The hermeneutic motion by George Steiner Summary

The hermeneutic motion by George Steiner

A while back we announced that we are working on a holistic approach to learning about hermeneutics together and started by defining hermeneutics. Then, to clarify, we worked on another important debate about the difference between hermeneutics and exegesis. Today, we prepared a somehow summary of the hermeneutic motion by George Steiner, who is a literary critic, essayist, philosopher, novelist, and educator which according to Wikipedia has written extensively about the relationship between language, literature and society, and the impact of the Holocaust.

The Hermeneutic motion is the title of a paper by George Steiner published in The Translation Studies Reader by Lawrence Venuti (2012) and what follows is a direct summary of its most important notations.

The hermeneutic motion by George Steiner | Summary

The hermeneutic motion, the act of elicitation and appropriative transfer of meaning, is fourfold. There is initiative trust, an investment of belief, underwritten by previous experience but epistemologically exposed and psychologically hazardous, in the meaningfulness, in the “seriousness” of the facing or, strictly speaking, adverse text. All understanding, and the demonstrative statement of understanding which is a translation starts with an act of trust. But the trust can never be final. It is betrayed, trivially, by nonsense, by the discovery that “there is nothing there” to elicit and translate. Social incentive, the officious evidence of precedent – “others have managed to translate this bit before you” – keeps one at the task.

After trust comes aggression. The second move of the translator is incursive and extractive. As Heidegger asserts, the “thing there”, “the thing that is because it is there”, only comes into authentic being when it is comprehended, i.e. translated. The postulate that all cognition is aggressive, that every proposition is an inroad on the world, is, of course, Hegelian. Comprehension, as its etymology shows, “ comprehend” not only cognitively but by encirclement and ingestion. In the event of interlingual translation, this maneuver of comprehension is explicitly invasive and exhaustive. Saint Jerome uses his famous image of meaning brought home captive by the translator. The translator invades, extracts, and brings home. The simile is that of the open-cast mine left an empty scar in the landscape. As we shall see, this despoliation is illusory or is a mark of false translation.

The third movement is incorporative, in the strong sense of the word. The import, of meaning and of form, the embodiment, is not made in or into a vacuum. whatever the degree of “naturalization”, the act of importation can potentially dislocate or relocate the whole of the native structure. The Heideggerian “we are what we understand to be” entails that our own being is modified by each occurrence of comprehensive appropriation. No language, no traditional symbolic set or cultural ensemble imports without risk of being transformed. Where the native matrix is disoriented or immature, the importation will not enrich, it will not find a proper locale. It will generate not an integral response but a wash of mimicry.

The fourth stage, the piston-stroke, completes the cycle. The appropriative “rapture” of the translator – the word has in it, of course, the root and meaning of violent transport – leaves the original with a dialectically enigmatic residue. Unquestionably there is a dimension of loss, of breakage – hence, as we have seen, the fear of translation, the taboos on revelatory export which hedge sacred texts, ritual nominations, and formulas in many cultures. But the residue is also, and decisively, positive. The work translated is enhanced. This is so at a number of fairly obvious levels. Being methodical, penetrative, analytic, enumerative, the process of translation, like all modes of focused understanding, will detail, illumine, and generally body forth its object. We are back at the problem of the mirror which not only reflects but also generates light. The original text gains from the orders of diverse relationship and distance established between itself and the translations.

Nevertheless, there is unbalance. The translator has taken too much – he has padded, embroidered, “read into” – or too little – he has skimped, elided, cut out awkward corners. There has been an outflow of energy from the source and an inflow into the receptor altering both and altering the harmonics of the whole system. Genuine translation will, therefore, seek to equalize, though the mediating steps may be lengthy and oblique. Where it falls short of the original, the authentic translation makes the autonomous virtues of the original more precisely visible.

Where it surpasses the original, the real translation infers that the source-text possesses potentialities, elemental reserves as yet unrealized by itself. This is Schleiermacher’s notion of a hermeneutic which “knows better than the author did”.

Only in this way, I think, can we assign substantive meaning to the key notion of “fidelity”. Fidelity is not literalism or any technical device for rendering “spirit”. The translator, the exegetist, the reader is faithful to his text, makes his response responsible, only when he endeavors to restore the balance of forces, of integral presence, which his appropriative comprehension has disrupted. Fidelity is ethical, but also, in the full sense, economic. In this respect, translation can be pictured as a negation of entropy; the order is preserved at both ends of the cycle, source, and receptor.

This view of translation as a hermeneutic of trust (élancement), of penetration, of embodiment, and of restitution, will allow us to overcome the sterile triadic model which has dominated the history and theory of the subject. The perennial distinction between literalism, paraphrase and free imitation, turns out to be wholly contingent. It has no precision or philosophic basis. It overlooks the key fact that a fourfold hermeneia, Aristotle’s term for discourse which signifies because it interprets, is conceptually and practically inherent in even the rudiments of translation.

This was a summary of the hermeneutic motion by George Steiner. In the future we plan to write more on hermeneutics. Will you help us get there faster? I’m looking for your opinions about this summary, please leave a comment and help us improve.

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