Inmanuel Kant
Inmanuel Kant (Foto: Archivo)

Four modes of translation without inspiration

Por Eduardo Zeind Palafox
A translator is just a field worker, and not an artist. A translator must have in mind the next axioms, namely: 1) the perceptions of the average man are singular; 2) the reproductions of his imagination are subjective; 3) his words belong to the common sense of his society. With such axioms and with some examples we will analyze four modes of translation.

There are translations whose main claim is to transmit information, and their proof of certainty is the material reality. A medical translation is correct if I, as a student of medicine, can heal a person because of it, for example. The Kantian definition of philosophy will be a concrete example. Kant says (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, B 867):

(...) ist Philosophie die Wissenschaft von der Beziehung aller Erkenntniss auf die wesentlichen Zwecke der menschlichen Vernunft.

The word “Erkenntniss” could be a problem of interpretation in non-philosophical minds. J. M. D. Meiklejohn offers this translation:

(...) philosophy is the science of the relation of all cognition to the ultimate and essential aims of human reason.

He translates the word “Erkenntniss” with the term “cognition”. Paul Guyer (University of Pennsylvania) and Allen W. Wood (University of Yale) dispense this version:

(...) philosophy is the science of the relation of all cognition to the essential ends of human reason.

They use the same word: “cognition”. But the Deutsches Wörterbuch of the brothers Grimm relates the word “Erkenntniss” to the phrases “erudivit scientia” and “omni scientia” (1). Science is, before the average English man, either a “cookery book” (2) or a “method of thought which obtains verifiable results by reasoning logically from observed fact” (3). Science, in sum, here is something trustworthy and without wavering.

The word “cognition” signifies “get to know” (4), that is, represents a mental and sensuous movement, a heuristic effort. On the contrary, the word “knowledge” (5) signifies “recognize”, that is, represent something permanent. Ergo, in English public opinion the best Kantian definition of philosophy could be the next:

(...) the science of the relation of all knowledge to the ultimate ends of human reason.

The aforesaid exercise, I know, is a philological exaggeration. But our exaggeration gives clarity to the axiom number three.

There are translations whose principal objective is to cause a mental transformation, and their proofs of validity are some psychological tests. A translation of Dante is correct if I, as a pagan, can feel the catholic fear because of it. Imagination is, as Spinoza says, a powerful cause of mental modifications. Four literary counsels will be useful to stimulate the imagination (axioms one and two): the use of abstract words is better, in this case, than the use of concrete words; the use of dialectic games, which are the cause of Manicheism, that primitive logical illusion; the use of sensuous adjectives, which provokes subjective interpretations; and the use of words without conjugation, which causes the idea of possibility.

An excellent example of translation oriented to mental transformation is a poem of the Knight of the Wood, which says:

¿Dónde estás, señora mía,

que no te duele mi mal?

O no lo sabes, señora,

o eres falsa y desleal? (6)

John Ormsby has translated the verses in this way:

Where art thou, lady mine, that thou

my sorrow dost not true?

Thou canst not know it, lady mine,

or else thou art untrue.

On the basis of the said counsels, the word “woman” (abstract) is better than “lady” (more concrete), and the word “good” (against evil) is better than “mine”, and the word “wound” (the word connotes the term “skin”) is better than “sorrow”. The latter advice is fulfilled. The result, and I beg the pardon of the Cervantine gods and scholars, is:

Where art thou, good woman, that thou

my wound dost not feel?

Thou canst not know it, good woman,

or else thou art cruel.

There are translations whose general pretension is to imitate a style, a slang, an idiom, etcetera, and their proof of fire are the adequate decodifications of sociologist. A translation of the dialects of Ireland is correct if I, as a Roman, can understand the implicit intentions of the speakers of a little Irish town because of it.

A style is the result of specific historical situations, for instance. We, as modern people, with difficulty can understand the “rapid”, “plain”, substantial and “noble” (7) verses of Homer. Some historical situations are the font of the aesthetic code of The Iliad. All aesthetic code is involved in certain phonetic, syntactical, semantical habits. Is impossible, therefore, to make a perfect translation of style.

The translator of styles (axiom three) , thus, needs the next resources of erudition: to put footnotes about historical questions; words with the same root, that is, with a similar phenomenological content; a profound knowledge of the grammatical limits of his language. I would like to put an example extracted from the tongue of my natural city, Veracruz (Mexico), namely:

Coche máj viiiéjo,

which is an expression that signifies in jest, in jeering against some arrogant: “Too old car”.

Point one. The gloss will explain that the Spanish tongue of Veracruz is Andalusian, and that it is sustained by a picaresque “melodic curve”. This feature is typical of people without a large vocabulary, as Leonard Shatzman and Anselm Strauss say (8). Point two. The word “old” comes from the Latin word “alere”, nourish; “aged” comes from the Latin “aetas”, age; and “ancient” comes from the Latin term “ante”, before. The word “ancient”, I believe, has a humoristic savour. And point three: it is necessary to play with the syntax and with an air of foreignness (an example is the style of Conrad). The attempt of translation could be the following:

Car morrrre ancient.

Finally, there are translations whose principal desire is to modernize the language, and their hermeneutical proof is the easy intellection of the present reader. A new translation of Shakespeare is correct if I, as a mere dilettante or as a modern reader, can interpret his system of metaphors because of it.

A lexicography “aggiornamento” is possible if we have in mind the following sociological facts (axiom three): current sciences are a rich font of new popular vocabulary and an example is psychology, which has poured terms here and there, and two cases are the terms “libido” and “insight”; the average man of the machine civilization is a countrified being and is pleased with rural and coloured metaphors; the capacities of rationalization, as Sartori says (9), little by little fall in obscurity due to the visual culture, where sentences are too short. The second stanza of Shakespeare's Sonnet II says:

Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,

where all the treasure of thy lusty days,

to say within thine own deep-sunken eyes

were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise (10).

The result of the application of the said words is (without metric):

Te preguntarán: ¿dónde tu belleza yace?,

¿dónde el oro de tus lujuriosos días?

Dirás, en hondo mirar interno,

que todo fue culpa que agusana, vacío ego.

The reader must avoid all sentimentalism; the tongue of Shakespeare is a “wild tongue” (11), as Henry Louis Mencken has affirmed.-


(1) Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch.

(2) See Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, chapter 16.

(3) See Orwell's What is Science? (Tribune, October 26, 1945).

(4) Oxford University Press' Lexico.

(5) Idem.

(6) Quixote, I, V.

(7) See Matthew Arnold's On Translating Homer.

(8) See Social Class and Modes of Communication, a work of the said authors.

(9) Homo Videns.

(10) I am using an edition of the Cambridge University Press, edited by Rex Gibson.

(11) The American Language, ch. 1.
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