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Preliminary definitions

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c. Subjectivity and objectivity of literary language

In his Tolstoy and Dostojevsky, Mereskovski advances the theory of a primary difference in approach between points of view. There are narrators who live the scene from within the person of the protagonist, and narrators who describe emotions and states of mind by visualizing them through the person's modes of dress, gesticulation and expression. The two Russian writers in question are archetypes of these two methods, which the translator must know how to distinguish if the poetical differences implicit in the two techniques are not to be spoiled by confusing one with the other. To describe the last night of a condemned man, we might put ourselves in the mind of the individual, relating that only now he understands the destiny marked out for him, reflecting how nature continues on remorselessly, indifferent to individuals, perhaps recalling the figure of some philosopher friend, a token anarchist who had influenced his life and way of thinking (a kind of suicide prompted by niezschean philosophy, or who knows what), or we might ponder the shadows of the trees cast on the wall of the cell, likening them to the hands of the executioner about to carry off another victim. In the first instance, one has the notion principally of narration as a "cultural" code, gaining substance with the number of relations it is able to establish with the world of ideas that give shape to a people and a civilization; and in the second, the conception of life as changeable, a thing of which the significance is impossible to grasp and which cannot be reduced to a system.

This is a question subtending the entire history of literature, and illustrated to advantage in Moby Dick, given that when Melville describes the hunt for the great white whale, he is perhaps speaking not so much of a mammal roaming the ocean, but rather of the meaning of life itself. Together with Melville, Conrad, Flaubert, Hemingway and Camus are perfect examples of the "objective" persuasion, whereas Thomas Mann, Henry James and Sartre belong to the "subjective". Generally speaking, objectivity is found more in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and hardly ever in the middle-european (with the notable exceptions of Doeblin and Schnitzler).

This distinction might also be rationalized as the contrast between "denotation" and "connotation". Writers who describe, and writers who comment. The interesting aspect of the problem for the translator concerns the nature of the language. In effect, a language like English tends naturally to denote, whereas Germanic languages tend more toward connotation, based as they are on subordinating conjunctions, on a reduction of temporal distinctions to spatial distinctions, and on a tendency to articulate "hierarchically"; within single structures of expression.

English is an idiom spawned by a daily intercourse between migrant peoples faced with the necessity for a means of communication that would enable them to perform countless tasks and satisfy innumerable needs from day to day. What emerged indeed was an "idiolect", developing primarily as a vehicle for legal and business transactions. German on the other hand came in a rush from the genius of Luther, confined out of necessity to the castle of Warburg after being exiled by Rome, as he set about translating the Bible. Hence the logic and analytical structure of the language, as if cast in a mould.

As for French and Italian, these are the sum of various idiolects originating from different sectors ¾ the language of the court and of the curia, of noblemen and craftsmen, of cosmopolitan artists ¾ given rules and structures determined by special academies to ensure a "monumental" character, albeit the pedigree has been bought at a price, since these are languages with a limited flexibility of expression.

From whatever angle one approaches literary translation, these distinctions have first to be recognized and understood.


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