Reine Sprache Versus The Other Name of the Rose
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Extremes are supposed to show certain understandings or phenomena in their idealistic state and accordingly, I would like to dwell on two theories depicting the two extremes in the cultural aspects of translation theory and practice.
Undoubtedly, one of the most controversial theories in the field is Reine Sprache or the pure language theory of Walter Benjamin which could be seen from lots of different aspects but it is mostly regarded as an extravagant and impractical theory of the translation viewed as an art and focused on the elements of a corpus. Umberto Eco opposes to this theory very simply but sensibly, the sensibleness being the main characteristic of his view. He believes that translation is a process involving the mutual efforts of both translator and author where the translator takes the role of a consultant in the course of adjusting the text to the reader’s understanding as it fits his or her respective culture. Seen in the light of the opposition present in most contemporary translation theories, based on the choice between "reader or author orientation" of the translation, Eco firmly votes for the reader-oriented translation, taking into consideration the reader’s culturally defined needs, and goes further admitting that the result of the writer-translator cooperation may lead to creating a whole new product in the target language. At the same time Benjamin completely rejects the role of the reader.
The latter theory bears certain resemblance to Golem- a statue created by the main Rabbi of the Prague. The particular purpose for its creating remains unclear- whether in order to save the city from the plague or against invaders- but on the whole, it is a significant protector figure made of pieces of clay joined together by means of iron cramps with the help of kabbalah spelling. In the same way the translator's work resembles a mysterious religious ritual intended for no one but for the sake of art itself, joining words and phrases in the weird corpus of the literary Golem- a creation which is the result of enigmatic calculations and laws. The rules of kabbalah are known only by the chosen enlightened ones- and this tradition is kept up to the present day in Israel where religion still abides that no one under the age of 40 or other than a married male can study the sacred teaching in the respective clubs.The translator is a kind of enlightened person who is aware of the magical equivalent of all word signs and is apt to operate with them properly. Another parallel which could be drawn between the doctrine of kabbalah and the sacred deeds of the translator, is the very essence of the doctrine and the very nature of the translation process on the other hand. The part of the Jewish Holy Book (the Tanach), containing the Law and called Torah contains not only description of the world but also instructions for its use and if in the Torah there occur any changes, they will lead to changes in the world- if a word is substituted with another one, there will be tangible result in reality. It is all written in the Torah- past and future- people are simply unable to read it. This is how a teaching comes into being under the name of kabbalah, which takes into consideration letters, words, numbers and their combinations as predetermines of destiny, of navigating the future, explaining the past and governing the very nature of our existence and our world which all carry a mysterious halo. It is not unnatural that a follower of such a doctrine as Benjamin would consider translation a separate sacred doctrine- after all, it is an area not only dealing with the mere existence of texts or just with creating a text, as in literature. It seems to me that Benjamin attributes the holy nature of translation to the process of transferring a given text according to some strict linguistic laws which should be followed at any cost because they govern the nature of the new creation, its value on a higher, holy level, above the everyday practicality of the ordinary conveyance of information. If the original text creates a world of its own, this world has its own past, present and future, just like the Torah view of the world. If we transfer the text into a new dimension, i.e. in a foreign language, its very essence will change in a way which would render it untrue to its own self. So, translation is as beautiful as a fairytale, as exquisite as a piece of art and actually art itself- pure art in its ultimate form. Beautiful and beyond this world as the dying swan in Tchaikovsky’s opera.
It is sad but this is what happens with all phenomena attempting to exist in their absolute in the real world- they are as impossible as a dying swan, as ridiculous as in a derisive joke in everyday life. For all beauty and all art becomes preposterous when it comes down to the level of pure practice and reality. For me, it is the same with translation and however beautiful the above theory may sound, this science has started its existence because of pragmatic need of transfer of information and today our language is not only imperfect but it seemingly makes communication between people more and more difficult. In a world in which we strive to understand each other, either belonging to our own culture or to a different one, I agree with the simple and sane theory of Eco and his belief that pure language is "too good to be true". He claims that authors who are indifferent to the translations of their works go to extremes- i.e. they either don't value their works or think too much of themselves and consider it right that everyone has to learn their language in order to understand the given work. Anyways, he offers very useful methods of cooperation between the writer and the translator as the only proper way of adjusting the text as to reach the understanding of as many readers as possible and, as he admits- sometimes he comes to creating a whole new work in the target language. He gives an example of his philosophical and linguistic works- if the translator is not able to understand them and to translate them accordingly, it means that his thoughts are too vague, and he often revises his works after such observations, which means that he regards translation as a very complex interaction, which can also lead to changes in the original text:
Sometimes you say something in your native language (A), and the translator says: “If I translate this expression in my language (B), it will be meaningless”. But he could be mistaken. Anyways, if after a long discussion you find out that the extract is meaningless in language B, it is not very possible that it made sense in language A as well.
This doesn’t mean that in the phrase in language A there is some mysterious Meaning hidden, which would be the same in all languages, something like the ideal text- the phenomena which Walter Benjamin called Reine Sprache.
Eco goes even further in the naturalization of his concept- he resembles the process of translation to bargaining on an oriental marketplace where one wishes to buy a carpet. “The tradesman asks for 100, you offer 10, and after an hour of bargaining you get it for 50".
Although the latter comparison is too naturalistic for me, and although I wish there was more of Benjamin's theory possible in reality, I am personally more inclined to believe that Eco makes some very sensible points and from my personal experience, I would say that it is not useless to have them in mind.
Bibliography: Benjamin W., The Task of the Translator; Эко У., Роза Другого Имени