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Translating Oneself: On “Visitors from on High”

By Roberto Athayde

Roberto Athayde’s microplay Visitors from on High: A Tragicomedy in Science Fiction appears in the December 2016 issue of Words without Borders.

After a lifetime of translating, self-translating, and being translated, this is my first opportunity to reflect on the subject. For some inspirational succor, I went back to Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator, probably the crux, cross, or crown of every earnest professional in this field. He poses the most radical challenge possible: that the translator risk sounding “un-fluent” in the new language by piercing into it an indenture of schemes belonging to the original. He thinks originals ought to be good enough to deserve such deference. He considers information a second-class item barely translation-worthy.

In the face of such audacity as proposed by Walter Benjamin, I thought “my gosh having intimacy with the original language is more important than mastering the new one!” If that be so, the most competent people to do Benjamin’s suggested indenture and create an instance of his “pure language” would be . . . the foreigners themselves. There is nothing so easy as believing one understood what actually means something else—or many other things. Authors relish the fantasy of being original and won’t balk at the perils of bizarre constructions, weird tempi, and unusual phrasal expressions—not to speak of sundry unwarranted allusions, which may range from the national to the regional to the local to even the personal level! The easy way out is to banalize the original. Out of an ingrained commitment to look current, one may sneak away from the best nuances the author poured into the text.

Another argument for source-language primacy is the raw fact that it is not it but the target tongue that gets to be criticized. Shortcomings in the new language can be improved upon with the help of good editors, while the “exotic” language lies unobserved in a befuddling mist of picturesque or barbarous manners. On the other hand, it is competence in the new language alone that can guarantee that a text makes enough sense not to look ridiculous. Being readable has remained in fairly high esteem since Voltaire described as “galimatias” sundry pedantries and new usages that displeased him. One can well imagine, for example, some naïve young novice doing a Benjaminian overkill—corrosive of the English language without being interesting enough. Furthermore even if Silicon Valley is thought to already be declining, a rejection of information (such as found in Walter Benjamin) will be very far in the offing for a rather long time.

As I dove into a play I wrote nearly forty-six years ago, I soon realized it wasn’t really self-translating but merely translating the twenty-one-year-old guy I used to be. It is my Heraclitus that I should have brushed up on: you can’t step twice into the same river—it is impossible to wade again the same stream and expect an identical content. In June 1971 I was under a heavy influence of both Oscar Wilde and Ionesco—while Brazil was in the nadir of our grueling “years of plumb,” meaning a regime of military dictatorship. The result was a somewhat grotesque lampoon of science fiction, rather unsparing at human civilization and devoid of some edifying streaks which I developed much later. Visitors from on High had its debut in 1974 in Rio de Janeiro, with the group Grêmio Dramático Brasileiro, directed by Aderbal Freire.

I believe we ought to be happy to inhabit dilemmas that are sound and precious such as the ones ushered in by Walter Benjamin. Just how good must you be to merit taking certain liberties and impinging one idiom on another? Can we at all afford demeaning information? I believe the trace of another tongue is so rooted that, like an accent in speech, it still shows even when one is or has turned into a native of the new language and embraces it completely.

Published Dec 27, 2016   Copyright 2016 Roberto Athayde

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