On Translation

By Paz, Octavio | UNESCO Courier, May-June 1986 | Go to article overview

On Translation


Paz, Octavio, UNESCO Courier


On translation

EACH text is unique, yet at the same time it is the translation of another text. No text is entirely original, because language itself is essentially a translation. In the first place, it translates from the non-verbal world. Then, too, each sign, each sentence, is the translation of another sign, another sentence. This reasoning may even be reversed without losing any of its force and we may assert that all texts are original because every translation is different. To a certain extent every translation is an original invention and thus constitutes a unique text.

The original text never reappears in the other language: this would be impossible. Nevertheless, it is always present because, although the translation does not explicitly state as much, it refers to the original text constantly, or else converts it into a verbal object that differs from it, yet reproduces it by metonymy or metaphor. Both of these, as distinct from explanatory or free translations, are strict forms that are not incompatible with exactness. Metonymy is an indirect description; metaphor is a verbal equation.

Poetry has always been considered the form of writing that lends itself least to translation. This prejudice is surprising when we stop to think that many of the best poems in every Western language are translations, and that many of these translations have been made by outstanding poets.

The reason why many poets are unable to translate poetry is not purely psychological in nature--though the cult of self does enter into it--but functional. Poetic translation is an operation similar to poetic creation, except that it is executed in reverse.

Meaning tends to be univocal in prose, whereas one of the characteristics of poetry, as has often been noted, and possibly its chief quality, is that it retains the several meanings of a word. In reality, this is a property of language in general. Poetry accentuates it, but it is also to be found in everyday speech and even in prose.

The poet, caught up in the whirl of language --which is a constant verbal coming and going--selects a few words, or is selected by them. He fashions his poem by combining them and it then becomes a verbal object made up of irreplaceable and irremovable signs. The translator's starting point is not language in motion, which is the poet's raw material, but the fixed language of the poem. It is a frozen language, and yet it is quite alive. His operation is the opposite of the poet's. He is not called upon to forge an unchangeable text with changing signs, but to take that text apart, set the signs in motion again and return them to the language. Up to this point the translator's work is similar to that of a reader or critic, since every reading is a translation, and every criticism is, or begins by being, an interpretation.

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