The role of the translator: a centaur's role?
Column published by La Cause littéraire on 17 March 2021
The famous Italian adage 'Traduttore, traditore' - 'to translate is to betray' - has so permeated our imagination that it has almost irreparably tainted the role and place of translators. Whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, we often mistrust them. They're suspicious, dubious, unreliable. How can we trust them? Do they not form a screen between the real text and us, between the writer and us? Do they not manipulate the words, the intention, the meaning? Don't they deceive us? Aren't their lies responsible for terrible misunderstandings?
Let's not forget that their betrayal can go very far... Ask around - isn't everyone still convinced - even though we're in the 21st century - that Adam and Eve ate an apple? If you believe it, too, it's proof that you've been betrayed by translators... The Bible verse in Genesis was mistranslated and the original Hebrew word refers to a fruit, but it doesn't specify which one. What would the world have been like if everyone had known that the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve wasn't an apple? Wouldn't the history of art have been turned upside down? The painters Cranach and Titian must be turning in their graves! Not to mention the corporation Apple... Would it have been called Apple? And what about its logo with the bitten apple? Probably not!
Even today, the relatively few tributes paid to translators testify to this mistrust of them. Rarely mentioned, they're like the invisible ghost whose presence is detected, but which is best forgotten. What is worth examining is the real substance of this suspicion, as well as its philosophical underpinnings.
Human beings have developed reason, starting with logos, whose original aim was the understanding of the world around them and the progressive construction of science. However, there has been a form of systematisation of this process and rationality, as it has evolved, has begun to proceed by identification, then sorting and finally classification. One thing leading to another, reason has become rigid and has been transformed into a veritable factory for processing reality and producing boxes to store it in. The whole hybrid dimension of reality - that is to say, everything that is mixed, heterogeneous, contradictory, eventful - cannot be processed by reason, since it cannot be identified, sorted and classified, without being mutilated and denatured. And so a terrible distrust of what is hybrid around us, of those who are hybrid around us, has emerged. Unable to 'grasp' them, our rationality has taught us to repress them, to reject them.
The centaur represents that part of reality that we distrust, because it doesn't fit into any of our boxes. He embodies mixture, the elusive, the unpredictable, the heterogeneous, the "identity-less" or the "overflow of identities"; in a word, the hybrid! In literature, painting or sculpture, these centaurs are almost always represented as evil and suspicious beings. Yet this image of the centaur could be similar to that of the translator, who also doesn't fit into any of our boxes. He or she isn't really a writer, even if he or she has a writing role. It's impossible to put a label on a translator, or to give him or her an identity. A translator doesn't fit into any box, precisely because his or her role is to make the boxes interact!
Like the hybrid figure of the centaur, the translator has the heroic, sometimes painful role of bridge-builder between radically different worlds and visions of the world; he or she builds bridges between languages, between landmarks, between imaginations. They have the responsibility of piercing borders, of making them porous and traversable... They have the mission of hybridisation. In German, the words for "translation" - Übersetzung and Übertragung - express a passage or transport beyond, to the other side. In Hebrew, the word "translation" is called "targum", with the underlying idea of "target": it is indeed the image of the centaur with his bow and arrow that is similar to that of the translator.
As Kazuyoshi Yoshikawa, Proust's translator into Japanese, said, translation must be accepted as a "transformation", because "to translate is to betray, but to be more faithful to the original". It must be accepted as hybridisation, because literature suffocates in boxes and can only survive in metamorphoses. Why do we praise musicians, who in their own way are translators of composers, and not admire translators, who in their own way are interpreters of literature? It's high time we paid tribute to all these soloists, without whom masterpieces wouldn't be able to cross borders!
 Gabrielle Halpern, 'Let's all be centaurs! A celebration of hybridisation", Le Pommier, 2020