus expect a higher clarity of prose - undoubtedly your phrasing was better written than a lot of Continentals like Derrida). But that's a compliment to the prose, not to the thought. To the translator, that is, and not to the original text (extending his metaphor).

I just think that there's a tendency for people to see a slight variation on convention and consider it deep, because it says what they already think but haven't yet expressed - while thoughts that are genuinely challenging are discarded as too alien to really consider seriously. Likewise, and no imputation in this particular instance, there's a tendency for people to overestimate the originality of works from genres they aren't familiar with - and so it's very easy to sound deep and interesting just by saying very simple philosophical-sounding things that you can get from a textbook.

Another example: as somebody who makes up languages as a hobby, I know a little about linguistics and the languages of the world. Many people read something like Bryson's Mother Tongue and get astounded by how interesting it seems to be. Unfortunately, half their interesting facts from it are simply false, and the other half are simplifications they don't understand, or simple things dressed up to look more interesting than they are. I know some physics people who say the same thing about the effect of 'popular science' books. I suppose it's the same thing that made the Da Vinci Code popular - introduce ideas from one genre to a readership ignorant of them, and it's easy to sound interesting...

Anyway, not trying to get at you specifically - just inject a general note of caution.

[Alas, as my degree's politics and philosophy, I never get to be superior in a conversation. At least physics or linguistics dilettantes can be won over by credentials. Philosophy and politics are the two subjects everyone assumes they know everything about without reading anything about them.]

E. L. Fay said...

I just got a review copy of Beautiful as Yesterday, book written in English by Fan Wu, a first-generation Chinese-American woman. She grew up on a state-run farm in southern China, where her parents were exiled during the Cultural Revolution. I wanted to say something in my review about language and creative expression, and this helps me out a lot. Thanks!

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