I know a biology professor who draws a chemical structure in front of his class and asks what it is. The students are always familiar with that one, and immediately tell him it’s DNA. “No!” he thunders—well, I imagine he thunders—“It’s chalk on blackboard!” thus producing a new cover of the Buddhist number about the finger and the moon, though as far as I know Ralph hasn’t cut off anybody’s finger yet. There is a philological version of this riff.
Encountering some nice modern translation of an old book or, more likely, a few well-chosen paragraphs from a translation, it is very easy to think you are encountering the word of Dante or Sophocles instead of a thoroughly synthetic surrogate for the postulated original. I recently encountered a photo of a crumbling Babylonian tablet of an episode from the Gilgamesh epic along with a transliteration of its contents (Introduction to Gilgamesh, A Reader, edited by John Meier). What we read as “Why, Enkidu, do you curse the love priestess, the woman?” was vocalized, leaving out the diacritical marks and brackets for conjectures, as “am-me-ni en-ki-du ha-rim-ti sam-hat ta-na-an-za-ar.” Except the tablet is in pretty bad shape, in several pieces in fact, and the scribe’s handwriting, though rather better than mine, is not perfect. And the text is in Akkadian, a Semitic language, but the epic was originally in Sumerian so a literate Mesopotamian would actually have read the characters for Enkidu as something like Heabani. (Apparently, it’s just a convention to call the hero by his Sumerian name Gilgamesh [Bilgamesh?] since the Akkadian is something like Izdubar and everyone knew him as Nancy.) There are other difficulties also. For example, George Smith, who originally translated the passage back in the 1870s, didn’t realize that Samhat means sacred prostitute. He thought it was a proper name for a lady called “Delightful.” It goes on.
I don’t mean to belabor the point, both because it is preposterous for me to talk about the finer points of Assyriology at all granted my well-known imbecility with languages but also because you don’t have to go back to the Dawn of History to find examples of the illusion of transparency. Anyhow, my point is not so much a matter of instances as generalities. Everything we read from other languages, indeed most of what we read in our own language, is highly mediated. Like baby sea gulls we never feed on an actual herring, though in the human case, mommy chews our food for us our whole life long. Intellectually speaking, we subsist on pasteurized, homogenized, and bowdlerized texts, a processed cheese product but one without nutrition information on the label. That’s why I like very literal translations and even more bilingual editions of books. You don’t learn how to make conversation in Assyrian, but at least you preserve some sense of the distance between yourself and the past and the sheer difficulty of understanding.