Einmal ist keinmal

Boasting about sales figures and large print-runs on book jackets is a vulgar practice reserved to airport blockbusters; but it is perfectly respectable for even the most literary of books to boast about the number of languages into which it has been translated. As if to say, “It’s so good, it addresses such universal concerns, that it works in nineteen languages!”

The literary world has always had its share of scandals involving fiery reviewers unacquainted with the object of their derision and no one is too shocked when established writers trot out ignorant blurbs for agency stable-mates. But a translator’s endorsement is taken more seriously: the least that is expected of a translator is to have read the source text. In fact, the translator is the only reader who has written proof of having read the book—and a line-by-line certification that it can be read all the way through. The translation is a counterfoil of the reading; and a certificate of its viability.

In the popular imagination, a translation gives the original a sudden canonicity, a sort of Platonic splendour. Rumours are leaked about all those things ‘lost in translation’ 1: this word does not quite mean that thing, that expression does not quite have the same associations the author intended. The translator’s familiarity with the original language is brought into question 2; the author, this hapless foreigner, is pitied for being so badly served by a semi-literate translator, a disreputable courier who packaged it inadequately and screwed up the waybill. You may think, for instance, on reading Brothers Karamazow that it’s quite a good book—but how many riches await its reader in Russian! How much nuance and rhythm, smug bilingualists assure us, have simply disappeared.

Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which the author hath prepared for them that speak his language.

But this is precisely one of the silent joys of reading a book in translation: you can imagine that you are reading, as best you can, a “perfect” book. You are reading it “imperfectly” of course, but you can allow yourself to imagine that in the original Russian or Turkish or Spanish or Polish the book is the perfect synthesis of form and function, that words have a self-evident purchase on things, that the author makes perfect use of the unique nature of his native language, that idiom is deployed with accuracy, flair and restraint.

When faced with a translation, we become Gnostics with the author as God and the translator as demiurge. Any failure between form and function, any dislocation between words and things, is down to the necessarily imperfect nature of the act of translation and, perhaps, the translator’s incompetence. This is the translator as fall guy, translation as scapegoat for the imperfections of language. As we read a translation, we form a virtual image—some distance behind the dark glass of the translation—of a perfect work. 3 We can also do this when reading in the original, of course, but the original text, with its opaque pretence of finality, punctures the illusion. A translation gives us licence to fill the gaps between the present words and the hypothetical perfect work more confidently. The imperfections of translation obliterate the imperfections of the writing, of language itself.

A translation makes a modest claim, after all, we know it is only makeshift. If the book is any good, there will be another one along quite soon. In that most conventional of literary forms, the preface, an author is expected to be humble about his own work (sometimes to the point of flippancy); a translator is expected to be humble about his own work (sometimes to the point of self-flagellation) but he is also expected to be not merely courteous but positively gushing about his source material. Prefaces along the lines of “I have chosen to translate this book and thereby redeem it from its native mediocrity” are rare. Instead we get apologetic contortions and squirming justifications for this choice of words over another.

Such coy modesty is unnecessary. A translated work is necessarily better than its original. “Even the most beautiful and valuable writings, when their own author is reciting them,” Leopardi said in his notes, ‘become such as to kill with boredom.’ 4 Just as Stravinsky was never the best conductor of his own music 5, a writer may not be the best person to write his own books. 6

If the act of writing is the tentative mapping of things in the world, the translated text offers us a triangulation. It validates it by applying the scientific principle of reproducibility and somewhat assuages the tautological defect of language, its petitio principii, its ‘logical incest.’

All text is public—but a translated text is more out in the open, its weave more textured and complex, at once firmer in the world and lighter, free of the author’s provincial claustrophobia. By decanting the text into a new language, translation liberates it from the semantic heaviness of the author’s idiolect and aerates it, relieving it of the whiff of the lamp. Translation embellishes the mere happenstance of the death of the author with all the drama of murder. Thomas of Aquinas had warned us to beware the man of one book 7; but we should also know to beware the book of one man.  8


  1. 1Now a hackneyed phrase thanks to Sofia Coppola.
  2. 2Cf. TLS spate about Orhan Pamuk’s first translator into English.
  3. 3Here we have the reader looking at a mirror, the unsublimated stuff of his own language.
  4. 4Extend quotation. Is this also in the Zibaldone?
  5. 5Find a decent source for this, or lose it.
  6. 6Samuel Johnson’s best book was written by Boswell.
  7. 7I had always understood Aquinas to be warning us away from such men because of their narrowmindedness, in the same way that Pope had warned that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Then I heard an Evangelical Christian boast of the apologetic power of being a man of one book. I was amazed at his blind casuistry. I was later disappointed to learn that Aquinas really did intend what the smug Christian had understood. Quote. Speaking of Pope, I once also heard someone—on the Today Programme, I’m sure, say that a “little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Meaning that even a tiny smidgen of knowledge is dangerous against The Man. Fortunately, there’s no doubt what Pope meant. Quote including the line after, full draft.
  8. 8However translation must also be faithful—at all costs.