“John Ciardi (1961: 17), in a piece for the Saturday Review, famously (if often misattributed) called translation “the art of failure.” Ciardi was the poetry editor for the Saturday Review and had been engaged for fifteen years in an effort to translate Dante’s Inferno. He argued, in the end, that the goal of the translator—and he is rightly uncomfortable with this term because it assumes an isomorphism, not just of denotation, but of register (my term), of history (his term), and of “muscularity” (his term), between languages—is to create “the best possible failure” (Ciardi 1961: 17).” (Webster, n.d., 1)
Ciardi is a poet and a great poetry theorist. The book “Ciardi Himself” (1986) contains fifteen essays on poetry, writing, and teaching. I read them all. The titles alone suffice for the assessment of the level of his praxis: “For the Love of Language,” “Serious Joy,” “The Act of Language.” I was delighted to see the reference on Ciardi in purely academic, non-literary, anthropological settings, in Professor Webster’s wonderful article.
The notion of the art of failure promises to be productive beyond the immediate context. We do encounter small and dramatic failures all the time. To treat “failure” as a modus operandi takes, however, I am sure, a certain strength.
Ciardi, John. 1989. Ciardi Himself: Fifteen Essays in the Reading, Writing, and Teaching of Poetry. The University of Arkansas Press. Fayetteville – London
Webster, Anthony. n.d. The Art of Failure in Translating a Navajo poem: Creative Transpositions, Thick Translations and the Phonosonic Nexus. MS, UT Austin
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.
According to Durkheim (1995), cultural and linguistic translation is universally possible and evolutionary defined: everyone, through different stages, should arrive at science, because societies are rooted in the real. Translation is inevitable, in a sense, since the humanity moves in one direction, that of universal progress.
Durkheim, Emile. (1995). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Fields, trans. Free Press.