Is There a Perfect Form of Translation?


In college I took a class called “The Craft of Translation”. At some point my professor, Mark Statman, posed this question:

“Is there a perfect form of translation?”
As in, are these many translations, between languages, and across millennia, seeking a perfect form? If so, is there that for them to find?
I said yes. The professor, and the class, did not agree. Here’s my deal:
If we choose to keep something with us as we womb on into eternity, it’s because that thing is a reflection of our Someday Self. That ideal of losses and gains that we shape through our ages. If our future has an end, then the collective persona we’ve chosen by then will be perfection. If we’re infinite, then perfection is now.
Our losses and gains, failures and successes, the do’s and don’ts of posterity, are exactly the craft of translation. So: fuck yeah.
As for a perfect execution of the task of translation, that’s a muddier question, because that’s all about individuals, and individuals are muddy things. Individuals only know perfection. Right now is the moment of perfection for everything we are and everything around us. This is exactly when everything that exists is all that it will ever be, for now. As a whole, we’ve seen that certain things should be and others shouldn’t, but now is the moment of choice.
Here’s a snippet from somebody else’s meditation on the topic:

“The answer, perhaps, lies again with Plato and his allegory of the cave. If the translations that we produce are shadows, poor reflections of some sort of ideal, then, in a sense, the search for a better version is a worthwhile endeavour in itself. Woe betide the translator who is satisfied! We should always be attempting to produce a better text, a more polished translation, a clearer document.

The translation that we produce is a constantly-flickering shadow of nether-text, always moving, always bending. Our aim is to pin it down, flesh it out, make it whole. What could be more rewarding? The knowledge that our final text is simply a twisted shadow is the first step in the search for the ultimate signified which can be found (perhaps) at the end of a long and shadowy chain of signifiers.”

If you choose to share a thing, an experience, idea, or whatever, it’s because it fits into that reflection of the someday self, which, at an individual level, is just whatever your ideal self happens to be now. That’s perfection.
The perfect form of translation would be an exact communication of how a thing is to you now. If you could offer another individual the exact mix of reality that you experience when experiencing a thing, then that is a perfect translation.
Some dude named Toby Turner made a Dramatic Song (it’s pretty funny and has like 18M views, amazingly), and this is a cut of the lyrics:
“A perfect translation does not exist.
Well, at least, not in your language.
But if you must know, well, picture this:
Fifty billion rainbows,
and the sun is setting,
and the moon is setting, also,
and you’re there in a gazebo.
And then God descends from heaven
and He gives you a million dollars.
Take that feeling,
and put it into a song.”
So break down experience, say, with a device that records precisely the physiological reactions you have at the moment of experience, and then subject another person to exactly that, and, bam, you’ve got a perfect translation.
What’s up with that though is that you would be muddying their experience of a thing with so much of your individual goop that blah blah blah. But no two translations are alike anyhow. That was the number one takeaway from this class that was taught by a man whose translations are often the only versions of famous and beautiful poems that many people who enjoy them have ever, or will ever, read, or read. A translation is just as much an expression of the translator’s essential understanding of a work as the original author’s.
 Poet In New York cover
Is there a perfect translation? Yes. I’d say so. You can disagree, but speak up now. Perfection is a question of longevity, and now’s your chance to answer. There’s no time like eternity, after all.
[NOTE: If you care, the question of a perfect translation also has a whole thread on an actual forum for translators.]