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15 - Fidelity - second part

«Soy lo más parecido que queda a ella, soy lo más parecido que queda a ella»1.

"I''m what''s left that''s most like her. I''m what''s left that''s most like her."2.

In 1816, during the Romantic period, Wilhelm von Humboldt, language philosopher and linguist, translated Sophocles and Aeschylus. In his preface to his translation of Agamemnon, to our good fortune, he decided to express himself not only on the translation strategy he adopted in the peculiar text presented, but more generally about translation itself. We will present some of his ideas here on the notion of "fidelity" in translation.
  The first aspect he deals with concerns details of style and expression. It is well known that one of the features universally most observed in translations consists of explicitating implicit details, rationalizing the intuitions left to the reader''s estrum. It seems that often the translator feels she is guardian not only of linguistic but also mental interpretation of the text, deciding therefore - sometimes without realizing that she wasn''t asked to do so - to clarify the gray areas of the text.
  This trend has style/expression consequences as well. There are expressive peculiarities of an author, but also more generally typical of a culture, and the translator, both as a rational choice, and out of technical difficulty, can decide to try and reproduce peculiarities or blunt them transforming them into more standard expressions. Humboldt holds that a translator moved by the best fidelity intentions cannot always actually be faithful: because sometimes her idiosyncratic interpretation of the author''s details can be less faithful to the original than a trivial standardization:

It can even be argued that the more a translation strives toward fidelity, the more it ultimately deviates from the original, for in attempting to imitate refined nuances and avoid simple generalities it can, in fact, only provide new and different nuances3.

It is very interesting that here the notion of "fidelity" criticized is the one of "imitation". At first glance who could maintain that an imitator is not faithful? But an imitator, just for his blind prosecution of the copy, just for his presumption he necessarily is capable of fidelity, just traces the frame''s margin. He doesn''t realize that in that way it is the blind faith in the possibility to imitate that generates a ''betrayal''.
  Humboldt, nonetheless, is not an enemy of faithful translations. On the contrary, Humboldt is favorable. But fidelity must address the "true character" of the prototext, a sort of dominant ante litteram. And to Humboldt the dominant seems the very strangeness, the foreignness. What interests in a foreign text''s translation into one''s own culture is its identity as something foreign or different, and Humboldt invites us to pay particular attention to such a diversity as an element that, alone, can enrich one''s own, national culture.

If, however, translation is to give the language and spirit of a nation that which it does not possess or possesses in another form, then the first requirement is always fidelity. This fidelity must direct itself to the true character of the original and not rely on the incidentals, just as in general every good translation should grow out of a simple and modest love of the original and the study that this love implies-and to which the translation always returns.

Until now Humboldt, even two centuries later, appears to be a pro prototext-adequacy extremist, as compared to receiving-culture-reader acceptability. And maybe the less scientific aspect, describable with less precision, of his theory lies in his very attempt to limit this propensity of his, in stating that - as we could say - even fidelity has its limitations:

A necessary corollary to this view is that a translation should indeed have a foreign flavor to it, but only to a certain degree; the line beyond which this clearly becomes an error can easily be drawn. As long as one does not feel the foreignness (Fremdheit) yet does feel the foreign (Fremde), a translation has reached its highest goal; but where foreignness appears as such, and more than likely even obscures the foreign, the translator betrays his inadequacy.

From our point of view, given that at the moment we seek indications for the scientific path toward the solution of problems of fidelity in translation, there is a passage from Humboldt''s theory that results more of a stumbling block than a signpost:

The instinct of the unbiased reader is not likely to miss this fine line of separation.

As a scientific criterion, the reader''s instinct is really not enough. But here Humboldt goes on in his preaching against acceptability and the obliteration of the other''s identity. These considerations on the own/stranger dynamics predate by more than a century and a half - in a still embryonic and not yet recognizable form - the theories of Bakhtìn and Lotman. Even if they did not explicitly name translation, but, more generally, relations between cultures.

If the translator, out of an extreme aversion to what is unusual, goes even further and strives to avoid the foreign altogether (one often hears it said of translation that the translator should write the way the author of the original would have written in the language of the translator), then all translation and whatever benefits translation may bring to a language and a nation are destroyed. (This kind of thinking has not taken into consideration that, apart from discussions of the sciences and actual facts, no writer would have written the same thing in the same way in another language.)

As example of "unfaithfulness" and impermeability to the alien element, Humboldt uses just the kind of translation popular in France we quoted in the previous unit, the belles infidèles:

How else has it happened that none of the spirit of the ancients has been assimilated by the French as a nation? Even though all of the major Greeks and Romans have been translated into the French language, and some have even been translated into the French style quite well, neither the spirit of antiquity nor even an understanding of that spirit has permeated the French nation.

The great advantage, when it is a translator who speaks about translation, is that she also knows the practical aspects of what she says, that she puts her own work on the line. Here Humboldt tries to say in concrete terms how he tried to apply his view of fidelity to his translation from the Greek:

In my own work, I have tried to approach the simplicity and fidelity just described. With each new revision, I have strived to remove more of what was not plainly stated in the text. The inability to attain the peculiar beauty of the original easily entices one to embellish it with foreign decoration, which as a rule simply produces a false coloring and a different tone. I have tried to guard against un-Germanness and obscurity, but in the latter respect one should not make unjust requirements that might preclude gaining other, higher assets. A translation cannot and should not be a commentary. It should not contain ambiguities caused by insufficient understanding of the language and awkward formulations; however, where the original only intimates without clearly expressing, where it allows itself metaphors whose correlation is hard to grasp, where it leaves out intermediate ideas, the translator commits an injustice if he arbitrarily introduces a clarity that misrepresents the character of the text.

Two centuries later, these words are still very useful in referring to the many translators still convinced that "fidelity" means a systematic disambiguation.
  One of the more recent pronouncements as to fidelity comes from George Steiner, who doesn''t refute the notion, but "translates" it in other terms. "Fidelity is not literalism or any technical device for rendering ''spirit''. The whole formulation, as we have found it again and again in discussions of translation, is hopelessly vague"4.
  The only way in which a translator can be faithful, in Steiner''s opinion, is to be fair in the hermeneutic process. In my opinion, fidelity is an equally vague notion as the "spirit" of the Romantic theorists like Humboldt. But Steiner''s idea takes us further in this direction:

The translator, the exegetist, the reader is faithful to his text, makes his response responsible, only when he endeavors to restore the balance of forces, of integral presence, which his appropriative comprehension has disrupted. Fidelity is ethical, but also, in the full sense, economic. By virtue of tact, and tact intensified is a moral vision, the translator-interpreter creates a condition of significant exchange5.

Steiner indicates a path that is swift, full of obstacles. Valéry says fidelity limited to the meaning is a treason. Fidelity is, maybe, a utopian concept.


Bibliographical references

HUMBOLDT W. von Einleitung zur Agamemnon -Übersetzung, 1816.

MARÍAS J. Negra espalda del tiempo, Punto de lectura, 2000 (original edition 1998), ISBN 84-663-0007-7.

MARÍAS J. Dark Back of Time, New York, New Directions, 2001 (translated by Esther Allen), ISBN 0-8112-1466-4.

STEINER G. After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation, 3rd edition, Oxford-New York, Oxford University Press, 1998 (1975), ISBN 0-19-288093-4.

1 Marías 2000, p. 220.
2 Marías 2001, p. 177.
3 Humboldt 1816.
4 Steiner 1998, p. 318.
5 Steiner 1998, p. 318.