Against my better judgment I am sitting in on a few classes in the Department of Philosophy at DePaul University. I say against my better judgment because I have enough work to stay on top of without adding to it, but I also feel like I can’t pass up an opportunity to study some interesting texts with teachers whom I have and continue to have lots of respect for. Those who know of DePaul’s program will know that it is known for its emphasis on original languages as well as a celebration of translation. It may be one of the few places where, and I could be mistaken about this, but where a translation of a major philosophical book “counts” at the institutional level. I know it at least counts amongst the other faculty here.
I am, of course, also interested in translation, though somewhat as someone who feels more workaday about it than learned. It is an attitude I take towards translation in part because of my redneck past. I just can’t escape the fact that I had a very poor langauge education up through High School and that my comfort with the nuances of language will always be challenged by the fact that I don’t have anything approaching a classical education. I struggle sometimes to remember what an adverb is. But I can read and I can render things into readable English through the power of my labour. That’s something that I’m both proud of and unsure of. And so it is really interesting for me to listen to Michael Naas describe the massive project of translation underway on Derrida’s forty years of lecturing. Listening to him talk about the act of making choices. The difficulties presented by translating Derrida’s early hand-written lectures (he showed us a sample of Derrida’s handwriting which was completely illegible to me). And the use of the archive in working through these translations.
It’s also been interesting to hear grad students talk about translations. It seems that praise of a translation is rare, but everyone is very quick to denigrate a translation. The grave offender that I have heard about the most, owing to a class being taught on Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, is EB Ashton. They are probably right, I wouldn’t know because I don’t read German. To be honest I rarely read the original next to an English translation anyway (the excemption here is I consulted some of Aquinas and Spinoza in Latin, but even that…). It just is not how I do my work, I’m not really interested in history of philosophy where that sort of technique seems very, very important. I’m, again, more of a fraud than that. I’m more workaday, I like to play with concepts, and I believe I have a sufficienty understanding of them through the texts I’ve chosen to read (original or not).
Anyway, with the warnings of these students I mind I began reading my copy of Adorno’s text today, beginning with the “Translator’s Note” of Ashton. While his translation may be poor, he too seems very concerned with the act of translation. He makes a few comments about the untranslatability of Heidegger’s texts and defends his decision not to use the English translations of most of the German philosophers Adorno quotes. For, he writes, “My responsibility, as I saw it, was to put Adorno’s thought into English, not to keep his examples of other philosophers’ thought in line with the English forms lent to them by other translators.” And so the bad translator himself here is seen to be taking a few shots at other translators.
This isn’t uncommon. I’ve always felt talking to other translators a certain antagonism towards others. It’s not universal, but it is very common, this idea that encore un effort if you want to be translators! It was with that in mind that I was struck by a further comment by Ashton:
“I often wonder,” a noted translator and critic wrote to me years ago, “how far writers like Benjamin, Lukács, Adorno, say, are ever going to make much mark in the English-speaking world … as long as translators do not risk their lives and think them into English.”
It’s a striking sentiment if one reads it as a materialist statement and not a rhetorical flourish. For who, in an age when fewer of us are getting academic jobs that supplement any translation work and when fewer and fewer presses are willing to pay the amount of money that a translation truly deserves, who in this age can afford to risk their life and give a translation that much of their labour power?