Translation: The Problem of Literature and Art

An essay by David Stromberg


In the early throes of composing The Plague—as the Second World War cut him off from his wife in Algeria and exiled him in France—Albert Camus jotted down in his notebook that "the problem of art is a problem of translation." In this way he suggested that literary composition, like translation, involves the transformation of source material into target material. Using the term "translation" in a metaphorical sense presents literature as a way of relating something through an act of transformation. Camus's comment also acknowledges that writers and translators alike take into account a third dimension alongside substance and form: readers. The challenge of literary art, Camus implies, is bound up with the implicit requirements and demands of translation.

The translator's challenge is to create a work that will retain an original's dynamic potential—its emotional, thematic, and linguistic scope—to the fullest extent, while making a new rendering of the work accessible to readers of a different language. The extent to which this is possible is sometimes said to depend on a work's translatability, on its potential for being translated. But another way to put this is to say that it depends on the extent of "translatedness" embedded in the work. A literary work of art may actually have a measure of "translation" that has nothing to do with the language in which it is originally written. Rather, it may have to do with transferring between languages those qualities of a literary work that are beneath or above any language: an essential quality of communication that transcends the form of its expression.

This "translatedness" is no longer an inherent quality of language but rather an attribute of the way it is used—a reflection of how a work addresses its reader. It could be described as the creative work necessary to communicate experience—personal, historical, or imagined—in a way that speaks to someone else's intellect and emotions. A literary work gives words on a page the potential to allow readers to conjure circumstances or states of being that combine reality and imagination within a fictive in-between. This is not to say that literary works are puzzles meant to be solved—though some literary works blur this distinction by introducing puzzles and codes as foils or smokescreens. Rather, literary works point their readers toward a field of significance: an open field with a variety of meanings that can be engaged over time.

Translating Experience

The importance of "translation" in art was part of Camus's thinking while writing The Plague, a novel about a fictional outbreak of disease in the coastal Algerian town of Oran. In the novel, Camus combines his familiarity with the real Oran with his experience of France under Nazi occupation, introducing frames of reference taken from disparate historical circumstances, each of which feeds into those of the novel. This fusion remains within what Camus considers to be the "right relationship" between art and experience—one in which art is "cut out" of experience and not vice versa. Yet the "translation" of personal-historical experience into fiction was a central point of criticism in Roland Barthes's attempt to disparage The Plague's significance.

Barthes claimed the novel taught readers to ignore history and commented that "all of the book's episodes can be translated in terms of the occupation." In defending himself, Camus remarked in a letter to Barthes that "a long extract from The Plague appeared under the occupation, in a collection of resistance texts, and that fact alone would justify the transposition I have made"—the transposition from the history of occupation to the novel, and not the reverse path. Barthes's comment, however, proposed to "translate" the novel in the opposite direction.

Barthes criticized a claim that Camus never made: that a translation can be used to recreate the raw experience from which it originated. This makes about as much sense as using a French translation of Dostoevsky's Demons to reproduce the Russian original. Yet even this comparison is not absolutely rigorous because there is at least one major and obvious difference: Dostoevsky's Demons is a literary work of art whereas France under Nazi occupation is a historical circumstance. Historical circumstances make no claim for their own significance—it is our own sense of social responsibility that gives history potential import through our evaluation and articulation of its impact. But Dostoevsky's Demons, though itself inspired in part by historical events, is an artwork that includes a measure of intrinsic "translatedness" regardless of its language.

While it would be very difficult to back-translate Demons and arrive at the exact word-for-word Russian original, the resulting approximation, regardless of its concrete linguistic form, would still carry a measure of the work's original communicative potential—its "translatedness"—as a work of art. The back-translation of an artwork into another artwork occurs on a different level from the back-translation of an artwork into experience. Unlike raw experience, which cannot be said to have an impulse to relate, artwork has the potential for "translatedness," an indication of the author's intention and his work's ability to relate something. "Translatedness" therefore appears before a text is actually translated into another language—as the manifestation of the impulse to relate.

The Impulse to Relate

The impulse to relate occurs before its expression in any language, and the back and forth between impulse and expression is one of the most basic aspects of any communication. Direct communication can be understood as an oscillation between conveying and receiving such expressions. But some aspects of human experience are difficult to capture directly. They can, however, be expressed indirectly through portrayal—as in a novel or a painting. In a public lecture, painter Mark Rothko, insisting that "self-expression is erroneous in art," used literary terms such as tension, irony, humor, and tragedy to explain that his paintings were an expression of "the human drama" and a "communication about the world to someone else." As such, he embedded a communicative potential in his paintings before they reached an audience, and this communication with the artist is realized indirectly through the work of art.

Literary communication, which, like painting, occurs through an artwork, tends to take place indirectly. Literary texts are more than semantic propositions—they appear as what are called, in phenomenological approaches to literature, aesthetic objects. The literary artist embeds communicative potential in the artwork before it is experienced by a reader. The exchange between artist and audience occurs indirectly through the aesthetic object. Literary scholar Roger D. Sell further points out that, while literary works themselves appear indirectly as forms of what he calls "genuine" communication, which takes into consideration an other's autonomy, they often portray direct communicational breakdown, which tends to have dramatic potential. They communicate what Rothko calls "the human drama." The value of such artistic communication, in addition to an aesthetic object's beauty, is in making the ineffable aspects of experience communicable through indirect means.

Some hermeneutic approaches to translation suggest that translation involves carrying over a discrete interpretation of an artwork's significance. But "translating" an aesthetic object from one language into another is more than a translation of words—it is a translation of art. The literary artwork, which as an aesthetic object is intentionally indirect, spreads out over a field of significance whose borders are purposefully difficult to define. Literary translation should carry over as much as possible of a work's field of significance—linguistically and aesthetically. The target language must approximate the indirect communication experienced in the source language, with all its ambiguities, which also allow different readers to engage with the work and with each other through discussion and debate. In transferring its interpretable field of significance, rather than one specific interpretation, literary translation produces a new aesthetic object that is derivatively bound to its source.

Self, Other, and Beyond

"Translatedness" stems from the perception of sensual phenomena and the drive to portray them in the form of an artwork. It gives the artwork, and its subsequent translation, communicative potential. Camus noted that "bad authors are those who write with reference to an inner context which the reader cannot know." The challenge faced by "good" artists, then, is to create something knowable by an other—to "translate" some limited aspect of their "global experience" into a "work reflecting this experience." The word "know" invokes an experiential knowledge, coming from engagement or observation over time, rather than mere intellectual understanding—as we might say we "know" someone after years of being at their side. We can know something or someone without necessarily ever understanding that thing or person, just as we can come to know mystery without ever understanding mystery.

The "translation" of experience into a literary work of art that can be "known" by others became a criterion for "good" authors—turning "translatedness" into an aesthetic principle. To achieve this, Camus further noted, "you need to be two people when you write"—perhaps the individual who experiences and the author who "translates" that experience into something knowable by an other. Such a "translation" assumes a source and a target—a figurative speaker and interlocutor—and emphasizes the ethical dimension in art, literature, and translation. In this light, "translatedness" can be seen as opening the self to an other—an attempt to occupy and experience a shared, if debatable, field of significance. It measures the overlap between an impulse to relate and an expression's communicative potential.

One might say that Camus embedded this "translatedness" in his original works before they were ever translated into other languages. His characters and premises were made knowable to readers of his original culture and language—"translated" from human experience into literature. "Translatedness" is more than a question of language. It is a question of literature making the most ephemeral aspects of human experience communicable—expressed in such a way that they can be known by someone else. An approach toward this deeper kind of openness, though characteristic of translation, is "the problem of art" as a whole. And while literature brings the self and other into relation, its openness also brings both into relation with mystery—the part of our experience that is beyond anyone's understanding.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. 1993 [1955]. "La Peste, annales d'une épidémie ou roman de la solitude." In Oeuvres complètes, I. Paris: Seuil, pp. 452-456.

Camus, Albert. 1963. Notebooks: 1935 - 1942. Trans. Philip Thody. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

-----------. 1970 [1955]. "Letter to Roland Barthes on The Plague." Selected Essays and Notebooks. Ed. and trans. Philip Thody. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Rothko, Mark. 2006. Writings on Art. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sell, Roger D. 2011. Communicational Criticism: Studies in Literature as Dialogue. Amsterdam: Benjamins.