My friend Rose’s father was a brilliant linguist who spoke more languages than I can count and was always learning another one. The translation career he could have had! – as I helpfully pointed out to him. “Why would I want to waste my time translating from a language I already know,” he said, “when I could be using the time to learn a new language?” It is the other way around for me, I love translating above anything else, but cannot make myself take the time to learn any language well enough to actually be able to do it. But is translation about language? Translation theorists have come so far in recognising the complexities of finding linguistic equivalences that translation can only exist through a kind of “collusion between translator and reader” in which “readers choose (or accept or authenticate) translations that are fit for purpose,” as Simon Perris puts it in his book about translations of Euripides (The Gentle, Jealous God – brilliant title). For Theo Hermans, one of the translation theorists Perris cites, it is not the reader but the author, or a publisher, who authenticates a translation, establishing the equivalence of one text with another by “explicitly describing a target text as a ‘translation’ of its source text.” What equivalence can’t be in “an inherent feature of relations between texts.” No two languages are identical, after all, or they wouldn’t be two languages, they’d be the same language. So what are translators doing? All Perris can say about a translation is to call it “a text which repeats or gives an impression of repeating a text in another language,” but to suggest it “repeats” a text in another language raises all the questions that equivalence raises so we are left with a text which “gives an impression” of repeating another text, which makes me think of the improv comedy routine in which the comedians burble away in languages that aren’t languages at all.
But the assumption here is that the translator is translating the language. If we assume the translator is translating meaning the problem largely vanishes. If language refers to things in the world, another word can equally refer to the thing, and while this is more true of the objects themselves than the associations, codes, and contexts they suggest, all of this kind of interpretation of meaning happens even within the same language when a book is read in another country, or another time, or even just by a different reader. A literary work – or a conversation – isn’t just made up of words but by patterns of meaning, the unfolding of a narrative, the revelation of a relevant detail, the withholding of another, the repetition of a thought or a memory, the comparison of one thing with another. No one writes in original words, all originality of thought comes out of the relation of one word to another, one thought to another thought. Translation doesn’t translate words, it translates patterns. And of course a pattern can be repeated in another language! It is never going to be an exact equivalent but that is what makes translation such an endlessly enthralling and creative art. Any translation is a creative translation, the most faithful perhaps the most creative of all. The translator Lily Meyer goes so far – as have other translation theorists – as to argue that to translate a book is to write a book, which of course it quite self-evidently is – in one sense. But there is more to writing a book than coming up with the words, which is all the translator has to do (and considerably helped by the fact that words for the words are already suggested in another language). The idea that every translation is an original work might seem to solve a philosophical problem but I am still sure it would be cheating to translate a book from another language and pass it off as your own work. Translating is about language, then, because writing books isn't really about the words at all.