The Perfect Translation: Impossible Dream

A paper presented at a conference about translation held in Dongguk University, Seoul, November 29, 2008

              This paper is largely inspired by an essay written in French and delivered in Germany in 1996 by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, published in English after his death with the title ‘Translation as challenge and source of happiness’ (In: Paul Ricoeur, On Translation. Routledge. 2006). He proposes to elaborate on what Walter Benjamin long ago called ‘the translator’s task’ by referring to two notions drawn from Freud, the ‘work of remembering’ and the ‘work of mourning.’ He refers to the title of an essay by a French translator and theorist, the late Antoine Berman (1942-1991), ‘The Trials (or tests) of the Foreign’ as he explains that, in translation, “work is advanced with some salvaging, some acceptance of loss. Salvaging of what? Loss of what? That is the question that the term ‘foreign’ poses in Berman’s title. In reality, two partners are connected through the act of translating, the foreign—a term that covers the work, the author, his language—and the reader.” [3-4] Ricoeur next mentions the German Jewish thinker and biblical translator Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), who said that the translator has “to serve two masters: the foreigner with his work, the reader with his desire for appropriation,” before indicating that translation represents a paradox and a problematic: “doubly sanctioned by a vow of faithfulness and a suspicion of betrayal.” Earlier, the German philosopher Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Ricoeur says, had broken the paradox into two phrases: “bringing the reader to the author,” and “bringing the author to the reader.” [4] The work of the translator is situated between the two: the work of remembering the original in another language, the work of mourning what in the original can never be said in any other language.

              In other words, we might think, the translator seems doomed to failure no matter what s/he does, since from the point of view of the source culture, a translator will usually be seen as the potential agent of a transmission as nearly complete as possible of the original in all its complexity of reputation, its style and resonance; from the point of view of the target culture, a translator is expected to serve as the agent of an appropriation and adaptation by which a literary text from elsewhere is transmuted into a work that will be attractively exotic, perhaps, but not too disconcertingly foreign in its new context and language. Neither expectation can ever be fully satisfied.

In a paper I gave this summer, I elaborated on the nature of the foreignness of Korean literature, and the resulting test for the translator. During my presentation today, I will repeat portions of that reflection, returning to Ricoeur from time to time.

Generally speaking, people in Korea seem to think that works of Korean poetry and fiction can be ‘globalized’ or ‘universalized’ simply by replacing their Korean language with the corresponding words and grammar of other languages. However, the features making a work of literature specifically ‘Korean’ go far beyond the language in which it is composed; rather they depend on the specific space, geographic and historic or cultural, in which it was written, published, read and received.

We need to remember that whenever a literary work from one culture or nation is refashioned into another language and published in another cultural space, it leaves its home context and reputation behind and undergoes an entirely new process of reading and reception in that new space and context. If the transfer succeeds, the translated work will have become part of that target nation’s literature. If some of the essential characteristics of a nation’s literature resist attempts to ‘export’ them, that is often a result of the ‘foreignness’ of the literary space in which the work arose in relation to the target space.

Korean poets naturally exploit the resources of the vocabulary, grammar and rhetoric, rhythm and style of the Korean language to create works that will be accessible to a Korean readership. They produce poems designed to evoke situations and emotions which they expect Korean readers to respond to readily. The subject of Korean literature is almost always an experience of Korean reality; that reality is normally located in a Korean space, in Korean geography and history. Where the setting of a work lies outside of Korea, the narrator and main characters are still almost always Korean.

              We must remember that before any work, written in any language, can be viewed as “an achieved work of literature,” it has to undergo multiple processes beyond being written. What turns a raw text, be it play, novel, or poem, into a ‘work of literature’ is not the mere fact of having been written. It has also to be published, distributed, read and received. Without publication and reception, it is nothing more than a latent “textual object,” rather similar to an embryo in the womb. These things are true of every nation’s literature. Most works of literature are written first of all for reception within a specific space, a national, or even local, regional context and ‘culture.’ So although a very few languages, English or Spanish, especially, are spoken and written in more than one country or continent, usually even works of literature written in such languages have deep roots in a specific culture, history, geography, and in a particular national or regional identity, which is far more than a matter of language.

One corollary of this is that there is and can be no such thing as unconditioned “universality” in literature. Living works of literature are bound to be limited, rooted in specific particularities of national space, in place and time. A particular space can never claim to be universal, its experienced history can never be considered universal, and so, too, its literature can never be universal. The fact that English is used in more countries than most languages does not make any real difference to the limited, regional referentiality of most of what is written in it. An Irish writer (for example) is usually clearly writing within an Irish space, and to that extent remains distinct from a British, an Australian, or a Canadian writer. Where the readers who identify with a given space can say ‘this is our story,’ every other reader will have to say ‘this is their story.’

We may now return to Ricoeur’s meditation. He focuses particularly on the difficulty of translating philosophical texts, where the “great primary words” are “summaries of long textuality where whole contexts are mirrored. (. . .) Not only are the semantic fields not superimposed on one another, but the syntaxes are not equivalent, the turns of phrase do not serve as a vehicle for the same cultural legacies, and what is to be said about the half-silent connotations, which alter the best-defined denotations of the original vocabulary. (. . .) It is to this heterogeneity that the foreign text owes its resistance to translation and, in this sense, its intermittent untranslatability.” [6] The problem is that it is impossible to say exactly the same thing in two languages, simply because they are different. Therefore, Ricoeur urges us to “give up the ideal of the perfect translation. This renunciation alone makes it possible to take on the two supposedly conflicting tasks of ‘bringing the author to the reader’ and ‘bringing the reader to the author’.” [8]

He explains that the dream of the perfect translation is in fact equivalent to dreaming of a single, perfect, universal language capable of expressing “a rationality fully released from cultural constraints and community restrictions.” This dream is equivalent to “the wish that translation would gain, gain without losing. It is this gain without loss that we must mourn until we reach an acceptance of the impassable difference of the peculiar and the foreign.” [9] With great wisdom, Ricoeur ends by establishing a new harmony: “it is this mourning for the absolute translation that produces the happiness associated with translating. (. . .) When the translator acknowledges and assumes the irreducibility of the pair, the peculiar and the foreign, he finds his reward in the recognition of the impassable status of the dialogicality of the act of translating as the reasonable horizon of the desire to translate. In spite of the agonistics that make a drama of the translator’s task, he can find his happiness in what I would like to call linguistic hospitality.

“So its scheme is definitely that of a correspondence without adequacy. (. . .) just as in the act of telling a story, we can translate differently, without hope of filling the gap between equivalence and total adequacy. Linguistic hospitality, then, where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one’s own welcoming house.” [10]

I will now return briefly to my reflections on the reception after translation of works created in foreign literary spaces:

A poem written in another culture, if it is simply translated ‘word by word,’ very often bewilders foreign readers, who cannot hear what it is saying because it is not talking to them. This is the heart of the problem of mutually incomprehending spaces that I have been addressing. This is the untranslatability of poetry. There is hope, however. Those non-Korean readers who have learned to read Korean poetry in translation, not looking for the thrill of exotic novelty, for quick pleasure, or for magical entertainment, but intent on discovering the specifically Korean experience and vision of human life expressed there, and familiar with recent Korean history, soon learn to recognize the significance of the poems’ concerns, and the humane sensitivity of the poets. To that extent, at least, such readers are able, by their informed imagination and power of human sympathy, to enter the Korean poetic space. Convinced that we are all members of one human family, they readily understand that the pain through which history has drawn the Korean nation during the past 120 or more years has given birth to a poetry that frequently explores ways of expressing the unspeakable, the intolerable and the perpetually repeated loss of significance the Korean people have had to endure.

It remains true that non-Koreans will never be able, and should not be expected, to experience the same immediate, intense response to Korean poetry as Korean readers do, no matter how ‘well’ it is translated. Non-Koreans cannot share the Korean sense of ‘we-ness,’ the specifically Korean self-identification with the spaces, persons, events and feelings evoked by Korean poets. The literature of Korea, once translated, will always be read and received in other national, cultural spaces on radically different terms, with radically different criteria of quality and interest, to those it encountered in its country of origin. Exactly the same problem exists in reverse; contemporary British or American poets or novelists are for the most part unknown in Korea, their works are not translated and published, for to ordinary Korean readers they seem utterly opaque and unappealing, too intensely ‘foreign.’

Likewise, we all know how few literary works from other continents are published in the English-speaking world. The publishers claim it is because there is no demand for it. They are right, in that narrow insularity is a hallmark of many English-speaking societies. Few people in the UK or the US make the effort to look beyond the familiar literary landscapes of home. Until that changes, we are obliged to set our translations of Korean poetry adrift on the waves as best we can, like the bottled letters of shipwrecked sailors. Just occasionally, from far away, we hear someone exclaim, ‘How beautiful! How truly human!’ Then we know that a Korean poem has spoken in a new space in its new language, has been heard as a living voice, and has been understood. Translators can probably hope for no greater reward, or happiness.

This level of eqivalence is what Ricoeur in the final essay of his book (“A ‘passage’: translating the untranslatable”) calls “the comparable.” The translation is not perfect, since not identical with the original, but some degree of appropriation has been sanctioned and the result has been found effective and acceptable, judged by a partial retranslation made by others able to move between the two languages. Yet Ricoeur leaves us with a further challenge, which I will paraphrase. A poem that is offered as a translation of a poem may come very close, at least acceptably close, to giving a comparable meaning to the original. But that does not mean that it is ‘the same poem’, for it does not bridge the divide, since the original poem is a singularity of sound and sense. Language, we should realize, and not only poetic language, is not a Platonic duality where an eternal, essential meaning is temporarily imprisoned in a flesh of words, grammar, rhythms, sounds. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Ricoeur reminds us, treated Ausdruck (expression) as the provisional, external clothing of Bedeutung (meaning). [38] Translating, then, we might say, like philosophy for Socrates/Plato, would be “the practice of dying,” an approximation of detachment from the matter of sound and language for the poem’s eternal sense which is claimed to be its ‘true meaning’ or its essence, its ‘soul.’

We who translate mostly act as though a poem’s sense, its meaning, can indeed be carried over into a new language devoid of and without consideration for its original sounds, because otherwise the translator’s work becomes impossibly challenging. Yet Ricoeur reminds us that “excellent translators, modelled on Hölderlin, on Paul Celan and, in the biblical domain, on Meschonnic, [have] fought a campaign against the isolated meaning, the meaning without the letter. They gave up the comfortable shelter of the equivalence of meaning, and ventured into hazardous areas where there would be some talk of tone, of savour, of rhythm, of spacing, of silence between the words, of metrics and of rhyme. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of translators rush to oppose this, without recognizing that translating the isolated meaning means repudiating an achievement of contemporay semiotics, the unity of meaning and sound, of the signified and the signifier.” [38]

Rosenzweig’s ‘serving two masters’ mentioned at the beginning evokes memories of the source of the phrase in the Gospel (Matthew 6:24), where Jesus himself says, ‘No man can serve two masters.’ Alas, then, for the translator, placed in a situation that even Jesus admits is impossible! Certainly, Ricoeur’s essay moves constantly around the Janus-like qualities of the translator, turned simultaneously toward the reticent, opaque source text and the expectant target reader. It would be important, in considering this ‘interface’ within the translator, to mention the topic of ‘preferential options.’ Caught between the impossible ‘perfect, total translation’ and the ‘verbose expansion-paraphrase / approximate equivalent’ not every translator has the same preferences. Those who are truly bilingual often spontaneously, without reflection, give preference to the target reader and language; they readily paraphrase, omit or transform the original in order to facilitate readability. They may even eliminate what they consider ‘redundancies’ in the original work. Those who are less than fluent in the source language, often more strongly aware of the untranslatability of many aspects of the original, may struggle more to retain them, their preference lies with the foreignness of the original. The less-than-fully-bilingual translator whose native tongue is the target language has the advantage of conscious limitations. I know that I need to check, or at least think twice about, the sense of almost every word, and I know that is standard practice among professional translators. The Korean culture of impatience encourages speed above precision in almost every domain, alas, and in translation this is fatal.

For the translator of Korean literature into English, obliged to move between two languages and cultures that are extremely foreign to one another, the implications are daunting. Already we face a great challenge in what seems to be an increasing opposition among Korean readers (evaluators) of our translations to what they see as excessive domestication. The substitution of American (or British) oaths and idioms in dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg. Where Koreans address one another using many relationship markers, , 언니, 엄마, 선생님 . . . we in English do not, so we tend simply to omit them as we translate. Should we? In the interests of readability we have little choice but to simplify or assign to glossaries much of the vocabulary of food, traditional culture, clothing. The day may come when a Korean Nabokov or Brodsky, the enemies of excessively British translations of Russian classics, will arise to demand a return to pure, honest Konglish in translation. This is said at a lower stylistic level than the high philosophy of Ricoeur, yet it is the same question. Who, in the end, is authorized to judge whether a translator has achieved an ‘acceptable equivalence’ for the Korean original? The reader who says ‘this is so enjoyable’? Or the reader who says ‘this is so [un]like the original.’? They will always both be correct.

In conclusion, let us remember something that Ricoeur also points out: translation is the process by which any human person ‘understands’ any other human person. We are all of us translators, from the day of our birth, learning to read between one another’s lines, grasp the meaning of the everyday unsaid, sense the implications of ironic or other tones. Ricoeur rightly says that, strictly speaking, the diversity between languages is such that, in theory, translation is not possible at all, there being no definable community of structure or vocabulary between one language and the next. The answer to that is that translation happens, and has always happened, even when there were no dictionaries. People can understand each other very well when they want to, or need to, and dealing with margins of misunderstanding is a standard part of everyone’s life. It is always vexing for a translator of any language to be accused of ‘getting it wrong,’ because we are so aware of the impossibility of getting it right that we would rather be congratulated on getting it much less wrong than we might have done. We are the first to know that there can be no perfect translations. We remember, and we mourn. We are human.