Challenging Conventional Wisdom about Literary Translation

Happy Babel by Arno Renken
Reviewed by Filip Noubel

 “First, translation delights. This possibility is not only ignored or forgotten. It is largely excluded by a form of discourse that links literature to original texts.”

A Swiss researcher in translation studies looks at literary translation and invites us to consider this unusual question: what if we looked at translation as a literary genre in itself? Arno Renken, the author of the book Happy Babel – published in French as Babel Heureuse – makes a creative use of philosophy and semiology to challenge traditional views about translation. What Renken offers are alternative perspectives, for example, he suggests looking at the translated text as preeminent in relationship to the text in the source language, thus introducing a reversed order. He also considers translation as a fluid process of ongoing (re)writing. When applied to poetry, he argues translation is the best way to open the potential of the poetic text in the source language. By the end of the book, the reader will have to reassess key definitions about literary translation: author, reader, language, equivalence, the role of the translator and in the end ask herself or himself: can I approach and read a translation as an original text?

What can philosophy and semiology tell us about translation?

Renken’s ambitious plan is to review what several major thinkers and creators have said about translation. The guest list is impressive:  Descartes, Foucault, Beckett, Gadamer, Durrenmatt, Benjamin and Derrida are all called in and asked to shed light on the theory and practice of translation. As can be expected, the views, theories and conclusions of those intellectual and creative minds vary as they define in their terms the corner stones of translation: language, translation, transfer, equivalence, choice, creativity but also introduce less usual concepts such as distance, tangent and sideways. Despite this diversity, Renken’s point is made clear: translation can be perceived and treated as autonomous from the text in the source language. One particular treat for the reader is the way quotes in different languages and references are presented in the book: in the margins as well as at the bottom of the page, creating a comfortable reading experience.

What comes first? The translation or the original?

While the imposing book of over 250 pages of text, followed by more references, offers a variety of themes and explorations, I selected two that particularly aroused my curiosity. The first provocative idea presented by Renken is that the translated text has preeminence over the text in the source language. This idea is well accepted when applied to the role of the reader:  a number of theorists of literary translation consider that a translated text should be made ‘closer’ to the reader and adapted to the culture of the target language. But what Renken refers to as the preeminence of the translation is different. He argues that ‘translation creates its own temporality’, an idea that is developed throughout the chapters and best embodied in this quote: “What matters for translation is the production and maybe even the invention of an echo in literature.”

Translation as an incubator of alternative reading

The second novel idea, which is also a form of answer as to why translation can be regarded as an original text, is to present translation as an enrichment of the text in the source language. Here Renken addresses the challenging question of poetry in translation, considered to be the most difficult if not frustrating part of literary translation.  The author brings up an interesting model: Beckett’s little known poetry written in French and its German translation. The choice of Beckett’s poetry is not innocent: he was an author who wrote in English and French and self- and co-translated many of his own texts. Besides Beckett’s verses are written in a style close to nursery rhymes in verses that are short, play with sound and meaning and contain a large dose of humor and irony. Such text pretty much embodies the limit of translation.  And yet a number of German translators have offered their versions of the French text. Renken’s idea is then to put the French text next to three or four German versions and compare all the versions to illustrate his point: each proposed translation creates what he calls “an unprecedented readability of the poem”, thus equating translation to an incubator of possibilities for other readings. Renken illustrates his point with a thought-provoking quote by the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gamader:  “one must report what is lost in translation, but perhaps as well, what is gained “.

Open question: does translation escape definition?

As I was reading Renken’s book, I found myself reflecting on an old opposition that I have identified in other areas of interest, such as cultural dialogue or spirituality: the fluid and the solid. Indeed the text in the source language is deemed to be solid, a rock of reliability and absolute truth. As we know any literary text can be translated in many different ways in any target language, thus creating a plurality that is often opposed to the uniqueness of the text in the source language. But what if instead of the superior uniqueness and the trivial multiplicity, we took other lenses and considered this antagonism as being a frozen solidity versus creative fluidity?  Towards the end of the book, Renken concludes with a non-definition:  “With Benjamin, translation can be conceived as an impulse, as a writing process that goes on, on and on and refuses to stabilize between the rigid poles of a source and a target.”

Aout Arno Renken

[published in French as Babel Heureuse (hyperlink to book here by van Dieren Editeur, ISBN 978-2-911087-75-2 ]

(An interview with Arno Renken is being prepared and will be published by Yi Yi)