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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Accidental beauty

Borges makes a very brilliant observation about translation in his Harvard Lectures: the beauty and strangeness that might occur from a literal translation is accidental.  For example, "the song of songs" is a way to express a superlative, since Hebrew lacks a superlative (according to Borges citing Fray Luis de León). So the phrase "cantar de los cantares" or "song of songs" simply means "best song." But the literal translation offers a kind of poetic quality (absent in the original), which people started to like. So the vogue for literalism had to do with this kind of accidental production of what he calls small "jolts" or surprise.

Notice that this is not the reproduction of a poetic effect present in the original, but a purely accidental byproduct of a translation process.  (It is not even an attempt to make the second audience feel the same thing as the first audience.) That was what is so brilliant in Borges's noting of this.


Noticing when other people are brilliant, and why, is a form of brilliance in and of itself.  It is discouraging to see students never get excited about other people's ideas, when we are reading literary theory, for example.  If you can catch that brilliance, then you can reproduce it yourself, I feel.  That, ideally, should be what teaching is about.  

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