Is Every Translation Just a ‘Placeholder’?

Brueghel's Tower of Babel

In reading through the rich “Arabic double issue” of the journal Metamorphoses, guest-edited by Mohamed el-Sawi and Hassan & Nahla Khalil, I came across a re-translation of Dhu al-Nun Ayyub’s “A Pillar in the Tower of Babel” by Stephanie Fauver.

Fauver’s comments on the translation precede the story, and they spurred me to read her work with particular attention. This was because of two passages. First, Fauver asserts that a translation that “gives preference to the source language over the target language, and perhaps at the expense of a smooth reading experience, allows for peculiarities of the source to appear as stumbling blocks to casual reading and as pointers to the fact that a translation must be considered a place-holder, always pointing to the need to engage the original.”

And later: “A translation, which essentially can never fully substitute for the original but rather serves as a placeholder for it, always merits revisiting and reconsidering.”

Overall, the translation-as-placeholder seems a rather mechanistic view of the translator’s job, with none of the joy of creating a new object of beauty. Indeed, Fauver almost seems to suggest that a translator should go out of her way to be un-beautiful, that Khaled Mattawa has done us a disservice by rendering Adonis’s poems in such gorgeous English, and that the compliment “it was so lovely that it didn’t seem translated!” isn’t a compliment at all.

Surely I agree that translations always (or, well, often) merit revisiting and reconsidering. A fresh translation might bring out fresh beauties, fresh ideas, fresh felicities. Still, I would hate to have a new translation just for the purpose of throwing up more stumbling blocks and reminding the reader (again) that this is not the original.

Now, if Fauver’s goal was to make an un-smooth translation of Ayyub’s work, I don’t see that she succeeded: “A Pillar in the Tower of Babel” remains an enjoyable, satiric read. And if there are some sentences that are more difficult to parse, I am not sure how — as she suggests — this will “clue the reader in to the flavor of the source language text.” If the Arabic text was smoothly satiric for an Arab reader, shouldn’t the translator try to replicate this flavor?

I do think some of her fresh language choices work — it grounds the work nicely to have more specific religious terminology — but I’m afraid that thinking of one’s translation as a “placeholder” is probably not the impetus a working translator needs to spur her to a great, visionary translation.