Caravaggio, San Gerolamo Scrivente

Keeping Company

Translators have not often been subjects of painting, and when they have, they are usually the translators of the Bible. The Hebrew scholars of the Septuagint appear in a few, together with the man who commissioned the translation, Ptolemy II. Another Bible translator, William Tyndale, is depicted in a couple of paintings, including one in which he is shown translating in his prison cell.

It is St. Jerome, however, who appears most often. Domenico Ghirlandaio, Claude Vignon, Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, Jan van Eyck and Antonello da Messina all painted the saint-translator. None of the paintings, however, captures for me the act of translation more revealingly than the one Caravaggio made for Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1605-06. (It is known as San Gerolame Scrivente to distinguish it from two other paintings the artist made of the saint).

Caravaggio depicts the translator saint in relatively advanced age, his emaciated body clad in a cardinal red robe, seated alone at a table in a darkly lit room. Jerome’s head is bowed down to a large book  before him—his source text, the Hebrew Bible. He seems transfixed by the page he holds in the fingers of his hand, oblivious to his surroundings.

His other arm, with pen in hand, extends across the table to end at another book, on which a skull sits and which is opened to page that appears to be only partially filled with script. If that is true, one could assume that this is the target text of the Latin translation. Curiously, the pen is held not an angle on the page, ready to write, but a few inches from the edge of the book, upright, as if suspended in space.

The long horizontal described by the saint’s protracted arm heightens the sense of distance between the source and target texts. Here the arm is both a measure of the void between the two and the bridge that connects them. At the halfway point between the two texts, the saint’s slightly bent elbow parallels the fold in the volume on which it rests. A vertical line drawn down through the vertex of the  fold would divide the panting into two panels. On the one side, the saint, the source text and the cardinal’s robe, on the other the skull, target text, and a white shroud.  On the one side, the translator’s intense concentration, on the other, distraction. The translator is both here and not here, absorbed and displaced at the same time.

It is a fitting depiction of the act of translation, I think. Translating dislodges us from the world we know and draws us into another, less familiar one, the milieu and culture of the author whose text we are translating. Like all journeys made in good faith, this encounter with the world of the source text must in some way affect us, when it does not change us. It certainly dislocates us.

We do not just enter our author’s world and culture, we move in with him or her. Their company may charm or fascinate or disturb us, but we are always their captive. We are shackled to the text in a way other readers, save for exegetes, are not. We sense this bondage most vividly with badly written texts. However much we want to skip over the clumsily rendered sentence or the chaff of jargon that substitute for thought, we must pay attention.

At times I am privileged with the company of good writers. They are all people I wish to spend time with, even when they confound me. The majority of texts that I work, however, with are unremarkable but competently written. Manuals, websites, business proposals, the soulless prose equivalent of hospital corridors and office cubicles—these are dispatched quickly and painlessly, and the claims on self and soul that they exact are no more than what one would pay working with a capable but rather boring colleague. Luckily I am spared the noxious company who enters the lives of more heroic translators, the men and women who are saddled with the task of rendering into their native language the propaganda of hate and intolerance, the intercepted texts of jihadists and the modern-day versions of Mein Kampf. 

On a few rare occasions I will be given a badly written text to translate.  Their ugliness eludes definition, but it is easily recognized. One will be fraught with endless nominalizations, clichés and jargon, the other will be a mash of incoherent passages riddled with needless words and non-sequiturs. Each is ugly in its own way.

Their authors do not make for good company. Some are sloppy, others pretentious, but nearly all are slightly lazy and self-absorbed (if they had a better appreciation of their readers, they would have edited their texts more carefully). Translating their texts sometimes feels like spending time confined in an isolated ramshackle cabin as the guest—or hostage—of a self-important Orwellian bureaucrat or dimwitted bully.

The ugliness of text has little to do with “difficulty”. A text may be “difficult” and its author very interesting company because it is semantically dense or riddled with elliptical cultural referents and untranslatable puns. It may even have been written with the intent to conceal meaning or at least require the reader’s devoted engagement (and in turn that of the translator as well, whose challenge here is to decode and re-encode that opacity. Most translators I know delight in this challenge.) Difficulty, in this respect, is a matter of style and reflects deliberate choices that the author has made.

The only choice the author of a badly written text has made, if he or she has made one at all, is not to have written it more carefully. A text is ugly not because the thoughts it seeks to convey are unwieldy but because it has so few of them.

“It’s just a job,” my father would say. “You distance yourself and do the best you can.” A deeply pious man who worked in the movies as a negative cutter, he was sometimes confronted with material he found indecent. Though the films were not what we would think of as pornography (especially now)—they were all destined for mainstream cinemas—they were not good company for him. I imagine him going to work during those assignments, knowing he would spend his day with a movie that carried him across—translated him, in as sense—into a world he wanted no part of.

Distance. It’s something a therapist with a surly, unlikable patient might say, or an architect when asked to design an unlivable house. How is the translator of badly written text different from the glazier obliged to lay down gaudy tile? Or the hairdresser asked to coif a head of frizzled, spare hair. You work with what you have.

The architect, however, has much more interpretive freedom in the (considerable) gap from desire to built space. The hairdresser is expected to intervene. “I didn’t have much to work with,” she might say, but in most cases the end result is better than what she began with. Translators, on the other hand, are expected to retain the deformity of the original; they must become as awkward, trite or verbose as their authors.

It is crap, however, with your name on it. No one faults actors for the lines they deliver on stage (though how they are delivered is another matter.). The glazier’s success is judged by the trueness of the grouting, not the patterns on the tiles. On stage and in the shower, performance and authorship are more or less distinct. In translation, however, without access to the source text, the reader will never be sure whether the ugliness lay in the original or was introduced by the translator.

“That’s the way it is in the original!” the translator cries out. “I was there, I know”, but who will hear this voice of protest? Vox clamantis in deserto, as Jerome once wrote.


Featured image: Caravaggio, “St. Jerome Writing”, 1605-06


4 responses to ‘Keeping Company

  1. Another beautiful piece of written of work, Breach of Close. I admire your real, vulnerable, and raw sense of writing and look forward for when you write something else. Your words have a powerful artistic human connection, and it encourages me from day to day. Never stop writing from the heart.


  2. I really enjoyed this – and I enjoyed finding it after making my own rather different reflections on translation earlier this week. It was so interesting for me to enter the world of the translator instead of the translated text. Lots of food for thought. Thank you (and for the Caravaggio which I shall send to a friend just home from a Hebrew translation course), x


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