“Hiccups and Irregularities”: Fidelity, Noise, Translation by Zack Anderson

Johannes’ post on “ecstatic technology” critiques the communication model and its accompanying rhetoric of the gold standard, which relies on the idea of “fidelity to this stable interiority.” I wanted to follow up on Johannes’ post by exploring this concept of fidelity in the context of my earlier posts on crackle and auto-destructive art, all of which are haunted by the specter of noise.

The general concept of fidelity in the sense of “faithfulness” (with all its religious undertones) has been a persistent and pernicious feature of translation discourse going back to Saint Jerome. The earliest English usage of “fidelity” to describe translation listed in the OED dates to 1708, when Alexander Pope warns, “Be very free of your remarks…in regard…to the fidelity of the Translation.”  This specific term (in English) seems to show up only sporadically in the two hundred years after Pope, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, translation theory is saturated with mentions of “fidelity.” I want to suggest that the term fidelity in modern translation discourse has less to do with religious rhetoric (i.e. letter vs. spirit) and might actually be an offshoot of anxieties surrounding the emergence of sound reproduction technologies at the end of the nineteenth century.

Walter Benjamin’s 1923 “The Task of the Translator” is a good example of how the language of sound infiltrates modernist discourse on translation. Harry Zohn’s translation of the text includes nine instances of the word “fidelity.” Benjamin uses the word “Treue,” which can also be applied to sound. In this essay, Benjamin’s orientation toward a communication model of translation (which Johannes addresses in his “Occult Transmissions” post) is curiously fraught. On one hand, Benjamin rejects this model by arguing that in approaching a work of art, “consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful.” But on the same page, he tells us that an “inferior translation” is marked by “the inaccurate transmission of inessential content.” Or, to use another term of great interest to the modernists, an “inferior translation” is associated with noise.

The strangest and most lyrical passage in “The Task of the Translator” deals with another instance of sound: the echo. Echoes are uncanny doubles, divorced from the body that produced them and reproduced by some kind of physical medium. They can also be perceived as threatening when they approach the limit of noise (in the Marabar Caves section of A Passage to India, for example)Benjamin identifies the work of translation as “finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.” The echo is uncanny because it is acousmatic; we can’t quite determine the source, and we hear the grain of our own voice in it.  Alluding to Baudelaire’s “forest of symbols,” Benjamin writes, “Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.” Benjamin’s model of translation is deeply immersed in the language of sound and sound reproduction.

Once we start looking for the vocabulary of sound in the discourse of translation, it quickly becomes clear that the hand-wringing about “fidelity” by so many modern and contemporary theorists really means the fetishization of “hi-fi,” where the signal-to-noise ratio is equalized in such a way to dampen any tones that don’t fit seamlessly in the listener’s culturally-determined aesthetic frame. As a result of this ideological orientation against noise (which after all is a cultural construct), “fidelity” becomes an aesthetic metric for judging translations. Hence, the regularity with which critics like David Orr casually mention “the hiccups and irregularities one expects from a translated work.”

Jonathan Sterne’s book The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction opens up some possibilities for analyzing the rhetoric of fidelity in translation discourse. Sterne argues that the differentiation between original and copy that creates so much anxiety around early sound reproduction technology overlooks the concept of reproducibility as a necessary precondition for that very distinction:

“If its reproduction exists even as a possibility, sound production is oriented toward reproduction from the very moment sound is created at a ‘source.’ […] Therefore, we can no longer argue that copies are debased versions of a more authentic original that exists either outside or prior to the process of reproduction. Both the copy and original are products of the process of reproducibility. The original requires as much artifice as the copy.”

We can extend a similar logic to translation by substituting “translatability” for “reproducibility.”  A text is “translatable” because it is produced and circulated within in a literary system, not as a kind of black box floating in space. “If translation is a mode,” writes Benjamin, “translatability must be an essential feature of certain works.” Or as Antoine Berman puts it in The Experience of the Foreign, every text “is already to several degrees a fabric of translations.” In both cases, the anxiety over fidelity is not really about the reproduced sound or the individual translation, but the fear that the copy will somehow destabilize the network—auditory or textual—that it enters. Sterne writes, “Listening for fidelity was structured by the desire to hear something through the network and the fear that the network would not work.” Occult voices, uncanny echoes, acousmatic noise, “hiccups and irregularities,” and ghosts in the machine all threaten to dissolve the borders of prescribed taste.

The idea of the translator’s invisibility is also part of this reading of fidelity. Sterne argues that the use of fidelity as a marketing strategy for early sound reproduction technology was a rhetorical move intended to erase the medium itself:

“Reasoning based on constructs of mediation or correspondence theories of representation—reasoning that takes for granted a certain kind of original/copy relation—not only results in positing an inevitable loss of being in moving from original to copy, but also, ironically, posits mediation only in the hope that it will later vanish, yielding a perfect or transparent copy.”

This “perfect or transparent copy” is analogous to the rhetoric of “smoothness” that we constantly see in bad translation reviews.  The fetish of smoothness simultaneously works to domesticate the translated text and to erase its very medium of translation, preserving the illusion of the original/copy distinction.  In matching up modern accounts of fidelity in translation to its sonic counterpart, we find that “fidelity” is clearly not a value-neutral, empirically valid term, but rather a boundary marker for a particular set of aesthetic assumptions.  For an analysis of both sound reproduction and translation discourse, this is Sterne’s most salient point: “Fidelity is, thus, confused with aesthetic preference.”







Zack Anderson holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. His book reviews appear in American Microreviews & InterviewsHarvard Review, and Kenyon Review. His poems have recently been published in Fairy Tale ReviewThe EqualizerWhite Stag, and others. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia where he is a PhD student at the University of Georgia. @ZackAanderson

June 30th, 2020|
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