Deep Translation

I’m taking a little break from responding to comments readers have been sending about recent posts in order to think a little more deeply about the activity of translation, beyond, let’s say, the most comment use of the term as a means of finding equivalents across languages and cultures. Now I’m sure someone may find that characterization objectionable, too, which is fine—feel free to send me a comment; I do try to respond as fully as I can when I have time. But just now I’ve been thinking about something else, trying to calm my mind a bit, and the result was to realize that some earlier thoughts and posts that might not have seemed to be about translation were also about translation.

Crossing seven silences, for instance. I have sometimes found myself tempted by phrases such as the silence of ignorance and the silence of hatred, but ignorance is so very rarely silent, and hatred even less so.

Now, varieties of silence exceed seven by far, so I am also tempted—might as well get these all out at once—by the definite article, that “the” that would suggest these silences are the silences, the only ones or almost. A little thing, but a grand temptation, I admire its nuance and power, as when you hold open your palm with two pencils and say, take the pencil. Not the only, not quite, because obviously there are two. Just the.

I admit to an impish curiosity at what a Russian or a Japanese translator might make of this distinction, those languages having no articles at all, let alone any definite ones. Take pencil. Take pencils. Take one pencil. Take one pencil we’ve been talking about. Take one I want you to take. One I’m looking at more intently. One I have in my mind. One we both know is right to take. Take either pencil. Take any pencil.

I am reminded of the sound of water at the end of Matsuo Basho’s famous poem about the frog leaping into an old pond, which is just water in Japanese, mizu, but this is obviously the mizu here, not just mizu, because mizu does not make a sound unless it moves—the silence of land and the silence of water are land and water—and this particular mizu moves because a frog just jumped in. (I also thought the country of my birth was mostly brown until, at the age of twenty-eight, I drove from Los Angeles to Virginia one June, and discovered it mostly green, and far noisier than I had thought, what with all the buzzing and humming.)

“The silences” suggests a limitation where there isn’t one, a purity somewhat like an “accurate translation,” or, in another vein, the absence of mixture that I am loathe to credit. And so there are taboo silences, like when your sister marries a black man, and these are closely allied with the silences of prejudice and bigotry, as when your uncle comes out from the pizzeria’s kitchen in back where you used to play with your cousins throwing pizza dough balls up onto the ceiling to see if you could get them to stick, dozens upon dozens of dough balls, and he says hello to all his relatives at the table, one by one, and asks how you’ve been, each in turn, lingering, his eyes kind, and then he skips, in silence, across his four-year-old great-nephew, the little dark-skinned boy who hears you pronouncing uncle so many times as if there is some natural connection here that does not quite connect, and so he asks, when his uncle has disappeared back into the kitchen, “Is he my uncle, too?”

The medieval moralists, following Aristotle, emphasized the practice of the virtues over their contemplation in the hope that the cultivation of habit would encourage the values themselves, not just the behaviors that made one look as if courageous, temperate, prudent, just, faithful, hopeful, and loving. Father Zosima says something like this in The Brothers Karamazov, when a visitor, beside herself with grief, admits that she has lost her faith. He tries many tacks but, when nothing works, says she should act as if she has it, practice, behave as if, and it will come back to her. Your acting, he seems to suggest, will become the thing, and this must be what Plato was afraid might happen to his imaginary guardians in his imaginary republic, if they acted the parts of scoundrels or weaklings or liars in a play, rather than only ever acting the one role he had assigned them—that of guardians.

The seven ideals thus resemble silences, voids that cannot be grasped accurately, only interpreted and traversed again and again, in the hope that the practice will bring one closer to them, the hope that, through behaving as if, long enough, as if will transform, in the end, into simply as. And the crossing, the melding of them all, together in one person—or rather one persona (for we all seem to be acting here)—becomes the ideal of an integrated, unified virtuous whole, an ethical purity made up of mixture. This person seems to look at least two ways at once and perhaps might seem to be treasonous to some as a result.

But there is a moral ideal in this activity, an attempt at one anyway.

Please take pencil.

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