|Image from the Codex Sinaiticus.|
Why translate again a work so often done already? Is there anything new to be gained by publishing another ream of Iliads, Homer’s epic whose number of translations (and transmutations) might come second only to the Bible? When The Economist’s recent review posed this question, it offered an oblique but important answer.
In finding Alice Oswald’s Memorial evocation the most satisfying of the newest breed (to be read alongside Lattimore’s classic rendition), the reviewer has noticed an essential aspect of the translator’s task:
Ms Oswald’s “Memorial” strips the “Iliad” down to its bare bones, capturing the terrifying brevity and brutality of the deaths (240 named, many more anonymous) that Homer depicted. With no gods in her version, it could seem rather bleak. And yet there is a liveliness to her poem—part elegy, part war memorial—that prevents it from becoming so.Ms. Oswald has done what so many generations of poets and thinkers and humanity have done before her: return to a timeless work in search of answers to the anxieties that we all continually face. War, brutal and bloody, is still with us. And Homer’s reflections capture, in language stark but elegiac, the same mixed feelings we feel about the heroism and failure that feckless bloodshed and honorable service evoke.
The developers of humanities curricula know this fact well. They have their students read the great texts of past civilizations precisely because those works are valuably foreign and familiar. The same basic tensions that animated poets and philosophers long ago—between war and peace, love and hate, right and wrong, personal gain and social justice—still face us in crisis today. Yet, their responses have just enough alterity—they are just enough the Other—that they provoke us out of our own complacent worldviews into seeing the world from a different perspective. Certainly the writers of long ago had their own blindnesses that we see and ridicule today; but just as certainly are we blinded by our own faults, which might just be transparent to those men and women of an earlier age.
But the translator goes further. The translator’s task is not merely to make these books of other days and other tongues available to the people of our modern world—though certainly that is a most important job and the one for which they are most liable to be paid and considered productive members of the information economy. No, the translator approaches his work—or at least, ought to approach his work—ought of a deeper love, a deeper commitment to the entire textual edifice.
The translator finds in her work a stronger and sometimes stranger exploration of love and hate, vice and virtue, tenderness and cruelty, than is just available to the general reader, whether of the original language or of the translation. The true translator must first be a lover. She must love the text she is translating, for the relationship between her translation and the source text is the relationship between a mother and a child, and she is the surrogate. The translator must give birth to her translation and devote herself to it completely, nourishing it with tender affection lest her child be anything less than the greatest fruit of her deepest love.
Just as the progeny of man and woman combines the genes of both, so, too, is a translation a genetic marriage of the source language and the translator’s language. This is the second great truth to which a translator must cling: his work is literally to unite two disparate languages into one. In order to be successful, therefore, a translator must honor and reverence the language of his source just as deeply as he does his own language, for in his sweat and toil the two shall become one. Rudolf Pannwitz, a giant of German letters in the first half of the twentieth century, apprehended this truth well in his insightful work, Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur:
Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of the foreign works (…). The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image, and tone converge. He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realized to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed, how language differs from language almost the way dialect differs from dialect; however, this last is true only if one takes language seriously enough, not if one takes it lightly.
The love of the translator for his text is far deeper than semantic and physical features—it reaches to the “pure language,” as Walter Benjamin calls it, that transcendental level where languages coalesce in the perfect harmony of pure expression: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.” The author of the original work calls on his translator to bear his words into the world, and it is the translator’s task to respond, “Behold, I am thy servant: be it done unto me according to thy words.”
This is no fanciful play on words: the task of the translator is truly one of faith that must take him to the deepest levels of his soul and to those heights from which he might glimpse, if only for a second, “the predestined, hitherto inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfillment of languages.” This becomes especially true for me as a translator of medieval texts, for they are the products of a worldview whose very foundations inhere in the nature of God as Word. In pricipio erat Verbum must be as much the translator’s creed as it is the Christian’s.
But even the translator of Homer is making the same act of faith: she pledges her belief in the power of human ideas to cross space and time and offer insight, solace, even indignation. The translator, whether consciously or not, submits himself to a higher plane of reality in which the barriers of human language dissolve in the face of the Word. As ambivalent as Benjamin’s relationship with the idealists was, his translator’s insight confirms the reality—or perhaps superreality—of the ideal. And it is no accident that Derrida turned to the philosophies of language propounded by Augustine and Scotus as the starting point of his own exploration of sign and signified. Whether Christian or not, the best translators succeed because they engage in their labors precisely in order to break the flimsy bonds of benighted human vision, driven by the desire to look up and behold the face of God. For reflected in His Word-made-flesh are the deepest pains and greatest joys the human can know. Translating is one task in which we can come closer to that most human reality.
 This idea is at the heart of C. S. Lewis’ argument for reading old books. ↩
 As quoted by Walter Benjamin in “The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt and trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968) 80-1. It is more illustrative, I think, than ironic that I am using Zohn’s translation of Pannwitz’s German, as quoted by Benjamin. ↩
 Benjamin, 80. ↩
 Ibid., 75. ↩
 I understand that Augustine and Scotus were sometimes at opposites sides of philosophy, and that the neoplatonic ladder of being Augustine climbed was often quite different from Scotus’ later steps among the Aristotelian categories. The important thing to remember, however, is that for both men, the reality of the Logos, whether predestined absolutely or contingently incarnate, was of a higher and firmer ground than the vicissitudes of earthly shadows and dust. ↩