More Thoughts on “The Gay Science”

In section 83 Nietzsche takes up the theme of “translations,” particularly translations of ancient texts. Intriguingly, he believes that the translator sometimes has more in common with the poet than the historian. The translator is more concerned with making the document she translates intelligible in the categories and conventions of her culture than with reproducing an isomorphic, historically precise rendering of that document. As Nietzsche puts it, “They seem to ask us: ‘Should we not make new for ourselves what is old and find ourselves in it? Should we not have the right to breathe our own soul into this dead body?’” He points to French translations of documents from Roman antiquity and Roman translations of documents from Greek antiquity as examples.

It is not entirely clear to me whether Nietzsche looks upon this approach to translation favorably or unfavorably, but either way, I found his musings provocative. To what extent when one translates an ancient text–particularly a sacred text–should one seek to accurately capture the historical forms in which the text’s message is couched? To what extent should one simply try to distill the essence of the text, its message or core, in a way intelligible to a reader of a very different culture and set of assumptions than the original author? This conundrum reminds me of Doctrine and Covenants 1:24, which explains that revelation is given “unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” Is accurate history integral to a sacred text that presents itself to us as an ancient record, or is it a decidedly secondary consideration? Is translation concerned as much with what the ancient author would say to us if he or she were present as with what he or she in fact said at some point in the distant past, shrouded in the mists of time? Does the translator have more in common with the poet or the seer than the scholar?

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