Whenever I start thinking about translation as an enterprise, José Ortega y Gasset’s words come to my mind: “Translation is dead. Long live translation!” This playful maxim outlines the problems of translation in two different ways. First and foremost, it is a farewell to the practice of translation as we know it. The modern age and the technological advancements of today challenge the traditional practice of translation where translators work their way diligently through each word in a given text. Certainly, it is impossible to categorize all forms of traditional translation as one; after all, there can never be a single attitude towards translation. But if we look at how widely and deeply the print culture is influenced by the rapid technological changes of our times, it is perhaps acceptable to say that the cultures of translation, as we know it, are swiftly changing. The old ways are almost “dead.” But does this mean that there won’t be a new culture of translation in the future? Certainly not. Even if Google Translate ends up becoming a major tool in tomorrow’s translation world, a culture will develop. This is one of the ways in which Gasset’s maxim informs translation.
José Ortega y Gasset
The second reading of Gasset’s words is perhaps more relevant and important. Gasset is thinking about the fate of literary works in general. That is, he is laying out his idea of what happens to a work when it goes through the process of translation. According to him, the work has to die before it can start to breathe again, in a different language or in a different medium. Thus, a translator is at once a gravedigger and a creator. Gasset poses a pivotal question: “Isn’t the act of translating necessarily a utopian task?”
Thinking about translation as a “utopian task” is useful for two reasons. The first one is self-explanatory: No translation can be perfect. The act of translating a work is, in itself, like attempting to set ground rules for a Utopia, while acknowledging that this is already a failed project. The second reason is more relevant to literature and comes out of an etymological reading. The word ‘utopia’ comes from the Greek ou (not) and topos (place). Topos, in an Aristotelian sense also means “topic”, and more specifically “generative patterns of thought or methods of analysis” (Carolyn R. Miller). Hence, utopia also means the absence or lack of the linguistic codes that we use to make arguments. If we consider the “act of translation” as a “utopian task”, then we are assuming that somewhere along the process of translation, these linguistic “generative patterns” die to give rise to new constructions and systems. This is true not only because words travel through languages during the process, but more so because systems and rhetoric have to undo and liberate themselves before they become eligible to produce meaning independently.
Here is a frequently anthologized poem by the Turkish poet, Orhan Veli Kanik (1914-1950). The poem challenges the idea of authorial disappearance by insisting on finding that place, which will allow him to reach his readers on a sensual level. At least he wants his readers to feel that the sensual connection is possible. Veli’s sensual desires haunt his poem, he wants to be felt because, in turn, he wants to reach the place where sensuousness is “everything.” He is “close to the place” but he is not quite there yet. This is similar to what we go through as readers: we are very close to hearing Veli’s voice, touching his tears and feeling his writing, but no, there is a barrier, the act of writing, that keeps us from getting there.
Orhan Veli Kanik
The poem starts out by stressing the unlikelihood of a sensual connection in the realm of poetry. But peculiarly, at the end, the sensual connection does not seem impossible at all. All of a sudden, we are there, hearing his voice, seeing him paint the words on paper, and reaching out to the readers. We experience his writing process. We “get there” without quite getting there. We become a part of the narrative present and discover together with the poet, and this collaboration allows us to touch the poet from afar.
Writing is also an act of translation, a “utopian task” and a process during which rhetorical systems have to die before they can piece themselves together again. Veli’s passionate desire to reach us is perhaps representative of the struggles of translation in general. For a work of translation is at once a graveyard and a mother’s womb. It is the place where previous ways of making meaning die and new possibilities emerge. The act of translation is both an acceptance of the impossibility of getting there and a constant questioning of this impossibility.
You can hear the recorded readings of the poem in both Turkish and English at the links below.
I Can’t Explain by Orhan Veli Kanik
If I cried, could you hear
Before I fell prey to this grief,
I know there's a place
Anlatamıyorum by Orhan Veli Kanık
Ağlasam sesimi duyar mısınız,
The Talat Sait Halman translation is from the following website: http://www.orhanveli.net/talathalman/icantexplain.html
Ortega y Gasset, José. 1937. The Misery and the Splendor of Translation, trans. Elizabeth Gamble Miller. In Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Derrida To Dryden, ed. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.