Meister Remastered: Carlyle’s Interpretation of the Translator’s Role

by Harry Heuser

The Translator Translated

Seemingly countless are the rhetorical figures that have been employed in attempts to define the role of the translator and the act of translation.  Goethe once likened translators to mediators among merchants engaged in international trade, but, trading metaphors, also saw them as the prophets of their people (Norton 19-20).  According to their functions, translators have been referred to as “pioneer,” “midwife,” and “teammate” (Nida 153); more recently, A. K. Ramanujan has called the translator an “artist on oath” (62), whereas Christopher Middleton suggested the analogy of the “mime” who “takes possession of a total structure by bringing countless small and subtle perceptions into an imaginative configuration” (27).  When one writes about the task of the translator, anything, it seems, is deemed preferable to a statement such as the one made by Theodore Savory in The Art of Translation (1960): “What can the translator do? Frankly, there is no text-book answer: he can but do his best” (27).

In an introduction to his translation of Pindar, Abraham Cowley wrote: “I am not so much enamour’d of the Name Translator, as not to wish rather to be Something Better, tho’ it want yet a Name” (qtd. in Steiner 254).  In lieu of clear and comprehensive definitions, a great number of lexical alternatives have been proposed, among them Dryden’s “paraphrase” and Roman Jakobson’s “transmutation” (Steiner 253-61).  Translations have been called “transpositions, reenactments, interpretations” (Ramanujan 62), “re-presentation” or “double interpretation” (Lewis 37), or “version making or imitation or refraction” (Heaney 20), or, damn it all, “transluciferation” (Waldrop 225).  According to Frederick Ahl,

“Translation” is too mild a word to capture the violent process whereby a text written in one language and time is taken apart and rebuilt in another.  Perhaps “metamorphosis” comes closer.  For such radical changes in sense and sound occur during the process of translation that the end product is generally no longer intelligible to the author of the original or his cultural community.  The recreated work belongs to its new language and culture—and, very largely, to its recreator.  (173)

The substitutions for and the wordplay involving “translation” do not merely suggest diverging viewpoints; they also signal a certain helplessness among theorists and practitioners when it comes to capturing the nature of the interlingual trade, as well as the duty and responsibility of those who engage in it.  Joseph Graham argues that

[w]e have no definitive theory of language or meaning and no definitive criteria for translation either.  What we know is tentative at best, neither full nor final but fragmentary and temporary.  We have common examples of translation and we can designate others as appropriately similar.  But we have no real definition, no description with enough empirical substance or logical force to say just what it is about translations that makes them what they are.  (23)

Yet despite the fact that this ongoing “search for definitions” has led to an “increase in confusion rather than clarity” (Lefevere, “Introduction” 8), translators continue to perform their tasks based upon principles not always disclosed or apparent, while critics, imposing their own standards or following established models, keep on judging them.

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