Logos Multilingual Portal

Epilogue - The Burlesque


a) The perverse innocence of mechanical translators

Every act of communication starts with a presumption of innocence: that which Steiner calls the "postulate of Babel", whereby, if a text is incomprehensible the reason lies not in human malice, but in a supernatural intervention. If the presumption of the meaning is lacking, the entire social order will break down. The idea that any adulteration of the meaning is of transhuman origin is inevitable. Therefore, entrusting mechanical translators with the task of transferring the meaning from one language to another seems a clear breach of the Babel agreement.

As understanding the language is a cultural act on a historical basis, every act of understanding is a rewriting of the text, since it involves the decoding of various textual levels: from the referential to the symbolic via the maze of metaphors and translated meanings. Thus, every linguistic path functions as a pattern, or syntactical strings whose outcome is the merging of text and context; the staging of the meaning in time-space, the inner theatre of meaning.

In everyday conversation we all know the unspoken paths; for example, we know that the name of a person is not translated: in fact, it belongs to the ‘iconological’ level where the name is its determination of meaning. A mechanical translator does not know this. For him, the Alsation conductor Charles Munch is "Charles who munches", whereas the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen becomes "Charles Vincent who strikes hard with the stick". Leonard Bernstein is "Leonard Amber", with a happy rendering of the original yiddish; Charles Singleton becomes "Charles of the single sound": the existentialist emanation of a character that Defoe makes the emblem of vitalism in his novel. Thus, with mechanical translators the iconological language changes in level and becomes ‘representative’.