(Making) Senses of Walden


A recent reading of Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden brings back to me all those delightful yet painstaking days of translating Thoreau. But after the initial nostalgia phases out, what is left in front of me is nothing but an interpretation that I find unfortunately incompatible with mine. As a translator, I have to go through the words one by one and make perfect sense of them, and often in a deeper level than they literally say. And these small pieces of making senses ultimately add up to what Schleiermacher calls the “inner trajectory”. Or should I say, using Gadamer’s terminology, the process of translating a text fuses my own horizon[1] with the horizon of Walden. It is on this base I claim, for I do, and sincerely, that I understand this book.

But I say incompatible, does it mean that I am having an interpretation of Walden as well? Indeed, even if I am proud to believe that I have attained this “inner trajectory”, even if I assume it is the authorial intention faithfully recovered from the text, why should it be something more coherent than what Cavell can make out of the same text, why should it be privileged?

Reading can be two different things. It can be comprehension-oriented, trying hard to find out what the author means—what he is trying to say even if he does not say— because we, as Cavell famously remarks, do not often mean what we say, and Thoreau is a prime example of this. Or it can be performance-oriented: what do I think, what can I say of this text? Although both will inevitably make sense of the text to various extent, there is a huge difference in the degrees by which the reader treat the authorial intention. I am not talking about intentionality as the final evaluation of interpretations, nor am I talking about how much intentionality is reproduced, or respected in a particular interpretation, but rather, how do we orient ourselves in the act of reading, while meaning is still in the process of being generated and thus, indeterminate.

For someone like Cavell, this intentionality is still acknowledged[2]. Yet obviously (for anyone familiar with Cavell), it is not this very intentionality he is transcribing or even addressing. It serves as a mere departure point, from which Cavell will produce his own writing. The task of those seminars from which the book originates is not to tell people what Thoreau means, for they can just read the book and find out by themselves, but to tell, what does he (Cavell) make of Walden. It is the “senses of Walden”, not “making senses of Walden”.

Translating is very different. In translating the performative options are limited. And when I perform, I feel guilty unless I am absolutely certain. This, of course, does not apply to all kinds of translations. The difficulty of any particular translation can be simply determined by this: try to feed the text to a machine (a translation software) and see how much you can gather from the result—how readable is the result? For a case like Thoreau, I think it would be less than five percent.

Translating a text such as Walden is totally a sacrifice. Come to think of it, I have problem understanding why I did it. It would be infinitely better if I had done something similar to what Cavell did, even if as a result, I can claim I understand the book better. Interestingly, when Thoreau claims that we should read those “heroic” or ancient books, he does not mean that we should try to understand them—we may not understand the nature of a certain light beam that is shed upon us, but it is still a glory to comprehend the consequences of being illuminated by this beam of light.

thoreau walden

These photos were taken in a trip to MT where Concord is found densely populated (cars bustling like ants) and Walden turned into a public bathhouse.

[1] Horizon is defined here as "the totality of all that can be realized or thought about by a person at a given time in history and in a particular culture."

[2] As a strong performative reader, I have to say Cavell was already being generous to Thoreau, for he did ask many times “why does the author say this or that”.


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