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7. Max Weber's "theory of values": a cultural map for the literary translator


a) A figurative statement and its consequences

"What becomes the purpose of the investigation, and to what extent it extends in the infinitude of causal connections, is determined only by the ideas of value that direct the seeker and his period": this proposition by Max Weber is at the centre of translation. In its bare figurativeness it has two corollaries:

  1. What lies outside the values of a culture cannot be represented inside its codes.
  2. Translation tends to be a confirmation of ideas received, and not their questioning.

Therefore the literary translator should flank Weber’s words with those of Boris Pasternak: "The limit of a culture conceals a tamed Savonarola; an untamed Savonarola destroys it."

That act of transgression with respect to the reader’s expectations which is at the bottom of every literary work risks becoming normalized in the transition from one language to another. The only way to avoid it is by separating the two procedures active in the translator’s consciousness, and becoming aware of their different nature. In fact, while the interpretation of a text is an act of explaining its potentiality, which belongs to a private world, its ‘recodifying’ in ‘another’ text is a public act, and ‘dramaturgical’ since what was revealed in the first procedure must again become a secret code; an imaginative language inherent in the verbal language. We can take as a model a writer whose ‘submerged’ connotations are the textual norm: Henry James.

In The Portrait of a Lady, the action begins at tea time ("Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as tea.") with a connotation of stylized grace whose formality of accents can easily become a boring stereotype in translation. Nevertheless, James’s highly ironic characterization in defining it a "ceremony" emphasizes what is only a faded custom. And, in fact, with that art of litotes, which is his outstanding virtue, the writer hastens to point out that the comforting ritual can be enjoyed "under certain circumstances".

Being inopportune and alienated with respect to the outside environment is precisely what costs Isabel Archer the constant and unhappy submission that nearly drives her insane. A translator who stresses "the ceremony known as tea" by placing it before "Under certain circumstances", would risk evaporating the sarcastic infusion distilled by James with such rare astuteness.
A first rule in line with the ‘theory of values’ is: never undo the litotes.

The ideal translation is one that gives the reader the possibility of not understanding immediately, and of getting lost in those ‘counter-texts’, or hidden texts, whose full understanding is essential in translation.
An opposite case to that of James is seen in the beginning of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: "While the present century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, on Chicswick Mall, a large family coach." Here, redundancy has taken the place of the litotes. The initial time parenthesis describes the ‘age-old’ flow of time, which holds the space of the girls’ academy: the place of culture. Hence the emphasis of "the great iron gate": the imposing entrance to the school, almost as if it were a mass erected by man against the march of time. Lastly, with its movement inside the confines of civilization, "a large family coach" expresses the future break-up of the Sedley family due to that ‘false movement’ in the flow of history caused by civilization. If, for the sake of clarity, a translator makes a shift on the syntactical axis, the redundancy becomes mere background painting. The whole story of the novel – the writer wants to tell us – is to be seen in the setting of an entire century: that initial "while" in itself supports Thackeray’s complex poetic vision.
A second rule is: do not always consider redundancy as a rhetorical device. Sometimes it is a poetic vision.