Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Translating the Future

So, to celebrate the victory of the Democratic party -- EVEN in the once staunchly Red State North Carolina! -- I thought I'd take a break from my work (endless, endless meetings with my students) to write a quick post on something I've been thinking about lately.

I wrote a really crazy paper for my linguistics class last night, that I wish I had called "The Time-Travelling King." The focus of the paper was on translation in the Alfredian context -- i.e., the ways in which translation and knowledge are figured in the translations of King Alfred, and how it works with ideas of English-ness. I feel like a group of Anglo-Saxonists would have been a bit more up in arms about it than the class was. Anyway, the most interesting thing I managed to say in the essay (if I do say so myself) was, characteristically, not mine. In fact, it wasn't even technically part of my essay. But I'd stumbled across this quote in the preface to the Ursula K. LeGuin book Always Coming Home, and it seemed to crystallize some ideas I've been having:

The difficulty of translating from a language that doesn’t yet exist is considerable, but there’s no need to exaggerate it. The past, after all, can be quite as obscure as the future. The ancient Chinese book called the Tao teh ching has been translated into English dozens of times, and indeed the Chinese have to keep retranslating it into Chinese at every cycle of Cathay, but no translation can give us the book that Lao Tze (who may not have existed) wrote. All we have is the Tao teh ching that is here, now. And so with translations from a literature of the (or a) future. The fact that it hasn’t yet been written, the mere absence of a text to translate, doesn’t make all that much difference. What was and what may be lie, like children whose faces we cannot see, in the arms of silence. All we ever have is here, now.

The way in which LeGuin thinks about her book -- a book of cultural artifacts (stories, songs, etc) from a civilization that is still far in the future -- reminded me of the translation topos of so many writers in the Middle Ages. They use the past, and the stories of other peoples, to think through their own time, but the movement is similar: they think about themselves, but they think about it in stories rather than in sociology. In some ways, I suppose, this ties in (albeit vaguely at this point) to the question of the future of medieval studies that's always in discussion over at JJC's site (check out particularly the posts from the symposium at George Washington last week). I guess we're always running up against the problem of not quite having the vocabulary yet to push beyond the questions we already know how to ask -- in that arena I think Eileen's comments on this post really hit the mark.

Once my computer returns from the shop I'll have more to say on that subject, after ruminating on it not unlike Caedmon. And, given that there will be no internet -- it will in fact be a lot like the dark ages.

In the meantime, however, I give you the arguably second best news of the day to close my post: as Dr. Virago reports yet another dark age has ended.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

I hadn't read that LeGuin quote before and really like it. The project of translating that which does not yet exist (and yet the existence of which is, it seems, indisputable) is a more difficult version of the the medievalist's plight: to translate the languages that did exist, but because they were alive and because they endured for a long time and because they exist now only in deceptive fragments, to be forced into translations that are always out of time, always stories about petrified remains and not living, changing things. Or even more frustrating, to attempt to translate languages and learn in that process that our knowledge is doomed to recede, not grow.

One of the amazing things about having a child who is musically inclined is to watch in wonder -- and listen in wonder -- as he masters a language that I have no grasp of at all. The music he makes as he bangs away at the piano and turns notes on a page into his own kind of art stir me emotionally, but they also make me sadly aware of the world whose principles of language he understands but I don't.

A few scattered thoughts. Good post.

Eileen Joy said...

That is a great quotation from LeGuin, and it hits right on something I struggle with all the time [or want to say all the time] in my own work--that, regardless of the past-ness of the historical artifact, whether the "Beowulf" manuscript or Hadrian's Wall--it is primarily here with us right now, and is therefore also modern in some way [much like human beings, with their biological genealogy, are both historically-shaped and moving along in the present]. While it might be important to know how and for what reasons "Beowulf" was written down in the tenth or early eleventh century, a more urgent question for me is: why would anyone want to read it, or write it [again] now? Thanks for yet another of your really thoughtful posts.