Steiner Chapter 4 Questions from your predecessors

  •  On one hand, I can potentially see the demise of words “when words shake off ‘the burden of having to mean’ and will be only themselves, blank and replete as stone.” On the other hand, these blank words can determine our thoughts as we fill in our own meanings around these words.  Realistically speaking, can they really exist in the long run?
  • Steiner speaks of translation being a useful process because of the fourth step of translation, reciprocity. He cites Hegel and Heidegger in arguing that by attempting to clarify the text’s essence, we are in fact enriching the meaning through repeated attempts of understanding. I have two issues with this. First of all, it would only enrich the meaning if you were aware of its original meaning. Thus, if you could only read the language it was translated into, it would make the meaning shallower instead of giving multiple routes of exploration into the text. This could be explained by the fact that he seems to promote a type of translation that can be truer to the heart of the text than the original. “Where it surpasses the original, the real translation infers that the source-text possesses potentialities, elemental reserves as yet unrealized by itself”(160). I also take issue with this answer however. Does this mean that the text takes on a life of symbols and meaning of its own? Is it a reflection of some purer question or answer that can be better refined through translation? With this answer, Steiner really does kill the author.
  • Steiner spends most of page 158 talking about translation as an act of violence, destruction and as he says “infection.” Yet can’t we also see the act of translation as one of creation, as a means of building new links and bridges between languages so that the more we translate the more we connect different cultures?  Rather than fearing that “we may be mastered and made lame by what we have imported” can’t we see ourselves as enriched and more connected to a linguistic system and thereby people different from our own?
  • “As he sets out, the translator must gamble on the coherence, on the symbolic plenitude of the world (p. 7).”  Language, like many other cultural fundamentals has been shaped and guided by the evolutionary “powers that be,” so to speak. Adaptively surviving to best fit the cultural environment, within which it is set or from which it emerged. While the language’s culture has also operated adaptively but in ways best-fitted to the culture’s surrounding ecological and civil environments. How do we as a cultural collective translate our external environments? How as individuals do we do this? It seems a difficult task, for the human self, to not project his or her notions, beliefs or one’s internal understanding–onto external phenomena. Humans have a strong tendency to be human-centric and anthropomorphize. In translation or cross-linguistic understanding, is it dangerous to be culture-centric or even narcissitic in projecting the “we” or the “I” familiar to the source text or of the interpreter’s/translator’s/reader’s language, endemic to his or her cultural habitat? And in regard to this, what do we make of those persons native to polyglot habitats?
  • Steiner says that genuine translation should aim to equalize; it should neither fall short of the original text, nor should it surpass it.   If no such perfect “double” exists, then what is more favorable? Possibly like Schleiermacher, I would argue the latter. However, in talking about enriching the source text via the target language, the notion of hierarchy of languages is back in play.
    Is it really possible to “know better that the author did” in translating a text? What would that involve?
  • Steiner brings up the analogy of translation with code-breaking, of “leaving the shell smashed and the vital layers stripped”.  The idea of translation as code-breaking is an interesting one, partly because it brings up the idea of language as a code.  As we’ve covered this idea a bit before (“Everyone who can understand me can go ahead”), I think it would be more interesting to consider how translation can both decode, and encode, a text.

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Katie Faull

Dr. Katherine Faull is Professor of German and Humanities at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA. Author and editor of six book-length publications, over 40 peer-reviewed articles and chapters, she was educated at King's College, London (BA Hons, German/Russian) and Princeton University (Germanic Languages and Literatures), and is a Life Member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge. The recipient of three major grant awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, she has published extensively on questions of gender, race, and autobiography in the Moravian Church in North America in the colonial period. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Moravian History, the book series, Anabaptist and Pietist Studies with the Pennsylvania State University Press, and is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Moravian Archives, Bethlehem, PA. Her current international collaborative DH project, Moravian Lives, focuses on the digital exploration of Moravian memoirs (moravian.bucknell.edu) and brings together top international scholars in the field of Pietism with graduate and undergraduate students in the exploration of 18th-century life writing, gender, race, and the Moravian world. Katie has also published scholarly articles on digital pedagogy at a liberal arts institution, DH and religious history, and digital visualization in the humanities. For more, go to http://www.katiefaull.com

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