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Teoria y Practica del Psicoanalisis

Selfanalytical Reflections on the Analyst as a Translator

by Juan Pablo Jiménez

These notes have the purpose of responding to an invitation to share my experiences as one of the translators of Lehrbuch der psychoanalytischen Therapie (Thomä and Kächele 1985, 1989). I consider myself lucky to have the chance to renew old links with so many friends in the city of Ulm, in the University and in the psychoanalytical group, especially Helmut Thomä and Horst Kächele. Although these notes are my sole responsibility, I believe that they also represent the views of my wife who, together with me, translated the two volumes of the Lehrbuch.
How we became 'professional' translators

For five years, I worked as a therapist, lecturer and researcher at the Department of Psychotherapy of the University of Ulm. I also took an active part as a member of the psychoanalytical group. I have elsewhere reported on my experience as a psychoanalyst working in a foreign country and a foreign language (Jiménez 1993a, 1993b).

It was during our stay in Ulm that my wife and I did the German into Spanish translation of Thomä and Kächele's (1989, 1990) two volumes on the theory of technique. I contributed to the second book with a couple of clinical studies, which were added to the list of examples.

Something curious happened in connection with the first volume. When I arrived in Germany by mid-1985, the first volume of the Lehrbuch was about to be launched. About a year later, there was talk of translating it into Spanish. It was by that time that Horacio Etchegoyen's (1986) book on psycho-analytic technique was published in Argentina. The authors knew practically nothing about their foreign colleague(s) or their respective work. Naturally, I began to read and compare both books. From this comparative reading and the knowledge gained in the course of my psychoanalytic training in Chile, I became convinced that several aspects dealt with in the Lehrbuch might be complemented with discussions centred on a point of view more typical of Latin American psychoanalysis, many of whose most important publications still haven't been translated into English. When I raised this point with Thomä and Kächele, I was most impressed by their reaction. 'Very well. Then, you should translate the book, and if you consider that there are ideas that may be complemented by Latin American contributions, or if you know of relevant discussions of Etchegoyen's views, feel entirely free to add whole paragraphs or pages written by you yourself'.

Many a time I would later regret having accepted that challenge: while I was engaged in the act of translating I repeatedly had to resort to schizoid mechanisms, and systematically set aside my own psychoanalytic convictions to attempt the faithful rendering of what I perceived to be the ideas of the main authors. Initially, I would check back with the authors every single idea that I intended to insert in the text. However, after asking their opinion many times and making sure that either Thomä or Kächele approved of the additions proposed, I decided to take the plunge and carry on on my own. The result of this was that the 450 pages of the book in its original German version became 500 pages in the Spanish version. This incident demonstrates the intellectual generosity of the authors and the trust that they placed in me, which transformed me into a translator, a contributor to the second volume and the co-author of the Spanish edition of the first volume (and also of the Italian version as the Italian translation incorporated my additions). As is obvious, these three roles imply different attitudes towards the text, which forced me to undergo a process of dissociation.

In my role as co-author, I took full liberties in the introduction of new ideas or in developing some ideas which were only hinted at in the original text. Whenever I thought of something that went beyond the ideological framework of the text I stated the dissenting theoretical stance in footnotes which I initialled. In my role as a translator, however, I tried to adhere faithfully to the text because I was afraid of inadvertently departing from it and from the original ideas, thus betraying the trust (and jeopardizing the freedom) that the authors had placed in me. So, the job of translating put my narcissism to the test.

At the beginning it was particularly difficult to place my own intellectual capabilities at the service of somebody else's ideas. Having said this, I was fully aware that I was being influenced by the ideas of the book. As the scholastic saying goes, 'Credo ut intelligam', at the heart of all understanding there is an act of love and trust. In psychoanalytical terms, we could say that the comprehension of a text is based on a process of identification with the author. In fact, after an initial period of distance and a feeling of alienation, I gradually became more and more identified with the ideas of the book, although they differed considerably from what I had learned during my psychoanalytic training (which, in turn, generated in me feelings of betrayal towards my trainers). In many passages, the tension arising from the difference in ideas between the authors and my teachers exerted an unpleasant internal pressure on me. With hindsight, however, I feel grateful now for having had the chance to undergo this experience: it was highly educational to immerse myself in the pluralism of psychoanalytic theory. During my stay at Ulm, I definitively renounced the fantasy of a unique and monolithic psychoanalytic thought and learned to make the most of the experience of provisional certitude. When I got the invitation to take part in this booklet, I thought that it would be appropriate to back up my ideas with a systematic survey of the theory of translation. However, on re-reading George Steiner's After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation (1976), I decided to put this off. I realized that my current qualifications were unequal to the task of engaging in a critical discussion with so many researchers who, from such wide-ranging perspectives as linguistics, philology or philosophy of language have contributed to the important corpus of the theory of translation. This is the reason for restricting myself to some observations arising from our experience. Also, it seems that the practical task of translating is very much related to an idiosyncratic knack. After having completed the translation of the first volume, and when we were discussing the terms to begin work on the second volume, we visited the headquarters of Herder in Barcelona. There we had the chance to talk to Herder's manager, Mr. W. Kappenberger and Mr. Jordi Bertran who had edited our work. We were pleasantly surprised when we were congratulated on our work and were told that in matters of translation it was not enough to be a linguist or a trained translator, but it was necessary to have that undefinable 'gift' that made a good translation stand out as a unique piece of craftsmanship. They added that if we doubted their words, they could show us stacks and stacks of rejected translations gathering dust in their store-rooms. I would hasten to add that translating Thomä and Kächele was no easy task. On the contrary: while we were doing the translation, we became aware not only of our limitations in our command German, but also of our shortcomings in the smooth handling of our mother tongue. Whenever the post brought us the proofs sent from Barcelona, we would anxiously open the parcel to check the number of red marks on the Bond paper, which were the graphic reflection of the Spanish editors' objections to our grammar, spelling or turns of phrase. In later postal deliveries anxiety decreased, as did the number of corrections. There were two difficulties that we had to sort out while we were doing the translation. On the practical side, we had to get hold of books on Spanish grammar and handbooks on writing. But what is more interesting is that we also became aware that most of our editors' objections had to do with Latin American usage, which did not coincide with the idea of what the editor considered to be the cultured variety of Spanish. This was particularly true of the second volume, which contains the textual transcripts of psychoanalysis sessions, in many of which the Hochdeutsch rendering contained traces of the dialect spoken in the south of Germany.

Spanish is currently spoken by approximately 300 million people. Because of this fact alone, regional linguistic variation is inevitable and becomes particularly manifest in the colloquial language typical of a therapy session. At times we had to sacrifice a descriptive idiom that would perhaps only be understood by a Chilean reader and use instead, strange as it may seem, idiomatic expressions shared by all the varieties of Spanish. In order to do this, we got help from several handbooks of accepted idiomatic expressions, which we bought in one of our trips to Spain.

My wife and I formed a well-adjusted team. Since she learned German as a child, her knowledge of the language is far better than mine. However, this was offset by my better grammatical and writing skills, and by my specialized knowledge of psychoanalysis. The translation process itself, which spanned over a period of three years at the approximate rate of three hours' work per day by both my wife and I also had some unsuspected side effects on our relationship as a married couple. This was the first successful joint professional task that we undertook. Previous attempts (in connection with a project that my wife had to submit prior to qualifying as an architect, and which involved the planning and design of a child psychiatric clinic) had ended up in bitter arguments. This time, on the contrary, the frequency with which we woke each other up at night to share a particularly happy Spanish rendering of a translation problem, revealed to us an extraordinary linguistic dimension of our love: the translation of the two volumes of the Lehrbuch allowed us to sublimate the much discussed wish to have a fourth child.

I shall now try to give a more systematic account of some ideas that resulted from this dual experience of working as a psychoanalyst and a translator.
Translation and Interpretation

Because of my experience I consider myself qualified to compare the activity of interpretation as 'translation of the unconscious with the patient in a session' with the activity of 'translation of texts'. Obviously, in my case, the 'translation of the unconscious' involved a dual task. Not only was it interpretation, but it also meant translating the unconscious into German. On the evidence of this double experience, I feel in a position to make my central point: there are good arguments to question the degree of similarity between translation and interpretation, which has been the assumption underlying many discussions on the relationship between psychoanalysis and language. The idea that we, psychoanalysts, work with language is just as widespread as the idea that we are translators of the unconscious. There is no doubt that the hermeneutic activity is part of our task, but to reduce it to a mere analogy with the translation of written texts seems to me highly questionable. I must admit that this conception was also deeply rooted in me, and that I was much surprised when I realized that the difficulties that I actually met with were much fever than I expected when I first began to psychoanalyze, at a time when my German was clearly unsatisfactory. In this initial period, many of my colleagues were surprised to hear that I was treating patients and there were allusions to a lack of ethic, which echoed objections that I had formulated myself. Axel Hoffer, in his article 'Can there be translation without interpretation?' (1989, p. 207), states that translation and interpretation are similar creative processes and adds that 'consequently, the task of the person who translates from one language to another is unexpectedly similar to that of the interpreting psychoanalyst who helps the analysand translate his or her communications from the language of the unconscious into that of the conscious.' However, there are other authors who point to the differences between both processes. For example, Mahoney (1980, p. 471) says that 'in spite of the fact that Freud from time to time identified translation with interpretation and even seemed to use both as synonyms for transformation, one might insist upon some distinction. For instance, within the framework of personality development, interpretation rather than translation would aptly pertain to the establishing of meanings and connections which never existed or could exist given the developmental immaturity of a certain child'.

In my opinion, without denying the similarities between both activities, the main difference between the translation of written texts and the act of psychoanalyzing lies in the fact that the latter takes place within the context of a helping relationship. The person who resorts to psychoanalysis does so in the hope of finding some relief to symptoms or states of psychic pain and suffering. Even though the patient's (or the analyst's) resistance can efficiently play against the enlightening activity that generates insight, it is clear that when the motivation to communicate finally gives way to the wish for non-communication, the process stagnates or just stops. I agree with Amati et al. (1990 p. 572) who, quoting Martinet (1969), say that 'in order to understand multilingualism, we must analyze not only the purely linguistic facts, but also the psychological facts'. It is the contextual elements that most differentiate the act of text translating from that of psychoanalyzing. A text does not suffer and does not want to be healed; it does not have the slightest interest in being understood; it neither wishes to conceal something nor, what is fundamental, does it complain of being misunderstood. My experience in this connection is clear: many a time patients hinted that they believed that I had not understood the literal sense of what they had said or, conversely, said that they did not understand what I told them; many a time I myself had to ask for clarification of their intended meaning. I remember some stirring group therapy sessions when, in the heat of shared emotion, most of the members of the group switched from German into dialect when they talked amongst themselves. Even before I could draw their attention to 'interpreter' and would translate the preceding discussion into German. Thus, the balance of communication was preserved as the group made an effort to keep me informed. Obviously, I understood and interpreted such efforts in the light of transference.

The activity of translation of texts calls for an entirely different state of mind from that of evenly suspended attention. Fidelity to the text demands a highly conscious and differentiated attitude from the translator which, at times, comes close to being servile. The mental activities typical of the secondary process should clearly outweigh those of the primary process. The unconscious creative activity of the translator, although present, moves within a much more restricted frame. Contrary to the 'traduttore, traditore' tradition, a skilled translator is guided by the same maxim that underpinned the work of the new translators of Freud into French: 'une fidélité rigoureuse impose le double devoir d'integralité et d'exactitude. Nos imperatifs sont constraignants: le texte, tout le texte, rien que le texte.' (Bourguignon et al. 1989, p. 14). The text, the whole text and nothing but the text. I would put it like this: when we psychoanalyze, we naturally pay attention not only to the sense of what the patient is saying or we assume the patient is saying, but also, and fundamentally so, to what we might call the truth of the unconscious. There are many times when we believe to have a clear understanding of the patient's unconscious desire at a given moment. However, we may think that such desire is a defence against an underlying and perhaps more genuine desire. We may therefore find ourselves momentarily in disagreement with the patient as to which is the patient's true desire. Thus, in the analytic situation the analyst is, within certain margins, free to judge for him/herself. Such freedom does not exist in the translation of a text. In this activity, the intellectual submission of the translator to the author is at times total: one can well speak of being a slave to the text. I have already explained why I allowed myself to be guided by such a strict rule: I was afraid that a more free translation might provide a loophole to verbalize my own tendency to compromise, which tempted me to tone down some ideas that I felt to be excessively contrary to the official psychoanalytic dogma. I was often perturbed by the idea that in order to translate well, I should have a better understanding of the author's imagination and logic. I had the feeling that if I could do this, I would be able to capture the thread of their arguments and from such understanding, choose the most suitable Spanish words and syntax. It was not easy. There were many times when I suffered confinement anxiety and when, in my inner self, I rebelled against the authors.

Instead, with the patient on the couch, the situation was entirely different. It was not unusual, particularly at the beginning and with certain patients, that for long minutes I would understand practically nothing of what they were saying. Naturally, this generated anxiety but, rather than make a conscious effort to understand, my attitude (of faithful adherence to the fundamental rule) was that of not attempting to understand. At such times, it would habitually happen that a vivid memory of countless therapy sessions with schizophrenic patients would come to mind. In these sessions, although the patient and I shared the formal aspects of the same language, effective communication at a verbal level was minimal. The memory of such experiences with psychotic patients reassured me and, before long, I was able to articulate an interpretation, which was generally broad and related to general contents or to the form of the emotional communication in progress. Although at the time, if an imaginary supervisor had asked me on what material grounds I based my interpretations I would have been unable to answer, much to my surprise, the patients habitually responded in such a way that not only did I understand them better, but also felt that there was some positive feedback on my previous intervention. What is more, when the patients alluded to one of my previous interventions and reformulated it, as a rule, I could not have put it better myself. It is obvious that this kind of communication from 'unconscious to unconscious' is quite foreign to the activity of translating texts.


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Bourguignon A, Cotet P, Laplanche J, Robert F (1989) Traduire Freud. Paris: Presse Universitaire de France

Etchegoyen H (1986) Los fundamentos de la técnica psicoanalítica. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu Editores

Hoffer A (1989) Can there be translation without interpretation? 'In other words...'. Int Rev Psychoanal 16: 207-212

Jiménez J P (1993a) A fundamental dilemma of psycho-analytic technique: reflections on the analysis of a perverse paranoid patient. Int J Psychoanal 74: 487-504

Jiménez J P (1993b) Between the confusion of tongues and the gift of tongues. Notes on the relationship between languages and psychoanalysis. Presented in the panel "Multilingualism, Languages, Memory and Repression". 38th IPA Congress, Amsterdam

Mahony P (1980) Towards the understanding of translation in psychoanalysis. JAPA 28: 461-475

Martinet A (1969) Le linguistique. Guide Alphabétique. Paris: Ed. Denoël Steiner G (1976) After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation. London Oxford New York: Oxford University Press

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Thomä H, Kächele H (1990) Teoría y pr‡ctica del psicoan‡lisis. 2: Estudios clínicos. Barcelona: Herder