Translation as Palimpsest

Every piece of writing is inevitably influenced by writings that have come before. As we write, we sub-consciously awaken texts we have previously read, undoubtedly bringing these texts, into the new text we are now writing. Furthermore, the world surrounding us will influence our writing, thus making our writing “a fabric of quotations resulting from a thousand sources of culture”, a palimpsest…

“We know now that a text consists not of a line of words, releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning but a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations resulting from a thousand sources of culture.”

Genette, Palimpsests.

Our words, sentences, ideas, are undoubtedly influenced by what we read, see, and hear in the world around us. The idea that our surroundings don’t influence our writing is practically unthinkable. We ‘borrow’ words, phrases, ideas that have come before us in order to create our palimpsest of writing.

So what happens when we translate a text? Of course, in the first instance, it is undeniable that we create more of a physical palimpsest, a combination of the original text and the new translation. Whilst the act of writing can be considered a creation of palimpsest, the act of translation is even more so as this palimpsest of writing is so physical, so literal. Not only is the translated text a palimpsest of writing and ideas, but it is also a palimpsest of languages. In many translations, there will be echoes of the source culture, and potentially the source language, adding only another layer to the piece. So, a translation is a piece that consists of many layers, the layers that the original author created, followed by the layers that the translator adds, almost forming a palimpsest upon a palimpsest.

Experimenting with these ideas of palimpsest really opens up one’s eyes to just how much our writing is influenced by texts, words, etc that have come before. Taking a source text, reading it, and making notes over the writing of works, words or instances that parts of the text remind us of, even creating drawings over the source text of images the writing brings to mind, shows us just how much writing, and therefore translation is influenced by layers and layers of reading, listening, and experiencing.

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