BOOK REVIEW / Found guilty in world literature's blind alleys: 'After Babel' - George Steiner: Oxford University Press, 9.99

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TRANSLATORS belong to a class of professionals whom the world takes pleasure in reviling. Like estate agents, solicitors and accountants, they enjoy a function similar to that performed by the 'sin-eaters' of certain primitive communities, whose job was to absorb others' sense of blame for wrongdoing through the consumption of a ritual meal. Should we fail to enjoy, let alone understand, a novel or a poem, we can always lay the guilt on a faulty rendering, with a swipe or two at syntax and vocabulary for good measure. Even the classic interpretations, Dryden's Virgil, Pope's Homer, North's Plutarch (itself a translation translated) are commended with a nudging indulgence normally reserved for the kind of eccentric concert pianist who manages a brilliant performance with only half the right notes.

Heine described French versions of his poems as 'moonlight stuffed with straw'. Nabokov, in some lines on putting Eugene Onegin into English, called translation 'a parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter, and profanation of the dead'. The Jews of the early Roman empire believed that three days of absolute darkness descended upon the world when the Law was rendered into Greek, while Islam maintains that the Koran, by its very nature, can only be interpreted, never translated.

In the light of such an immemorially bad press, to devote an entire book to the act and process of translation, to give that book a positively Piranesian architectonic grandeur in the depth and magnificence of its vistas, and by this means to insist on the primacy of translating as an essential function of articulate, imaginative humanity, must seem sheer foolhardiness. The triumph of After Babel, however, on its first appearance 20 years ago, was not only to vindicate Steiner's thesis as something more than a mere quixotic jaunt down the blind alleys of world literature, but to confront us with our own responsibility as readers and speakers. Thanks to his ardour and urgency, translation, from being the idle diversion of some 18th century clergyman or underemployed teacher, became a planet bewildered by moral choices and fateful decisions.

For those who enjoy the independent resonances of a translated text - try any of the great Tudor and Stuart anglicisations, Sir John Harrington's Ariosto, Edward Fairfax's Jerusalem Deliver'd, which practically made a new poetic style - it was not hard to accept Steiner's claim that 'the translator enriches his tongue by allowing the source language to penetrate and modify it. But he does far more: he extends his native idiom towards the hidden absolute of meaning'. We relished too the book's riotous, unabashed delight in the phenomenon of language as a global playground strewn with one-offs and bizarreries, like his roster of obscure Caucasian tongues - Kot, of which five speakers alone were left in 1845, Arci, spoken in a single hamlet, Oubykh, confined to a few Black Sea villages. Against these huge accretions of detail, which we could almost glimpse Steiner in the act of designing, like the overlapping perspectives of Baroque theatre, the translator took on a protean centrality. He was the archaeologist, the tactician, the inventor, the spy, the necromancer who enabled us to commune with the dead. Yet the close of this book seemed not so much a celebration as a lament for the dwindling of such multiple roles under the onrush of simplified, super-available Amer-English.

In its latest edition, After Babel arrives with a fresh preface, paradoxically making more hopeful noises about linguistic diversity in the light of resurgent nationalism.

Some of us, in the intervening period, may have grown less willing admirers of Steiner the devastating polyglot and multiculturalist, and greater cynics when confronting his obsessions and presumptions. We need not share the inevitable genuflexions before the altar of Paul Celan, and we can freely splutter at assertions like 'I do not believe that there is a more complete drama in literature, a work more exhaustive of the possibilities of human conflict, than Racine's Berenice.'

Such maddening idiosyncracy merely enhances After Babel as a personal document. The constant appeal to a supporting authority, 'Professor Leonard Forster cites', 'as Quine puts it', 'to use Kierkegaard's distinction' and the impacted scholarly references, a sort of intellectual goods train of wagons labelled Croce, Lacan, Leibniz and Heidegger locate this book in the great Jewish hermeneutic tradition of commentary upon commentaries and guides to wisdom for the perplexed. And they make this paean, this rhapsody to the power of the word as the Word, Steiner's apologia and monument.