It’s well-known that Luther translated the Bible into German, and it’s often thought that he was the first one to do so. But that’s not true at all. In fact, there were 17—that’s right, 17—other translations of the Bible into German before Luther’s! . . .
Gutenberg’s Bible was the first book printed in the West using movable type. But while the technology was new, the social system was still old. We have in the Gutenberg Bible a classic product designed for the nouveaux riches. His Bible promised to up-and-coming classes the same access to written culture afforded previously only by ecclesiastics and nobility.
We can see that in even in its style. Gutenberg’s work left the intial letters unprinted with space left for illumination. His printed Bible was meant to simulate the great illuminated Bibles owned by the nobility and rich monasteries, but for a bargain-basement price. That’s not to say they were cheap. Gutenberg’s Bible would have cost the average worker a fortune. It was still a prestige piece, not meant for study but to decorate the collections of those who wished to be identified with book culture.
What we see in Luther’s work is an entirely different kind of thing. Here was a whole Bible meant for study, for reading. It was designed to be printed en masse, to be bought and distributed to many people below the nobility, used in churches and schools for catechesis. We can see the difference in the design. Older Bibles were large, folio-sized objects, printed in small numbers. Luther’s was was small, mass-produced, and affordable.
“So many writers nowadays come from different cultures, and I wonder if that compensates for the lack of interest in other cultures,” says Moscow-born novelist Olga Grushin, author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2006), who writes in English and now lives near Washington, D.C. “In a way, if Americans will not go to other cultures, then other cultures will have to come here and speak about themselves.”
But from the first translation of the Bible onward, what Grushin describes was always the translator’s role: to go to another culture and bring back what matters. It was sort of like immigration with a built-in return trip. A good translator must create and inhabit a place that does not fully exist—a land between languages—because it is impossible to reproduce another language exactly. A translator must bring over what is most important, as accurately as possible.
A bilingual writer, on the other hand, might omit the dirty laundry, inside jokes, or other intimate markers of a culture, such as a scandalous reference to a prime minister’s sexual harassment travails that matter only to the small number of residents of his country, or a joke on, say, Chairman Mao’s appearance. A novelist is more interested in story than in accuracy, but most translators think about exactness, and try to honor it, in their way.
Now, sadly, we have forgotten what it is to live between languages, to have translators who inhabit the space between tongues. We prefer to read of a Bosnian immigrant in New York instead of a Bosnian man in Sarajevo, written by a Bosnian. This way, at least we can recognize New York.
It was as if someone, having seen a certain oak tree (further called Individual T) growing in a certain land casting its own unique shadow on the green and brown ground, had proceeded to erect in his garden a prodigiously intricate piece of machinery which in itself was as unlike that or any other tree as the translator’s inspiration and language were unlike those of the original author, but which, by means of ingenious combinations of parts, light effects, breeze-engendering engines, would, when completed, cast a show exactly similar to that of Individual T—the same outline, changing in the same manner, with the same double and single spots of sun rippling in the same position, at the same hour of the day.
There’s been increased interest lately in monkey languages after discoveries were made about how putty-nosed monkeys combine sounds to create a basic syntax:
* Hack-hack-hack-hack: “There’s an eagle over there!” * Pyow-hack-hack-pyow-pyow-pyow: “I’ve seen a leopard, let’s move away!” * Hack-hack-hack-pyow-hack-hack-hack-hack-hack “There’s an eagle over there, let’s move away!”
But research at the Great Ape Trust using the sign language Yerkish reveals the primates are capable of far more linguistic sophistication. Primate Poetics sets out a manifesto to enrich this new language, starting, ambitiously, with a translation of the epic Gilgamesh:
“We will learn Yerkish. We will translate human literature into Yerkish. We will invent words, word-tricks, word-jokes, word-games to show the apes new ways of using (their) language. We will become knowledgeable and original enough to be invited by the researchers of the Great Ape Trust to read our Yerkish translation of Gilgamesh to Kanzi, Panbanisha and all the others.
“We are not here to compare and to compete with the ape but to appreciate its language for its own beauty. This is emphatically not about some lone genius monkey penning the Great Primate Novel.”
Literature | A new English translation of Hugo’s sprawling and digressive “Les Misérables” is 100,000 words longer than its best-known predecessor. So it draws attention to the translator’s mission of sticking to an author’s intent. Or in some cases not? In America, the 1863 “Confederate” edition, unlike a rival “Yankee” edition, “struck out all references to slavery.” [TLS]
The possession of sacred Scriptures made of [Christians] a potentially worldwide “textual community.” The reader should meditate (as I have often done) on the implications of those humble fragments which show the same book of the Psalms being copied out, at the same time, as a writing exercise by Christian children, both in Panjikent near Samarkand and in northern Ireland. The basic modules of Christianity, also, were remarkably stable and easy to transfer—a bishop, a clergy, a congregation . . . and a place in which to worship. Such a basic structure could be subjected to many local variations, but, in one form or another, it travelled well. It formed a basic “cell,” which could be transferred to any region of the known world. Above all, Christians worshipped a God who, in many of his aspects, was above space and time. God and his saints could always be thought of as fully “present” to the believer, wherever he or she happened to be. In God’s high world, there was no distinction between “center” and “periphery.” In the words of the modern inhabitants of Joazeira, a cult site perched in a remote corner of northwest Brazil, Christian believers could be sure that, even if they lived at the notional end of the world . . . they had “Heaven above their heads and Hell below their feet.”