Ref. :  000018070
Date :  2003-02-17
Language :  English
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Author :  Reyes Mate

Translation is the rational benchmark of unity. In Europe, the unquestionable place for plurality of languages, what statistics show is that this plurality is declining: fewer and fewer books are being translated from one continental language into another — especially between the German, French and Spanish languages — and more and more books are being translated from English into other European languages. If we consider the fact that thought runs parallel to language, the one-way translation of English into other languages results in the monopoly over the global agenda for the discussion of ideas and, consequently, in the spreading and the establishment of political, moral, scientific or aesthetic theories that were formulated in English.
A Europe that takes no further interest in the relation between its diversity and its linguistic and cultural plurality is a Europe that develops according to values for which one language is sufficient. These values are figures. The fact that the European Union is more Pythagorean than it is Parmenidean, that is consists more "of figures" than it consists "of letters", that it is more economic than political is a good reflection of the decline of linguistic plurality.

Walter Benjamin describes the translator's task as the "reconstruction of pure language". This doesn't correspond to what we usually expect from translation, that is to say that it makes a text written in a language we do not speak understandable to us. Moreover, nobody writes in "a pure language" and our real languages are intermixed with other languages. So? Language purity is a way to describe the process that needs to be completed for a language to be authenticated. This process consists of a journey to Paradise, nearby the unique language. It must be underlined that a language does not authenticate itself, on its own, but that it needs the support of other languages. Let us first consider what a "true language" is not: it doesn't consist in the reception of an original language that would be someone's propriety. This language doesn't exist anymore. On the contrary, it consists in favoring the desire for plenitude and universality that exists inside every language because they remember that there once was a real language. But why would translation do this to languages? Because when to languages that have little contact come to meet in the process of translation, two phenomena occur : firstly, the awakening of energies; a miracle takes place in the translation of languages, one that makes words uncover new meanings, so much that our language, urged by the impulse of the translated language, grows richer with meanings that hadn't occurred before. A foreign language is like an exile land of meanings that belong to our own language but with which no contact has been kept. Secondly, translation is like an ordeal by fire for words and sentences that, as they are being translated, unveil their triviality and their insignificance --just as some texts are better off translated.
In his attempt to explain this virtual aspect of translation, Benjamin uses two metaphors that clarify his point of view. First of all, that of growth. Translations allows "the seed of pure language to ripen". A language is not mature if it drifts towards the true language (which is unique), whether it is a sort of Esperanto or a sort of universal language. A mature language is always a particular or specific language and, as such, a language different from any other. The characteristic feature of maturity is that it add new meanings to old words, meanings that appear or are awakened in the contact with foreign words. In the translation process, two and two make five because in translation not only do we make the meaning of a foreign word ours, but, if the translation is good, the word used for the translation and that we already know also takes on a meaning that transcends it, that escapes translation and leaves us unsatisfied.
The second metaphor is that of the broken amphora. Benjamin compares language to a precious and ancient amphora that was once broken and of which we know only the fragments and the legend that it once was in one piece. Existing languages are like these fragments of amphora that call for the reconstruction of the original amphora. And because there is no model to copy, there is no other solution than finding the scattered pieces that correspond to each other one by one. Translation is an open door to the original that has been exiled in the translated language. If we manage to rebuild one piece of the amphora from the translated language and the language that is being translated into, we will have moved farther towards pure language.

Jorge Semprún answered the champions of a one-language Europe (just as Latin during the early Middle Ages) that this would not only imply renouncing our own history and our own common roots (that can only be combined today thanks to cultural and linguistic diversity), but that it would also constitute a threat for democratic construction. The dêmos of a democracy is not an abstract notion of a uniform and interchangeable people; it is unique in every place since what makes a collective a dêmos is its history, its culture, its memory. The construction of a democratic Europe "can only take place through diversity", that is to say, first of all, through translating and learning several languages. These two requirements are complementary in the sense that languages are not learned in order to avoid translation but, on the contrary, because translation enriches plurality. Speaking the language of the other eases communication as well as it favors the maturing of one's own language.

Let us add that was has been said here about Europe stands for any other place. Each time we think of the world (Menscheit ) as Mankind (Menschlichkeit ), that is to say each time we consider the community of men in quest for the human being of man (Menschlichkeit ), a path to be created must be imagined, and the key to progress in this field is not self-given, it derives from others. Translation is the linguistic expression of a coexistence strategy in which the contents of politics, morality or truth appear not as titles of propriety that everyone can mysteriously claim, but as the results of an encounter, as the discoveries that come precisely from the other. This is why truth that has thus been acquired transcends what is "mine" and what is "yours", and happens to be universal.

Indicative bibliography :

Derrida, Jacques, "Des Tours de Babel" in L’art des confins , ed. by Jean-François Lyotard, PUF, Paris, 1985.

Peñalver, P. "El imperativo del origen y la tarea de la traducción", in ER , 5, Seville, 1987.

Reyes Mate, "El lenguaje" in Heidegger y el Judaísmo , Anthropos, Barcelona, 1998.

Benjamin, Walter, "La tâche du traducteur", in Gesammelte Schriften , IV/1, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1972.

Wisenthal, Liselotte, Zur Wissenschaftstheorie W. Benjamins , Athenâum/Verlag, Frankfurt, 1983.

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