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Jun 12, 2011

Palimpsest

Codex Guelferbytanus B, 026, folio 194 verso
I've had a fascination with this word since I first encountered it twenty years ago in a translation of Umberto Eco's Il nome della rose. As a calligrapher specialized in a few European medieval and Renaissance scripts, I appreciated the link to a history in which resources such as parchment were all too scarce, especially as I had little money at the time and had to do most of my work on paper rather than vellum. I imagined scraping away the heretical pagan scribblings of some earlier scribe to reuse the valuable page for the important task of recording in livid, illuminated knotty-beastie color God's Holy Word... and shuddered.

A recent article in the New York Times reminded me of palimpsest once again. Literary translation isn't my world; working in this area would be too toxic for me, I fear, even if I had the mind for it. My belletristic encounters tend to lead to legal actions, stalking and stressful affairs, and a host of other things best avoided, but I will occasionally indulge in some good reading, and when the text is translated from a language I cannot read, I wonder wistfully about the original. Occasionally, I'll read two translations of a novel transmitted from a third language I do not know: Der Name der Rose / The Name of the Rose was one such case. I was appalled at the apparent omissions in the English translation, and I could not help but try to reconstruct in my mind the original from the evidence of similarities and divergence seen in its translations. There are so many philosophies of translation and fidelity to the original, and all are wrong - or right - depending on the purpose or context. Yet even the most careful rendering of a source text seldom captures the full spirit and purpose of the original; sometimes fidelity to the Mistress of Meaning requires that one betray her words. This is one of the things that fascinates me most about translation, and even with a rather pedestrian commercial text, there are often revealing moments of linguistic intimacy that touch a very satisfying harmonic chord.

Errors in a translation also often reveal the original text to the trained eye. One of the reasons that I refuse to do monolingual revisions of texts in English is that I expend too much effort trying to discern the original meaning. In the case of an English text by a German or Korean author, for example, that meaning is locked away in another person's head, and the palimpsest I am given conceals as much as it reveals.

When we overwrite the original text on the screen, replacing it with our own words that pretend to be original, how often do we really succeed? And is this a good thing? Is the spirit of the original expressed full in the flavor of our words, or is there a bitter afternote which tells the reader that there is more to the story?

Post scriptum: I was informed via Twitter of the term 'palimptext' from one Michael Davidson. Being a strict avoider of the postmodernist bullshit plague, I was previously unaware of this word, which applies very well to the matter presented here. Those who read Italian might enjoy this post.

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