Rainer Schulte

Everybody who makes something new does harm to something old.
—Igor Stravinsky


To understand translation in an immediately accessible form, one might start with George Steiner’s statement from his study of translation After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation: “All acts of communication are acts of translation.”  In an extended sense, one can say that we are all constantly engaged in some form of a translation process.  Our speech, our perceptions, our ideas, our facial expressions, our movements, and our interpretations are all products of a complex translation dynamic.  There is hardly any daily activity that does not involve some form of translation.   We must consider verbal, visual, and musical interpretations as acts of translation.  In communication with other people, we translate sound and physical gestures to understand the full content of a conversation.  The actor translates the spoken word into the performance on the stage as sound, gesture, and movement.  The pianist translates the notes of the score to the piano, and the conductor translates the spirit of an orchestral score for the musicians, who in turn give life to the notes they read in the scores.  The same can be said about writers, composers, and visual and multimedia artists, who translate their visions into the possibilities of their respective medium; not to mention the translation that takes place from one medium to the next: novels into film, musical sounds into visual images, and images into musical sounds.  It would be difficult to find human activities that are not in one form or another involved in the act of translation.

“What is translation?” is immediately connected to the other question, “Why does translation matter?” Edith Grossman has eloquently discussed that aspect in her recently published study by the same title.  A short quote from the book gives the reader a sense of how important translation is for any civilization: “Translation expands our ability to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from another society or another time.  It permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions and misconceptions.  It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.”1 Translation does matter in a global world where nations and languages interact on a daily basis.  However, the concept of translation and the practice of translation are still being treated as stepchildren in the academic world, and the general audience has little idea of what is involved in the delicate process of carrying texts from a foreign language into English.  Part of that problem resides with the translators themselves—we as translators have failed to educate the public.  The same might be said for the difficulties that audiences encounter when faced with modern music.  To a great extent, works of twentieth-century composers are not very accessible to the listener.  Like the translators, composers and music critics have failed to provide audiences with the necessary skills and tools to open up entrances into the works of modern composers. 

To better understand the conceptual frame of translation, the image of the “bridge” can illuminate the inherent function of translation.  As we cross the bridge from one language or culture to another, a series of considerations come into play.  We begin the crossing of the bridge with the social and cultural baggage of the original cultural landscape.  As we progress across the bridge, preparations have to be made to be ready for the new landscape on the other side of the river.  The other side is the unknown, the “foreign” that we try to understand, interpret, and communicate with.  Yet, we cannot assume that the landscape on the other side has been shaped by the same cultural, historical, and social traditions as the language of origin.  Our premises of interaction within our own traditions of language and culture are in all probability not the same as those we will encounter in the foreign landscape on the other side of the river.  In view of that reality, one could create the maxim: translation is always driven by transformation and a never-ending dialogue with the other.

In the process of crossing the bridge, a mental transformation has to take place.  We have to understand that the ways we orchestrate our daily lives, our approaches to cultural phenomena, and our reactions to social behavior are probably not the same as we leave the bridge and enter a new language and cultural environment.  In other words, we have to undergo a transformation and not take our ways of thinking and understanding for granted if we want to find entrance into a new culture and a new mode of interpreting the world.  In that sense, we can say that translation is neither the original language nor the receptor language.  Translation is that which happens in the crossing of the bridge, that which is transformed in the act of crossing.  We need to stay open to the foreign to initiate dialogue and understanding.  On a more philosophical level, the concept of translation comes closest to the pulse of the present, since no two moments are the same, and we have no choice but to translate ourselves, ideally speaking, continuously, from one moment into the next.

In a deeper philosophical sense, translation deals with the challenge of carrying complex moments across language and cultural borders, and, therefore, translators always navigate in realms of uncertainty.  Words are very fragile, and no word can ever fully express the nature of a situation or an emotion.  Furthermore, as soon as a word enters into contact with another word, certain new associations of meaning are created that transcend the original definition of a word.  Therefore, each translation is the making of yet another meaning that comes to take shape through the interpretive approach and insight of the translator.  The premise of all translations remains the same.  Each translation is the variation of yet another translation, which excludes the notion of ever arriving at the only definitive translation.  The dialogue with the text continues with each reading and, therefore, with each attempt at a translation.  This recognition constitutes the basic challenge and also the frustration of the translation process.  The challenge lies in the hope of uncovering a new interpretive insight that has not previously been seen by the translator and therefore stimulates the creative imagination of the translator (and ultimately of the reader).   The frustration derives from the intuitive comprehension of words, images, and metaphors and the experience of paralysis for not being able to find correspondences in the new language.  Challenge and frustration speak to each other in the daily life of every translator.  Ultimately, translation lives on the attempt to produce analogous correspondences and not identical ones.

There is a slight difference between the writer and the translator.  The former starts with a blank page that will have to rely on the imaginative powers of the writer, whereas the translator starts with an already existing page that has to be recreated in the new language.  If the writer’s activity could be called “creative,” then the translator’s activity would be “re-creative.”  The translator’s emotional and interpretive involvement with the text is no less intense than the writer’s struggle with the blank page.  One might call their work an attempt to reach “silence” after having tasted the fruits of total involvement in the imaginative creation and re-creation of texts.  Translations come to life through the interpretive perspective of the translator.  Yet, one has to keep in mind that there is no such thing as the only definitive translation of a text.  Situations in a source-language text will never find an identical reproduction in the receptor language.  As there are variations of interpretations, there are variations of translations with each new translation of the same text.  Or, otherwise formulated, the insight of not being able to produce the total reconstruction of a foreign text in a new language prompts translators to bring yet another interpretive perspective to the work under consideration.

A short excursion into the presence of multiple translations will further clarify the importance of the translator’s interpretive perspective and how it affects the reception and understanding of a foreign work transplanted into English.  The performance of multiple interpretations is not restricted to the verbal realm.  One only needs to think of the numerous musical or theatrical performances of artistic works.  Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Panther” and Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” have both been translated more than a dozen times.  We should also keep in mind the many translations of bible verses.  For a moment, it is necessary to reflect on the tremendous importance and power of having access to multiple translations and performances.  The dynamics of languages change, words assume new semantic associations, and the aesthetic and emotional needs of human beings vacillate.  Each translator responds to those variations and tries to revitalize the inherent power through the very pulse of the present language.  Therefore, each new translation engages the reader to re-enter the poem from a different angle and experience the poem anew.  When a word of the original language is translated differently by five translators of a poem, then the reader is prompted not only to recognize the differences, but also to contemplate how each interpretive perspective by the translator widens the understanding of the poem.

The same comments can be made about musical performances.  A new interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Italian Concerto refines the listening abilities of people.  Every difference in a new performance will heighten the listeners’ level of attention and thereby bring them each time closer to the work itself.  Every new translation of a poem or new performance of the musical work refines the interpretive sensitivity and perhaps the enjoyment of the reader or listener.

The translations of verbal, visual, and musical texts have gained clearly defined boundaries in the past decades as to their critical and practical dimensions.  Many scholarly monographs and articles have been dedicated to these topics.  At times, some of the scholarly studies have perhaps reached a somewhat high level of abstraction that does not necessarily provide particularly helpful guidelines for the translator’s art and craft.  It can be assumed that the translator is the most qualified person to talk about the practice of translation and its theoretical dimensions.  In the future, more translators should be encouraged to reflect on their own translation processes in critical language and certainly be motivated to review translations.  The field of reviewing translations in both journals and newspapers can only be characterized as totally inadequate.  Historically speaking, the most illuminating insights about musical and literary works have generally been drafted by writers and composers.

The discussions about translation thinking, translation methodologies, and the art and craft of translation will continue as a major force to promote intercultural communication in a global world.  A glance into the immediate future, however, will require thought about how digital technology will change the field of translation studies, first in the realm of text interpretations and then in the way readers and translators will interact with texts. Digital technology offers something that was not available before.  Philosophically speaking, translation constantly traces connections between one and the other, between one language and another, and, therefore, is built on movement.  Until now, it was not feasible to record that movement.  With the ascent of digital technology, not only can the movement of the translation process be recorded and fixed in some tangible form, but also the reader can move from a fixed position to a modifying interaction with the text.  Translation as movement will be reconfirmed as a basic concept of translation, and the movement can be recorded through the digital technology for the first time in the history of translation studies.

The digital universe allows us to present the interpretation of texts in the most comprehensive way.  We can create objects that contain verbal, visual, musical, and sound components that will allow a person to approach the object from various perspectives to create a multiple sensory experience.  Thus, the digital technology allows us to create a more total understanding of a work and, at the same time, a possibility to establish a continuous interaction with the work. Perhaps the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk will find a new reality as a Gesamtverständnis of a work.


Rainer Schulte is editor of Translation Review. He is the founder of the Center for Translation Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas and co-founder of the American Literary Translators Association.

1. Grossman, Why Translation Matters, 14.

GROSSMAN, EDITH. Why Translation Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press.