||National languages as visions of the world: the theories of
c) The paradox of the two hemispheres
One of the most brilliant neuropsychologists of our time,
Oliver Sachs, dedicated an extraordinary work, Seeing Voices, to the
language of the deaf. Among the deaf, one finds the paradox that every
metalinguistic interpretation is reduced, for physiological reasons, to its
purely conative and need-driven mode, the gesture. In the sixteenth century, the
humanist Cesare Ripa published an Iconology, in which he drew parallels
between the figurative archetypes of plastic art and translations in literary
language intended to relate the emotions of the characters portrayed. Similarly,
in the same period, Giovo published a Trattato delle Imprese Amorose e
Guerresche which describes the psychological character of those mythological
figures with which the Great and Good of the time decorated their seals. For the
literary translator, knowledge of these two treatises will open up new ways to
an understanding of the text: and this, one can never tire of repeating, implies
the notion of an interrelation of terms within an enclosed space (theatre, in
effect, as an ecosystem). To return to Sachs, his basic intuition, when studying
the deaf, was that language is communicated by Signs, and that once these signs
are activated in the consciousness they become Symbols, i.e. linguistic
expressions decoded conventionally by a predetermined grammar. And straight away
one is up against a paradox: how can a spontaneous form of expression like sign
language be interpreted a priori according to a tradition generated by
historical and cultural experiences ? How can the universal objectivity of
impulse become expressive subjectivity ?
Some readers will have asked themselves why translators are so
fascinated by music. The first reason is that, in Music, all is Symbolic
("Everything impermanent is but a symbol", Goethe would have it: and what could
be more fleeting than sounds ?). The second reason will be clear to anyone who
has ever watched the conductor of an orchestra. With a single gesture, a vague
and ambiguous direction written on the score becomes a sound. And how ? Through
the act of breathing. Conducting is the seductive art of getting a hundred
instrumentalists to breathe in syntony ¾ tuned to the
same frequency ¾ as the conductor. In the same way, the
literary translator needs to breathe as one with the author being translated.
Hence one of the few dogmas we will pronounce here: it is impossible to
translate a text without being tuned to the same frequency.
The human brain is divided into two hemispheres: the left,
controlling logical and analytical functions, and the right, controlling the
so-called creative functions ¾
a nice way of saying that we know little or nothing about this hemisphere.
During the nineteen-fifties, psychiatry developed an infallible means of curing
mental disorders: remove bits of the brain. In the case of epilepsy,
accordingly, the procedure was to resect the corpus callosum, the tissue
connecting the two cerebral hemispheres. It was then found that with no
cognitive deficiencies, the victim of the treatment developed a strange
syndrome: split personalities, inordinately rigorous on the one hand, rebellious
and childish on the other. The former, in answer to a question, would respond
only by drawing the distinction between 'true' and 'false', or perhaps 'correct'
and 'unclear'; the latter would be capable of defining a question 'bitter' or
'violet' and little more. Thus it was discovered that the distinction between
denotation and connotation was associated with the corpus callosum. Sign in the
left hemisphere, Symbol in the right. Faust had fever of the corpus callosum. If
we pluck a Chinese from the paddy fields, poke his head into a CAT-scan gantry
and force him to tell us his life story, it will be the right cerebral
hemisphere of the imagination that appears stained with the more spectacular
colours. In the case of a German, it would be the left. Sorghum beer switches on
lights to the left; beer brewed with hops, to the right.
The literary translator needs to be Chinese in some measure.
The process that leads the writer from Sign to Symbol is instinctive, and unless
this is reversed ¾ hence
analytically and consciously ¾
the possibilities of a successful outcome are zero. The German expression "to
paint the devil on the wall" means "to invite misfortune"; the saying would be
incomprehensible without the image of Luther in the Castle of Wartburg, intent
on his translation of the Bible, throwing the inkwell at an unwelcome Satan (the
stain is preserved to this day). Again, it is difficult to see why
"proprio un affare che mi va a genio" in Italian should become
"just my cup of tea" in English without some knowledge of the differences
between the two cultures in the art of polite drawing-room conversation.
Conversely, there is the risk of a complete misunderstanding, like that of the
American translator who rendered the innocuous "Carla entrò" at the
opening of Moravia's Indifferenti, as "He entered Carla".