The Art of Translation is Akin to “Dancing on Ropes”

10 October, 2022


Danc­ing on Ropes: Trans­la­tors and the Bal­ance of His­to­ry, by Anna Aslanyan
Pro­file Books 2022
ISBN 9781788162630


Deborah Kapchan


One might think that there is noth­ing left to say about trans­la­tion. A peren­ni­al sub­ject, it is in fact what facil­i­tates cos­mopoli­tanism — an under­stand­ing of the aes­thet­ics, ethics and pol­i­tics of peo­ples and cul­tures unlike our own through the trans­la­tion of their writ­ten and oral works. I have read and taught a major­i­ty of books about trans­la­tion in my grad­u­ate class­es for years — from Wal­ter Ben­jamin to Jacques Der­ri­da, Paul Ricoeur and George Stein­er, to say noth­ing of the impor­tant work of Lawrence Venu­ti. So it was with hes­i­ta­tion that I agreed to review yet anoth­er book on trans­la­tion. What is there yet to say?

Danc­ing on Ropes is pub­lished by Pro­file Books.

As with all works, whether fic­tion or non­fic­tion, it is the sto­ry­telling that changes every­thing. Anna Aslanyan’s book, Danc­ing on Ropes: Trans­la­tors and the Bal­ance of His­to­ry, carves out a unique voice, as she exam­ines trans­la­tion in its social con­texts, par­tic­u­lar­ly the per­for­mance of inter­pre­ta­tion. It is a thor­ough­ly engag­ing and illu­mi­nat­ing read.

Aslanyan begins with an anec­dote about a cru­cial moment in his­to­ry, when Japan was giv­en the ulti­ma­tum to sur­ren­der in WWII. The trans­la­tors of Japan’s response, which employed the verb mokusat­su, “to kill with silence,” need­ed to be cir­cum­spect. And indeed, it was trans­lat­ed var­i­ous­ly in dif­fer­ent quar­ters. The Japan­ese min­is­ter said his inten­tion was to say “no com­ment,” but instead the Amer­i­can press trans­lat­ed it as “to treat with silent con­tempt.” “The fate of Hiroshi­ma was sealed,” says Aslanyan. Trans­la­tion has not only aes­thet­ic but polit­i­cal con­se­quences. This is one of the take-aways of the book: the import of trans­la­tion in history.

His­to­ri­ans are quite right to point out that the tragedy wasn’t caused by trans­la­tion dif­fi­cul­ties alone. Yet debates around the translator’s role, as old as the pro­fes­sion itself, always revolve around the ques­tion of their agency. In our mul­ti­lin­gual world the bal­ance of his­to­ry, unsta­ble as it is at the best of times, hinges on dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions of words. Some trans­la­tors believe them­selves to be a mere con­duit, ide­al­ly an invis­i­ble fil­ter through which mean­ing flows; oth­ers argue that it’s far less straight­for­ward: in the end, they use their own words, accents and inflec­tions, and so they inevitably influ­ence things. Can trans­la­tors take lib­er­ties? Should they? The nature of the job, as we are about to see, means that inter­ven­tions are hard to avoid. (pp. 1–2)

Aslanyan, who grew up in Moscow and lives in Lon­don, has expe­ri­enced this first­hand, as she is not just a lit­er­ary trans­la­tor, but has also been an inter­preter, a job that requires as much fast diplo­ma­cy as it does lin­guis­tic skills. 

Trans­la­tion and the phi­los­o­phy of inter­pre­ta­tion are nev­er far apart. Indeed, Aslanyan reviews some of the main and most inter­est­ing points in her intro­duc­tion: that con­cepts, and not words, are what must be trans­lat­ed; that per­cep­tion may very well be dif­fer­ent in oth­er lan­guages, and thus per­cepts and con­cepts are both hard nuts to crack. (Here, with­out say­ing it explic­it­ly, she invokes a soft­er ver­sion of the Sapir-Whorf the­sis, which states that lan­guage deter­mines per­cep­tion.)  Mul­ti-lin­guals are thus of neces­si­ty mul­ti-per­cep­tu­als, and, one may posit, can rel­a­tivize expe­ri­ence with more finesse. But whether inter­preters smooth over dif­fi­cul­ties or exac­er­bate them depends on the con­text, and Aslanyan gives us sev­er­al rol­lick­ing exam­ples in the pages of her book.

Aslanyan departs from usu­al trea­tis­es on trans­la­tion, by plung­ing into the sto­ries of those who prac­tice the craft, those who “make it intel­li­gi­ble while pre­serv­ing both the let­ter and the spir­it; to get at its mean­ing; to make it work.” Hers is more a prag­mat­ic jour­ney than a philo­soph­i­cal one. She is con­cerned with how to dance on ropes. The metaphor comes from Dryden’s pref­ace to his trans­la­tion of Ovid, where he com­pares the trans­la­tor to a fig­ure with fet­tered legs, try­ing to bal­ance between source and trans­lat­ed text while not falling. Ele­gance is a feat in such an endeav­or, though clear­ly mas­ters can accom­plish it. But the falls are as instruc­tive as the exper­tise, and that is what this book enter­tain­ing­ly demonstrates.

Aslanyan’s sto­ries begin in the Cold War, and par­tic­u­lar­ly with the ripostes, wit­ti­cisms and proverbs used by Richard Nixon and Niki­ta Khrushchev. She recounts a moment when Khrushchev took a Russ­ian proverb out of con­text. Not only did he employ the phrase, “We’ll show you Kuzma’s moth­er” (trans­lat­ed lit­er­al­ly in the US press and so com­plete­ly incom­pre­hen­si­ble ini­tial­ly) but Khrushchev him­self used the say­ing incor­rect­ly, caus­ing a great deal of con­fu­sion on both sides of the fence. (If you want to solve the enig­ma, you’ll have to read the chap­ter.) Aslanyan con­tin­ues to explore how the use and mis­use of proverbs and idioms in the diplo­ma­cy of that era mis­fired, some­times hilar­i­ous­ly, some­times with dire con­se­quences. As Aslanyan says, “In these sto­ries of the world at the edge of the abyss, the act of trans­la­tion itself emerges as a cul­ture clash where infi­nite vari­a­tions of mean­ing are capa­ble of tip­ping the bal­ance of events. We’ll nev­er know if a cat­a­stro­phe would have occurred had any of the above com­mu­ni­ca­tions been trans­lat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly. What’s evi­dent is that the Cold War was fought not just through but also by trans­la­tors” (p. 21). Her research into the his­tor­i­cal role of trans­la­tion and trans­la­tors is metic­u­lous and a joy to read.

Aslanyan also recounts the sto­ries of inter­preters who must trans­late jokes of polit­i­cal fig­ures. Berlus­coni was a jok­er, for exam­ple, but jokes are often hard to trans­late. The bril­liance of Ivan Melkum­jan, his trans­la­tor to Russ­ian, lay in his abil­i­ty to change details of the joke so as not to offend the Rus­sians, while still deliv­er­ing the punch­line. And all this on the spot. Melkum­jan clear­ly under­stood the cul­tur­al codes of both the Ital­ians and the Rus­sians, and he catered to the needs and mores of each. “To trans­late some­one well you have to under­stand not only what they are say­ing but also why. This applies to jokes (which, as we have seen, don’t have to be ren­dered lit­er­al­ly to pro­duce the desired effect) and seri­ous utter­ances in equal mea­sure,” Melkum­jan tells Aslanyan when she inter­views him. “When my client wants to achieve some­thing, I’ll make that my pri­or­i­ty. I’ll do my best to help them get there, using my skills, my deliv­ery style…I know a lot of peo­ple who just want to trans­late every­thing accu­rate­ly and don’t real­ly care about the rest. I’m not like that: I work towards what­ev­er goal the speak­er has in mind. And it appears to pay off” (p. 27). Melkum­jan makes it his job to under­stand the inten­tion behind the sen­tence as well as the joke, and Aslanyan elu­ci­dates his artistry, and that of oth­er inter­preters, with humor and wit.

In the rest of the book, Aslanyan goes back in his­to­ry to tell tales of polit­i­cal emis­saries as well as mis­sion­ar­ies whose fates were sealed, liv­ing or dying accord­ing to their abil­i­ties to trans­late their inten­tions to their cap­tors or to appre­hend and per­form the phys­i­cal ges­tures of the peo­ples of for­eign lands. Here, trans­la­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion are clear­ly meld­ed with ethno­graph­ic skills — obser­va­tion, inter­pre­ta­tion and trans­la­tion of social per­spec­tives not one’s own.

She also demon­strates the pow­er of a sin­gle word to ignite the human imag­i­na­tion and thus to change his­to­ry. “In August 1877, the Ital­ian astronomer Gio­van­ni Vir­ginio Schi­a­par­el­li turned his tele­scope towards Mars,” Aslanyan recounts. And he saw canales. The deci­sion to trans­late this Ital­ian word as canals and not chan­nels imme­di­ate­ly gave rise to spec­u­la­tion about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of life on Mars. Did a civ­i­liza­tion build these canals? Aslanyan fol­lows the impact of this one-word choice, through the social imag­i­na­tion it spawned about life on oth­er planets.

Danc­ing on Ropes is replete with sto­ries about inter­preters and word­smiths in his­to­ry. We learn about John Flo­rio for exam­ple, who, in 1578 pub­lished a gram­mar and phrase book in Eng­lish and Ital­ian, enti­tled Firste Fruites. Flo­rio was then hired by the French Embassy, and became a friend and implic­it defend­er of Gior­dano Bruno, who was nonethe­less soon burned at the stake for his “hereti­cal” (sci­en­tif­ic) ideas. Flo­rio pub­lished a dic­tio­nary in 1598, the cen­tu­ry that saw the pub­li­ca­tion of the first bilin­gual dic­tio­nar­ies. He also became the trans­la­tor of his con­tem­po­rary, Mon­taigne. In The Essayes, Florio’s own style is evi­dent and the Eng­lish trans­la­tion was high­ly appre­ci­at­ed by Shake­speare. How a “sim­ple” trans­la­tor had the pow­er and influ­ence he pos­sessed is one of the lessons of this book.

There are many sto­ries of famous trans­la­tors like Flo­rio — drago­mans, they were called in the Ottoman Empire (from tur­ju­man, “trans­la­tor” in Ara­bic). These tales are like fab­u­lae them­selves, full of adven­ture, intrigue, spy­ing and word play. The drago­mans often soft­ened the words of their patrons, adding polite and even obse­quious phras­es in the trans­la­tion that were often not there in the orig­i­nal. They were called upon to be diplo­mats, as they veered between worlds that they knew but their pro­tec­tors did not. Still, they were rarely appre­ci­at­ed for the artists that they were.

In these pages we learn about the role of trans­la­tion in the tri­al of King George IV against his wife for caus­es of adul­tery, a sto­ry which also high­lights the exi­gen­cies of trans­lat­ing ges­tures and expres­sions. We learn about Doll­man, Mussolini’s inter­preter in WWII, as well as Gross, who sim­ply chose not to trans­late Franco’s words of devo­tion to Hitler, and thus, Aslanyan implies, did a ser­vice to history.

We learn about the scan­dals caused by Burton’s trans­la­tion of the Thou­sand and One Nights. We are apprised of Jorge Luis Borge’s ideas about trans­la­tion as well as his close, almost col­lab­o­ra­tive rela­tion­ship to his trans­la­tor. Aslanyan also brings us back to the patron saint Jerome, who first trans­lat­ed the Bible.

Aslanyan ends where we find our­selves now: in the era of algo­rithms and com­put­er­ized trans­la­tions. Will the machine replace the trans­la­tor in the end? In fact, the evi­dence pre­sent­ed in Aslanyan’s book makes the case that this is impos­si­ble. She con­cludes that “…as long as peo­ple con­tin­ue jok­ing and swear­ing, prais­ing and iro­nis­ing, utter­ing and writ­ing things they mean or not; while human com­mu­ni­ca­tion still involves all of the above and much else, we can safe­ly say, para­phras­ing Twain, that the reports of the translator’s death have been great­ly exaggerated.”

Since there is no way around ambi­gu­i­ty, we still need humans (and not com­put­ers) to dis­cern the mean­ing in its social con­text.

In Danc­ing on Ropes: Trans­la­tors and the Bal­ance of His­to­ry, Aslanyan some­times per­forms dizzy­ing jumps between his­tor­i­cal peri­ods. She her­self dances on the ropes of time, from the Cold War back to ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty, through the Renais­sance and for­ward to mod­ern Argenti­na. In this pletho­ra of care­ful­ly researched sto­ries, she writes with finesse about the impact of trans­la­tion in the longue durée. Danc­ing on Ropes is a valu­able resource for edu­ca­tors and trans­la­tors, and a high­ly enter­tain­ing read for every­one inter­est­ed in the vagaries of history.


Deborah Kapchan is a writer, translator, ethnographer and a professor of Performance Studies at New York University. A Guggenheim fellow, she is the author of Gender on the Market: Moroccan Women and the Revoicing of Tradition (1996), Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Music and Trance in the Global Marketplace (2007), as well as other works on sound, narrative and poetics. She translated and edited a volume entitled Poetic Justice: An Anthology of Moroccan Contemporary Poetry (2020), which was shortlisted for ALTA's National Translation Award for Poetry.   

Cold WardiplomacyHiroshimainterpretinglinguisticsliterary translation


Inline Feedbacks
View all comments