Logos Multilingual Portal

3. National languages as visions of the world: the theories of psycholinguistics



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".