«Y hasta nos afanamos por recordar señales o signos o ironías crueles o vaticinios no reconocidos de lo que sucedió más tarde»1.
"And we struggle to remember signals, signs, cruel ironies, unnoticed omens of what happened next"2.
The drafting of a text, as we have seen, even when it is a translation, departs from the mental view of what has been read, assimilated, and transferred over into outer verbal language. George Steiner, one of the most prestigious researchers that dealt with translation problems, has made many comments useful to accompany us along our path toward actualization, verbalization of the mental text.
The basis upon which any speech act is founded is, in Steiner's opinion, comparable to an iceberg or a plant with very deep roots. The "hidden foundation" of communication is an unconscious associative network, a very extensive and intricate web of mixed and manifold relationships between mental entities and words which, on the whole, constitute an individual's uniqueness. In other words, individuality coincides with that crucible of experiences, and of experiences of experiences, verbal and non-verbal, verbalizable and non-verbalizable, that are inevitably interposed between our urgency to communicate and the result of our efforts. For each word we utter, ten others are miscarried and, ultimately, the image we give of ourselves is the one produced by the surface of these workings, by the tip of the iceberg.
The fact that a speech act implies the (temporary or definitive) suppression of many other speech acts gives an idea of the ephemeral nature of communication potentials, and of how misguiding and delusory understanding itself might be. As von Humboldt stated, quoted by Steiner3, "All understanding is simultaneously a noncomprehension, all agreement in ideas and emotions is at the same time a divergence"4.
Maybe in this respect it is possible to pinpoint a second degree of metalingual consciousness. The first degree is fixed in the speaker who becomes conscious of the regularities and norms ruling the tool she is using - language. The second degree might be the moment where one becomes conscious of the conspicuous subjective component of signification relations, of the (relative) communicative impotence intrinsic in human nature. We have a witness of this phenomenon in the famous theater of the absurd dramatist Eugène Ionesco, in this passage from one of his journals:
It is as if, through becoming involved in literature, I had used up all possible symbols without really penetrating their meaning. They no longer have any vital significance for me. Words have killed images or are concealing them. A civilization of words is a civilization distraught. Words create confusion. Words are not the word (les mots ne sont pas la parole) [...] The fact is that words say nothing, if I may put it that way [...] There are no words for the deepest experience. The more I try to explain myself, the less I understand myself. Of course, not everything is unsayable in words, only the living truth5.
Whether or not a writer realizes her need to mediate between her private connotations and those she perceives as most common among her readers depends not only on her historical collocation in the modern time or in a period when such considerations were still never made (i.e. before Mallarmé and his contemporaries, in Steiner's opinion). There is a component related to the individual consciousness, too. "[...] more often than not, the active sources of connotation remain subconscious or outside the reach of memory"6.
Only the great poets, the genial thinkers can invent words with creative values and innovative connotations. In most cases, we must be satisfied with reusing worn out semantic fields just as we have for a very long time. However,
Private connotations, private habits of stress, of elision or periphrase make up a fundamental component of speech. Their weight and semantic field are essentially individual. Meaning is at all times the potential sum total of individual adaptations. There can be no definitive lexicon or logical grammar of ordinary language or even of parts of it because different human beings, even in simple cases of reference and 'naming', will always relate different associations to a given word7.
The translator finds herself, therefore, faced with a distressing problem: that of translating her own private way of viewing sense into words that have the best chance of being understood by most of her readers (the model reader, or model of a reader) in a way that is not too different from the one foreseen by her translation strategy.
What does the capacity to attain such a result depend on? Many factors are implied, as it is clear. In the previous unit we spoke about a progression of expression possibilities ranging from the maniac's solipsism to human generality8. The problem a translator is faced with is of the same kind: an excessively 'autistic' approach, that makes no effort to let the verbalizing translation act be understandable, and would have a consequently almost totally ignored text. On the other hand, a text that is too standardized would be free from all expressiveness.
The effort an individual makes to set up her communication strategy is based on her experience. Living with other people, observing their behavior, observing the linguistic reactions of many individuals in the face of similar phenomena can be a way to try to penetrate at least a small part of that iceberg. A good communicator, a good verbalizer must be able to see her cultural world beyond her own personal world, must know it in its broadest possible vista if she wants to be able to speak to Steiner's 'hidden foundation' or the 'common ground' of many readers.
This is the reason why a rich linguistic-practical experience must be present in a translator's patrimony, a deep knowledge of one's society, an uninterrupted link with the continuous developments in culture and language. Only in this way can she efficiently accomplish the eventual translation act that is supposed to be implicit in her activity, the one consisting of the production of a text. Let us close these reflections with a very meaningful and enlightening quotation from After Babel:
[...] an essential part of all natural language is private. This is why there will be in every complete speech-act a more or less prominent element of translation. All communication 'interprets' between privacies9.
von HUMBOLDT W. Über die Kawi-Sprache auf der Insel Java [On the Kawi language of Java], Berlin, Konigliche Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1836-1839.
von HUMBOLDT W. An Anthology of the Writings of Wilhelm von Humboldt, translated by M. Cowan, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1963.
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. 214.