Impenetrability in translation

A perennial question in the field of translation concerns to what extent the translator should play an active role in intepreting the source text. In many instances, minor acts of intepretation are simply necessary in order to provide an accurate translation. For example, the present tense (einfaches Präsenz) can be used in German to refer to either present or future states. A press release in German, for instance, might begin with Firma X launcht neues Dingsbums (“Company X Launches New Widget”) even when the product in question has not yet been released. While the English translation above (also in present tense) would only work if the widget had been or was on the verge of being released, in German the launch might be scheduled for 5 weeks from now. Thus, the translator needs to assess the context at hand and make a decision about whether the present or future tense is needed in English. Interpretation is unavoidable.

This is a fairly straight-forward example of the problem, however, as the translator’s mission is clear. At the other end of the spectrum, when the source text is more complex and ambiguous, one can spend hours pondering just a few words and how they should be best composed. One learns that sometimes even a great translation is indecipherable when the source text itself eludes a clear reading.

Take, for example, the following paragraph, which came from a philosophical text that I recently translated:

So kann bereits der Bezug auf einen anderen Menschen ein „Mehr“ und ein „Darüber hinaus“ bedeuten, in dem ich mich selbst überschreite, ebenso das Transzendieren einer konkreten Situation, eines gesellschaftlichen status quo. Deshalb bedarf es des Begriffs des Unbedingten, um der Falle der „schlechten Unendlichkeit“ zu entkommen. Er bezeichnet nämlich sowohl einen grundlosen, selbst nicht mehr von einem anderen bedingten Grund alles Bedingten als dessen Möglichkeitsbedingung als auch das Vollkommene.

The last sentence here is fairly out of control. Although I feel confident that my English translation accurately recapitulates the constellation of signs established by the author in her sentence, it remains impenetrable (to my puny mind, at least):

“Specifically, the concept of the unconditional designates both a basis for everything conditional which is itself without basis and not conditional on another basis as the condition of possibility for everything conditional, as well as the ‘perfect’ (Vollkommene).”

On the other hand, this is perhaps not the best example of the “interpretational duty” placed on the translator, as the sentence, despite its complexity, can be “effectively” translated. In between the two examples provided in this blog post there is a myriad range of translation problems that involve deciding how much one can and should deviate from and/or interpret the (apparent) meaning of the source text. What is the text’s message? The translator is invariably a major determinant in shaping the reader’s “take away.” There is no way around this problem, as the issue concerns the inherent non-compatability of linguistic systems and the translator’s position as a mediator and referee.