Notes on translation

© Dmitri Kotjuh

Jan Kaus

The conflict of natura v. cultura is deeply ingrained in the Western way of thinking. However, language can easily be compared to nature – the variety of species is decisive in both. Similarly to nature, many species of language are endangered or extinct. Looking at the Western Baltic languages, we can see that many branches of that tree are bare or have the last leaves hanging on for dear life, with memories of them collected into dictionaries, histories or, why not, translations. 

Since the variety of species is as characteristic of and natural to language as it is to nature, translation – communication and symbiosis between species – is coded into language. This is because of the inherent difference of languages: even if the spheres of meaning are similar in different languages, as a rule, they are not identical; different languages reflect different mindsets – this is the core of the linguistic variety of species. Yet the variety of species cannot be made up of closed groups in a vacuum. Species must communicate, influence and be influenced, and translators are at the heart of this communication. Without translators, languages would perhaps indeed stop communicating, influencing and, accordingly, functioning. 


Translation should not be considered an internal matter of specialists. I arrived at this when considering the word language, often used in the singular, even though it is obvious that the nature of language is plural. Every language is made up of the written language and the spoken language, and there are more differences between them than we realise. Spoken language, in turn, contains differences related to geography, social status, age etc. One can even go as far as to say that there are as many languages as there are people: while using one linguistic register (such as Estonian), the individual use of language of every Estonian in their speech acts affects the general rules of the language; the way of thinking shapes the way of speaking. Even if the speech act involves only briefly skimming the surface of the rules of written language, it does not cancel out the fact of that contact. Instead of saying “we are using a language” we should say “we are using languages”; that is, differences, divergences, innovations always appear in the generally agreed language through each speech act – the speech act is the collision or intertwining of two or more ways of using the language.


When translating, one should keep in mind that it is not only words that are being translated, it is also the turn of phrase, the rhythms of the author’s mind. The best kind of translation means the translator and the translated are breathing as one. Admittedly, this is always temporary, fleeting, destined to end – but as intense as any other experience of intimacy. 

Moreover, when translating, I am learning the language of not only the one I am translating but also the language of the translator, i.e. myself. I am getting a better insight into the meanings of my own words and expressions. 

This is why translating is never completely objective, even though the aim of objectivity should never be abandoned or forgotten when translating. This is not only about the concept of translation: whether the translation should always keep in mind that it should attempt to remain as faithful to the original as possible, or the fact that it is always a new, independent text. It is about the personality of the translator, their experience, choices, ideas and obsessions, their aims or fears, which could sometimes move the translator to amplify a motif or aspect of the original and understate another. Translators are speaking the author’s mind but with their own words – they are all they have. 


However, is translation not something we all do daily, and therefore inevitably? Wittgenstein has written that the boundaries of our language also define the boundaries of our world. The semitones, shades, twists and nuances of experience, reactions, emotions and ideas are often difficult, if not impossible, to put into words, because language can never cover the diversity and complexity of the world, our imagination and the surrounding reality (let us recall Funes the Memorious of Borges!). Yet there can be no other way: we must try to translate our own responses, ideas and feelings into speech and translate the speech of the universe, society and other beings into our own understanding and understanding ourselves – to prevent misunderstandings from reaching a critical mass.

This way, translating fiction seems like a particularly methodical, extremely concentrated attempt to understand another person, another consciousness, the linguistic, written expression of this consciousness. So it follows that the central aim of translating fiction can easily be transposed from the written word to any human interaction. To understand or not to understand – there is no such question!  


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