Video with Jonathan Dunne on translation


I was thinking during that introduction how I attended the Spanish Centre for Literary Translation in Tarazona and I wrote to them beforehand saying that I’d been translating for 25 years and, when I arrived, they were obviously expecting somebody to be about 55, something like that, and actually I meant that I’d been translating since I was ten. And I still remember the first phrase I translated: ‘Caecilius est pater.’ ‘Caecilius is father.’ ‘Caecilius is a father.’ ‘Caecilius is the father.’ ‘Cecil is Dad.’ And I was hooked pretty much straight away. And that’s really where I consider my translation experience, on one level, to begin. But then why stop there? Actually, in a way, I felt I had been translating in my mother’s womb, surely – the food that I received, the oxygen that came to me in order to breathe. So, actually, I probably should have said I’d been translating for another ten years, 35 years, and they would have expected me to be even older.

I am sometimes a little perplexed when people talk about translation, and I’m expected to feel like Cinderella sitting by the hearth. And actually, in many ways, though I may not look it, I am Cinderella, or translation is Cinderella. We still seem to think of translation as some poorer, second-rate, inferior kind of creativity, and I object to this slightly, and I could even go so far as to say that it seems to me that putting writing, editing and translating on the same level is not necessarily the case. It was fashionable to talk about the translator as a writer. I think this was meant to raise the profile of the translator, to raise his or her status. But actually I consider the writer to be a translator who is translating what he has heard, what experiences he has had, what voice is coming to him, on to a piece of paper. And I would say actually that everything we do is translation. I think translation is the essence of human existence, it is what we are. It is what we are. We are translators.

So, for me, translation is the big bubble that includes having children, that includes breathing, that includes eating. Surely, food comes in my mouth, I digest it, I take meaning or what my body needs, and I expunge the rest. Surely, having a child, that most beautiful experience available to a human being, is a form of translation, because life did not begin with me, I didn’t invent it, it came through me. And if you look at uncountable and countable nouns – ‘love’, for example – love comes through us, and in that sense, again, we are translators and in the process we find meaning.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that is a little obsessed with countability. What is the difference between an uncountable noun and a countable noun? A countable noun has to have a line around it, it has to be defined, it has to have a border. So God made light; man makes a light, which is a bulb, which has a line around it. But he’s incapable of making light. It’s the same with everything we use in our day-to-day existence. Cooking is a wonderful example of translation. But I am incapable of making a carrot. I cannot do it. I can translate it, but I cannot do it.

Adam is a very fine example in the Genesis account of creation. God did not ask Adam to make the creatures, he asked him to name them. Name, if you shuffle the letters, spells mean. So, in that process, you’re finding meaning, you’re extracting meaning. And I think that’s what we are for, and I think life is a continual learning process whereby we move away from that initial process of creation, through the ego, where most of us start, to understanding that life is actually to serve the other. And this, for me, is one of the finest arguments for the existence of God, because why would all that learning then go to waste? And I don’t believe it does.

I started translating – translating in the term that we normally accept translating to be – like most people with a dictionary, probably several dictionaries, and working furiously: activity, doing. And the greatest shift that has occurred to me working as a translator is to understand that it is less about doing and more about listening. When you are translating, there is a voice. The voice can sometimes be quite insistent, especially when you are a little stubborn and refuse to change your position. It then becomes a little more insistent. Listen, if you shuffle the letters, spells silent. And in the silence I think is where we need to discover the meaning. So I much more regard translation now as a process of listening, and it comes through me. Not as activity.

And it’s very interesting if you look at the auxiliary verbs in the English language, because to talk about the future, we talk about ‘will’; to talk about the present perfect, we talk about ‘have’; and to talk about the past or to make a question or a negative in the present, we talk about ‘do’. Now are these not extraordinarily indicative of our attitude to life? ‘Will’ – my will, of course. ‘Do’ – activity, which is what the world is obsessed with. And ‘have’ – because I want to own. And this is where all the world’s problems come from, because as soon as you regard yourself as an author, you’re going to draw a line and say this is mine – line, mine – and then you’ve got to fight over it. The only one, the only auxiliary, that exists in the moment is ‘be’. It’s the one we use to refer to the continuous. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Oh, I’m listening.’ ‘Be’ is the only one that is in the moment.

I used to regard translation as a straight line, a process between the author and the translator, between the text that was due to be translated and the translation, the translated text. And then suddenly I realized there was a third point that was inspiring both the ‘original’ text and the translation, though for me they’re both translations. I think the Spirit reinvents the text in a translation. So there’s a source, and you actually form a triangle. It’s like crossing a river, but the river has a source. This was a great moment for me in translation, because it changed the way I translated. The triangle is the letter A.

The other way to move away from the line, which is what we need to do, is to draw another line through it, to cross it out. This is a cross, which implies suffering, but it’s also a plus sign. ‘You must lose your life in order to find it.’

And the third way to move away from the line is actually to turn the line, which is an ego – ‘I’ in English is a line – into a number. 1 is also a line. But instead of counting up, which the Roman alphabet does, ending with the letter Z, which is 2, you count down, which the Greek alphabet does, ending with omega, O.

These are the three ways to move away from the line. And when you do that, you spell Alpha and Omega.


This is the text of a talk by Jonathan Dunne given during a one-day event, ‘On the Borders of Writing and Translating’, at the University of Warwick on 26 April 2013 and later published in his book The Life of a Translator