Some readers of literature in translation insist on placing undue importance on the loyalty a translator demonstrates or lacks. Holding dear to the Italian adage traduttori traditori (translators [are] traitors), this pack of literary dogs epitomizes that misguided reading and truncates the notion of translation’s possibilities. This is not to say that a translation should be loyal or disloyal to its source text, but that by limiting our concept of translation to a binomial relationship, as the adage implies, we’re egregiously misunderstanding the potential of the practice. Translation isn’t a mirror, despite the convenience of that metaphor; it must be thought beyond of the question of loyalty.
To translate is to cross cultural, linguistic, and temporal boundaries, and locate the foreign as something recognizably other, but reachable to a community otherwise unable to access it. Translation is certainly always a form of border-crossing, but when we create a false dichotomy and say it’s either illicit smuggling or authorized importation, we prevent ourselves from seeing the border as a meeting place rather than a dividing wall.
Not unlike Heidegger’s strategy in Early Greek Thinking to exploit the link between “gathering” and “saying” in the Greek verb λέγω (leigen), translation is a bringing-together that speaks, and this is exactly what great works of translation have articulated throughout the course of history. What we find in the best of these meetings reconfigures the way we view ourselves and the world. This act of decentering is translation’s greatest promise.
Consider, for example, the Panchatantra, an ancient Indian book of animal fables originally written in Sanskrit. It was translated into Pahlavi (Middle Persian) as Kalile va Demne by the physician Borzuya late in the sixth century. A century and a half after him, in the famed Bayt al-Hikma (the Baghdadi “House of Knowledge” from the Abbasid era), the Persian Zoroastrian Ibn al-Muqaffa obtained Borzuya’s Pehlavi translation and translated it into Classical Arabic as Kalila wa Dimna. In so doing, he very inventively and for the first time ever incorporated pre-established oral modes into written literary prose, thereby opening the floodgates for literary fiction in the cultural capital of the Islamic Golden Age.
What is indispensable in Ibn al-Muqaffa’s translation clearly is not his loyalty to the Sanskrit original (since he rendered his Arabic version from Borzuya’s Pahlavi translation), but rather the way he radically decentered the notion of Arabic literature by bringing in something from outside the realm of the known. His Kalila wa Dimna forced contemporary Arab thinkers to reconsider the losses and gains of their formerly insular work by learning from what had been created in India and how it could be imagined in Arabic prose. Parallel arguments for the value of decentering could be made for Hunayn ibn Ishaq’s Syriac and Arabic translations of Plato, Aristotle, and Gelen; Athanasius Kircher’s Latin translation of the Bembine Tablet; in the Modern era, Ezra Pound’s translation of the Confucian Analects; and over the last decade, the four encyclopedic volumes of Poems for the Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg, Pierre Joris, and Habib Tengour.
Translation is more an encrucijada than a street. It derives its significance in relation to a network of texts already written in the language into which it has been inscribed. When we release the translated text from a role subservient to its source, we allow it to participate in a sort of conglomeration that celebrates mestizaje in order to assign the foreign its rightful place within a changing heterogeneous whole. It is essentially mobile, volatile, turbulent. Translation is not an object brought from a foreign land, but the journey to and from it.
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