Translation/Transmission: thoughts

The text below is written by Alex Wardrop, a poet-thinker, all round ‘Classics Ma’am’ who goes to the root of all things Ancient, like proper scholars do.

Alex has the honour to be the first to respond to our call for thinking about translation/ transmission – and we welcome others, so please do get in touch if you want to write something!

For now you can enjoy her translation of Plato’s Phaedrus alongside an entangled reflection on sex, words, telephones and time/ space travel.

Mr Watson – Come Here – I want to see you’ – Alexander Graham Bell, 1876

Translation and transmission call across distances of space and time. They make tangible, somehow make present, what – or who – is absent, not right here. They invoke distance, at the same time as shrinking it. There is something intimate (‘Mr Watson – Come Here’, the first recorded come-on), something haunting (‘I want to see you’, a call for a spectre), something that jars. Transmission and translation – with workings-across built into their call (trans) – jar because they are the reminder that one is not one, alone, or, even necessarily right here (or now).

Translation plays with itself. It is a translation (or a transmission, both?) of a Latin word (translatio) that is a translation of a Greek word, meta-phora (carrying-across).We are carried across time and space just invoking the word. Translation. A hand reaching out, reaching across, making what was, or is, there and then always right now (maintenant!). Hope and a question blur.

Transmission is the more palpable reminder of this call for contact across distances. Transmission invokes the risk of touch (communicable diseases transmitted by hands or mouths or bodies) and the potential for sharing – transmitting – data across distances. Transmission leaves traces, sticky on the hands. Translation, with its memory of relics being transferred from one place to another, at least tries to tidy up the process. But it’s not like translation is clean. Like I said, it plays with itself.

Both translation and transmission remind me that what I am reading, or writing, or watching, or thinking, or feeling is never quite as clean as I would like, never innocent, always cut (couper) and culpable of loss, of pain, and of pleasure. ‘Mr Watson – Come Here – I want to see you’ expresses the tensions of pain, pleasure, and presence, which I see at play with issues of translation and transmission, even if those words were spoken in my mother tongue (but not my mother’s tongue). They call up certain playful and painful questions which keep on going after the telephone is hung up.

Telephone. Sounds/voices (phōnē) from afar (tēlē). Could there be a better word to embody (and telephones are bodies connecting bodies) the call of transmission and translation?

I know another story about translation and transmission. It is about a text, or rather, it is about text. It is a story that has been transmitted and translated by so many hands that reading it is to always read with other people’s fingers. It transmits across time, in doing so, reshaping the limits, and distances of that time. I include it here because I was asked to write about translation and transmission and this is a story always at the tips of my fingers whenever I think about translation. I transmit to you as a gift. And the funny thing about gifts – and all things given across by outstretched hands – is that you never really know how it will be received. But that’s the point, for me anyway, keeping the reception open. And letting go, a little, of yourself.

It is my translation – a little too playful to be proper – of Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus. It’s a story everyone should read once in a while, perhaps especially those who want to transmit calls for change or critique across times and spaces.

I think it is a text that might answer Alexander’s erotic call. Like, in some elaborate temporal crossed-wires, it was Plato on the end of the telephone, hanging there waiting to be connected. Maybe the response remains waiting for transmission. Or maybe he got bored, and let go of the receiver. And the response is now just a dial tone.

Once upon a time, two friends bumped into each other outside the walls of a city that was full of people talking about politics. It was almost midday and it was hot. The older guy says, ‘Where are you going right now and where’ve you been?’. The younger guy blushes. They choose to go and waste some time together talking about desire, and sex, and love. They sit under a plane tree [translator’s note: in Greek that is called a ‘platanos’]. It’s pretty nice.

The older guy listens as the younger guy talks earnestly and foolishly about eros, about love and sex. He kinda wants to leave, but he stays, enjoying the scenery. He tells the younger guy about the origins of words. Because talk of sex seemed to require talk of texts. They both require a little too much contact…

‘The origins of writing’, the older guy said, ‘are not from around here. But over there. Down in Egypt, in the delta where the Nile splits [translator’s note: deltos means a writing tablet, a way for text to be sent across distances, a way for text to be preserved, it also means cunt]. There was a god-king-bird, one of theirs but, you know, just like ours. He asked one of his cleverest friends if he could invent something to help with the memory of his citizens. This guy was just like our Hermes who sends messages across the world and the heavens, and you carries bodies across to their deaths. As he had already invented games and tricks and numbers he gladly accepted the challenge.

After some time, he returned with his invention to the god-king-bird and said, ‘Look, I’ve got you a present, a remedy for forgetfulness. I give you writing, my friend, god, and king.’ Staring at this writing, the god-king-bird started to frown. ‘This is no gift, no remedy, friend, this is a poison. You, trickster that you are, have tricked me again. Now my citizens will no longer look within themselves to remember but outside. Trickster-poisoner, you are banished from my sight.’ The Father of Text smiled as the god-king-bird threw his little text into the sea.

‘Oh, stop, you are being silly’, the young guy said, ‘you always pick some story from Egypt or some other place, when you want to spin an improper yarn about proper thinking, be sensible, please.’

‘Oh, my dear, let me finish threading my yarn. I never finish quickly, you know.’ The older guy smiled and continued to tell his story.

‘Text was now fatherless and lost at sea, floating – almost drowning – everywhere. Text touched shores near and far and it rolled around everywhere, fatherless, dissonant, unruly.

One day, when the god-king-bird was looking out over all his world, he noticed something. It was text. Everywhere he looked text was there. On all the walls of his palaces, on the doors of his temples, on the streets he never walked down, text had taken over.

He realised he had fallen for the biggest trick. Because once born text could not be unborn. Being thrown in the sea, text became the rain which fertilised the fields, and the air breathed by all the people, text covered everything. For the god-king-bird it truly was an unstoppable poison-disease, spreading across the world, changing form, unruly, persistent. The End.’

The younger guy had dosed off and the ‘End’ shook him awake. The older guy smiled.

‘You see, my dear little sunshine, that’s the problem with words. They go where they want to, and they have no time for fathers. They are a drug that makes young men drowsy in the midday sun and old wise men ramble. And you can’t stop breathing them, even if you wanted to.’

‘But, Socrates’, the young guy said after awhile, ‘ that story’s not true is it?’

Socrates held out his hand to Phaedrus. ‘Let’s go.’

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