On the art of translation and a sense of a style

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)

4 thoughts on “On the art of translation and a sense of a style

  1. Thanks, JBH, for this thoughtful, generous, lovely (i.e., thoughtful-generous-lovely) note. Like you, I want to imagine a closer relationship between the good, the true, and the beautiful. I’ve been thinking about this in a variety of places but not least in my differing attitudes toward Jane Austen and Geoff Dyer.

    Take Austen’s radiant vision of the ethical life. Some character P perceives, provided she perceives rightly, the virtues of Q (truth), P performs the requisite duties in the presence of Q or otherwise gives Q her due (manners and morals; manner-morals; from Latin, more), and P says the right things to Q or speaks eloquently about Q before others (beauty). There is in Austen’s normative ethical vision a sense of harmony within and without (cf. Aquinas on integritas). And this makes sense of the Austenian itinerary: her desire to show us the protagonists’ long education in humility, at the end of which they arrive at radiant ethical maturity. Call this marriage or friendship.

    Now take Dyer. His inaccuracy, insincerity, dishonesty, and self-deception–all grave defects of an epistemic and moral kind–give rise to the kind of prose we find in his book on Lawrence, his Yoga book, his Venice book, his recent NYT Book Review essays, etc. Only a few of his essays, the ones where he properly attends to the object and gives the latter its due, are beautiful and true and just remarkably splendid.

    Could we say that, in the best of all possible worlds then, a good style is good in virtue of its enchanting ability to harmonize the good, the true, and the beautiful not just in the prose but also and at the same time in the person. The dictum would thus be: “My book and I are one.”

  2. Hurray for serendipity between kindred spirits! I’ve not yet read Pulphead. It’s on the list but now, because of you, it’s higher up the list. Tippy top like children’s toes.

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