Much has been said and written about the invisibility of translators, often with a mixture of resignation and muffled bitterness. Indeed, the oversight of one’s hard work in the very same act of deriving pleasure from it (the act of reading a translation), can hurt. Yet this invisibility has a value in itself, beyond being a humbling experience. Somehow it is the desired goal, the paradoxical mark of a work well done.
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We know language is not a waterproof structure. It will always have cracks through which meaning escapes. When an ordinary reader asks a living author, regarding his or her own work, ‘But what did you mean’, the answer is often an invitation to simply read the book and ask for no explanations–and rightfully so. For a translator though, things are trickier. It is his duty to get as close as possible to the core of what the author meant. And this, leaving the most straightforward questions aside, will not be achieved by being given explanations. A literary translator is someone who loves literature enough to know that its power resides in nuances, hints and what is left unsaid as much as in actual statements, and that literal meaning is as important as cadence, atmosphere, the overall sensations provoked by the music of words put together the way they are or by the ungraspable images they evoke. Indeed, many times the author does not quite know what he or she means–he could not, say, write a dissertation on it –, though he is certain that the work takes hold by its own means of a powerful image, a symbol, an expression of beauty, human emotion or some form of truth.
That elusive material is what the translator has to work with. Hard enough for an author, but at least an author has his wells of inspiration, which he must be familiar with, to go by. The translator doesn’t. He has to enter an abstract world created by another human being – one who may even be dead, and thus beyond the asking of any questions– , and to try to see through that person’s vision, capture its manifold layers of meaning, its music and beauty, and then convey it all through a different language.
There is obviously art in doing this, there has to be devotion, and here is where I want to make a point on the merits of invisibility. The translator’s invisibility is right because that is an essential part of what this art consists of: to render a kind of mirror image of the original text. It will still be a reflected image and not the solid body of the object before the mirror, but it is still his aim to work his crystal in such a masterful way that the resulting work is as faithful to the original as reflections on mirrors tend to be. The art lies in working with Language—the miraculous means of human communication—rather than with two different, separate languages. The translated work has to flow as a river, unhindered (assuming of course that the original work shares the same virtue).
Surely it takes a disciplined restraint on the part of the translator, when already entranced in that flow, not to embellish or unduly ‘correct’ what the author must surely have left vague or ambiguous for a reason, the self-discipline not to be carried away by his own ‘collaborative’ muse when working on an inspiring text. It is somebody else’s vision he is helping to deliver, no more and no less.
A translator is then a midwife. He helps bring an already engendered and finished text into a new life, through a different tongue. A midwife (or obstetrician) is both a humble and powerful force behind a human life that effaces itself after the deed is done, very much aware that what matters is the life itself brought into existence. The translator should regard his craft in a similar fashion.
The dilemmas are of course endless. There will always be the temptation, for instance, of substituting not only the language but the whole culture in which, through that tongue, a text is created; the temptation to look for cultural equivalents when something in the original would not make sense for the reader in the target language if only “the actual meaning” is translated. Yet bold leaps of cultural equivalence may destroy the whole unity of a literary work. Other times, particularly in poetry, the dilemma lies in what should you favour: form or content?, meaning or music?, sense or rhythm? Many times it is not possible to favour both, however effortlessly it seems to be done in the original. Important, awake-at-night decisions have to be made, which entail a careful balance of both respect for and trust in the author, as much as respect for and trust in the reader’s ability to negotiate the inevitable gaps that there will always be in the journey between one language and another. And still, while we ponder on all this with all of our skill, experience, devotion and passion, our aim has to be to deliver that mirror image of a whole created by another human being. There is simply no other way to do it, and do it properly, than becoming invisible. No forceful intervention but the art of dance, balance, tiptoeing around words, is the translator’s mastery.
And why should we complain? We are given the opportunity to enter another human being’s mind, the worlds created by it, and to offer a pristine reflection of them to myriads of other persons we will never meet. Are there really many jobs in the world more beautiful than this?