In an essay from 1959, the British art critic John Berger imagined five different ways of looking at a tree: as a philosopher, an engineer, a poet, a lover, and a painter. The engineer measures and counts; the lover luxuriates; the philosopher extrapolates. The painter studies the sheer presence of color and the angle of the boughs—“like a fitter,” Berger clarifies, “not like a mathematician.” The point is that each orientation follows different movements of the perceiving mind, so that seeing is understood as an activity, with each “way of looking” marking a unique relationship to the world.
Might we imagine five different ways of reading a book? You could read it as a fact-checker, or for the pleasure of the plot, or as a harried reviewer, or as a scholar with a theory to prove and tenure at stake. Among all the potentially infinite ways there are to read, however, the act of what Damion Searls calls “reading like a translator” stands out. According to the prolific and celebrated translator, it is this unique mode of reading that sets translation apart from other literary endeavors, and holds the key to a more philosophically accurate understanding of its essence.
Translation is an act and a desire before it is an outcome. To translate a poem or essay or novel is to get to know that text—as well as the language itself—in a peculiarly intense and intimate way. It is to inhabit and probe a series of words with a particular intent, part of which is to discover the author’s own.
Translation makes reading not just active but interactive. This is translation’s promise, and its secret allure: it moves the reader from being to knowing to doing, scrambling the boundaries along the way. And yet, it is this very experience—the disruption of literary perception and action—that remains an almost willful blind spot of translation theorists, otherwise obsessed with shoulds and shouldn’ts.
That is why Searls’s concept of “reading like a translator” is so welcome. In a number of recent essays and talks, including an extended lecture as part of Yale’s Translation Initiative, Searls—best known for his NYRB Classics editions of German, French, and Dutch modernism—has been quietly developing his own philosophical account, with its own correctives and interventions. Chief among these is his attempt to switch our focus from writing (the production of a translated text) to reading (the uptake of an original text), and make our sense of the latter more alive.
Writing as a translator—at least, according to Searls—is not that different from simply writing: you pick the best words for your purpose. It is when you read as a translator that a shift occurs.
“Reading like a translator … means reading with attention to the medium,” Searls wrote in a short essay on the publication of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries. “How does this specific text take up, and push against, the assumptions inherent in the original language? You don’t have to be translating to read like a translator—a monolingual close reader can also do this—but unless you have another language to compare and contrast against, a language’s built-in assumptions are likely to remain invisible to you.”
Searls is not anti-philosophical. Rather—as with Husserl, Heidegger, and others in the existential tradition—he is looking to bring philosophy back in line with lived experience. One can speak of the theory or practice of any purposeful activity: rock climbing, say, or aviation or weaving. But then there is a third thing: the question of how being a rock climber or pilot or weaver changes your relationship to rocks or air or cloth. And how that particularly intense relationship reveals a more general truth about our place in the world.
What, then, would a phenomenal theory of translation—the technical term for what Searls is calling for—look like? When George Steiner said that an intellectual is anyone who reads with a pen in their hand, he was getting at something similar. To work as a translator is to encounter a text with an active desire in mind, a desire that both constitutes and modifies the way that text is experienced.
The so-called theory of translation, as a series of texts and debates, runs as a pale if occasionally contentious shadow alongside the actual work of translators. From the fourth-century dispute between Saints Jerome and Augustine through this year’s Twitter kerfuffle surrounding Amanda Gorman’s Dutch interpreter, most discussions have gravitated toward a set of best practices: dos and don’ts for translators. How “free” or “pious” should a translation be? How “difficult” or “self-effacing”? Who is allowed to translate whom? What is off-limits—and what is fair game?
Beyond the prohibitive or prescriptive impulse, there have also been the metaphysicians of translation—from Friedrich Schleiermacher to Walter Benjamin, from Jorge Luis Borges to Gayatri Spivak. But even here, most translation theory has focused on normative claims, whether couched in aesthetic, religious, or quasi-religious terms, and almost all schools of thought have built on a set of dichotomies: subject and object, source and target language, translator and text, world and representation.
For Searls, this conceptual dualism is a philosophical grammar that misrepresents, or at least distorts, the translator’s work as it is actually experienced. (Well into the middle of his career, Searls has translated close to 30 books.) This frustration is not quite the same thing as Mark Polizzotti’s “antitheory.” Polizzotti distrusts all theorizing, almost thought itself, in favor of a “common-sense approach” to translation, with “both feet planted on the side of praxis.”1 Searls does not want to abandon theory, but rather to account—and correct—for its remoteness.
A key term for phenomenologists is intentionality. To perceive an object is not to receive a static imprint on my brain. It is to relate to the object in an embodied, reciprocal give-and-take, a dance conditioned by my own sensorimotor possibilities and a shared physical environment.
A similar intuition runs through Searls’s philosophical reappraisal, which (quite refreshingly) draws on theories not of language but of perception. As part of his Yale talk, Searls argued for an understanding of reading that was perceptual through and through.
This is not only because reading must occur through one of the senses (whether looking at ink on a page, pixels on a screen, or listening to an audiobook); nor is it because a good book is often said to change the way we see the world. More fundamentally, it is because our cognitive model for reading inevitably rests on our model for how we register anything at all. Tracing the subject-object fallacy to its source, Searls calls on two thinkers more usually thought of in relation to vision and visual experience than literary and linguistic meaning: the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the American experimental psychologist James J. Gibson.
Both Merleau-Ponty and Gibson wanted to break the dualistic, mind-body model of human perception that has been dominant since at least Descartes. Instead of a sharp division between an external world “out there” and one’s cognitive representations “in here,” they spoke of an embodied animal moving and working within a responsive setting. The key concept for Merleau-Ponty was sens (sense), with its layered meanings—layers Searls enumerates and draws out. In French, sens refers not only to a perceptual organ, a mode of judgment, or a semantic impression; it also denotes a direction (a one-way street, for example, is said to be à sens unique). This last meaning was crucial for Merleau-Ponty, for he saw it as a reminder that perception was less like a point than a vector—always directed, moving in a direction—which has been a notoriously difficult idea for the analytic tradition to absorb.2
Working an ocean away from the byzantine rivalries of French philosophy, James J. Gibson taught psychology at Smith before entering the US Army, where he studied the vision of fighter pilots during WWII. The theory Gibson developed has become known as the “ecological theory of perception” or the “ecological approach.” Like Merleau-Ponty, Gibson viewed perception as a far more active process than is usually understood, always intertwined with our intentions, desires, and abilities, including our ability to get better at it. (His wife, Eleanor Gibson, was one of the forerunners of the field of perceptual learning.) Rather than sens, Gibson spoke of “affordances,” or what an environment affords the perceiving animal—those cues of particular relevance to a given task, whether for benefit or harm. Instead of receiving a static picture, the animal seeks information within what he called “an optic array,” moving in and out of sensorimotor loops.
For Gibson, as for Merleau-Ponty, perception is a process. To perceive is to interact with an environment through time.
Replace “perceive” with “read” and you have a fresh template for a theory of literature. A translator does not simply perform an abstract operation. Instead, they move around and inside a text, attending to its different parts, slowly gaining a working familiarity with the text’s own orientation to a surrounding literary tradition and linguistic community.
Thinking back to those thorny problems of style that translators love to share, Searls suggests that what he was in fact doing was working to discover the particular affordances an author had made use of in their own language. “The process and art of translation isn’t primarily about words,” he has written. “It’s about doing in your language, as a whole, what the original writer is doing in his or her language as a whole—and sometimes about reconsidering, or reimagining, what that language is.”3
A work of literature is not only a matrix of significations; it is also a trace of worldly orientations and relationships that can be sensed and brought out.
The strength but also the weakness of the phenomenological method has always been its subjectivity. Its propositions have no truth test other than our own individual experience. For me, an occasional translator, Searls’s ideas check out. When I feel the desire to translate a text (most often a poem), it is because I want to enter the kind of immersive, reciprocal relationship Searls describes.
Last spring, for example, during the first lockdowns of the pandemic, I returned to rough translations I had made of the mid-20th-century Spanish poet José Hierro. The allure was partly environmental (and possibly escapist): Hierro’s poems often take place along the Spanish coast, with its palm trees, blinding sunlight, and warm ocean water. Beneath the noonday heat, however, there was also the melancholy of a man who had been released from prison to a postwar country he no longer recognized. The sadness was often explicitly referred to, but it was also embedded in the language itself, and in Hierro’s longing for rhythmic simplicity. The refrain of “Olas” (“Waves”), a poem I kept returning to, is deceptively straightforward: “Esta alegría que ahora siento / yo sólo sé lo que me cuesta” (This joy I feel now / only I know what it costs me). In addition to the sonorance of the couplet, with its alternation of o’s and a’s, and its chiasmatic structure, Hierro was also putting a common expression of vernacular Spanish (“me cuesta”) to unusual use, at once banal and spiritual. “Me cuesta decir” would translate as “it’s hard to say.” But here it is the poet’s alegría, his joy, that is costing the poet, both a debt and a burden.
Most translation theory speaks of shoulds and shouldn’ts. Should I translate for sound or for sense? Should I emphasize the poem’s “foreignness” or produce something “seamless”? Whatever the criteria, though, this wasn’t what brought me to the work in the first place. I came to “Olas” because I was seeking the kind of literary experience only translation affords—and out of which I might hope to better sense what that horizon criteria might be. In Hierro’s case, I decided, it meant taking a self-consciously simplified Spanish—a castellano belonging to a war survivor and former prisoner for whom nature’s simple pleasures were both reassuring and shameful—and imagining what a similar relationship to English might look and sound like during a spring of COVID-19 lockdowns.
Commuting back and forth between Hierro’s original and my English verse, I entered a unique literary state. In one sense, I was simply “doing things with words” (as the philosopher J. L. Austin would say); in another, I was playing a “language game” (as Wittgenstein might put it). But the unique form of my doing and playing was conditioned by my particular purpose—to translate a poem to my satisfaction. And the “resistance” of the original was akin to the feedback of a rock’s face for a climber or a piece of cloth for a weaver. The medium, as an environment, was encouraging certain actions while precluding others, such that my attempts at rendering the poem became a series of give-and-takes—an ongoing experiment.
What does Searls’s new approach mean for the long history of translation theory and practice?
One answer—the professional one—is that it may help to move translation studies away from the schools of structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction, which have bogged it down for decades. In these traditions, language is a structure, not a process. A word is in principle an exchangeable token, a symbol rather than a trace, always dependent on its opposite number, and always carrying ideological baggage.
The phenomenal view of translation understands a text more multidimensionally. A work of literature is not only a matrix of significations; it is also a trace of worldly orientations and relationships that can be sensed and brought out. Searls’s own translations are notable for the variety of situations they traverse: there are lectures (Weber and Nietzsche), letters (Rilke), diaries (Hans Keilson), fictional diaries (Uwe Johnson), prefatory essays (Proust), as well as the expected novels, biographies, and histories.
Each of these forms has inscribed within it a unique mise-en-scène and intention. Sometimes this is literal and spatial (as in a public lecture); more often it is social and imaginative; almost always it makes novel use of language.
An aging sociologist giving an invited lecture to a packed Munich auditorium in the summer of 1917 will call on the German language far differently than an undercover Jew hiding in Delft in 1944, keeping a private journal while having an affair, mixing his native German with Dutchisms. And both of these authors will call on their language differently than a celebrated translator giving an invited talk over Zoom from his living room in 2020.
To read as a translator, it seems to me, is to be returned to a place of linguistic origins, to appreciate the flux of possibility beneath the stillness of words. And to reread Searls’s own work after encountering his theories is to invite a new way of reading still.
Proust famously thought of reading as a way to communicate with another while preserving the sanctity of solitude. As I read Searls’s recent translations, something else—something more—was happening: a dialogue broadened into a conversation, at once worldly and introspective, a pas de deux became a pas de trois. In his finest work, such as when he brings a vibrant directness to philosophical German, the text appears like a newly restored painting, where in the uncanny freshness of the paint you sense the vision not only of the painter but also of the restorer. The result is a delightfully phenomenological and readerly paradox: a translucent palimpsest.
This article was commissioned by Bonnie Chau.
- Quoted in V. Joshua Adams, “Translation without Theory,” Los Angeles Review of Books, October 7, 2018. ↩
- Merleau-Ponty has been a confusing figure for Americans, largely due to his liminal position at both the summit and terminus of French phenomenology. The irony is that, as one of the last phenomenologists, he helped pass the baton to structuralism by recommending Claude Lévi-Strauss for a university position, a favor the arch structuralist repaid by dedicating The Savage Mind to the memory of his friend, even as his book symbolically slayed the father of postwar existentialism with an attack on Jean-Paul Sartre. ↩
- It is fitting for Searls to bring phenomenology to translation. Having spent so long as a translator, he has an abundance of primary experience to scrutinize. What’s more, so many of the authors he has translated (Nietzsche, Proust, Rilke, Gide, Walser) emerged out of the same intellectual climate of late 19th- and early 20th-century Franco-German thought. Searls has also written a popular history of the Rorschach Test, named after Hermann Rorschach, a Swiss psychiatrist and contemporary of not only Freud and Jung but also Heidegger and Jaspers. It is likely thanks to research for that book that Searls came into contact with the American psychological tradition as a whole, and Gibson’s theories in particular. ↩