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Thursday, December 27, 2012


I often find myself returning to ideas I developed long ago. In my first term as a graduate student, in 1981, I wrote a paper arguing that translation was flawed as a metaphor for understanding. If the translated text is understandable in and of itself, then translation has to come to a stop at some point. Otherwise you would have a mise en abyme, in which you would need a second translation to understand the first one, and a third to understand the second. There has to be a level of understanding that is simply immanent, unmediated, simply understood. Translation might be a good metaphor for the end point of interpretation, where interpretation gives way to understanding.

It is very simple idea, and obviously correct. (As far as I can see.) Translation is a good metaphor for interpretation in which the text is not initially understood, but interpretation is not the same as understanding, logically speaking. The translator must also understand before translating. Her skill is in creating another text that will also be understood without another damned translation.

For the same reason, the statement that all interpretation is misinterpretation leads to a similar mise en abyme. Next time someone says that, simply ask, "How do you know?" If the answer is an explanation about how Blake got Milton wrong, etc... then ask, well, what is the right way of understanding Milton? What is the point of comparison?

Well, the point I was initially trying to make is that it is not unreasonable to struggle with the same ideas for thirty years. I am still trying to work this out when I read Gadamer and work on Lorca.

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