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Eulogy to translation

Translating a text to another language is a tool of resistance (and reflection) against homogenized thinking.

Our business is the certified translation, but what we really love to read in our time off is a good book, that versatile object whose design has hardly changed over time, and we must emphasize its intimate and prosperous relationship with our own craft of translation. Literature, which we often consume poured out of another language, can worthily fulfil both the function of capturing the curiosity of a lonely reader during a few dead hours in an airport and of becoming a multitudinous refuge for the most complex and overflowing feelings. When Notre Dame was still smoking, readers all over the world turned to Victor Hugo, as if the charred wood of his structure could be reconstructed with the cellulose from the pages of his famous novel about the hunchback Quasimodo. They also turned to Ernest Hemingway when terrorism attacked the French capital, or to George Orwell after Edward Snowden unveiled the global surveillance network.

Thanks to translators, we can access these works in our own languages, which may be different from the one in which they were originally expressed. Translation, a political and philosophical gesture that makes the ideal of union and understanding beyond linguistic borders a reality, is a tool of resistance (and reflection) against homogenised thought. I’m unsure of whether a dystopia has already been written or filmed in which translation has been eradicated, but it would be a world condemned to linguistic monotony and one radically different from our own, based on the circulation of ideas from one language to another. Orwell made a variant in 1984 imagining the extreme imposition of a simplified neo-language in order to govern the thinking of the population.

Every translation widens the target language, as it integrates new ways of saying and thinking. It is a journey towards the other. According to the editor Roberto Calasso, a good translation is not recognized by its fluency, contrary to what is usually said, but by all the unusual and original formulas that the translator has had the courage to preserve and defend. Even so, in our multilingual world, the translator is still often seen as suspected of high treason for daring to pour foreign titles into her own language with the aspiration of reproducing the nuances of the original. What must one of our best translators, the great Miguel Sáenz, have thought when he brought to Spanish Thomas Bernhard's forceful opinion that "a translated book is like a body mutilated by a car until it is unrecognizable"?

There are other writers who, unlike the Austrian and his acolytes, have extolled the art of translation. Borges said that, in reality, it is the original text that is unfaithful to the translation. This apparent occurrence sums up a poetics of this craft that, instead of prioritising word-for-word correspondence, understands it as an act of literary creation. In fact, Borges, in his curriculum, put his translations before his original work. Nabokov, for his part, placed his English version of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin at the height of his contribution to universal letters.

The translator must take risks and understand that being faithful is not the same as being servile. More than one theorist has observed that there is a flagrant contradiction in insisting that the ethical code to which the translator must submit is based on objectivity and non-intervention, a conception according to which the intention is to turn a fundamental participant in this linguistic transaction into a diaphanous entity whose existence, paradoxically, is denied. The translator, understood in this way, would be a mere optical instrument that allows a work written in a foreign language to be "focused", but let us remember that any lens, even the most precise one, throws an optical aberration into the resulting image. Alphonse de Lamartine said: "In my opinion, the most difficult literary work is translation", and this difficulty lies in the utopian nature of trying to hear your own voice in the other person and, at the same time, to speak with that other person's voice. Only when this chimera is attempted does the translator meet the difficult challenge of being faithful, at the same time, to two equally demanding masters, the author of the work and the reader of the translation.

Do we lose anything when translating a text from one language to another? Every communicative act is plagued by errors and confusion. An old Yiddish proverb says that a person hears one word but understands two. Translating is the art of approximation and, therefore, it is necessary to know how to live with the error. "Fail better," Beckett repeated, because failure is inevitable. Ivo Andrić pointed out that it is easy to discover imperfections, or even errors, in the work of the best translators, but very difficult to understand the complexity and value of their work. We translate and we will continue to translate, because if we want to broaden our coordinates and go out to meet other cultures, we have no other choice. When we cross the language border, they always confiscate something at customs, but it's well worth the trip in order to arrive at the destination with a more-or-less full suitcase. Translation is the triumph of a utopia, so with it we always win. In the end, as the poet Elizabeth Bishop said, the art of losing is not a disaster.

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