Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Translation's Haunt (The Rolle Excursus), Part I

If we resort to merely philological evidence, we can readily see that translation has always meant more than the narrowly defined project of transferring meaning from one language into another.  The primary definition involves the removal, transference, and conveyance of ministers and other religious figures as in, for example, the translation of a bishop from one diocese to another.[1]  We can also see its use in the transportation and reinterment of a saint’s relics or the reassignment of a feast day to avoid it coinciding with one more superior.  The transference of the righteous directly from earth to heaven expresses yet another meaning, as in, for example, the story of the translation of Enoch found in Genesis 5:24:  “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.”  In this way, we can see that translation has always maintained an ethical dimension, at least insofar as we typically understand ethics (as involving human beings—their bodies as well as their souls—and the conveyance of and interactions among those beings as framed within an ethico-religious system).  Nevertheless, the first historical use of translation in English is still the most commonly understood meaning, but as we shall see, even something cited as originary and standard can present us with many more problematic questions.
In the prologue to his 1340 translation of the Psalms of David, English mystic Richard Rolle of Hampole wrote, “In the translation I follow the letter as much as I may,” thus instigating the linguistic and literary use of the term.[2]  But in this one statement Rolle, too, delineates the problematic essence of translation by opening up the question of the literalness and materiality of language as well as the necessary limitation of translation itself.  Having left behind what he saw as the empty intellectualism of his academic training at Oxford, Rolle devoted the remainder of his life to articulating his mystical experiences involving canor, cantor, and dulcor:  being set ablaze, yet unconsumed, by fire while in a state of ecstasy, hearing a heavenly melody, and being overwhelmed by the sweetness of Christ’s love through the mediation of the Holy Spirit.  More importantly, however, is Rolle’s involvement in the cult of the Name of Jesus.  Rolle’s particular form of meditation involved continually invoking and repeating the name of Jesus.  We can imagine the contemplative state brought on by such repetition as alternating between, on the one hand, complete and absolute signification—with each utterance referring back to one (or all) possible antecedents for Christ—and, on the other hand, (and as most children can attest) the opposite extreme of utter nonsense and meaninglessness.


[1] These definitions of translation come from the Oxford English Dictionary.
[2] Richard Rolle, prologue to The Psalter, or Psalms of David and Certain Canticles, ed. H. R. Bramley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884), 4: “In þe translacioun i folow þe lettere als mykyll as i may.”

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