Who’s A Metaphor For?

Let’s review before we get in our taxi and get carried forward.  There is some language to mind (from the previous post):

Jane Stranz finds a machine that’s built to build a bridge and finds it called “le translateur.”  Or “the conveyor.”  This is very precise, very technical, very important because nobody wants to go forward over a bridge that can’t carry weight.

Willis Barnstone finds other machines, moving vans, that advertise what they are actually for:  “for transportation, for metaphor, and … for TRANSLATION [… as with] every motor truck hauling goods from one place to another.”  Perhaps the language here is less technical than the language for the machine for bridge builders, but the truck drivers and those who hire them are most grateful for what they’re for.

Sara Newman finds that philosophers and rhetoric scholars and literary types find the language of Aristotle useful.  In modern Athens now where the trucks run over bridges made strong, and beyond, these academicians say that “metaphor can refer either to an ‘implied comparison’ or to ‘figurative language’ more braodly construed.”

I just want us to go back to Jane’s language.  How did we get carried from translation to metaphor?  And what did Aristotle say about translation?  And what if he only said things about metaphor?  Then how are we going to solve that problem?  And who’s our solution for?  And is this really like her sisters singing “how do you solve a problem like Maria”?  Wasn’t Aristotle more technical than that?  Wasn’t he more like the precise engineers who built something carefully (i.e., a “device built specially to build the bridge”) to build something else carefully (i.e., the bridge), two exact somethings to carry people forward, and over, and across?  The name is exact:  “le translateur.”  Or, rather, we have a metaphor for that technical name:  “the conveyor.”  So now we have two precise names.  And whether you’re monolingual French or monolingual English or bilingual either way, then you’ve got either more precision, or less, with two different terms.

Now, I think we’re ready, then, to translate Aristotle, since he’s been so useful to so many already.  We already know what his “metaphor” is for, don’t we?

But in 1875, somebody stirred up trouble.  One Sir Alexander Grant, writing precisely and technically and clearly on “Aristotle” for the Encyclopædia Britannica caused a problem. Or, perhaps he just admitted a problem that we here in 2010 may admit to, or not. Here’s what Sir Grant said so carefully. Listen:   “[T]he problem how to translate Aristotle into English has not been solved.”

Of course, to be exact, we should explain what Sir Grant means.  He means that there’s a problem for translators to know how to translate the Greek of Aristotle into English and that this problem won’t go away, that translators and linguists and rhetoricians and philosophers and poets and playwrights and actors and biologists and astronomers and logicians have not yet figured out a way to carry what Aristotle wrote in Greek across into English.  Sir Grant goes on, and so should we:

The problem is how to convey, in readable English, a philosophical style, full of technical terms for which we have no exact representatives.  Circumlocution, or paraphrase, becomes necessary; the question is how to use this with the greatest tact, so as, while conveying Aristotle’s exact meaning, to retain something of his manner.

So “metaphor,” Aristotle said much about it.  We get this precise, technical term, more or less.  If we’re technical scholars of “metaphor” even of Aristotle’s “metaphor,” then it goes one way or gets carried another, as Sara Newman warns us.  Maybe Aristotle’s exact meaning was two different ones.  Okay, then.  But now we have a double problem.  How do we translate those two meanings?  And what did Aristotle instruct about translation anyway?

Say that again?

What did Aristotle so precisely say translation is?  Had he said one thing, perhaps would he have meant by it two different things?  But what if he said nothing?  So we’re back to “metaphora” and back to “le translateur.”  They carry things for us.

One translator, Joe Sachs, carries on as if maybe “Aristotle himself never used technical jargon,” and, so, Joe Sachs himself doesn’t.  The problem then becomes difficult because Aristotle does seem to make things technical, does seem to close down meanings, does seem to warn his disciples against ambiguities and vaguenesses and such.

I’m going to get to little Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and how they use “metaphor” and “translate.”  I’m going to do that in another post.  But I want to imagine Aristotle as little.

When Aristotle was a little child, before his mother died, I wonder how they carried on.  Did she take him places, carry him in her arms, put him up on a truck in Athens or a taxi of some sort, cross over a bridge with him?  Did he hear her convey the words of a poet to him?  Did he listen?  I was trying to imagine this sort of thing when acknowledging the technical problem of the adult Aristotle who seems to want to be so logical, and technical.  In a dissertation once, where things get really technical, therefore, I wrote:

For example, there is the emphasis on the body, on pregnancy, on the events of birthing and offspring and naming. Metaphorically (to use an English adverb), the Greek word μετα-φορας [“meta-phoras”] is translated “a bearing to full term.” Now, I’m following Sappho. In one of the fragments of her extant texts (a passage with which Aristotle likely would have had more familiarity than we), Sappho writes:

… κατ᾽ ἔμον στάλαγμον,
τὸν δ᾽ ἐπιπλάζοντες ἄμοι φέροιεν
καὶ μελεδώναις
–SapPho, fragment 17

From my distress:
let buffeting winds bear it
and all care away.
–translator Edwin Marion Cox

Of course, φέροιεν [“pheroien”] as bear (the way translator Cox rightly puts it) is the physical, metaphorical, feminine sense in which I am translating μετα-φορας [“meta-phoras”] (i.e., as “a bearing to full term”).

In the technical and precise, there is the imprecise and less technical more embodied carrying of “metaphor” here.  This isn’t really to solve the translator’s problem.  Maybe it’s to carry us to problems in Aristotle’s Greek to begin with.  Did something happen to Aristotle when he grew up?  Did he feel a need to make the separations that he did, to see females (like his mother, and his wife, and his daughter) as so different from himself?  To see them as botched specimens of the human race?  Was it important for him to see Greek as separate from Barbaric mother tongues?  Or logic as separate from all other ways of knowing?  Did he create the problem, the technical problem, of conveying what he wanted separated so exactly in Greek into an English that can only pretend to be like it?  But can’t we imagine “metaphor” as carrying Aristotle just as it carries us?   Is it wrong to see a solution with Willis Barnstone, who says (now mind your language) “translation is metaphor”?  Translating is bearing to full term.  It’s for those of us who need carrying.


6 responses to “Who’s A Metaphor For?

  1. “a bearing to full term.”

    I think we could say that a text may be “pregnant” with ideas, but that when we translate it we are forced, to some degree at least, to make it “give birth” to some something definite. (Just as a baby’s sex may be unknown before it is born, but after the birth we are left in no doubt. Thus birth is an act of disambiguation.)

    Now on the one hand, that’s a problem with translations (and a problem for translators); but on the other hand it can be useful, and a reason why even someone fluent in the original language might want to read a text in translation as well. As I see it, a translation is like a treasure map; it indicates where (at least some of) the treasure buried in the original might be found (or, alternatively, it might lead us entirely the wrong way). What it can’t do (or so I think) is be neutral; it must point us in some directions.

    • Given you’re a pactitioner of translation (as with your wonderful Psalms!), I think it’s very clear you’re also a theorist, and an astute one. I like your extending my use of pregnancy in the metaphor for translation. (Yes, it tends to be the baby’s sex that seems to matter much and most at birth, doesn’t it. “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” or, with today’s sonographic technology “Do you know the baby’s sex yet?” Funny, nonetheless, we cover the genitals again right away, socialize our babies according to particular genders, and watch them grow. Yes, more disambiguation, as if it’s an obligatory act ad infinitum. Is this really the end of translation, to disambiguate? Another way to look at it, perhaps is this. The growing never ends. Our babies have babies, and we get grandbabies. All wonderful discursive ambiguities. The process never ends, nor does the suspense.)

      I love your notion that “even someone fluent in the original language might want to read a text in translation as well.” Theorist Mikhail Epstein calls this, not just translation but, interlation. Interlation “has more metaphorical layers in it” and “doubles the benefits” and “allows the reader to perceive what another language misses or conceals.” Soon, I’ll try to illustrate this a bit with the American English language novel To Kill A Mockingbird side by side with its Indonesian translation. Here’s more of what Epstein says: http://www.fascicle.com/issue01/Poets/epstein1.htm.

  2. “But even the subject of authorial voice is up for debate. Poliquin says, “I don’t mind if my own voice is there,” whereas Fischman maintains it’s essential that her voice not infiltrate the text.

    That’s not to say she wants to hide the fact you’re reading a translation.

    “I try to write it in such a way that the reader is aware that there is something not quite English about it, but not wrong. In other words, I try to hold on to a certain Frenchlanguage flavour.”

    Homel questions the necessity for that. With a translated work, he says, “its foreignness is built right in.”

    The goal, he argues, is to reproduce as much as possible the experience readers in the original language enjoyed. That goal hasn’t changed much since Fischman translated her first book, Roch Carrier’s La Guerre, Yes Sir!, in 1970.

    Many translators are writers themselves. Homel has a novel, Midway, appearing this fall. Poliquin was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2007 for A Secret Between Us.

    Still, even though they are fluent in both languages, they don’t translate their own work. Poliquin has translated Homel’s work, and Winkler translated Poliquin’s last novel.

    Homel says bluntly: “I’ve written the book once, and that’s enough.”

    The translation community is small. The Literary Translators’ Association of Canada lists 141 members on its website, but a Fischman anecdote better illustrates the interconnectedness of Canadian translators: French-language writers Fortier and Bismuth are best friends; Fischman translated Fortier’s novel and her partner, Winkler, translated Bismuth’s colourfully titled book of stories.”

    The delicate art of translation. Vancouver Sun. Oct. 9, 2010

  3. Thanks for this fresh statement on translation from the Vancouver Sun! I love the whole problem you start in with, with your excerpt: must the translator be unheard and unseen? I’ve been reading Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. The metaphor of a mockingbird, of course, is one of translation, if you will, a metaphor of mimicry. In your article (from the Vancouver Sun), reporter Mark Medley writes, “Translators are the mimics of the book world; they must pass for someone else.” What’s fascinating is all of the voices in Harper Lee’s book. Each character has her own, or his own. And each sometimes has more than one voice. The protagonist and her brother, for example, chide their nanny for having a black voice and a white voice. And the protagonist herself, when she’s thinking aloud, serving as a de facto narrator of the story to the readers, has a voice that’s more grown up than when she’s speaking as a little girl with the other characters. Then, to have actress Sissy Spacek read this all aloud, to perform the voices with her voice, is just a delight! I’ll try to blog soon on an Indonesian translation of the book I’m also reading now. Whose voice, whose Mockingbird?

  4. At a rather more mundane level it was only when reading HArry Potter in French that I began to look at JK Rowling’s English with a different eye. Hogwarts in French is Poudlard – but the German treats it as a proper noun and stays with Hogwarts- A shame really because Schweinwurze or Haxewurz would have been quite good fun.
    I did hear that apparently when one of the Potter books was translated into Spanish by a different translator to usual the children protested and teh former translator was reinstated – not sure if this is actually true but it’s agreat story nevertheless.

    • In Santiago, Chile, I bought my children a Spanish Harry Potter book. I wonder which it is. Going home now to see. Thank you for being mundane. Who’s to judge the mundane? One of my children bought be a literary critic’s book for Harry Potter; I think it’s just as smart and as important as can be!

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