In response to the tempest-in-a-teacup over translation in the Juan Cole post below, I went looking for a favorite quote by Nabokov on translation in Google.
It led me to a post on a blog called ‘Numenware: A blog about neurotheology. Religion. Brain. Dogen. Language. Japan.’ and indirectly to a great post on translation.
To make this into a true translation—an expression that maps to the mental images and behavioral impact of what Dogen said—we have to go deeper. This is where some people get cold feet, saying this is going beyond “translation” and entering the realm of “interpretation”. Come on. Every single person that reads Dogen’s words is interpreting them. It’s certainly not unreasonable to ask the translator, presumably well-informed, to participate in this interpretive process.
So to make “all-law” meaningful to Westerners, what should we do with the “law” (?, dharma)? Some Buddhist dictionaries list as many as several dozen meanings of the term. But it’s a fair guess that in this case the meaning is “phenomena” or “things”. So we have “many things”, which is indeed how Tanahashi translates this.
It’s really a delightful post, go read the whole thing.
This maps well to a comment I made in response to commenter Kevin Donoghue:
Let’s wrap some context around this.
We have a Farsi phrase which we’ll agree means “Israel should be erased from history.” The question is, whether that’s metaphorical or material.
Does this help us settle the question??
Tens of thousands of Iranians took part in the rally in Tehran which Iran organises every year on the last Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.
Shouting “Death to Israel, death to the Zionists”, the protesters dragged Israeli flags along the ground and then set them on fire.
Many carried posters and placards sporting the slogan “Israel should be wiped off the map”.
Joining the protest, Mr Ahmadinejad said: “My words were the Iranian nation’s words.”
So do you really think they mean in a purely metaphical sense Israel should be erased?
Cole’s defenders are parsing the question to a close of literal translation. I’ll suggest – with the author above – that literal translation is inexact.
Here is the Nabokov quote, from his article ‘The Art of Translation’ in The New Republic:
Barring downright deceivers, mild imbeciles and impotent poets, there exist, roughly speaking, three types of translators–and this has nothing to do with my three categories of evil; or, rather, any of the three types may err in a similar way. These three are: the scholar who is eager to make the world appreciate the works of an obscure genius as much as he does himself; the well meaning hack; and the professional writer relaxing in the company of a foreign confrere. The scholar will be, I hope, exact and pedantic: footnotes–on the same page as the text and not tucked away at the end of the volume–can never be too copious and detailed. The laborious lady translating at the eleventh hour the eleventh volume of somebody’s collected works will be, I am afraid, less exact and less pedantic; but the point is not that the scholar commits fewer blunders than a drudge; the point is that as a rule both he and she are hopelessly devoid of any semblance of creative genius. Neither learning nor diligence can replace imagination and style.
Now comes the authentic poet who has the two last assets and who finds relaxation in translating a bit of Lermontov or Verlaine between writing poems of his own. Either he does not know the original language and calmly relies upon the so-called “literal” translation made for him by a far less brilliant but a little more learned person, or else, knowing the language, he lacks the scholar’s precision and the professional translator’s experience. The main drawback, however, in this case is the fact that the greater his individual talent, the more apt he will be to drown the foreign masterpiece under the sparkling ripples of his own personal style. Instead of dressing up like the real author, he dresses up the author as himself.
We can deduce now the requirements that a translator must possess in order to be able to give an ideal version of a foreign masterpiece. First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.
This places the problem of translating the original Farsi into clear context – we must “know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations.”
History matters in making translations, as does context and association. So let’s use those in trying to understand what is really being said.