I mean “confessions” here in none of the word's more odious senses, criminal or spiritual. Translation is no guilty act to be forgiven at the confessional box. Nor do I labor under the compulsion to offer an Apologia pro vita mea, a justification before God and man of my life as translator. From childhood, in all my waking moments I have taken delight in an intense preoccupation: translating not mere words but worlds of experience—and the reality behind that experience—into my own language, world, experience. I have conceived translation between languages to be an extension of the larger preoccupation many of us share under another name, “the search for knowledge.”

My first recollection of translating comes from a very early age, before I could either read or write. This is hard to believe. But I do have a hazy memory of the event, which my mother used to describe with pardonable love and pride. It seems that her younger son, when only four, would after dinner sprawl out under the kitchen table, where he would carefully fill in the empty boxes in the evening newspaper's crossword puzzle.

A far cry from the lyrical accomplishment of the King James, or of the seventy scholars who miraculously agreed on a uniform Septuagint? Not really. One is reminded of the apparently frivolous but really quite serious remark passed offhand by Sholem Aleichem. When pressed by a persistent interviewer to explain why he wrote, the great humorist finally confided: “Because I can't stand the sight of blank paper.”

All of us for whom language is terribly important, at whatever age, are constantly filling in the blank boxes of our tabula rasa, scribbling over the empty pages of knowledge. We are continually arranging and rearranging intellectual and emotional furniture in the otherwise empty rooms of the world we were born into, giving significant form to meaningless space.

So my mother was not far wrong when she interpreted my childish scribblings as a first, hopeful sign of growing intellectual curiosity. Nor is it stretching the word “translation” to the snapping point to call this pencil work an index at an elementary level of the same symbol-making that the grown translator performs with the aid of dictionary, thesaurus, concordance—and intuition.

My second experience at translation occurred some ten years later, in high school. There is no question that this was translation, of the formal type. But the circumstances surrounding it, the shape it took, what the event meant in the development of my own consciousness—these seem to me now far more important than the bare fact that at the age of fourteen I first entered the translation fraternity.

We were studying the Aeneid. I was strongly affected by Virgil's moving aside. He has just finished describing Dido's self-immolation after Aeneas's betrayal, and goes on to comment: Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt. (“There are tears for mortality, and human woes touch the human heart.”)

I did not know that this is one of the most quoted lines in Latin literature. It came to me completely first-hand, out of the blue, and I was thoroughly shaken. For days I went around repeating it. Finally, I exorcised the spell in a very strange way; I translated Macbeth's soliloquy of desperate resignation into a schoolboy approximation of Virgil's classical Latin. “Out, out, brief candle” became “fuge fuge candela brevis.”

I had no idea at the time that I had imposed on myself, for reasons still somewhat indistinct to me now, an exercise at whose performance generations of Oxbridge students had writhed; the Miltons and Johnsons who performed prodigies of Latin versification were, obviously, exceptional even in an age of university Latinists.

No, I was making no claim to Latin scholarship. What I think I was trying to do was to draw connections. These connections were not only between two languages, between two different ages and societies in the past—but also between them and my own present.

I was trying to connect Virgil's Augustan age with Shakespeare's Elizabethan age, and (implicitly) with my own New Deal period. I did not know at the time that both Virgil and Shakespeare had engaged in the same enterprise as I had. Virgil had related the mythical fall of Troy and the establishment of Rome, the subject of the Aeneid, to the imperial city of Rome where he himself lived and wrote. And Shakespeare had inferred a connection between the primitive witchery and violent ambition played out on Scottish heaths in Macbeth and the violence, ambitions, witcheries of renaissance London. But I did sense a relationship between the traditional European humanism that both Virgil and Shakespeare represented for me and New York of the depression period where all that was mythical, and classic, and divinely compassionate, and tragic on a grand scale seemed irrelevant to so many of my friends, caught up in the grayness and tedium of their streets and lives.

That fuge fuge candela brevis followed me for thirty years. In translation after translation, of poems, and plays, and stories, and novels, and even of journalism, I kept looking for equivalences and valences, mutations and permutations, new vessels for old wine, transpositions of all kinds.

Thus I sought in my translations to convert Aramaic prayers of the time of Jesus into Buberian I-Thou dialogues, encounters between God and man. Philosophic rhapsodies from the 14th-century Golden Age of Spain I tried to match with pre-Raphaelite elegance, and self-mocking Central European sentimentality with Audenesque ironic slang. I viewed Emmanuel Ringelblum's dispassionate eyewitness record of the Final Solution in the Warsaw ghetto through a Dos Passos living-history camera eye. And I even ventured, in a translator's preface to Satan in Goray, to refer that account of a satanic, apocalyptic mass hysterical movement to the Marxist messianism of our own times.

Whatever I translated became part of my own thinking and feeling, not only while I was working on it, but before and after as well. I found myself repeating words, phrases, lines, developing metaphors, hints, adapting them to my own writing. To this day I am possessed by the material I worked with. For a week last year, I kept repeating to myself during long walks my rendition of some lines from a wistful Yiddish poem by Moishe Leib Halpern: “Walk around all day and dream/that you've a villa by the sea./And your wife plays the piano/and bears with you, tenderly.”


I have never regretted those years of translation, and do not regret them now. But there came a time when I stopped translating, and I do not regret that either.

Something that the gifted Maurice Samuel once said to me is apropos. Samuel's work was a model of the kind of “transcreation,” rather than more literal translation, that Ezra Pound, working with Chinese originals, Robert Lowell (with French), and P. Lal (with Sanskrit) so brilliantly practiced. And yet Samuel, the author of the wonderful World of Sholom Aleichem, a model of grace and understanding, confided to me wearily one afternoon that he was “tired of chewing someone else's cud.”

Certainly, ego is involved. A frustration that is often embittering halts many translators, particularly those who, like the writer and Kafka translator Edwin Muir, do not wish to wake up one morning and discover that they are writers manqués, and be tempted to blame their failure not on their own limited powers but on a fancied self-sacrifice on other authors' altars.

But I do not feel that way about myself and my own writing. I still believe that I got from translation as much as, if not more than, I gave to it. My own work has been enriched, not impoverished, by the years of translation.

No, for clues to the reason why I have stopped translating I must turn elsewhere. I think that what has happened is that my attitude has changed not merely to language but to the reality behind language as well—and that this change is part of a maturation, a late stage in the development I share with all humanity. It has something to do with Macaulay's apt epigram: “Judgment ripens, imagination decays.” In time, he means.

Now, the ideal translator achieves an equilibrium between the forces of imagination and judgment, freedom and conformity, the spirit and the letter of the word. When the equilibrium becomes impossible for him, he can no longer do his balancing act between cultures. The word juggler drops the balls; the trapeze artist misses connection with the swinging ropes of meaning.

That, I suspect, is what has happened to me as a translator—as it does to other translators. We become relatively stronger on the judgment side, weaker on the imagination side. Our poetry becomes prosaic, our prose abstract.

In the end, we simply lose interest in the balancing act. Instead, we tend to assume the critic's role. This role has never to my mind been better described than by Franz Kafka, as quoted in Gustav Jannouch's Conversations with Kafka. The young author asked Kafka whether it was not true that his work was a critique of modern society. Oh no, Kafka responded, he could never be a critic. He could not, he said, put himself in the place of a work of art, then put himself back in his own place—and then precisely measure the distance between the two positions.

The work of criticism is completely opposed to that of translation. The translator, stating one thing in terms of another, seeks to erase the distance between them. The critic, as Kafka with his usual penetration perceived, constantly measures distances between the observer and the thing observed, pointing to discrepancies rather than identities.


What happens to the translator is that, after years of searching for similarities and parallels, he comes to the point where these fall, where uniqueness alone stands: the unbridgeable distance between languages, cultures, views of reality.

The translator becomes persuaded that no view of reality can be translated into any other terms than its own. This persuasion coincides with a diminution of the forces of imagination, a growing incapacity to suspend disbelief, an insistence on the hard fact of things as they are—obdurate, immalleable reality.

Following Dante's image, in our middle years we reach that place where the thicket is for the first time realized as what it truly is. It is the same thicket through which we have spent our youth and early maturity happily slashing our way. Now we see that it is essentially impenetrable—and is meant to be so.

So, by abandoning translating, I have given up a far more important thing than turning words from a language I know fairly well into my native language, which I know very well. I have given up the pretense that I can transfer the view of reality of one language into another. But, more important, I am also admitting that language cannot convey—or even communicate—ultimate reality.

I recently read about a precocious three-year-old child who at the time of the Bolshevik revolution was living in Moscow. Her father was a prominent member of the Socialist Revolutionary party, many of whose leaders had been jailed by the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. Indignantly, the little girl picked up the telephone to tell the Cheka to let Papa's friends go.

But two things went wrong. The child knew only her own telephone number; and that number she pronounced faultily: dva-dvadtzat-tri (223) came out: da-ta-ta-i. One surmises a third mishap which the source I read does not mention. Since the child was calling her own number, she must have received a busy signal.

This strikes me as a useful metaphor both for translation and for the relations between human beings and the powers-that-be—or, in religious terms, God. In our communications with Him, we can only stammer. (Think of the elementary symbols which Carl Sagan broadcasts to superior intelligent life in outer space!) Since we state only our own view of reality, our own number, the only one we know, we continually address ourselves. We receive no answer, because our line is always busy—declaring ourselves.

This is a bitter pill to have to swallow. But once we have gotten it down, the effects are exhilarating. I have always considered myself a religious skeptic. But with this admission that language is chaff flung to the winds of reality, I find that I have joined my skepticism to the essential religious faith of my people. As Gershom Scholem has put it in speaking of Jewish mysticism:

In its classical form, religion signifies the creation of a vast abyss, conceived as absolute, between God, the infinite and transcendental Being, and Man, the finite creature. . . . The great monotheistic religions live and unfold in the ever-present consciousness of this bipolarity, of the existence of an abyss which can never be bridged.

Following the lead of my forefathers, I can throw in my poor hand and say to the God on the other side of the table, who is the ultimate and unknowable reality: I pass! You win!

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link