Story-telling and allusion are two different linguistic processes: in the first, the
author creates an ambience, a scenario in which to place characters and
ideas;the second relies on the cultural awareness of the reader, who is drawn
into a game of finding matches between expectation and satisfaction.
Allusion always involves a progressive rarefaction of the message. In effect,
initial expectation is followed by delusion. In Poe's Pit and the Pendulum, the
allusion is made by way of sounds: first there is the muffled scurrying of rats,
which then gradually move away from the legs of the condemned man lying in
chains, bringing a sense of relief to the reader; then, the threatening tick of the
pendulum, drawing closer and closer, delineate a nightmare scenario made
that much more obsessive by its reversal of the preceding respite. Here, the
split between dramaturgy and emotion is painted in demoniacal colours.
Similarly, in The Trial, Kafka resolves every metaphysical aspect of the drama
in the first line: "Joseph K. must have done something..." The remainder is
simply a staging of the absurd, rendered the more incisive since it has been
deprived of all meaning by that terrible opening captatio principii.
In short, that 'must have' is fixed immediately, burned by fire, in the psyche of
the reader; it becomes a must have. As if for each one of us, taking up space
in the world¾even without holding any ethical position, merely maintaining a
physiological presence¾is equivalent to an original sin subtended by the
whole fact of our existence...
And here is a first paradox: denotation, when deployed by a writer with a gift
for metaphysical clarity (Dostoevsky, Conrad, Camus, rather than Flaubert or
Thomas Mann, to mention only unpredictable contraries) can produce
passages of dazzling lucidity on the ethical implications of existence. Indeed,
making things happen at the right moment, in the right sequence, has much
greater effect as an indictment of creation than any nihilistic frenzy. The eye of
the artist is averted, in indignation, and this detachment from what is being
recounted, paradoxically, becomes consistent as a human response.
An extreme case would be the passage in theDivine Comedy that refers to
Ugolino Della Gherardesca dying of starvation:"poscia, più che il dolore, poté
il digiuno" ("hunger did what sorrow could not do"). The suspicion that Ugolino
may have eaten his children, starved to death, lurks hopelessly in the mind of
the reader; all the same, Borges has written several pages demonstrating that
this perverse nuance never even came into the author's mind. Dante denotes
the death of Ugolino from hunger; it is we modern readers, influenced by the
preconceptions woven into our vision of the Middle Ages (and instrumental,
conversely, in giving the period its fascination), who by connotation introduce
the notion that Ugolino may have eaten his children. Similarly, this transition is
not actually stated in Borges'essay; it is myconnotation. To determine which
side to take in the sphere of this debate, for a 'modern' translator, would be to
write an out-and-out ethical manifesto on the act of translating.
To recapitulate: denotation pursues the myth of objectivity, the expressive
function of pure perception. Since the observation of reality is conditioned by
a point of view¾the only 'ethical' parameter possible¾it follows that
connotation subtends an opinion of reality more merciless than any allocution.
For a translator, denotation holds many pitfalls, as it involves the acceptance
of an ambiguity between sense and significance capable of generating the
utmost disquiet. Like the famous paradox of Epimenides the Cretan, said to
have stated that "all Cretans are liars". The only way to emerge unscathed is
to dissociate oneself. Heine wrote a poem on the theme of dissociation:Der
Doppelgänger: the Double. A jilted lover walking by the light of the moon
passes below the dwelling of his erstwhile sweetheart. Looking up at the
windows, he sees his double, his other self of times past, living that fleeting
and illusory life of happiness he had with her. It all seems just serenely
masochistic. In reality, electing to use pure denotation has the effect of
creating a bewildering game of mirrors. The moon is "bleiche Geselle", the
poet's "pale companion". It is reflected in the windows; its rays illuminate the
Doppelgänger, which in German means not only "Double" but also "Shadow".
"Geselle" can also means "pupil", "apprentice". This poet, then, being master
of the "Geselle", of the moon¾his reflection, like the Shadow, heading for a
home of time past¾ is a hallucination of the poet, the happy lover, of time
past (but is he really of "time past"?): a prefiguration, in the mind of a
madman, of that redemptionless journey awaiting him, after his short-lived
happiness. Is all this 'interpretation'? No, inasmuch as simple scene-setting,
the sensory definition of a given space, is pure denotation: a game in which
the ambiguity of poetic language is at its height.
The translator faced with rendering all this is in trouble. The only way open is
to fall back on reiteration: so, the Moon is the "pale lover of the poet", "master
of the shadows". Is this connotation? Not exactly, but we have changed the
'interior theatre' of the scene, and thus widened the'field'. The operation is
illegitimate, but expressive. It works through the imagination. It is only a pity
that in doing this, one detail is lost (when translating into Italian): in German,
the moon¾Der Mond¾is masculine.
"Geselle" also means "vagabond"; so, the moon is a strolling poet, with no
homeland. The pupil, in other words, deserts the lessons given by the master-
poet. In the end, poetry also turns out to be a subtle mockery of the platitudes
used by the poet-prophet, à la Goethe... This time, there will have to be a nice
little footnote no matter what anyone says.
And do you think this a problem found only in foreign (sic. i.e. non-Italian)
languages? When the Lady (the Nun) of Monza gets to know the handsome
young man with whom she will break her vow of chastity, what justifies us in
assuming that it was "the unfortunate woman" who said yes? Quite simply,
everything that Manzoni had told of the lustful sister up to that point. Which
makes Manzoni¾and indeed any translator¾no different
to Epimenides the Cretan.
In Finnegan's Wake, Joyce seeks to avoid such awkwardness by suspending
all distinction between perception and phenomenon. Everyone knows that
"rivers run"; few realize that, in writing, the river is always a "riverrun", and not
in the mere physical sense of a watercourse or waterway. In reality, Joyce's
"riverrun" is no part of the scenery.It is pure action, pure denotation.
One is reminded of the epitaph that Stendhal, a true prophet of denotation,
composed for his own headstone: "He lived, He wrote, He loved". Translators
tend more to use denotation¾in translation, that is¾the more they are
confronted with pure action. InDe Brevitate Vitae, Seneca maintains that life
is not short, but becomes so because we make poor use of our time. "Exigua
parte est vitae qua vivimus", he says, quoting Virgil, "ceterum quidem omne
spatium non vita, sed tempus est". Now, when learning Latin at school, the
pupil struggles to match the simple ablative to a whole jumble of 'modern'
complements: time, place, condition, etc., whereas the Latins understood the
sublimely ambiguous denotation of an ablative absolute, in other words, "that
which is so, neither can it be otherwise". So, "pars vitae qua vivimus" is the
portion of life given to us; existing outside of this is infinity, which remains
unfathomable to us precisely by reason of our being alive. "Life", therefore,
affords us the possibility of perceiving this "tempus". Not bad, as reflecting the
philosophical power of pure denotation! Do you want an exercise to give you
"heebie-jeebies"? Try rendering all of this in Italian (sic), keeping within the
limits of denotation...
Sometimes denotation can take over the entire structure of a novel. An
extreme case is Robert Musil'sMan without qualities, in which part of the'plot'
is the Parallel Action: the preparations with which certain high officials of the
Hapsburg Empire make ready to celebrate fifty years of Franz Josef's reign.
For the characters involved in this triumphalist project, Parallel Action is action
and nothing more. So for who is it 'parallel'? For Musil, as observer of the
world in which his novel is set; and it is no accident that the book begins with
the description of a nice sunny day in Vienna using the formal and 'scientific'
language of meteorology,sounding with isobars and parallels... Denotation
here becomes elision at one and the same time, through emphasis. The initial
point of view is cosmic, whilst the perspective of the story within becomes that
of a bell jar¾the artificial Vienna of Franz Josef¾under which a few guinea
pigs, observed by Musil the biologist, perform their absurd rituals. If the
translator fails to denote all of this, the sense of metaphysical amusement flies
off as if on the wingbeat of a butterfly: the action, according to Meteorological
theory, capable of triggering storms on the opposite side of the globe...
Archaic poetry provides a good exercise in denotation for the modern
translator. In this form of literature, the only way of denoting something is by
metaphor, that is to say the relationship, sufficiently comprehensible though
not necessary, between the incommensurable qualities of different objects.
Thus, in the Icelandic sagaEdda, the air is the "home of the wind "; herrings
are "arrows of the sea", the beard is the "woods of the jaw", the bench a
"sitting tree", beer is the "sea in the glass", teeth are the "rocks of words", the
heart is the "hard acorn of thought", and so on. Once again, denotation is the
art of representing, pictorially, the actions of an agency above the worldly
universe, relying on the virtues of interior imagination. Have we denoted the
act of translating?
In short, we could define denotation as an act of allusion that aspires to
connotation, without ever ultimately succeeding. It is essential, for a translator,
to observe this element of reserve in a text. The Greeks spoke of the poetic
word as "pan kai en": the whole within the limits of the One. This dictates the
need to absorb the entire dramaturgy of a text, before it can be translated; to
have taken on board its dramaturgical parameters before so much as a word
is written; to make the dramaturgy an 'act of expression'. In translation of the
work, time becomes space.
In Dante'sParadise, God is denoted as "the Glory of Him who moves all
things"; a glory that "penetrates throughout the universe and shines". God,
then, is 'time', and as such is 'drama'. In theInferno, He'moves'passions, as
history; in thePurgatoryhe 'penetrates time', developing the history of every
individual in relation to eternity; in theParadisehe is 'resplendent', having by
this time freed the souls He has enlightened from the constraints of time. In
effect, the first tercet of theParadisedenotes the entireComedy. We have
discovered the 'denotative fulcrum' of the poem. At this point the act of
translating becomes legitimate.
The meaning of things is inherent in them, as the entire oak, according to the
Goethe, in the acorn. At the end of Faust, "Alles Vergaengliche ist nur ein
Gleichnis", says Goethe. It is a hymn to denotation. Well then, how will
an eminent translator render this closing passage? "All that is changeable is but
a Symbol..." Symbol for Gleichnis? Etymologically, this means "that which is
similar to something else": "analogy". "Symbol" connotes, "Gleichnis" denotes.
Indeed, what is the principal meaning underlying every word, every being: that
which gives legitimacy to everything defined by association with it? Goethe
does not know, but his translators do, given that they encrust the fearful
nakedness of the original with an overlay of catholic and Jesuitical implication
that has acquired such notorious power historically in the fabric of Italian
culture... Do you know how Faust is saved? Mephistopheles is distracted by
those adorable nude cherubs and the charms of their androgynous buttocks...
Are these "symbols" too?
The translator's worst enemy ishorror vacui. The observance of denotation,
for translators, is the most arduous and disturbing of trials... And the most
necessary. As Borges says in a great poem, the most gloomy thought for a
writer is not to know, when describing a tiger, whether there may be an
archetypal Tiger behind the words to give them legitimacy... Translation is the
search, within the self, for this original tiger.