Thursday, April 28, 2016

John Berger on Translation

John Berger writes in the The Guardian:
true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless “thing” and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.
This is not my experience. An I am bilingual (German-English), have translated from English to German (generally recommended, as that is my native language) and from German to English (not generally recommended, as it goes from the native language to the language I speak and think in now, that is, for the last 48 years).[1]

In fact, I don't know what it would mean to "return to the pre-verbal." I have never had any access to this level. Even when I dream, I dream in English or in German. Nor do I understand what he means by characterizing translation as a "binary affair." If he means that it is something that resembles Searle's "Chinese room," I agree. It's not a question of simply correlating a definite set of words in one language with some definite set of words in the other (in accordance with certain rules). It's much more complicated and involves reconstruction. If, however, he suggests that there is another kind of language between the source language and target language, I strongly disagree. But perhaps I am just more deficient than Berger.


1. Even though I have I have lived in English for much longer than in German, my English is weaker. It's like handedness. A left-handed person may become very good at using her right hand, but that does not mean that she will become right-handed.

7 comments:

Michael Leddy said...

I’m not keen on Berger’s language here — a “quivering almost wordless ‘thing’” placed “behind” language? Like you, I don’t know what that means.

I like what Stanley Lombardo says (in an interview, with me): “Translation is mind to mind, not dictionary to dictionary.”

Franz Grieser said...

Well, well.
Maybe Berger's words need translation, too.
And maybe it's much simpler than he suggests. I've been translating from English to German and vice versa for 30 years. And of course, I always ask myself what I assume that the author wanted to say - and how he or she actually said it. And then I chose the words and phrases that seem most fitting to me.

MK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MK said...

Perhaps I don't understand Berger's words. But I doubt it. I think the problem is that he talks about something that is neither verifiable nor falsifiable in any strict sense. Nor is it very plausible, anyway. Even if you believe Chomsky is right (as he does), there is no need to assume a "pre-verbal" reality. Nor does it justify you in claiming that "within one mother tongue are all mother tongues." Your mother tongue may well be related to other tongues, but it is special.

Not to engage in an ad hominem argument, but I do wonder whether Berger fluently speaks or writes in any language other than English.

Carlos Eduardo Morreo said...

He does actually. He has lived in France for decades now.

Carlos Eduardo Morreo said...

My translation of Aime Cesaire's Return to my native land into English, originally in the French of the cultured Caribbean, is by John Berger and Anya Bostock.

MK said...

As I suggested, ad hominems are a bad idea.

By the way, I do think that his fundamental idea of "translation" is informed by the relation between painting and lnaguage. But I don't think talking about what you (or someone else) has painted is translation.