Notes to the Theory of Translation

Les belles infidèles — if they are beautiful, they are unfaithful.

Different worlds, between which you are doing translation, do not match up, they are incommensurable worlds.

That’s why the “skyscrapers of commentary” (Nabokov) are needed in order to make the translation accurate: if not precise, then at least approximating the meaning. Meaning ultimately can be translated, but the sheer joy of text is quite another matter. What kind of joy, beyond purely scholar enjoyment, is possible from reading the text that, as you know, is not going to be comprehensible unless you read “skyscrapers of commentaries”? Who is going to read commentaries and why?

Translation might be possible, or it might be impossible, but here is the situation when it has to be made, and the most amazing part is it is happening.

The point of the translation is that it is a repetition. The translated text should be seen as “the same thing,” or it’s not a translation. The idea of translation disturbs the idea of singularity of the text itself, because it says: The text can be repeated.

Cultures are “repeatable,” in a grand cultural trope of their difference. Cultures are different, but in a similar way: everyone has different food ways, and ways of organizing sleep. Radical forms of difference are universal: they are organized along the same scales — social life, political life, economic interactions, rituals, routines; these are totalizing entities. The translation of the text is happening between the two cultural universes.