I grew up in Strasbourg, a French city located across the German border, and the seat of the European Parliament. As a child, I passed a number of diplomatic buildings on my way to the park. Kids at my school spoke the local dialect, a version of German. My closest friend was a Romanian migrant, fluent in both languages. And even my grandmother, first child of a large working class Italian family, could speak three languages, though she never had formal schooling. Multilingualism, and the capacity to switch from one language to the next, was not an exceptional skill, but something rather normal and expected. It was, however, and for that very reason, a basic component of general intelligence.
As I moved from the European capital to Paris for my studies, multilingualism remained pervasive. I was preparing to join Ecole Normale Supérieure, one of France’s notorious Grandes Ecoles. The fairly severe selection process consisted of six-hour essays in history, literature and philosophy. But these long pieces of reflective writing – ‘Is there a history of truth?’ – were complemented by translation exercises, both from a modern language (English) and a classical language (Greek). Luckily for me, all tasks were equally weighted, and in spite of mediocre talent at French composition, my code-switching skills allowed me to sit on the same benches as Foucault, Sartre and Bourdieu.
Fifteen years on, and now a dual citizen writing from the other side of the world, I often reflect on the role played by translation in my own intellectual training, and why translation plays such an important part in the selection of French intellectuals.
Translation, simply defined, consists of producing a new text in a given language which has the same structure, meaning and stylistic qualities as an original text in a different language. The French scholarly tradition, however, uses two different words, depending on the translator’s own native language. A translation from the French to a foreign language is called ‘un theme’: only nerds enjoy it, and it has doubtful intellectual value. Quite on the contrary, translation to French is called ‘une version’, and is considered a sure test of semantic intelligence and intellectual sensitivity.
The word ‘version’ itself is revealing. The translator is not an instrument in the process of information transfer from one language group to another; instead, through the process of translation, they offer the world a new, personal ‘version’ of the source text. Translation is an exercise in deep reading, and a good translator must excel at appreciating the stylistic elegance and semantic subtleties of a text in order to produce a quality translation.
In that sense, translation is applied philology, the complex art of interpreting a piece of writing from a different period or language, based on understanding of its context and internal structure. In my tradition, philology remains a touchstone of intellectual achievement. This applies particularly when a passage is difficult or obscure. My Greek teacher taught me that as a reader and translator, I have two choices when the meaning of a text is unclear. I can decide that the writer was confused and brush it off. Or I can embrace this difficulty, explore ‘difficult readings’, and take my initial confusion as a sign that there is a deeper meaning. Thus, complex semantic differences between two periods or language groups can be revealed through the seemingly obscure parts of a text. Intellectual achievement, in this light, is not the production of ‘original fresh ideas’, but the elegant, enlightening, and original reading of a foreign or ancient piece.
Much of continental philosophy actually grows in the gap between Greek semantic and conceptual structure and those of modern European languages. One of the most original and stimulating books I ever read on language is a little-known opus by Italian Professor Lo Piparo, and consists entirely of proposing an alternative translation of a short passage by Aristotle on language, then expanding as commentary the basic assumptions that led to that new translation.
Translation is a radical alternative to debating. In debate, thinking happens collectively, and the debating tradition acknowledges this phenomenon. It relies on the presence of an intellectual opponent – past, present or imaginary – and offers ideas in the form of a contention. Fresh, original thought emerges dialogically between competing contenders. Translation follows a different model, and obeys a different set of values: here, the translator-interpreter is a mediator between an author and an external reader, whose worldviews are assumed to be different. Translators bring across foreign or forgotten thoughts within the conceptual world of their audience.
For all its diplomatic underpinnings, translation is a fantastic bullshit detector. Abstract bureaucratese, vapid thought, loose constructions based on cloud-like associations of words, or sheer ‘sound-good’ rhetorics dissolve under the harsh acid of translation. Translation is the great enemy of sophistry, because sophistry, fake reasonings and paralogics, are often harder to translate, but also because sophistry goes against the core ethics of translation.
Translation is a school of honesty and humility for the mind. It teaches how difficult and resistant language is to the feeling of intellectual power that we may have – and forces us to acknowledge the resistance of the real. A good translation is judged on two criteria: how faithful and generous it is to the original, and how well it fits within the shape of its host language. The two, however, are inseparable in their material expression. The task brings translators a special benefit. By challenging our own inherited, sclerotic intellectual constructs embodied in lazy language, translation forces us to stretch our brains, because foreign ideas don’t spontaneously fit within the shape of our own clichés.
Translation is a remarkable writing exercise. Translators are directly confronted with the resistance of language. Different grammar systems or bodies of vocabulary will not allow an idea to simply come across on its own.
Translation also teaches us how much can – and unfortunately sometimes does – get lost in the process: ideas have to be pared down, folded over, flattened, in order to translate easily. In this regard, translation teaches us to listen and read better. So when we next hear someone say something plain-sounding or obscure in their second language, rather than dismissing them altogether, or looking for a witty retort, maybe we will try to work with them on articulating their meaning more clearly – and our own world may be that much richer from the effort.
Julien Leyre is a French-Australian writer, educator and social entrepreneur. Julien studied humanities and classics at Ecole Normale Supérieure before teaching linguistics and translation at the Sorbonne. In Paris, he also collaborated with musicians and film-makers, and published a first novel.
Since migrating to Melbourne in 2008, Julien has taught French at La Trobe University and worked in government strategy while pursuing his work as a writer and collaborative artist. In 2011, he founded Marco Polo Project, a non-profit organisation exploring nez collaborative models to develop Chinese and China literacy. In 2014, he’s organising a delegation of Australian social entrepreneurs to Shanghai, and directing the first Marco Polo Festival of Digital Literature, bringing together readers, writers and translators from China and Australia through a series of interactive online and offline events.
In next week's "Translation" themed post, we hear from Melbourne poet, editor and playwright, Izzy Roberts-Orr who works between different mediums - an act that can require some translation skills.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.