Monday, November 15, 2010

On Translation. Part I: Strap in, This One’s A Wanderer.

None of you can claim to have never interacted with a translated text. Not one! Not without lying to me. One further, it’s very likely you put quite a bit of stock in a translated text. No single major religious work was composed in English, even those that might have been tend to have a translation legend incorporated because modern English is new and, as I touched upon elsewhere, invocation of the ancient is a quick and dirty way to add gravitas to any idea.

Even if you’re not religious and never were, odds are good you’ve cobbled together some concept of the universe or at least the way human psychology interacts with perceptions and constructions of reality. To do so without drawing on the work of other thinkers (especially those wacky, lebenslustig Germans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) means you’re probably one hum-dinger of a cult leader.

If that’s the case, I’m going to take a second here and talk to you, the be-robed and messianic:

So, you’re starting a cult. I think it’s important you know that, if the price is right, I have zero compunction with using any gift, be it natural or by practice, that I may have for communication to sell your ideas, just leave a message below.

Tonsuring, funny costumes, and even some minor tattooing are not deal breakers. How do you feel about-

But castration is.

Oh, nothing.

I bring this all up because of Aristotle. A very dear friend and I are currently wading through his collected works, yes, even Parts of the Animals, arm in arm, sometimes hip deep in recursive logic.

It’s been five months and we’re huge dorks, so it’s a blast. In an email last week, she brought up a very big question. Her intellectual curiosity lead her to ask herself just how much modernity was influencing her reading of the work. This, in turn, lead to questions about what the translators themselves brought to their readings. And this got me thinking.

I mean, this is a very big deal. Translation across different languages cannot exist without interpretation (more on that later), without judgment of the translator being exercised, and judgment of that sort almost always ends in a ear-splitting existential headache over the subjective nature of application of that sort work. (This is, coincidentally, probably why most Humanities PhD programs require you to be able to read and write competently in at least one other language besides your native tongue.)

So what does translation “do” to the original text? Furthermore, do subsequent translations compound the impact? Does it matter? If so, how much? If not, why?

This will be what we’re covering for the next week.

Okay, first the man himself and why he matters: Aristotle is one of the intellectual pillars of the modern world and, if you’ve ever given his work a read, it’s easy to see why. Even when what he’s written is out the back end of bug-shit loony (the food chain is the direct result of human-styled warfare and alliances amongst the beasts, and women are inferior “as points of spirit”), the brilliance flies off the page and blasts you in the face like a can o’ snakes powered by the strut spring off a monster truck.

"WE must reckon up the results arising from what has been said, and compute the sum of them, and put the finishing touch to our inquiry. "

Even when he’s wrong, he’s right, verifiably so, within the context of his work. While that may not seem like much, not many of the other established greatest thinkers of our past and present can boast that. His reasoning was strong and is, in many cases, even when verifiably inaccurate (space is awfully damp), difficult to disassemble for most people. He simply lacked the accumulated information and data-gathering capabilities we have at our disposal today.

Look at it like this: if the human brain is a thinking engine, available accumulated knowledge is the fuel. Aristotle was trying to reach escape velocity using incombustible tepid sleepy-time tea and he still got startlingly close.

In a lot of ways, the Corpus Aristotle (his surviving body of work) informs modern Western legal codes, doctrines of faith, ethics, morality, rhetoric, art, and every field of academic study in some way or another, so, in a word: everything. While he was himself influenced by his predecessors and the conditions in which he lived, he’s an intellectual nexus point on the timeline of Western culture.

The breadth and depth of his influence is not disputed, nor could it be excised if it was. However, this is where translation anxiety comes in, and this is what my friend was getting at, intentionally or otherwise opening the door for a profound thought experiment bridging multiple disciplines.

[Here’s where I’d post this totally awesome picture I have of her annihilating a turkey leg, except if I did that, she’d gut me, feed me to her dog and, worst of all, refuse to speak to my lingering spectre, no matter how many sassy black psychics or pottery wheels I possessed.]

Onward! While Aristotle’s work never really went away, we’re going to jump in where he started headlining good sized rooms.

First, forget what you learned in high school (actually, you can apply that to everything, but don’t forget where the clitoris is guys, we’re on thin ice as is, and you know it). At least forget what you learned in history: There really was no such thing as “the dark ages.” The instability of the decline of Rome had serious political implications, but the once-civilized did not start biting cows on the feet to cure hammertoes; cow biting was done by pre-established itinerant cow-biters, most of them painted blue and appreciably axe-happy. Ask any medievalist, intellectual advancement never stopped. And while Aristotle lost his rock god status for a good thousand years or so, as early as the thirteenth century, guys like Thomas Aquinas were already banging the drum in support of this brilliant, Greek wack-a-loon. But for our purposes, what’s most important is they were already working with translations.

See, not a lot of what’s referred to as the Corpus Aristotle has survived. Most of what we have is agreed to be lecture notes not ready for the press (or the slave with the burnt stick, however Greeks published, maybe they paid a guy to ride a goat and shout, what am I, Herodotus?), so what there is, lacking official copy, had probably gone through at least one major translation by the time it made its way to Aquinas.

9/11/1274 Never Forget.

Let me explain. Ancient Greek, as it was under Alexander (Attic-Ionic), was surprisingly robust. While all languages evolve, in addition to democracy, logic, and the unfettered awesomeness of a toga party, the Greeks also figured out linguistic snobbery before most everyone else. This lead to a movement called Atticism, lauding and formalizing Attic-Ionic Greek as the language of publication as opposed to the vulgar (popular dialect) of Greek Koine, the official language of everyone including merchants, therefore subject to external linguistic pressures, loanwords, slang, etc.

The casual nature of the Koine, coupled with the casual nature of the Corpus Aristotle manuscripts means it may well have been the dialect of choice for Alexander’s famous teacher' and the surviving work.

And because any medieval scholar worth his halo and bird-strike related ear wounds could read Greek, what Aquinas knew was likely Attic-Ionic, not the thousand year old incarnation of the informal Koine. So! If Aquinas was reading Aristotle, he was probably reading a Atticist translation. Now, this is where things get tricky.

Translation was a part of Greek literary work from very early on because of this. As such, those uppity jerks got a head start again on translation theory (yeah, but look at them today, now who’s laughing, you goat-eating bastards!) founding metaphrasic and paraphrasic translation.

The former is a direct, word-for-word translation, the latter involves translating the ideas. Both have their weaknesses- metaphrasic being really hard on subsequent users because of contradictions in word order and idiom use (think the occasionally hilarious results you get using on-line translators), paraphrasic because it’s not word for word and generally perceived as more open to loss of original meaning, an interpretation or, put another depressing way, grounds for religious wars.

It’s possible that the Aristotle translations were metaphrasic given how close the two dialects of Greek were at any given time, but this still means that any idiosyncrasies or untranslatable elements were re-arranged in the reader’s head, essentially creating a back-end application of paraphrasic translation.

So, one of the major medieval thinkers, a heavyweight contributor to our modern culture in his own right, was already a layer removed from the original text when he began extolling the wisdom Aristotle had to offer, and the person who did that translation is completely lost to history. We know nothing about them, we have no idea what drove them, and, as such, it’s impossible to understand them and take it into account.

Essentially, the intellectual foundation of Western society made its first step to us by way of a medieval game of telephone."Tommy hates you."  "Tommy waits for you." "Hooray!"

There’s already potential for interpretation, nuance in grammar alone can shift the meaning of a phrase. So, did we build our house on sand?

Come back Wednesday, we’ll find out what Martin Luther and Gomez Addams had to say about all this.