Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Translation and the Canonical Text

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Translation and the Canonical Text

Article excerpt

Any claim for the value of a work invariably rests on a presumption of ignorance. A valuable work offers readers something they either lack or cannot experience in the absence of the work. A hermeneutic tradition values works that provide knowledge, without which readers may remain locked within limited spheres of understanding. A rhetorical tradition values works that exert persuasive force, without which readers may remain deprived of moral direction. An aesthetic tradition values works that promise affect, without which readers' sensibilities may remain unnourished. In all these traditions, furthermore, the assumption is that the truly valuable work, the canonical text, continually confronts readers with their own ignorance. A work that endures does so because it offers qualities of insight, expression, or beauty that demand repeated readings while resisting complete encapsulation by any one reader. Ignorance is thus a function of the text insofar as the text generates a desire that can never be entirely fulfilled.

This linkage of value and ignorance poses a problem for translators. In principle, translators are committed to alleviating the ignorance of readers by rendering foreign works intelligible to them. Yet, in the case of canonical texts whose inexhaustibility of value must remain appreciable, translators have to be equally committed to perpetuating or at least indicating this inexhaustibility. Maintaining a text's canonicity requires that something in it be seen to defy complete accessibility, or else the work risks being deprived of whatever it is that encourages readers to seek, while never entirely achieving, mastery over the text. In order to signal a work's canonicity, translators must be prepared to acknowledge the insufficiency of their own activity.

Historically, such acknowledgment has come in the form of laments over the untranslatability of great literature. That "poetry is what is lost in translation" had been recognized by Dante, Du Bellay, and others long before Frost came up with his neat formula.(1) But in noting further that poetry "is also what is lost in interpretation," Frost added a peculiarly modern inflection to the old laments, a view of the problem that would not have been understood before the end of the seventeenth century since it is only then that interpretation--and, by extension, translation--began to be seen as a necessarily partial and subjective act of reconstruction, as "merely" an interpretation. In what follows, I describe how this change came about and, in particular, how it followed upon attempts by Dryden and other English critics of the period to redefine the source of an original's value and to reconsider how this value ought to be made apparent to readers. How they conceived of this source, I shall argue, determined the particular way in which, in their view, canonicity resisted translation.

The humanists were divided over the source of value in classic texts: to the one side were the philologists, who believed that value inhered in the original meaning of words, and to the other were the allegorists, who equated value with truths that lay beneath the veil of verbal art. Elizabethan translators were influenced by both approaches. Philology taught them to be sensitive to linguistic differences, which some believed had rendered the rhetorical fluency of established classics irrecoverable--a loss they signalled by employing a style either deliberately heightened or determinedly plain. Introducing his version of Cicero's Tusculan Questions (1561), John Dolman warned that his prose was necessarily "more simple, then the stile of Tullie" since it was not possible "for any man, to expresse the writinges of Tullie, in Englishe, so eloquently as he hath uttered the same in latine" (sigs. C4r-C5r).(2) Awareness of verbal disparity fuelled anxieties about the rudeness of the English tongue, anxieties that gave point to the standard claim that translation best served the common good by helping to enrich the vernacular. …

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