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WlLHELM VON HUMBOLDT From the Introduction to His Translation of Agamemnon
WlLHELM VON HUMBOLDT From the Introduction to His Translation of Agamemnon Translated by Sharon Sloan Because of the unique character of a work such as Aeschylus's Agamemnon, it is untranslatable; yet it is untranslatable in a way quite different from all other works of great originality. It has repeatedly been observed and verified by both experience and research that no word in one language is completely equivalent to a word in an­other, if one disregards those expressions that designate purely physical objects. In this respect, languages are synonymic; each language expresses a concept somewhat differently, placing the nuance in each instance one step higher or lower on the ladder of percep­tions. Such a synonymy of the major languages, or even of only Greek, Latin, and German (which would be especially appreciated) has never been undertaken, although fragments of such attempts can be found in the works of many writers; yet such a work, if prepared with intelligence, would undoubtedly be a most fascinat­ing study. A word is more than just the sign of a concept, for the concept could not come into existence, let alone be grasped, without the word; the indeterminate force of a thought forms itself into a word just as soft clouds form out of a clear blue sky. It should not be forgotten that the word has its own individual nature with its own specific character and specific shape, with its own power to affect the spirit, and that it is not without the ability to recreate itself. The origin of a word would be analogous to the origin of an ideal form in the imagination of the artist, if one wanted to think it through in human terms. (Such a conception is, however, impos-sible because to pronounce a word already presupposes the cer-tainty of its being understood; speech itself can only be conceived of as a product of simultaneous interaction in which each person must carry within himself not only his own equal share of the work but the other's share as well, rather than just being in a position to help.) Similarly, this ideal form cannot be derived from something in the physical world; it springs from a pure energy of the mind and, in a concrete sense, out of nothingness. From this moment on, however, it enters into life, becomes real, and assumes a lasting form. What human being has not—even outside the realm of in-spired artistic creations—created his own forms of fantasy, often early in childhood, and then lived with them thereafter more inti-mately than with the forms of reality? How, then, could a word, whose meaning is not transmitted directly through the senses, ever be the perfect equivalent of a word in another language? It must of necessity present differences, and if an exact comparison of the best, the most careful, the most faith-ful translations is made, it is surprising to see the extent of the differences where the translators sought only to preserve the iden-tity and uniformity of the original text. It can even be argued that the more a translation strives toward fidelity, the more it ultimately deviates from the original, for in attempting to imitate refined nu-ances and avoid simple generalities it can, in fact, only provide new and different nuances. Yet this should not deter us from translating. On the contrary, translation, especially poetic translation, is one of the most necessary tasks of any literature, partly because it directs those who do not know another language to forms of art and hu-man experience that would otherwise have remained totally un-known, but above all because it increases the expressivity and depth of meaning of one's own language. For it is the wonderful charac-teristic of languages that, first and foremost, each one accommo-dates the general needs of everyday life; yet, through the spirit of the nation that shapes and forms it, a language can be infinitely enriched. It is not too bold to contend that everything, from the most elevated to the most profound, from the most forceful to the most fragile, can be expressed in every language, even in the dia-lects of primitive cultures, with which we are simply not well enough acquainted. (This is not to say that one language is not originally better than another or that some languages will not remain forever inaccessible.) Nevertheless these undertones of language slumber, as do the sounds of an unplayed instrument, until a nation learns how to draw them out. All forms of language are symbols, not the objects themselves, not prearranged signs, but sounds; they find themselves, together with the objects and ideas that they represent, filtered through the mind in which they originated and continue to originate in a real or, one might even say, a mystical relationship. These objects of reality are held suspended in a partially dissolved state as ideas that can define, separate, and recombine with one another in such a way as to defy all imaginable limitations. A nobler, more profound, more fragile sense may be read into these symbols only if one imag-ines, expresses, receives, and then repeats them in such a way. Thus, without any noticeable transformation, language is raised to a higher level of expression, is expanded into a greater representation of complexity. To the same extent that a language is enriched, a nation is also enriched. Think how the German language, to cite only one ex-ample, has profited since it began imitating Greek meter. And think how our nation has progressed, not just the well-educated among us but the masses as well—even women and children—since the Greeks have been available to our nation's readers in an authentic and undistorted form. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the service Klopstock rendered to the German nation with his first successful treatment of ancient meter or the even greater ser-vice of Voss, who may be said to have introduced classical antiquity into the German language. It is difficult to imagine a more pow-erful and beneficial impact on an already highly cultivated national culture, and it can be attributed entirely to him. His combined talent and strength of character allowed him to keep working and reworking a problem until he found that form, which of course may still be improved upon, in which, now and for as long as Ger-man is spoken, the ancients will be rendered in our language. Whoever creates such a true form may rest assured that his labor will endure, whereas a work of even the highest genius, if it is an isolated occurrence lacking such a form, will remain without con-sequence for the development of the language. If, however, trans-lation is to give the language and spirit of a nation that which it does not possess or possesses in another form, then the first re-quirement is always fidelity. This fidelity must direct itself to the true character of the original and not rely on the incidentals, just as in general every good translation should grow out of a simple and modest love of the original and the study that this love im-plies—and to which the translation always returns. A necessary corollary to this view is that a translation should indeed have a foreign flavor to it, but only to a certain degree; the line beyond which this clearly becomes an error can easily be drawn. As long as one does not feel the foreignness (Fremdheit) yet does feel the foreign (Fremde), a translation has reached its highest goal; but where foreignness appears as such, and more than likely even obscures the foreign, the translator betrays his inadequacy. The instinct of the unbiased reader is not likely to miss this fine line of separation. If the translator, out of an extreme aversion to what is unusual, goes even further and strives to avoid the foreign altogether (one often hears it said of translation that the translator should write the way the author of the original would have written in the language of the translator), then all translation and whatever benefits translation may bring to a language and a nation are de-stroyed. (This kind of thinking has not taken into consideration that, apart from discussions of the sciences and actual facts, no writer would have written the same thing in the same way in an­other language.) How else has it happened that none of the spirit of the ancients has been assimilated by the French as a nation? Even though all of the major Greeks and Romans have been translated into the French language, and some have even been translated into the French style quite well, neither the spirit of antiquity nor even an understanding of that spirit has permeated the French nation (we arc not speaking here of individual scholars). In my own work, I have tried to approach the simplicity and fidelity just described. With each new revision, I have strived to remove more of what was not plainly stated in the text. The inabil-ity to attain the peculiar beauty of the original easily entices one to embellish it with foreign decoration, which as a rule simply pro-duces a false coloring and a different tone. I have tried to guard against un-Germanness and obscurity, but in the latter respect one should not make unjust requirements that might preclude gaining other, higher assets. A translation cannot and should not be a com-mentary. It should not contain ambiguities caused by insufficient understanding of the language and awkward formulations; how-ever, where the original only intimates without clearly expressing, where it allows itself metaphors whose correlation is hard to grasp, where it leaves out intermediate ideas, the translator commits an injustice if he arbitrarily introduces a clarity that misrepresents the character of the text. The obscurity one often finds in the writings of the ancients—Agamemnon presents an excellent example of this—is a result of the brevity and the boldness with which thoughts, images, emotions, memories, atonements, as they come out of the impassioned soul, are linked together with a disdain for any mediating connective sentences. As one thinks oneself into the mood of the poet, into his time, into the characters he puts on the stage, the obscurity gradually fades and is replaced by an intense clarity. A part of this careful attention must also be given to the translation: never expect that what is sublime, immense, and ex-traordinary in the original language will be easily and immediately comprehensible in the translation. Ease and clarity always remain virtues that a translator attains only with the utmost difficulty, and never through mere hard work and revision: they are due for the most part to fortuitous inspiration, and I know only too well to what extent my own translation falls short of what I would wish it to be.
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