Further Thoughts on Universal Translation

[This post is a continuation of a short essay I did for Asymptote Journal’s blog]

Learning a language is difficult, mediating between languages even more so. Not everyone has the time to think about these processes, much less represent them in a rigorous way. These are rather banal observations, but they should be taken into consideration discussing translation and its fictional representation. Not being gifted with much linguistic talent myself, having instantaneous translation is marvelously for keeping up-to-date on books and culture around the world.

I suppose that gets to the heart of why “universal translation” is such an appealing trope. We can just avoid the intricacies of translation entirely. Linguists and other scholars with a professional can devote time in analyzing language as language—others not so much. Outside of novels specifically on that subject, fussing with the ins-and-outs of contacting an alien civilization tends to bog narratives down, especially in longer works.

While I found Lem’s His Master’s Voice intellectually compelling, the dry, essayistic style made it difficult to sustain interest. Alien languages don’t have to be boring. But it takes an ear for style as well as a technical mind to make the subject come to life. Borges, especially, in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” treats linguistic subjects with appropriate concision, and much more vividly as well.

Desert Island List: Books, 2014

Roget’s International Thesaurus (desert islands tend not to have WiFi)
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence
Samuel Beckett, Molloy
Roberto Bolaño, 2666
Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions
Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees
Willa Cather, Death Comes to the Archbishop
Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
Henry Fowler, Modern English Usage
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust
Emile Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou
Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard
Franz Kafka, Collected Short Stories
Herman Melville, Moby Dick (“Bartleby the Scrivener” will do in a pinch)
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (about a metaphysical desert island, if you will)
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (really anything, but desert islands aren’t known for their abundant shelf space )
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Borges on “Bartleby the Scrivener”

In 1944, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short introduction to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Just a few hundred words long, this little essay should not be overshadowed by the vast amount of Melville scholarship that has appeared before and since then. Borges asserts, rightly so, that “Bartleby” prefigures certain developments in the art of fiction, namely the psychological tale, exemplars of which can be found in the work of Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka among others

Given his sensitive reading of Melville, it is strange then that Borges would place blame entirely on Bartleby for the gloom and disorder that falls on the law office. He writes, “Bartleby’s candid nihilism contaminates his companions and even the stolid gentleman who tells his tale and endorses his imaginary tasks.” True to a point—but the nihilism is there already, before Bartleby even enters the story. His fellow scriveners Nippers and Turkey, with their strange names, sullen temperaments, and erratic work habits, are functional only in comparison to him. And then there is the sarcophagal office, where the lawyer does his vague business. Consider this passage, which takes place as Bartleby is newly installed there:

I resolved to assign Bartleby a corner by the folding doors, but on my side of them, so as to have this quiet man within easy call, in case any trifling thing was to be done. I placed his desk close up to a small side window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light. Within three feet of the panes was wall, and the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome. Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice.

Bartleby’s refusal to do his copying forms as a natural corollary to the environment in which he works. Such a gentle but weak-minded man has no hope within the tomblike silence of that office. The sympathy that Bartleby elicits from the lawyer is not an endorsement of his behavior but the pangs of an insulated but otherwise healthy conscience. He recognizes where the corruption comes from—not from the scrivener, who is harmless and cannot even understand his own actions. The corruption is present as a natural quality of the environment. It stems from the prisons, workhouses, and ill kept offices that swallow the unlucky scrivener whole.