Rabassa & Steiner: Role Models for Translators and Lessons for Those Who Need Them - Translation Skills Training

Rabassa & Steiner: Role Models for Translators and Lessons for Those Who Need Them

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It is no hyperbole to observe that Gregory Rabassa was a prolific translator.  However, being a quantitative statement, it does not do justice either to Mr. Rabassa’s magical mastery of the art of translation or to translation as an art.  The distinction between translation as a craft, as it is often called, and as an art is not mine.  At the beginning of his professional memoir: If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents (2005), Rabassa makes this distinction thus: “I say art and not craft because you can teach a craft but you cannot teach an art.  You can teach Picasso how to mix his paints but you cannot teach him how to paint his demoiselles” (p. 3).  This blog will review only a couple of aspects of his memoir along with observations made by George Steiner to extract a few ideas that can serve as model attitudes and approaches for practicing and aspiring Analytic Linguists (in two of their three roles: as monitors and translators) as well as some facts about language and translation which those who require their talents should keep in mind.
 If This Be Treason is divided into three sections, presenting and examining translation as if it were on trial for treason: against language, against authors, and against readers.  The first section offers recollections which he explicates as profound observations about the nature of language, thoughts, memories and the semiotic problems of meaning, inasmuch as “the word is the very essence of language, the metaphor for all the things we see, feel, and imagine” (p. 4).  The second is the longest and each chapter addresses his experiences with translating particular authors.  The last is a brief peroration, to attempt to decide the case. Since the purpose of this blog is to encourage readers to read the book, it will not contain any spoilers.  The first section is the most amenable to a brief, representative examination, since the second section covers so many authors whose works he has translated, attempting to fairly cover that section would make even a book review unwieldy.
As a whole and in its division into three parts, Rabassa’s memoire supports the claim made by George Steiner, the towering intellectual who, in After Babel (1998), consistently pushes against the grain of those mediocrities within the academic world whom he compares to stamp collectors (a quantitative endeavor) in contradistinction to letter writers (a qualitative endeavor).  Steiner refuted at length the notion that there could be theories of translation and sustained the argument that translation (literary translation specifically) was an intuitive, poetic endeavor, irreducible to rules to be followed.  He declared that while there are abundant anecdotes about the practice of translation, it was erroneous to usurp the word theory from the empirical sciences when speaking of intuitive disciplines, one of which is translation. In his poetic way, Rabassa resists the temptation of “turning translation entirely over to reason since so much of it should be based on an acquired instinct, like the one we rely on to drive a car […]” (p, 9).
When Rabassa and Steiner concur, it does not suggest that one is a follower of the other.  Steiner and Rabassa are examining and commenting on the same object of study – translation – from two complementary perspectives. These perspectives are familiar to anthropologists. Steiner employs the etic approach, since he is the intellectual outsider who is inward-facing as he ponders translation. On the other hand, Rabassa employs the emic approach, as the artist, an insider, who is outward facing in order to tell the world about translation based on his experiences – his memoires.
Lovers of words, whether they are aware that they are philologists in the professional sense, or whether they are crossword puzzle enthusiasts, are aware that in any given language, the same object may go by many names.  They are likewise aware that one word may have many meanings which vary according to context, a feature of language known as polysemy.  These are characteristics of human languages that are of great importance to translators because they force them to be judicious in their choice of words.  As translators read an original text, they read it so closely and in their own artful way that they are translating it into another language in their mind.  As they proceed, they come across rough spots where words and phrases resist translation because, among other reasons, they are culture bound.  What do they do?  The overwhelming troves of anecdotal evidence (which has been analyzed and categorized into eight techniques) proves that translators do not turn to any so-called theory of translation in order to extricate themselves from such linguistic entanglements.  Translators use their intuition, like we use our reflexes when we drive.  A translator’s intuition is all the more successful and swift to the extent that it has been honed by experience.  The fact that any given language usually has many words for same thing or the phenomenon of polysemy come as no surprise to translators, but these two features of language, explored in often entertaining ways by Rabassa, offers useful lessons for those who need translators.  The bottom line for those who require translations is that it is highly improbable that any two translations will be identical, but they may be of equal quality in terms of their accuracy and usefulness.  The judgement calls cannot be responsibly made by monolingual individuals, or even by polyglots who do not know the language combination and direction. Furthermore, since the subject is often in the news, the highly contextual nature of literary translation, which has a close affinity to the translations produced by Analytic Linguists, should make it resistant to any and all attempts to turn them over to Artificial Intelligence (an odd misnomer: consider “artificial life” as an analogous absurdity).
Just as one thing may have many names, and one word may have many meanings, one translator’s translation is one of many possible and equally good translations.  Consider the fact that Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), the second most translated work after the Bible, has been translated many times and quite successfully into English.  Rabassa expands on this fact about translations in a valuable way because it encourages what he identifies as an important trait that translators must first possess, and continually cultivate: value judgement.  He states that “It is a common notion to say that if a book has 10,000 readers it becomes 10,000 books. The translator is only one of these readers and yet […] His reading, then, becomes the one reading that is going to spawn 10,000 varieties of the book […]” (p. 8).
As one reads through the first section of Rabassa’s memoir, his passion for, his intense commitment to, and unparalleled achievements in the exacting art of literary translation are apparent.  Taken together, Rabassa’s anecdotes sufficiently prove that literary translation is far more complex than technical translation and is not an endeavor that just anyone can be good at.  No matter how good one is as a technical translator, and certifications as such aside, being a successful literary translator is much more demanding than technical translation.  Since literary translation deals with every facet of human life, it is and unpredictable in ways that technical translation, by its nature, is not.  The difficulties and challenges of technical translation are finite.
For aspiring Analytic Linguists, the differences between literary and technical translation are important.  The types of texts that Analytic Linguists create by transcribing intercepted oral communications have far more in common with literary texts than they do with a company’s annual report to investors or a manual for brewing beer, to cite a couple of examples that fall under the category of technical translation.  When examined critically, the language of criminal underworlds contains many poetic elements, no matter how little formal education the speakers may have.  For this reason, an Analytic Linguist must use value judgement, be able to quick grasp the contexts of conversations, possess a trove of raw linguistic knowledge and sharp intuitive reflexes for applying this knowledge. Analytic Linguists are never finished learning, so it is a tremendous profession for those who prefer to never become bored with their work.
Finally, it is important for those who are considering studying with the program of Translation Skills Training™ to become Analytic Linguists to examine Rabassa’s statement about translation as an art that cannot be taught.  Is he correct and if so, what consequences does it have for prospective students? Translation Skills Training™ teaches the essentials of the tasks that Analytic Linguists must master in order to practice the profession effectively. It is our belief and hope that it is their talent for the art of translation that brings them to our door.

© 2019, Translation Skills Training (TST).

Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: linkedin.com/in/ewvogt32 or tst-online.us/about-us

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