Idea 5. From Translation to Interlation and Stereotextuality by Mikhail Epstein

Idea 5. From Translation to Interlation and Stereotextuality

Key words: translation, language, polyglossia, stereo effect, Borges, Nabokov, Brodsky, Bakhtin

The globalization of cultures radically changes the role of languages and translation. Transculturalism presupposes translingualism, or what Mikhail Bakhtin called polyglossia: “Only polyglossia fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language”. [1] With the spread of multilingual competence, translation is becoming a dialogical counterpart to the original text rather than its substitution. While bilingual or multilingual persons have no need for translation, they may still enjoy interlation—a simultaneous contrastive juxtaposition of allegedly “equivalent” texts in two or more different languages.

Interlation is a multilingual variation on the same theme, with the roles of source and target languages becoming interchangeable. In his essay The Homeric Versions, J. L. Borges famously argued that we could only evaluate a translation and original fairly if we had no prior knowledge of which is which. What is more important here, however, is not the comparative value of the original and its translation(s), but their complementarity and mutual enrichment. One language allows the reader to perceive what another language misses or leaves unclear.

I will cite one example of interlation from a poem by Joseph Brodsky in Russian and its English auto-translation. The original line Odinochestvo est´ chelovek v kvadrate in Brodsky’s poem To Urania literally reads: “Loneliness is a person squared”. Brodsky himself reconfigures this line into English as “Loneliness cubes a man at random”.

It would be irrelevant to ask which of these expressions, Russian or English, is more adequate to Brodsky’s poetic thought. Both are necessary to embrace the scope of its metaphoric meaning. Both a square and a cube represent the inescapable self-reflexivity and self-multiplication of a lonely person; they convey loneliness as geometric projections intensified by the dimensional transformation of a square into a cube. For bilinguals, this poem becomes a work of unique art that can be called stereo-poetry, which contains more metaphorical levels than mono-poetry. In Brodsky’s poem, the stereo effect is produced by the figurative relationship between the Russian and English lines: the English “cube” amplifies and strengthens the meaning of the Russian “square”. Both the “cube” and the “square” serve as metaphors for loneliness, and at the same time these two words are metaphorically related to each other.

Robert Frost famously said that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”. By contrast, interlation doubles or multiplies the gains of poetry. In addition to metaphors that connect words within one language, a new level of imagery emerges through the metaphorical liaison between languages, producing a surplus of poetic value, not its loss. It can be said that poetry is what is found in interlation.

The author may intend a certain stereo effect, or it can also be achieved through the experience of reading multiple versions of a text. For example, Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography can be read as a stereo-text in two languages (English and Russian) and in three consecutive versions: Conclusive Evidence (1951), Drugie berega (1954), and Speak, Memory (1964). Nabokov himself emphasized that these versions are far from being mere translations, rather they relate to one another as metamorphosis:

This re-Englishing of a Russian re-vision of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before.[2] (1964,)

Thus, at the crossroads of languages, a new work of stereo-poetry or stereo-prose is born which can be characterized in Bakhtin’s words: “[I]n the process of literary creation, languages interanimate each other and objectify precisely that side of one’s own (and of the other’s) language that pertain to its world view, its inner form, the axiologically accentuated system inherent in it” (1981, p. 62).

Translation as the search for equivalence dominated the epoch of national cultures and monolingual communities that needed the bridges of understanding rather than the rainbows of co-creativity. When languages were enclosed within monoethnic cultures, their combination was perceived as an artificial device. In the past, the deliberate mixture of languages called “macaronic” were mostly used for comic effect. With the globalization of cultures and automatization of translation, the untranslatability and non-equivalencies among languages come to the foreground as genuine polyglossia. In the proto-global society, a stereo-poem written partly in English, partly in French, and partly in Russian could find a tri-lingual audience that would be able to savor precisely the meaningful discrepancies between the three languages in which the poem is created.

In the course of time, stereo-textuality may come to be viewed as a distinct form of verbal creativity and not just as an exotic outcome of the growing multilingualism. It is known that stereo-cinema (3D film) reproduces sights and stereo-music reproduces sounds more naturally than their mono predecessors. The same can be applied to our intellectual vision and conceptual hearing. Can an idea be adequately presented in only one language? Or, do we need a minimum of two languages to convey the range of thought just as we need two eyes to see and two ears to hear? In the near future, we can envision a set of new multilingual creative activities in the venues of stereo-poetry, stereo-philosophy, stereo-aesthetics, and stereo-criticism. They will draw from a variety of languages and capitalize in meaningful ways on different worldviews. Multilingual writing or, to use Bakhtin’s words, the “mutual illumination and interanimation of languages,” may become as conventional for the global age as stereo-music and stereo-cinema are conventional today.

[1] Bakhtin M. The dialogic imagination: four essays. Trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 1981, p.161.

[2] Nabokov, V. Speak, Memory. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1964, pp. 12–13.

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