On the Art of Translation. Of David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (New York: Faber & Faber, 2011), a reviewer at The New Yorker observes, “In the English-speaking world, translation is mostly understood as [here quoting Bellos] ‘the transfer of meaning from one language to another,’ a sense derived from the Latin root, which means ‘to bear across.’ Other cultures describe translation as an act not of transferral but of change, more akin to alchemy; in ancient Babylon a translator was eme-bal, a ‘language turner.'”
On Montaigne’s Sense of Style. The following is an excerpt from Eric Auerbach’s magisterial midcentury work of literary history, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1957). The book, the Copyright page perceptively notes, was “[w]ritten in Istanbul between May 1942 and April 1945.” In Istanbul, Auerbach lucubrated while ignorant armies clashed by night. Originally published in German, the book was translated by Willard Trask and printed in the US in 1953. My brown copy comes courtesy of Henry Reed, author of the definitive history of the New York Public Library.
Auerbach’s august style is, it should be noted, deceptively simple. His dry paraphrase, so unlike Montaigne’s meaty directness, limns Montaigne’s tightrope-walking self with the scintillation of an executive summary. I hope you will also fall in love with point 7. Please enjoy.
1. I depict a lowly and unillustrious life; but that is of no consequence; even the lowliest life contains the whole of things human.
2. In contrast to others I depict no specialized body of knowledge, no special skill, which I have acquired; I present myself, Montaigne, in my entire person, and I am the first to do so.
3. If you reproach me with talking too much about myself, I reply by reproaching you with not thinking about yourselves.
4. Only now does he formulate the question: Is it not presumptuous to wish to bring so limited an individual case to general and public knowledge? Is it reasonable that I should offer to a world which is only prepared to appreciate form and art, so undigested and simple a product of nature, and, to make matters worse, so insignificant a product of nature?
5. Instead of an answer he now gives these “extenuating circumstances”: a) no one has ever been so fully versed in his subject as I am in mine; b) no one has ever gone so deeply into his subject, so far into all its parts and ramifications; no one has ever carried out his purpose so exactly and so completely.
6. To achieve this I need nothing but unreserved sincerity and of that I have no lack. I am a little hampered by conventions; at times I should like to go somewhat further; but as I grow older I permit myself certain liberties which people are inclined to excuse in an old man.
7. In my case one thing at least cannot happen, as it does in the case of many a specialist: that man and work are not in accord; that one admires the work but finds the author a mediocrity in daily life–or vice versa. A man of learning is not learned in all fields; but a whole person is whole everywhere, including where he is ignorant. My book and I are one thing; he who speaks of the one speaks easily of the other. (259-60)