Beyond Between: Translation, Ghosts, Metaphors

What is translation? Translation is an English word. Translation is, moreover, a somewhat peculiar English word. Peculiar, I would suggest, because it eludes definition. It is impossible to define because it is a sort of node--a point of intersection. Translation, used in the most ordinary of its many senses, refers to something that takes place, or at least seems to take place, between two languages. The English word "translation" has meaning only because we know there are other languages besides English from which one might translate into English, or into which one might translate from English. The word "translation" implies, that is to say, the existence of other languages. But it also indicates that other languages can be connected to English: it points to itself as the bridge, the carrying across that occurs between languages. We might say, then, that the word only means anything at all because it can itself cross its own bridge by being translated into other languages. "Translation" is defined, first and foremost, by its own translatability. Saussure would say that "translation" is defined by its difference from, for instance, "interpretation," "adaptation," "transnation," etcetera. But that is only part of the picture. Translation might also be defined by its difference from the French word traduction. But that is still only part of the picture. More important is the fact that in order to mean what it does, "translation" must also be a translation of traduction, just as traduction is a translation of "translation." It is this convergence that defines "translation."

This is fairly easy to grasp when we are talking about French and English, in which the two words are used, as far as I know, in relatively similar ways--though the range of the French word is considerably narrower than the English one. French and English are, after all, similar in many ways: both languages use the alphabet, for instance. But what if we bring in Japanese, about which I know somewhat more? How would we translate "translation" into Japanese? That would depend on the sort of translation we were talking about--even if we limit ourselves to the ordinary sense of the word with which we are presently concerned. And of course translation is and has been used in many ways that have very little to do with the ordinary sense of the word: it is also used to describe the movement of living bishops and the relics of dead saints, for instance; and people can be "translated" to heaven, as we see in this entry from Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary: "Gallows, n. A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven."

Setting these unusual usages aside, the most obvious Japanese translation of the English word "translation" would be 翻訳 hon'yaku. But the obviousness of this translation is misleading: it comes to mind first, I would suggest, not because it is a general category like "translation" within which other types of translation are included, but because it is the most nondescript, or the least specific in a series of terms denoting various sorts of translation. "Translation" in English is an overarching category that includes all sorts of translations, the act as well as the product of the act; hon'yaku can be used in a way that makes it seem like an overarching term--it can refer both to translation as an act and to a translation of a book, and is used to translate the "translation" in "translation studies"--but it isn't exactly, at least not in the way that "translation" is. This is evident, for instance, in the fact that 現代語訳 gendaigoyaku (the rendering of a work in a pre-modern form of Japanese into a modern form of Japanese, which is unquestionably a form of "translation") is not generally considered a subset of hon'yaku. Hon'yaku also has considerably less of the ambiguously theoretical or metaphorical flexibility of the English term: one might classify transliteration as a subset of translation (indeed, Jerome J. McGann uses the term "type-translation" to refer to transliteration), but in Japanese one would simply be using the wrong word for the activity variously known as 翻刻 honkoku, 翻字 honji, or 翻印 hon'in. Hon'yaku refers specifically to translation from foreign (non-Japanese) languages into Japanese (or vice versa), sometimes more specifically still to translations from Europe or the United States, and its usefulness as a general term is thus limited. Those like myself who attempt to translate "translation" with the word hon'yaku are, in other words, subtly carrying out the type of translation (if it is a type of translation) known in Japanese as 誤訳 goyaku, or "mistranslation."

Japanese has another word, 訳 yaku, that might seem at first to serve as a general term with a theoretical/metaphorical inclusiveness similar to that of the English word "translation." Yaku appears in numerous multi-character compounds that correspond to different types of "translation," including hon'yaku and gendaigoyaku, and can be used to form neologisms: I have seen a recent manga translation of Genji monogatari [The Tale of Genji] by the artist Egawa Tatsuya described more than once as an 絵訳eyaku ("pictorial translation"). But in fact it is only the Sino-Japanese character that has this general meaning; the word yaku itself refers to specific translations, as in "the Egawa translation of Genji," 『源氏』の江川訳 Genji no Egawa-yaku. The general meaning of the character yaku, moreover--its theoretical/metaphorical inclusiveness--only arises through its use in compounds, and is thus limited by its uses. And so once again we find ourselves having to ask, in order to translate "translation" into Japanese, what particular variety of "translation" we are talking about. It will be useful, I think, to pause and consider a sampling of the answers we might give, if only as an exercise.

What, then, is "translation" in Japanese? If the translation we are discussing is complete, we might call it a 全訳 zen'yaku or a 完訳kan'yaku. If a translator completes a translation, we might describe that instance of the act of translation with the verb 訳了する yakuryō suru. If her completed translation is an excerpt, it is a 抄訳 shōyaku. A first translation is a 初訳 shoyaku. A retranslation is a 改訳 kaiyaku, and the new translation is a 新訳 shin'yaku that replaces the old translation, or 旧訳kyū yaku. A translation of a translation is a 重訳jū yaku. A standard translation that seems unlikely to be replaced is a 定訳 teiyaku; equally unlikely to be replaced is a 名訳 meiyaku, or "celebrated translation." When a celebrated translator speaks of her own work, she may disparage it as 拙訳 setsuyaku, "clumsy translation," i.e. "my own translation," which is not to be confused with a genuinely bad translation, disparaged as a 駄訳 dayaku or an 悪訳 akuyaku. A co-translation is a 共訳kyō yaku or 合訳 gō yaku; a draft translation, or 下訳 shitayaku, may be polished through a process of "supervising translation," or 監訳 kan'yaku, without it becoming a kyō yaku or gō yaku. Translations are given different names depending on the approach they take to the original: they can be 直訳 chokuyaku (literally "direct translation"), 逐語訳 chikugoyaku ("word for word translation"), 意訳 iyaku ("sense translation"), 対訳 taiyaku ("translation presented with the original text on facing pages"), or in the case of translations of works by Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, and other popular American writers, 超訳 chōyaku ("translations that are even better than the originals," an invention and registered trademark of the Academy Press). When what has been translated is a word, the translation is a 訳語 yakugo; a translation of a poem is a 訳詩 yakushi; if it is a lyric it is a 訳詞 yakushi; if you are discussing a translation as prose you say 訳文 yakubun; if the translation is a book it is a 訳書 yakusho or a 訳本 yakuhon, and the translated title is its 訳名 yakumei. When you translate as a mode of reading, you 訳読する yakudoku suru; when you translate in order to clarify the meaning of a text you 訳解する yakkai suru; when you translate aloud you 訳述 yakujutsu suru. A Braille translation is a 点訳 ten'yaku.

These examples should suffice to make my point. In order for "translation" to have any meaning at all, it must be translatable into other languages; but the moment it is translated, it is swept up in a system of differentiations different from the one in which it is enmeshed in English--indeed, it doesn't even have to be translated, because the word itself implies its own connectedness to these other systems of differentiation. Translation must be viewed as a node within which all the ideas of translation in all the languages there ever have been or could ever be might potentially congregate, intersect, mingle. Or we could say that the word "translation" is haunted by all the concepts it might translate, the words with which it may be translated. A word like "dog" can be understood, if only provisionally, in terms of its difference from an (indefinite) string of other terms in English; "translation" is made doubly provisional by its inevitable connection to other, non-English ideas of translation that could, at any moment, be brought to bear on the English word, just as the English word can be brought to bear, through a subtle process of productive mistranslation, on the Japanese word hon'yaku. "Translation" is, that is to say, always waiting to be redefined, not through its difference but through its similarity to other terms in other languages.

If this is not as obvious as it probably should be, it is because too frequently we consider translation from a perspective that has nothing to do with translation. We focus almost exclusively on translations. There are originals and translations, source texts and languages and target texts and languages, domestic and foreign, those who commission translations and those who consume them--everything but translators engaged in the act of translation. There are several reasons for this. The most important, perhaps, is that it is difficult to get a handle on what exactly a translator is doing when she translates. Consider this description of the process by Donald Philippi:

Whatever happens after a translator sits down at the computer, it isn't anything material. What realm do we enter when we boot up our computer, attune our mental faculties to that odd wavelength of ours, and ascend into the ethereal realm of the translator's daily praxis? The translator's consciousness is not focused on any object, but is rather liberated from the world of material objects. The translator's realm is on a highly abstract plane, rather like that of a mathematician, grammarian or logician. The material objects are distanced. The domain of consciousness in which the translator operates is detached from the whole natural world. Abstracted from reality, the translator operates outside the spatio-temporal system in the world of pure consciousness. As Edmund Husserl would say: "Between the meanings of consciousness and reality yawns a veritable abyss" (Ideas, p. 138). The translator's world is a world of incorporeal experiences based on contact with non-material relationships and concepts. The habit of dealing with these incorporeal substances gives translators a good ability to attain high degrees of abstraction and to intuitively perceive relationships which are not obvious on the surface. Ghostly relationships are moving around almost imperceptibly in the ether; it is our task to identify and catch them, pin them down, then radically demolish them and reassemble them into an equivalent in the target language.

This is a brilliant description of the experience of translating between "typologically diverse languages," but it is also alien to the everyday life of anyone but an experienced translator, or perhaps even to the everyday life of the translator, as the opening words of the passage suggest. Translation as an act is itself so foreign, you might say, that we feel compelled to domesticate it. We accomplish this through metaphors, by anchoring translation firmly in the "world of material objects," "the spatiotemporal system" outside of which the translator operates at the moment he is translating, speaking about translation as something that takes place between two languages, two cultures, two nations.

Translation comes from the Latin word "translatus," the past participle of "transferre," which might be translated as "carried across." We speak of translating from one language into another language, and translation is often described as a "bridge" between languages, cultures, nations. Both the notion of translation as something that takes place in an "in-between" place and the particular metaphor of the bridge are so common, and cleave so well both to the etymology of the word "translation" itself and to the spatial metaphors implicit in the language we use when we speak of translation (again: we translate from one language into another), that at times it seems almost impossible to think of translation in any other way. And this mode of thinking about translation is, indeed, ubiquitous: it figures in translators' discussions of translation, in the pleasantly optimistic advertisements of translation agencies, and in theoretically sophisticated treatments of translation of the sort one might read for a course on translation studies. I'll give you a few examples of what I mean, from writers who are using the metaphor to very good effect in very different ways.

"Translation is not the transfer of a detachable 'meaning' from one language to another. It is a dialogue between two languages. It takes place in a space between two languages. And most often also between two historical moments. Much of the real value of translation as an art comes from that unique situation. It is not exclusively the language of arrival or the time of the translator and reader that should be privileged. We all know, in the case of War and Peace, that we are reading a nineteenth-century Russian novel: it should not read as if it was written yesterday in English."1

"By the very nature of things translation is a bridge between two languages, and if we speak of the problem of translation with regard to the literature of one particular language we appear to be dealing solely with either a beginning or an end, rather than with an entire process."2

"Translation is a bridge between cultures."3

All these quotations, and their invocation of spatial metaphors--the idea of the translator's or the translation's in-betweenness, the suggestion that translators and translations serve as bridges--dovetail neatly with the metaphors we use when we talk about language and "communication" (which itself contains a spatial metaphor): "Did you get my meaning?" "Did you catch what she said?" "Am I getting through to you?" "I hope I'm conveying myself." Translation is represented, then, in the quotations I just listed, as a version of communication that takes place between two languages, cultures, and nations, rather than between two people. But there is no analogy whatsoever. When a translator sits down at her computer to translate, she is alone. There is no communication happening. Indeed, there is no transferal of a message from one language into another, because from the perspective of the translator at the precise moment she is translating, she is not between languages, and her languages are not separate. We might say, rather, that she is saturated with two languages--that she is a node for two languages. Both languages are living inside her, in the same place, at the same time, in constantly shifting concentrations and configurations. She is not a bridge; she is something like a ghost.

And this is the antidote I would like to suggest to our habitual, perhaps unintended but nonetheless inappropriate metaphorical representation of translation as another version of communication: not a move away from metaphor, an attempt to clarify what happens when a translator translates, but a shift from the metaphor of the bridge to that of the ghost. Rather than imagine the translator as someone who stands between languages, cultures, and nations, we would do better to cultivate an image of him as a ghost who haunts languages, cultures, and nations, existing in two worlds at once but belonging fully to neither. The translator, as a ghost, is neither wholly domestic nor wholly foreign, because he is simultaneously both foreign and domestic; he is neither entirely visible nor entirely invisible to those who stand in one world or the other, even in the finished form of his product, because he is in their world but not of it. The translator, as a ghost, sees languages not as discrete, autonomous, unproblematically present unities but as--what else?--ghostly signs or echoes of each other. I began by noting that the word "translation" is always haunted by other words in other languages that could be used to translate it, or for which it might itself be used as a translation, but of course those "other words" are most clearly visible, clustering around, merging and separating, to the translator, for whom the "other languages" are never really "other," or fully "mine," just as English is never really "mine" or fully "other," and just as English and those "other" languages are never fully "other" to each other.

Conceiving of translation as a ghostly activity, rather than as a bridge--taking as a fresh point of departure the haunted, haunting experience of being simultaneously within two languages, cultures, and nations but belonging fully to neither--does not mean cutting translation off from the world, from economics, from global or domestic politics. It means reconsidering the relationship of translation to the world, economics, global and domestic politics, and so on from the perspective of a practice that cannot readily be assimilated to dreary nationalist narratives. From the point of view of the translator, translation should never have been conceptualized as something that takes place between two languages, cultures, and nations, because that is just the opposite of what it is: translation doesn't "take place," it is something translators do; and it isn't done between languages and cultures, it is done in languages, by people in whom languages and cultures merge.

Considering "translation" from the vantage of an individual translator, seeing it caught up in a flurry of different versions of itself, each one trailing its own history, allows one to try to settle on one's own working definition of the word, recognizing that no definition will ever be more than provisional. I define translation as any change wrought upon a piece of writing that makes it accessible to a new audience with particular needs or preferences. This is a very broad definition. But from my perspective as a scholar-translator who works with Japanese books, it seems an appropriate one.


1Richard Pevear, quoted in "Trials of the translator," a letter to the editor of the TLS on February 8, 2008.

2Paul F. Guenther, "Faithful Ugliness or Faithless Beauty: The Translator's Problem," The German Quarterly 35, no. 4 (Nov. 1962): 504.

3This is the motto of GB Language Consulting in New York.