Publishing, classics, mood swings

Archive for December, 2008

Walter Headlam’s translation of Aeschylus, The Suppliants

— And what of the sense in its importance for the relationship between translation and original? A simile may help here. Just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at but one point, with this touch rather than with the point setting the law according to which it is to continue on its straight path to infinity, a translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux. Without explicitly naming or substantiating it, Rudolf Pannwitz has characterized the true significance of this freedom. His observations are contained in Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur and rank with Goethe’s Notes to the Westöstlicher Divan as the best comment on the theory of translation that has been published in Germany. Pannwitz writes: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of the foreign works. . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image, and tone converge. He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realized to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed, how language differs from language almost the way dialect differs from dialect; however, this last is true only if one takes language seriously enough, not if one takes it lightly.”

These notes towards a poetics of translation by Walter Benjamin and Rudolf Pannwitz (translated by Harry Zohn) may possibly serve as a justification of Walter Headlam’s prose translations of Aeschylus. At least I find them curiously attractive, although I am aware that native speakers of English may take offence.*) Anyway, as a semantical commentary on the Greek text the translation more than serves its purpose. Headlam’s philological notes are also very useful, and rightly made an impression on Martin West as he was editing Aeschylus for Teubner, as evidenced by the apparatus to at least the Supplices as well as the eulogy of Headlam in West’s Studies in Aeschylus.

Read the rest of this entry »