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La Traduction et la lettre ou l’Auberge du lointain, Antoine Berman1

(compte-rendu— 2007-8)

Antoine Berman develops his theories on translation through two moments: he starts by
criticizing the traditional theories which see translating as regurgitating the meaning in a more
“beautiful” way, then analyzes great “literal” translations to pinpoint the “work on the letter”
they did, insisting upon the idea that “literal translation” is far from meaning “word for word
Berman then explains he replaces the brace theory/practice by this of experience/thinking:
he defines translatology as the “thinking translation does on itself from its nature of
experience”. As so, translation is linked to philosophy, to interpreting.
For him, translatology is not meant to build a general theory of translating but to give
thought to all the already existing “forms” of translations. He sets up the notion of “meaning
exceedance” (“dépassement de sens”) as a reflection field for translatology: translation can as
well mean giving back a text from one tongue to another (“narrow translation”), as “different
‘passings’ about writing, and even more secretly, about living and dying” (“generalized
Berman then reasserts the importance of seeing translation as “translation-of-the-letter”, as
Alain says, even though literalism is usually condemned.

1. Domesticating translation and hypertextual translation.

Berman explains domesticating (ethnocentric) (bringing everything back to its own
culture and norms, and considering the Other as something to be adapted to increase this
culture’s wealth) and hypertextual (“any text born by (…) any kind of formal transformation”,
says G.Genette) translation are considered as the standard and prescriptive forms of
In fact, domesticating translation began in Rome with Horace, Cicero and Saint-Jerôme,
whose theorie : “non verbum e verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensu” (translating meaning,
not words), became the rule and were expanded by the translating momentum given both by
pagan romanity aiming at building up its own culture and by christian evangelism. They drew
this view of things from the difference Plato made between the visible and the intelligible :

Paris, Seuil, 1999, 142 pages.

translation thus becomes an ideality, a way to let meaning cross from one tongue to another,
without using its formal, sensible “body”. This perception of translation as aiming to capture
meaning only asserts the primacy of a tongue upon another.
Domesticating translation, Berman explains, is based on two axioms: the text produced
mustn’t look like a translation, but should give the impression of being what the author would
himself have written if originally in this tongue (which thus becomes a prescriptive one—it
mustn’t shock the reader) : the translator needs to use literary devices, and his translation
becomes an hypertextual one (by the means of a pastiche, imitation, transformation, version).
Berman then reminds the reader that any text is a compactness of meaning, being as such
impossible to translate perfectly. This induces “a suffering of the translator, of the translated
text and of the meaning deprived of his letter”, translation then being impossible.
“UntranslatBermanility”, in fact, has been perceived as something of a standard, of an
eminence, when linked to poetry (then to prose) : it’s “one of the self-assertion modes of a
text”. Translation thus becomes a lying unnatural activity.
It’s maybe why, as Berman underlines it, almost all attempts at defining it used
metaphors, often negative ones : a translation is the unfaithful communication of an often
distorted meaning.

2. Translation’s analytics and distortion’s systematics.

Berman then analyses the translators’ tendencies to distort the text: his major problem is to
keep, to respect the unshaped polylogy set by the author in his novel/essay (as well as the
polysemy in poetry). Berman lists thirteen distorting tendencies:
i) Rationalisation: the translator linearizes the syntactic arborescence of the source-text, and
concretises it.
ii) Clarifying: he tends to impose define ideas/words where the source-text is voluntarily
iii) Lengthening: it only increases the length of the text, and is no good to its rhythm.
iv) Ennoblement: stylishness is sensed as the most important achievement in the translation,
thus provoking a rhethorisation of prose.
v) Qualitative impoverishment: it is done by replacing “colourful” words by plainer ones.
vi) Quantitative impoverishment: it is caused by a lexical loss (one may translate three
different words by only one).
vii) Homogenisation: when the translator tends to blend the heterogeneous cloth of a text.

viii) Destruction of rhythms—above all, punctuation.
ix) Destruction of the underlaying signifying networks: content words may create a network.
x) Destruction of systematicities: those being characteristic “traits” of an author—syntax, use
of verbal tenses… The translated text becomes more homogeneous but less coherent.
xi) Destruction or “exoticisation” of vernacular linguistic networks: vernacular terms are
traditionally translated by making them sound exotic—but it can lead to dispersion: only
“koinai” can be translated one into another.
xii) Destruction of expressions: it is frequently caused by replacing an expression/image/
proverb… by its equivalent.
xiii) Erasing of overlaying languages: local dialects often overlay upon a koinè (see
Bakhtine’s “heteroglossy”).
Berman concludes his list by defining the “letter” as “all the dimensions attacked by the
distorting system”.

3. Translation’s ethics.
Berman then tries to suggest an analytics of positive (not methodological) translation,
which implies he has defined the “playing ground” of translation and its “pure and sinless
Translation c a n n o t result from a methodology, as it’s far from only being a
communication process: a literary work is not meant to convey information. On the other
hand, Berman wonders if a translation isn’t aimed at transmitting a work to an audience—he
answers by quoting Guiraud: “One is caught between telling everything to no one, telling
nothing to everyone, and those two ways are inversely proportionate”. The point is that a
translation is supposed to popularize, not to generalize: an “upbringing to strangeness” is
needed. This cultural communication is based on a translation’s ethics: the concepts of
“accuracy” and faithfulness” are fundamental. For faithfulness implies a belonging to this
ethical dimension: the translation must be led by a “will to open the Other—as an Other— to
its own space of language”. A translation is thus supposed to uncover the “display of a
display” (for any work is a display of the entire world) and the “display of an original” (for a
work is the first before its derivatives, and the first in is own language).
A work, Berman explains, is fleshy, tangible, living, on the level of language: hence the
translation cannot but be linked to the letter and respect it, for its aim is to receive this fleshy
literality in one’s mother-tongue.

Berman then analyses three “great” translations which were new in their times, and reveal
new possibilities in the area of translating: Hölderlin’s Antigone and King Oidipous, Chateau-
briand’s Paradise Lost, Klossowski’s Aeneid.

4. Hölderlin, or translating as a display.

Berman starts by comparing two translations of Sappho: Édith Mora’s translation is neat,
acute, Michel Deguy’s one is more literal— É.Mora makes Sappho sound trivial, poetically
speaking, whereas M.Deguy, by exerting some rudeness on the translating tongue and on the
original text (by introducing typographical changes, for example), produces a disorienting
text. The point, Berman asserts, is precisely that Sappho’s text was originally disorienting:
M.Deguy’s translation “came back to the original’s origin”. The two tongues make each other
younger but display their differences: it’s a “differentiating mating” (“accouplement diffé-
Berman then remembers his reader of the historical context against which Hölderlin
translated Sophocles’s plays: in the romantic and classical Germany, there are both a
sacralization of the works and their languages, and a “national” culture based on and
dependent upon the otherness. Hölderlin, on the contrary, tends to oppose “ordeal of the
foreign” and “learning of the own”: the ancient Greeks were familiar with the “eccentric
enthusiasm”, which attenuated the “exposure’s clarity”. He wanted to make apparent what
had been “disavowed” in the Greek original: as it reveals what was obscured in the original,
the translation is a display, and as such, a violence.
It implies different operations: first of all, a literal and “etymology-ing” translation, then
intensifications which render a more violent text than the original; the use of ancient German
and of Souab underlines the archaic in German to translate the archaic in Greek. The last (but
not least) operation Hölderlin sets up is the changes: he tries to destroy the “classical” view of
Greek art, mostly by changing the names of Gods—“Bacchus” becomes the “God of
pleasure”, the gods “the celestials”… This destruction has two opposite effects on them: it
orientalises them, by suppressing any reference to the baroque and humanist perception of
Antiquity, and on the other hand it westernizes them, by drawing them nearer to our
“representation mode”, says he.
Translation is seen as a “display of the original’s origin”, as a “sober emphasis”: it is
meant to reveal the argument at stake in a work, giving birth to it.

5. Chateaubriand, Milton’s translator.
When in 1836 Chateaubriand publishes his translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, France
is its romantic trend: it wants to stop the “beautiful unfaithful” translations and to revaluate
translating as a mean to improve and enrich French. Chateaubriand decides to translate Milton
literally, contrarily to all the previous attempts.
He respects the original text’s literality and latinity: Paradise Lost is a christian poem,
based on two sources, the Bible (the Vulgate and the Authorized Version) and Latin texts—he
literally translates what already is a literal translation in the original text: he creates both a
religious and latin translation.
For historically there’s always been a link between translation and religiosity: Hölderlin
said that the “basis” of a translator’s literality obviously lies “where ethnicity, poeticity and
religiosity band together”. Indeed, Chateaubriand’s translation uses a christian tongue which
could be this of a non-existing French Authorized Version, and a literality opposed to previous
translations such as “interlinear” ones and as graceful and hypertextual ones. This literality is
clearly different from a word for word, as it renders the different layers and the significant
depth of the original text, and as it is in prose (poetic prose of course, but prose indeed).
Berman here reflects upon the concept of “temporality of translating”: for him, the
translated text always refers to two previous ones: the original text and the previous
translations. Thus a literal translation is necessarily a re-translation, as it conveys something
of a more “mature” connection to one’s motherly tongue, able to admit and to search for the
“concussion” (Pannwitz) provoked by the foreign tongue.
Concretely, Chateaubriand makes an incredible “work-on-the-letter” of the text: he
changes the French construction of verbs, for example, “when, had [he] remained more
French, [he]’d had lost some of the original text’s precision, originality, energy”. Likewise, he
uses coined words and archaisms to reproduce Milton’s singularity and particularities.
Berman reminds us that “any literal translation is to coined” and is meant to maintain the
inherent darkness of the original text. Chateaubriand indeed has an acute sensing of the
system of deforming tendencies: he, by contrast, respects the particular use of substantives
Milton makes, the precise religious tone used for each character, the syntax, the Latin, non-
English weft… Doing so, he perfectly realises the novelty of his work (made possible by his
incredible mastery of French), and underlines the suffering implied by translating.
Berman sees in Chateaubriand’s Paradis Perdu the existence of a third language implied,
a mediating tongue between the original and the final ones, perceived as better as the
translating one: here this third mediating tongue obviously is Latin. In like manner, for

Mallarmé this tongue was English, which he sensed as fascinating, significant, and nearer
from his “dream tongue”. Berman concludes this analysis of Chateaubriand by insisting upon
the links between those three tongues: if the original tongue allows a translator to write in his
motherly tongue, it’s this mediating tongue which allows him to translate in his motherly

6. Klossowski’s Aeneid.
Berman closes his comments upon translation by analyzing Klossowski’s Aeneid, which
he perceives as a major moment in the French history of translation: its publication in 1964
provoked lots of (mostly positive) feedbacks—even if it was an extreme attempt, it clearly
had an impact on a lot of translators. In fact, Pierre Klossowski had quite a few qualities,
regarding as to what Berman says is important: he’s a writer (he masterizes his tongue), a
painter (he knows the importance of concrete) and a poly-translator (he obviously knows at
least three languages, each of which can affect the others—his mediating tongue is German).
Berman then wonders why Klossowski chose to translate the Aeneid, to what entailments
it can lead for us nowadays, and what it implies the translation of an epic. Actually the Aeneid
as well as the Odyssey inspired lots of modern ambitious works, which underlines that modern
literature needed to regenerate in it: this translation acts as a “repatriating memory” (a come
back to the Latin text when those epics have been imitated during centuries then rejected
during the 19th Century).
Berman insists upon the importance philology has taken since the 19th C.: it took control
both of the establishment of the texts and their translating, justifying it by an aim of exactness.
This leaded to four types of translations: i)“free translations”, non-philological and, as such,
“non-serious”—ii)“critical translations”, aimed at specialists—iii)“retouched translations” for
a larger audience—iv)“scholarly translations” due to the “temptations of omnipotence and
tantalisation”. Philology has been disastrous for the way we relate to classical works: it made
them alien, un-readable. Furthermore, it has no “root into the tongue and literature of the
translating culture”. It is thus necessary to bring back the old link Heidegger pinpointed
between translation and tradition: it is both essential for the connection we have with our
cultural and literary origin and for establishing a non-domesticating connection between
foreign literature and us. This is precisely why Klossowsky’s translation “shook” the
translating area in France: it came from a large poetic horizon; it was rooted in the “poetical
ground” and could transform its future.

The point is know to reflect upon Klossowsky’s “literality”: even if some said what he did
was a word for word translation, it’s more complex, for he takes into account two structural
characteristics—the Latin ones, and the epic speech on the other hand. Whereas in French,
you cannot move words freely, the epic speech is linked to this free positioning of words: for
the epic poem is mimetic, and its words mimic the reality. Actually, Klossowski’s work is a
mix of literality and liberty: he wanted to “suggest the moves of the words”, he said.
His translation gives the impression of being literal, because of his “latinisation” of
French, and precisely because it was not a loan translation: he translated the system of
inversions… but not their reality in the text. This method needs the translator to look in the
French sentence to find “holes” where to put Latin structures without tearing it up too much.
By this introduction both of the general Latin system and the epic speech laws, the Aeneid
reappeared, writes Berman: the epic became meaningful again. Furthermore, it allowed
French to come back to its roots through all its historical stages (Klossowsky’s French as
something to do with Racine…and Mallarmé…) as well as to open possibilities for its future.
An important criticism has been made to this translation, though: its bad readability.
Indeed its latinisation is somewhat excessive, but it is linked and inherent to the translating
process itself. And if a reader finds it hard to read the epic all along, it is because the modern
translation lacks the whole dimension of orality that was conveyed with the epic before.

One must then make a distinction between literality and loan translation: literality
reproduces the logic prevailing in the original text, and by doing so, makes French evolve by
finding “new layers in its self”. For translation works in what the motherly tongue has of most