Logos Multilingual Portal

22 - Steiner and understanding as translation

"you realize that you perceived this, too, alert
Reader that you are, from the first page"1.

In 1975, year of publication of the first edition of After Babel, George Steiner was among the first to use fruitfully JAkobson's extension of translation notion to intralingual translation. Both the spoken and the written word bear the signs of the time, space, and the social, community, group, or individual culture of the speaker and/or writer. At even a minimally complex level of communication, the most interesting parts of the exchanges concern not utterance in itself, but its relations to what goes unsaid but is understandable through the context in order, through interpretation, to catch the levels of markedness of each single speech act, the idiosyncratic aspects of the single utterance.
  Steiner emphasizes the importance of knowing and mastering the space and time coordinates to detect in the text, by process of elimination, the specific features in contrast to other space-time points and, as regards speech acts with identical space-time coordinates, the idiosyncratic features of that text. The text, on the other hand, is not complete as long as it remains unread. Its life consists in the "original repetitions" of reading and appropriation. "Repetitions" because they are comparable to new executions of the same score, actualizations of the same text while reading, interpretations of the same written conditions. "Original" because, as we saw dealing with semiosis, no two readings are exactly alike, even if simultaneous, done in the same place, within the same culture, or in succession by the same person.

Where the most thorough possible interpretation occurs, where our sensibility appropriates its object while, in this appropriation, guarding, quickening that object's autonomous life, the process is one of 'original repetition'. We re-enact, in the bounds of our own secondary but monetarily heightened, educated consciousness, the creation2.

The process is performed from within a condition of submission, of partial passivity or, better, of incomplete activity. The read and interpreted text, its identity as a text, as an entity superior to the sum of its individual parts, predominates our interpretive freedom, prevents us from abusing it. This allows, in Steiner's opinion, to speak of this relationship using the metaphor of love. A good interpreter must be able to give up a part of her authorship in order to give the author her due, and must be able to keep a sense of identity despite her otherness, of a conjunction which is, in part, self obliteration, in part, exaltation of oneself in fusion with the other.

There is a strain of femininity in the great interpreter, a submission, made active by intensity of response, to the creative presence. Like the poet, the master executant or critic can say Je est un autre. [...] two principal movements of spirit conjoin: the achievement of 'inscape' (Einf├╝hlung) is both a linguistic and emotive act. IN their use of 'speculative instruments', critic, editor, actor, and reader are on common ground3.

Steiner's use of the words "linguistic and emotive act" however seems to be in contradiction or, at least, to play down his interesting argument on the perception of the unsaid in a text. The unsaid, or unwritten, is by definition non linguistic; therefore, we think it would be better to speak about "semiotic act" in a broader sense.
  From George Steiner we get a confirmation of our structural approach in this course. We devoted this part of the course to reading as a translation stage, and Steiner speaks of reading as translation too. Interpretation, as we know, gives life to language beyond the time and place of the writing of the text. In a sense, when we read a written text - and, being written, it is redundant to say it is a text from the past, even if, thinking well, even texts heard belong to the past, as is self-evident from the tense of the verb, "heard" - we are "translators of language out of time"4 , being readers, editors, actors or translators.
  The fact that an interlingual translator uses dictionaries, glossaries, terminological repertoires, historical grammars, diachronic glossaries, argot or dialect dictionaries, textual corpora and other such instruments in order to first understand, then try to reproduce what is written in the prototext, is considered obvious. Much less obvious is that the same instruments are useful for the translation/reading of a text in the same language. Or, better, in the same natural language, since we have said that there is not a "same language" even within the same speaker.
  While in interlingual translation the bigger risks are represented by the so called "faux amis", words pretending to be other words, in intralingual translation we have to beware of apparent standardization, simplicity, easy understandability.

The more seemingly standardized the language [...] the more covert are indices of semantic dating5.

This observation is very interesting, even if it may need some explanation. Steiner takes for granted that individuating a marked element within a text is easy, when compared to finding a non marked element in a text, element that, however, over the course of time has experienced many alterations in meaning. It is a sort of intralinguistic faux amis, as happens when, for example, we read Shakespeare.
  Diachronic intralingual translation is a process we often accomplish without realizing it , so we don't realize the importance it has. Since remembering everything leads to madness, our mind selects memories. The story of an individual, as well as history in general, is a semantic organization of memory, and it varies depending on the kind of stylization and the kind of culture. However, art and literature depend also on "a never-ending, though very often unconscious, act of internal translation" , something not very different from the notion of "semiosphere" as we saw in Lotman.
  On a smaller, more everyday scale one could say the same of communications between people. Every speaker derives material from two sources: the standard way of speaking corresponding to her literacy level and her personal way of organizing words, her personal vocabulary.

The latter is inextricably a part of his subconscious, of his memories so far as they may be verbalized, and of the singular, irreducibly specific ensemble of his somatic and psychological identity. [Private language does exist, and in fact] aspects of every language-act are unique and individual. They form what linguists call an 'idiolect'8.

That's the reason why the first trace of each communication act is the peculiarity of knowledge and of the way to organize it, semiotic world or microsemiosphere of the individual. The notion of standard language, therefore, is just a fiction of statistics, it does not coincide with real individuals. One can make sociological studies on speakers, but it is still a set of cells of the semiosphere, of "aggregate of speechatoms, of finally irreducible personal meanings".
  Intimacy only - of love but also of hatred or any other affect - can be useful to understand the other's idiolect, to become the other's translator; therefore, the process being between two languages or within one, communication is always translation. Babel's malediction, sent by God to prevent men from understanding each other, is not the triggering cause of misunderstanding, but only the icing on the cake, an accentuation of the situation that man already had.

The affair at Babel confirmed and externalized the never-ending task of the translator-it did not initiate it9.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, translated by William Weaver, London, Vin-tage, 1998, ISBN 0-7493-9923-6.

STEINER G. After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation. Second edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-19-282874-6.

1 Calvino 1998, p. 37.
2 Steiner 1992, p. 27.
3 Steiner 1992, p. 27.
4 Steiner 1992, p. 29.
5 Steiner 1992, p. 29.
6 Steiner 1992, p. 30.
7 Steiner 1992, p. 31.
8 Steiner 1992, p. 47.
9 Steiner 1992, p. 49.