Logos Multilingual Portal

6. Tradition and crisis: the transgression of authors. Neologisms, archaisms, jargon and "idiolects". Theoretical definition of incompatibility between literary languages, by levels, and its resolution in practice


a) The end of humanism

In Berlin AlexanderPlatz, Döblin organizes the story by linguistic levels. The ‘workers’ idiolect creates effects of alienation with respect to the ‘police report’ language in which the novel is written. The effect is that of making the police jargon one of vivisection. The first device the writer uses is his denial of punctuation. Denying it means denying deduction. In the material language of the underprivileged, the mental horizon coincides with that of things. On the other hand, the ‘symphony of subordinates’, where, in police jargon, every ’sense of Ego’ – or the idea of the centralness of man within a discourse - is smothered, achieves an opposite estrangement: the classifying of an individual in parameters is made the end-purpose of his earthly adventure. The poetic conception of the ‘new objectivity’ to which Döblin belonged derives from a critical consideration of the influences of industrial rhythms in everyday life. The writer considers language as the only way of communicating the collective unconscious; thus effecting a coincidence between phoneme and semanteme that makes his novel an ‘epic’ poem.

The crisis of twentieth-century literature derives from its confusion between epic and drama. In epic poetry, the principle of ‘mimesis’ is in force: the language complies with feelings, without expecting to express them; in drama the language becomes an ethical faculty. The epic is a cosmology, and drama a moral tribunal. This means that in epic poetry the translator must abstain from any ‘standardizing’ function. The problem is that the epic expression is not always explicit. This dissociation between linguistic ‘dress’ and vision of the world generates idiolects, or those ‘deviating’ tongues through which the writer parodies the mimesis: the cultural models within which he grew.

In this sense, one of the birthplaces of the Modern style is the episode in Gulliver’s Travels concerning the island of Laputa and the city of Ladago whose inhabitants are happy just mentioning things, rather than doing them. In translation, the Latinized jargon of its members risks sounding normal. In a language like English, for which Latin is the jargon of the rulers, a centripetal syntactical construction creates a comical character of its own. In Italian or German translation, rewriting according to the conventions of legal jargon will be required in order to preserve that bureaucratic coldness with which the original is imbued. In French, seventeenth-century concettism performed the same function. The translator will find a valid guide in Boileau’s theoretical writings on 'Ideal Beauty'. In Spanish, the reference to the 'agudeza' of Gongora or Quevedo is immediate. In any case, only knowledge of the source language koine will ensure a real understanding and rendering of so much expressive oddness.

Likewise, those paradoxical lists of qualities indulged in by Rabelais in Gargantua demand an understanding of their polemical object: the Aristotelian treatises, the scientific jargon of the late sixteenth century, with its division into ‘substances’ and ‘inflections’; a series of cases which, if applied, as Rabelais does, to the term ’con’, or female genitalia, develop an immediate comical charge. In this case there is an estrangement between the subject-matter of the discourse and the code in which it is expressed. That of Rabelais as a writer is no longer a Leçon, but a Lecon.