Marías and Hofstadter on the philosophy of translation

The narrator of Javier Marías’ Corazón tan blanco (A Heart So White) is a translator and interpreter at the UN. At one point early in the book he makes the following rather curious assertion: ‘Y es verdad que sólo lo que no se dice ni expresa es lo que no traducimos nunca.’ (‘And it’s true that the only thing we never translate is that which no-one says or expresses.’) On the surface, if not nonsensical, this comment seems pretty self-evident, akin to saying that the only thing we don’t see is that which isn’t there. But it is more than fatuous sophistry. By deliberately echoing the final proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (‘whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’), Marías is reflecting on the nature of human communication: every act of communication is, in some sense, a translation. If I tell you that I am happy, in order to understand what I mean you must take my words and ‘translate’ them into your own idiosyncratic understanding of the concept of ‘happiness’ – which, needless to say, will differ considerably from mine. Similarly, if I ask you whether you have done ‘that thing I asked you to do’, it is only through an unconscious ‘translation’, or contextualisation, of my words that you are able to understand what I mean.

Thus, for Marías, translation from one language to another is an extreme form of the same process of (mis)understanding which informs and defines every aspect of daily life. The difference is that translation between different languages makes this process more visible, more elaborate, more obvious. The quotation above can be read as a way of expressing this idea: if the only thing we don’t translate is that which is not expressed, then everything else, everything that is said, is translated, in one form or another.

This understanding is expressed in an inverted form by Douglas Hofstadter, in the preface to his translation of Eugene Onegin:

‘I would propose an alternate name for the art of compromise in poetry translation — I would say that poetry translation is the art of “poetic lie-sense.” Yes, one is always lying, for to translate is to lie. But even to speak is to lie, no less. No word is perfect, no sentence captures all the truth and only the truth.’