That In Your Ear?

David Bellos on translation

by by Nick Shulman

illustration by by Katy Windemuth

In 1595, as spiritual leader of the Jesuit mission to China, Matteo Ricci guided his subordinates to shed their robes and grow their hair. After 12 years spent carefully observing Chinese customs, Ricci had determined that the Jesuits could not accomplish all they sought if their prospective converts thought they looked like Buddhist monks. The Chinese literati with whom he wished to associate were Confucians, not oblates. To be perceived as Western intellectuals, as they were in Europe, the Jesuits began by adopting the clothing and manner of the intellectual class. In changing their appearance, Ricci broke with Jesuit traditions to make his translated message of Catholic salvation more intelligible to his Chinese audience.

The fidelity of translations is always in question. Reading about the sartorial adjustment in his letters, Ricci’s superiors in Italy feared what else might be lost when he discarded so many Jesuit rituals. If their missionaries had been stripped of what distinguished them aesthetically, perhaps their message of faith had gone, too. Like a teacher discovering her students using an English translation of Camus’s L’etranger to complete their French homework, these clergymen must have lamented, “A translation is no substitute for the original!” In Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber, 2011), veteran translator and academic David Bellos uses the classroom example, among others, to dispel myths about translation. While he addresses translation theory, Bellos never strays far from his thesis that translation is a practical tool for communicating between languages. Translations, he argues, can be perfect substitutes for the originals from which they are derived; if they were not, students would never use them to complete their homework more quickly. Although audience-centric alterations must be made, content is not lost in the process.

Bellos seeks to answer the most fundamental question put to him: “Is faithful translation possible?” From a distance, it appears to some that the translator is doomed by his task. To generate a translation, a person takes a word or phrase in one language and proposes an equivalent in another. She then refines her choices to achieve the best translation. Thinking of translation in this way seems only to approach perfection asymptotically. Striving for the most precise equivalent phrases seems to imply that there is an unattainable perfect translation.

But while philosophical treatments of translation often dwell on the striving for perfect agreement between the original and derivative versions, translation in practice never concerns itself with substituting words verbatim.

Even when the words, meaning, and even syllable count of an original text are preserved in a translation, pessimists will always say that the poetry of language is somehow lost. Bellos devotes an entire chapter to proving that “What Can’t Be Said Can’t Be Translated.” These critics, he writes, cannot point to the poetic qualities that they miss so dearly. To expect a translation of the ineffable properties of a particular set of words in a specific language is to demand something fantastic. There are no translations of imaginary subtexts or the pure meaning underlying language. Translation is practical, not magical.

In China, Ricci faced a second roadblock. The intellectuals he met were versed in neo-Confucian philosophy, which was fundamentally incompatible with the immortal soul at the core of Catholicism. Worse still, Qi, the most soul-like concept they had, was bound up with un-Christian notions about the elements. If the Chinese were ever to understand the Catholicism, Qi could never be translated as ‘spirit’, or vice-versa.

Undeterred, Ricci dove into the history of Confucianism. He found ancient Chinese spiritual texts that were compatible with modern Catholicism. Unlike neo-Confucianism, these documents allowed for the existence of an immortal soul. Citing the devastating book burnings of the Qin period (221-207 B.C.), Ricci claimed that Catholicism—not neo-Confucianism—was heir to the spiritual notions of Confucian sages during China’s high antiquity. To create a common ground between incommensurable belief systems, he accommodated and adapted traditions in a process that would eventually be called the “Ricci method.” He appropriated classical texts and discredited later commentary, and preserved fundamental Chinese traditions by referring to parts of Aristotelian metaphysics that had been adopted by Catholicism.  Neo-Confucians, he contrived to say, were Catholics all along.

Manipulation of meaning is not new in translation. The notion that “Eskimos have 100 words for snow,” for instance, is not only inaccurate, but also exhibits xenophobic vestiges of colonialism. When Western European conquerors travelled to distant lands, they met the natives, then pointed at objects and asked for translations into the local tongue. When they had satisfied their curiosity—and plundering appetites—explorers were inclined to conclude that the feeble-minded savages had a plethora of words for exotic oddities, but lacked the intellectual rigor to develop category words, or hypernyms. The natives knew wet-snow and sticky-snow, but couldn’t fathom all types of snow—if only the sailors had asked.

Bellos does not spare more recent translation-related blunders. He takes to task the twentieth-century anthropological-historical belief that there was once a single, original language.  The theory of language diversity harkens back to an underlying belief in the Tower of Babel. Even contemporary theories of linguistic development are affected by the origins and aspirations of their creators.

Like his seafaring and historian-linguist counterparts, Ricci’s doctrinal zeal may have convinced him that his purposeful translations were just. Nothing is translated without a reason.

Personal motives aside, translators do face systemic challenges in their work. It is especially difficult to translate regionally distinct accents and those marked by class, for instance. The monologue of an uneducated farmer from the French countryside in the early nineteenth century cannot be reproduced easily in English. Should the farmer’s words be traded with someone of equivalent class status in the United Kingdom? Will the adoption of an entirely different patois not confuse the reader about the book’s setting? Are the associations between farmers in one country the same as those in another? What if the book is read by an American unfamiliar with the spectrum of UK vernacular? Should the slang adopted be modern or that of the appropriate time period? As a result of these endless quandaries, translators tend to normalize levels of speech. This is especially evident in fiction, where characters’ idiosyncratic word-choices are jettisoned in translation. While meaning can usually be translated, accents rarely make the leap to a new language.

Since its inception, translation has been just one way that speakers of different languages communicate with one another. Communication across language and between cultures is only possible, Bellos postulates, thanks to a common human experience.

At its base, translation is empathetic. While a set of words may be unfamiliar, their underlying meaning can be communicated across tongues. Language, Bellos concludes, is the culmination of needs, wants, and feelings. Translations may not match the originals from which they are derived in every way, but if they convey a similar meaning in a manner comprehensible to the target audience, then they are successful. Constructive translation led Matteo Ricci to alter his rituals and those of his target audience. As a result of their meeting, the Chinese and Jesuits not only came to understand one another, but experienced cultural change in the process. In a situation demanding translation, two seemingly incompatible systems of thought were brought together. Negotiating ambiguity, intent, and deception plays a role in all human interaction, including those mediated by translation.

NICK SHULMAN B’14 is practical, not magical.