Class Notes: After Babel

I was so pumped after my first Translation Ethics class last week that afterwards I couldn’t help but turn my notes into a blog post. What’s that? I’m a nerd? Funnily enough, I noticed.

Last week’s discussion centered around After Babel: Aspects of language & translation by George Steiner. I’m going to be honest here, folks: I haven’t actually read the whole book yet. The thing is a 498-page menace masterpiece and we only needed to read chapters one, four, and five. Plus, I have a capstone paper to write. What I did read, however, was quite good. I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this book anyway – it’s been on my list ever since I read The Hermeneutic Motion[1] back in junior year; I just never got around to it. We read the third edition, published in 1998. The first was 1975, the second 1992. After Babel was groundbreaking as a historiography of translation, but also because it put translation on the same level as other forms of literary theory. The sad fact of translation is that often translators don’t get the recognition that we deserve, socially or economically. Steiner draws attention to this in a few different places, and it brought to the forefront of our class discussion the ‘ghost’ of the translator, as a sort of being that was always there, but never recognized.

In any case, our discussion centered primarily around ideas of movement, history, and silence, as well as the ethics of translation, the ethics of reading, language ownership, and linguistic identity. I can tell that we discussed all of those topics a great deal, not just because the conversation continues to ruminate in my brain two days later, but also because variations of those words are hastily written throughout the pages of the notebook I use for that class.

Translation is a complicated and nuanced practice, and while it takes a great deal of thought, it isn’t just a form of meditating on the source text but opening it up to a new world in the form of the target language. All the same, the translator often exists in a state of invisibility, and their role as a bridge between the author and the source text and the reader in the translated text is erased, often reduced to naught but a name on the copyright page. So, we got to thinking, what sort of structures benefit from this erasure of the translator? What can we make of these structures? Much of what we worked through in class left us with more questions than answers, particularly as they pertain to authorship and meaning-making.

For example, there was the question of whether, when translating a text, it is better to repeat the original, or reimagine it? Personally, I’m not sure, but I think that it depends on what kind of text. In the case of a philosophical text, I would think that, in order to make sure that the meaning and intricate nuance of what the philosopher is trying to say is communicated as clearly as possible, I would say that the translator in fact has no choice, and is obligated to repeat, to the most intimate detail, what the true meaning behind the words that are used to convey the philosophy of the philosopher who is being translated. Words between languages rarely if ever have one-to-one correspondence, but in the case of these translations, obviously every effort made to contain and repeat the nuance and exact meaning is of utmost importance. Where one word fails, a footnote will do.[2]

If, on the other hand one is translating poetry, then in my opinion it is the sentiment that must be conveyed, and while nuance is ideal and should be included where possible, though it, again, depends on context.[3] In my own translations, I try to keep as close to the original as possible without losing too much. Then again, as we also discussed in class, loss is inherent to translation.

There is a silencing that occurs with every choice we make as translators, because every time that we give one meaning primacy over another we are shaping the narrative in ways that will have very real consequences for those who experience the text first through our lens.

One of my big takeaways from the class was that language is messy and we can’t absolutely trust it, and though it resists containment, it exists to contain us. Translation highlights the limits of language, and is ultimately a compromise between allowing the previous text to speak and putting your own influence on the text in the new translation.

While this post didn’t really contain that much direct discussion of the contents of After Babel, it is an interesting book so far as I have read, if a little long and with some outdated science and a dash of misogyny. That said, I got much more out of it discussing the text as a class, and I hope that we’ll have more time to discuss it next week, though I’m excited to talk about the reading we have for that day too, so we’ll see. I hope that you enjoyed this little window into my academic wanderings!



[1] An essay written by Steiner that appears in the third edition of Lawrence Venuti’s Translation Studies Reader.

[2] I’m not Nabokov, but I’m still really into footnotes.



4 thoughts on “Class Notes: After Babel

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