Ortega y Gasset, José, Carl R. Shirley, and Ciriaco Morrón-Arroyo — The Misery and Splendor of Translation.

Ortega y Gasset, José, Carl R. Shirley, and Ciriaco Morrón-Arroyo. “The Misery and Splendor of Translation.” Translation Review, 13 (1983): 18-30. Print.

Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset argues that translation is an impossible utopian theory.  In fact, he states that “all man does is utopian,” including writing or making decisions, yet “men are always melancholic, queer and frenetic, abused by all those diseases Hippocrates called divine.”  In this regard, Gasset argues that translation is a rebellion against the framework in which man is submersed, that it takes a certain “radical courage.” He then shifts the conversation to consider the degree to which the translator (who Gasset describes as a timid person confronted with “the enormous, mysterious apparatus that is grammar and common usage” will likely be rebellious with the text. Gasset argues that the translator will likely fall to his/her cowardliness, and instead of violating the grammatical constraints of the text, he/she will place the piece into the “normal language, placing the translated author in prison” (19). He discusses a language as a “system of verbal signs, by means of which individuals can understand one another without previous agreement” (20), but he notes that languages differ linguistically and culturally, describing their incongruity as natural. Therefore, hew writes, it would be “utopian to believe that two words belonging to two languages refer exactly to the same objects “ (21).  This idea allows Gasset to describe translation as a “permanent literary flou” which will make a translated author seem foolish in a translator’s interpretation and different language.  He explains that translation is not and should not try to be a duplicate of an original text, but instead a genre which displays a way to work without becoming the work (29). In order to translate a piece properly, it is important that we “divide the work and to make different translations of the text according to the salient angles of it that we wish to translate with precision” (30). It is necessary for the reader to know beforehand that when he reads a translation, he is not going to read a text that is beautiful in a literary sense, that the translator is going to “employ a somewhat annoying apparatus” (30).  Finally, Gasset ends by emphasizing that translation should not assimilate a work to the present but instead emphasize the “exotic and distant character” of the work, therefore making it intelligible (30).

Ortega’s translation theory is mentioned frequently in Papuvac’s chapter on the violence of translation within language rights advocacy and language governance. Ortega makes a point of noting that it is within the power of the translator to decide how a piece will be interpreted, that place a great deal of trust in translators to work properly with a foreign text. This trust assumes that a translator is an unbiased expert of his craft who only hopes to transfer the essence of the original into another language, but this is usually not the case. Translators, as all humans, are naturally biased, and there is no way to create a translation that does not express the opinions of the one who created it. This applies to all translations, even translating thoughts to words: translation might be impossible, but it is also vital to human nature.

Gasset portrays the violence of translation very differently from other theorists I have read; he argues that translators should be able to interpret the texts whatever ways they want, and that the translation should therefore not be considered a version of the original text, but an entirely separate work. In this light, when we consider nonviolence in language and writing, as well as translation, it is important to distinguish that the display of bias within a language is not necessarily violent; it is a natural part of being human. However, bias can also push translators to disregard differences in linguistic and cultural contexts and instead assimilate the original to the target-language’s paradigm, robbing it of its unique and exotic nature. This kind of biased translation is violent because it both undermines the original author’s identity and diminishes target-language readers’ possible understanding, both of which take away from their full potential.

—Madiera Dennison

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