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Translating Value: Marginal Observations on a Central Question

Geoffrey Hill
Affiliation:
Boston University
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Summary

It took rather longer than I care to admit before I was prepared to concede that Ruskin's ‘intrinsic value’ is itself a term without intrinsic value. The phrase is at best a promissory note, at worst a semantic relic to ward off the evil eye of commodity. One would suspect that I was taken with, and by, the idea of a talismanic key; an idea which I then read into Ruskin's words in order to find there the confirmation that I desired. Eisegesis instead of exegesis. Put somewhat differently, questions of value are inseparable from matters of translation; and translation itself involves more than the matching up of equivalent verbal signs.

It would be less than honest not to acknowledge that there is a personal edge to my academic concern with the nature of the intrinsic. It is not always easy to maintain, on questions that press harshly upon the self, that disinterestedness of observation which many would understand—and justly—to be an essential prerequisite for any description of value, or indeed for any honest attempt to arrive at such a description. Among the requisites for true criticism, according to Hume, are a ‘mind free from all prejudice’, ‘a delicate taste of wit or beauty’, ‘a due attention to the object’; but this admirable prescription, and an honest endeavour to put it into practice, were ineffective against Hume's own prejudicate opinion that Bunyan is inferior to Addison and that any attempt to claim otherwise would be ‘absurd and ridiculous’.

One cannot, however, argue ex hypothesi that such quaint prejudicates have been replaced, two and a half centuries later, by the self-evidently superior practices of what we are to call science de la littérature. Ricks is right to argue that an objectivity which elides ‘personal values’ to ‘personal preferences’ and which, having further equated the false compound with ‘interest’ and ‘prejudice’, proposes its elimination in the best interests of mental hygiene, is itself interested and prejudiced and ‘implacably hostile to literature’.

In saying that questions of value are inseparable from matters of translation, I do not propose to limit that suggestion to the problems of translating from, say, Pascal's French into late seventeenth-century or modern English. Translation, conventionally understood, presents in a sustainedly demanding form matters which require vigilance of all users of language.

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Translating Life
Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics
, pp. 199 - 214
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2000

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