by Lawrence Venuti
Diagnosis of a profession
Today anglophone literary translators, if they choose to take the initiative and submit a proposal to publishers, inevitably face multiple rejections. Few translators enjoy the luxury of a steady stream of commissions, so that if they want to translate, they must necessarily develop their own projects and hope to locate a receptive editor. Yet so many factors conspire against them. Since the Second World War, the volume of English-language translations published annually has averaged a tiny fraction of total book output, two to four percent, and the figure is likely to decrease in view of the less-than-sanguine prospects of book publishing in competition against other culture industries, especially those involving electronic media. Behind these factors lies an unfavorable cultural situation. As English achieved global hegemony during the past century, anglophone cultures grew increasingly insular, complacent in the awareness that English was the most translated language worldwide, less interested in foreign cultural traditions and trends (except, perhaps, fashion and food), and much less hospitable to literary translation.
There is also the persistent financial problem. Since 1900, literary translations have not been consistently profitable for publishers in the United Kingdom or the United States. Most translations of fiction, poetry, and other literary genres have incurred a loss within one or two years of publication, even in the case of writers who later entered the modern canon, and relatively few translations have been retained on backlists. Proust, Mann, Svevo, Rilke were all commercial failures when the first English translations of their work were published. Imagine, then, the myriad foreign writers whose works have been translated but quickly faded into oblivion. Robin Healey’s bibliography listing English translations of twentieth-century Italian literature includes roughly 1400 works published between 1929 and 1997. Most of these translations cannot be found anywhere except the British Library and the Library of Congress. The occasional success of a contemporary foreign novelist like Roberto Bolaño or Stieg Larsson is misleading. The current situation has not really changed enough to indicate any across-the-board upsurge in sales of translations or any expansion of the readership for them.
Hence most translators will be fortunate if they are able to translate a handful of literary works during their careers and even more fortunate if the translation projects that they themselves initiate see print. A translator like Ralph Manheim published over one hundred translations, Richard Howard over one hundred and fifty, Joachim Neugroschel and Anthea Bell each over two hundred. Those days are gone, however, and whether they will return seems doubtful, certainly not in the foreseeable future. The fact is that too many translators are vying for too few projects. After publishing fifteen book-length translations over the past thirty years, I can testify that a track record does not matter. It might even work against you, if your work has provoked controversy. I find it just as difficult to publish a translation today as I did when I was starting out.
This state of affairs, however, is not only to be recorded and lamented. It must also be interrogated. What, I want to ask, can a translator learn from rejections? I will present two recent instances from my own experience, although I have chosen to preserve the anonymity of the editors in question. What follows is not a personal attack on these particular editors, but a critique of current editorial methods and their assumptions about translation. My account, therefore, should not be dismissively reduced to sheer sour grapes. What happened to me can and does happen to many other translators. I have decided to go public in an effort to engage issues that urgently need to be discussed by both translators and readers of translations alike.
Tales of rejection
In the spring of 2009 I was translating a book by a contemporary Catalan poet named Ernest Farrés, and as I had done in the past with other projects, I was submitting the poems to magazines. My aim was to create a readership for a foreign writer who was entirely unknown in the anglophone world. I had received a number of acceptances, but as typically happens they were outnumbered by the rejections, which were couched in form letters or the most laconic of handwritten notes and emails.
After an editor with whom I was acquainted had rejected some poems, I questioned the decision. I didn’t expect the rejection to be reconsidered. No, I rather wanted to force the magazine to do what magazines rarely do: to make explicit the standards by which it judged the translations, or if not this particular submission, then translations in general. Editor X was kind enough to reply, explaining that the poems “didn’t make us feel as if the tops of our heads were taken off.” I pressed further: had Editor X ever considered that translations, by their very nature, should be judged differently from original compositions in English, or that the standard might include but should nonetheless differ from a visceral reaction that is evidently rooted in a homegrown sensibility? After all, Emily Dickinson was being quoted at me. Editor X thought my view novel and promised to give it some thought, but the conversation stopped there.
Yet I could have taken it much further. Should an English translation of a twenty-first-century Catalan poet, I would have asked, be judged according to a concept of poetry formulated by a nineteenth-century poet in the United States? Why should we hold a poet who writes in a minor language and whose literature is underrepresented in English to a standard articulated by a poet who, after a shaky initial reception, now occupies an unshakeable position in the canon of American literature? Are the values enshrined in that canon inimical to Catalan and possibly other foreign poetries? Can a poem that took the top off the head of a reclusive, self-absorbed woman in nineteenth-century New England do the same to an anglophone reader today? How appropriate or fair is the application of that metaphor to translations of poems written by a Catalan man who works as a cultural editor for a Barcelona-based newspaper? Or is the problem that my translations seem too foreign, requiring a response that is not visceral but less immediate or spontaneous, more thoughtful, especially since the poems are ekphrastic, all based on paintings by Edward Hopper? Does not the use of this painter offer a basis for understanding what is distinctive and perhaps culturally specific in the foreign poet’s writing by foregrounding his take on an American cultural icon? Or was the magazine pursuing a universality that few foreign poetries can–or, I would add, should–support in translation?
My questions obviously possess a critical edge, designed to provoke debate. Editor X may have been willing to treat them as worthy of consideration, if only I had gotten the opportunity to ask them. The problem, however, was that this editor seemed entirely unable to formulate such questions, let alone provide answers. The kind of speculative thinking from which the questions derive seems never to have entered into the editorial process of the magazine, even though it regularly publishes translations. For me, the most disheartening aspect of the experience was not the rejection. It was rather the knowledge that Editor X has published ten book-length translations, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The translating seems to have done nothing to deepen this editor’s thinking about translation.
Consider another but somewhat different rejection, in this case from an editor who was producing an anthology of essays in which translators discuss their own work. Editor Z described the audience as “the translation workshops that are burgeoning all over the university landscape.” The editor was interested in using an essay I had published in an academic journal which occasionally prints literary translations along with research articles and reviews. My essay introduced my translations from the work of a medieval Italian poet, Jacopone da Todi. The editor’s interest was encouraging: I had written the essay to argue for the value of a theoretical approach, and the editor, I believed, supported my agenda. I wanted to challenge the prevalence of belletristic commentary on translation, the tendency among contemporary translators to make fairly impressionistic remarks on their practice, on its literary and cultural value, on the equivalence they believe to have established between their translations and the foreign texts. To consider the problems raised by translating an archaic poetry such as Jacopone’s for modern anglophone readers, I drew on Ezra Pound’s 1929 essay, “Guido’s Relations,” in which he provided a rationale for his translations of the thirteenth-century Italian poet, Guido Cavalcanti. My discussion was not merely theoretical but methodological: the concepts it formulated were used later in the essay to analyze previous English versions of Jacopone’s poetry and to explain my own rather different translation strategies.
Editor Z, however, wanted me to cut the theoretical section entirely. I was told that it “takes away from the subtlety of the trains of thought developed in the latter portions and encourages students to overlook them, since you’ve already provided an abstract summa.” The mention of “already” is telling: the editor apparently regarded the theory as redundant and so treated it as unnecessary, not just distracting. I could only wonder about this judgment because the essay had gone through the referee process typical of academic journals: it had been scrutinized by three anonymous readers, but none of them had pointed to any redundancy or found that any section undermined or somehow detracted from the argument. Why couldn’t Editor Z reach the same conclusion?
I might have attributed the problem to cursory reading if the editor didn’t also include a revealing comment: “I’m a great fan of theoretical approaches embodied in practice.” This view struck me as questionable: every literary and critical practice embodies theoretical concepts as assumptions that at once enable and constrain the practice. Such concepts make possible a translation, determining what form it will take. Translators routinely assume a concept of good literature in choosing foreign texts for translation, as well as a concept of good writing in making certain verbal choices while excluding others during the translation process. These concepts constitute a theory, even if they remain inchoate, unarticulated, or unconscious. They depend on more fundamental assumptions about the nature of authorship and textuality and their relationship to the world, which in turn rest on even more basic ideas of human subjectivity, of what it is to be human.
If theoretical concepts are always embodied in a practice, Editor Z must have been objecting to my insistence that these concepts, as they related directly to translation, be presented to the reader. The editor seemed to assume a one-to-one correspondence between theory and practice (thus a description of translation strategies would make a theoretical statement redundant), whereas the relations between them are usually uneven, disjunctive, and far from predictable, open to interpretation and revision during the translation process. In translating Jacopone I was inspired by Pound’s caveats, but the result was quite different from his versions of Cavalcanti. A theoretical concept can drive diverse practical applications. The editor’s misunderstanding, I concluded, must have expressed an antipathy towards theory itself along with an uncritical emphasis on practice.When I suggested as much, Editor Z asserted that the planned anthology sought “to go beyond the simplistic theory/craft or theory/belletrism opposition that polarizes much contemporary discourse about translation.” But in wishing to cut the theoretical section of my essay, was not the editor merely repressing the “theory” part of those oppositions while I was attempting to move beyond them by joining a theoretical discussion to a discussion of translation practice? “Craft” and “belletrism” involve theories too, but they are different from mine. Why shouldn’t those competing theories be articulated and examined independently of the practices they make possible? Editor Z did not seem to understand that without the formulation of theoretical concepts commentary about translation remains imprecise and quickly turns impressionistic. I declined to allow the theoretical discussion to be cut, and the debate ended there.The editor was in effect adopting an anti-intellectual attitude towards translation, resisting the sort of theoretical self-consciousness that might allow translators to criticize and to improve their own work as well as to provide an illuminating account of it to their readers. The most disheartening aspect of the experience, once again, was not the rejection, but the knowledge that Editor Z has published more than fifteen book-length translations of fiction and nonfiction.
The rise of belletrism in translation
The experiences I have been describing reflect the continuing dominance of a belletristic approach to translation among literary translators, whether they are affiliated with academic institutions or work independently, whether their writing also includes poetry and fiction or focuses on translation, and whether or not they also write about translation in the form of reviews and commentary. The belletrism stretches back to the early twentieth century: it originated in modernist literary practices, particularly in the insertion of translations or adaptations in original compositions, but also in the polyglossia that characterizes many modernist texts, the use and quotation of foreign languages, whereby the reader is turned into a translator. These practices erased the distinctions that can usually be drawn between first- and second-order creations, permitting a translation or adaptation to be regarded as an original composition.
Pound sketches this view in “Guido’s Relations,” which he concludes by distinguishing between two kinds of translation. One he calls “interpretative”: it functions as a “metrical gloze” that adheres closely to the source text, which is printed across the page from the translation. “The ‘other sort’,” he continues,
I mean in cases where the “translater” is definitely making a new poem, falls simply in the domain of original writing, or if it does not it must be censured according to equal standards, and praised with some sort of just deduction, assessable only in the particular case.
Remarkably, Pound makes no mention of the source text when he describes the sort of translation that is “original writing” or aspires to be such through adaptation. He assigns it an aesthetic autonomy from the source text and judges it not according to a concept of equivalence, but according to the “standards” by which he judges original compositions.
I call this approach belletristic because it emphasizes the aesthetic qualities of the translated text itself. It is also impressionistic in the sense that it is vague or ill-defined. Pound’s essay is filled with intriguing ideas, but it is the statement of a practitioner, not a theoretical formulation, and he does not make explicit exactly what the standards might be. They could be inferred from his practice, it might be argued, although any inference would constitute an interpretation, dependent on and varying with the theoretical assumptions that different readers bring to the interpretive act. Besides, Pound’s translation practices themselves varied widely: his close but abbreviated rendering of “The Seafarer” (1911) differs from the imagistic versions of Chinese poetry he wrote for Cathay (1915) with the help of Ernest Fenollosa’s notes, and both translation projects differ even more from his poem, “Homage to Sextus Propertius” (1919), although all these works are second-order creations that take foreign texts as their source materials. What remains constant in Pound’s translations and adaptations is their modernist experimentalism, regardless of whether they are interpretative or original in his terms. He was relentlessly innovative, deploying various concepts of equivalence and cultivating a stylistic range that encompasses the clarity and precision of Imagism as well as such nonstandard linguistic forms as poetical archaisms and colloquialisms. Belletrism in translation may be impressionistic, but it always carries a literary agenda which can remain implicit, be deliberately concealed, or be presumptuously taken for granted.
In Pound’s wake, translations came to be regarded as literary works in their own right, although his experimentalism was largely abandoned. In 1938 Dudley Fitts published One Hundred Poems from the Palatine Anthology in English Paraphrase with New Directions, announcing in his preface that “my purpose has been to compose, first of all, and as simply as possible an English poem,” but a poem, he indicated, that avoided “poeticisms” and “archaisms.” Modern usage, specifically the current standard dialect of English, became the hallmark of anglophone translation. In his 1958 essay, “The Poetic Nuance,” Fitts was bolder, confidently asserting that “The translation of a poem should be a poem, viable as a poem, and, as a poem, weighable.” His confidence should be taken as a sign that the belletristic approach had become canonical by that point. His essay appeared in Reuben Brower’s pioneering collection, On Translation, published by Harvard University Press in 1959. Here such accomplished translators as Rolfe Humphries, Richmond Lattimore, Jackson Mathews, and Edwin Muir argued for the aesthetic autonomy of the translated text, regardless of whether the translator was a poet or a scholar. Lattimore concluded his essay with the statement that
Among the multiple objects which the translator of Greek poetry must keep simultaneously in mind, the chief one is perhaps this: to make from the Greek poem a poem in English which, while giving a high minimum of the meaning of the Greek, is still a new English poem, which would not be the kind of poem it is if it were not translating the Greek which it translates.
Lattimore displays a scholar’s interest in scrupulously maintaining a semantic correspondence to the source text, but he is insistent that the translation must stand on its own as a poem in the translating language.
Belletrism stops short of examining its own assumptions, which are usually presented as an undefined notion of poetry or taste. Not surprisingly, then, explicit formulations of the approach grew increasingly rare as the twentieth century unfolded. Comments were restricted to brief essays, prefaces, and interviews, and they tended to be contradictory, professing an antipathy towards translation theory or claiming its irrelevance while laying out theoretical concepts to describe a translation practice. In a 1976 interview, Christopher Middleton, the noted translator from German who was also as an academic for over four decades, adamantly declared:
I have no theory. The thing is, I don’t like theorizing about it, pressed as one is to theorize about literature when one is teaching. Translation is for me an intimate, secret, and intuitive activity, and I’ve never risked thinking out how I do it or why I do it. I’d rather it be a spontaneous, unconscious, nontheoretical thing.
Middleton doesn’t see that an “activity,” even though “intuitive” and “unconscious,” can still be grounded on a theory. Nor does he specify what he might have “risked” by reflecting on his practice, although his very use of the word “risk” indicates a worry that “theorizing” would produce a negative impact on the “how” and “why” of his translating. Here belletrism verges on irrationalism, possibly paranoia.
Yet when Middleton describes his practice later in the interview, his account does in fact assume a set of divergent concepts:
I’ve always tried to translate poetry–in terms of service to the letter of the original text, the word as something ultimate, despite the provisional nature of all language–and at the same time the translation as a poem in its own right: the kind of poem the author would have written in my language.
Sharing the belletristic approach of his many predecessors, Middleton asserts the aesthetic autonomy of the translation: it is “a poem in its own right.” But he also values close adherence to the source text, a strategy that as a Germanist he may have derived from romantic theorists like Friedrich Schleiermacher who argued that such a strategy produces a foreignizing effect: “the more precisely the translation adheres to the turns and figures of the original,” wrote Schleiermacher (in Susan Bernofsky’s English), “the more foreign it will seem to its reader.” Middleton ends, however, with an implicit advocacy of free, domesticating translation: his last phrase is an unacknowledged quotation of Dryden’s famous pronouncement that in his version of the Aeneid he “endeavour’d to make Virgil speak such English, as he wou’d himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present Age.” In between, Middleton refers to “the provisional nature of all language,” a point that would call into question both Dryden’s and Schleiermacher’s views on translation. The phrase seems to quote the 1967 English version of Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero (1953) (where the passage, in Annette Lavers and Colin Smith’s English, reads: “the mobile and ever-provisional nature of language”), although it could just as well allude to Jacques Derrida’s thinking about the instability of meaning. Far from lacking a translation theory, Middleton has gathered some extremely heterogeneous assumptions which are likely to prove irreconcilable, whether in theory or in practice.
Middleton is a British citizen who emigrated to the United States. But his status as a native anglophone doesn’t give him any special purchase on the belletristic approach or its problems. In a 1982 essay called “Some Thoughts on Translating Poetry,” Jonas Zdanys, a Lithuanian-born poet and translator, similarly dismissed any use of theory because “questions of art, by definition, are subjective, relative, and personal.” He acknowledged that translation theories existed at that time, identifying a “‘Western’ school” in the United States and an “‘Eastern’ school” in the Soviet Union. But he insisted that “makers of translations should adhere to neither theory and to no other predetermined theory.” His dismissal did rest on a theory, however, a belated romanticism in which “art” is construed individualistically as a form of self-expression. And he proceeded to stake out a theoretical position for translation in which the individual is paradoxically subsumed in a literary tradition:
Translation, it seems to me, ought to involve a search for and, when necessary, a substitution not of linguistic equivalents but of “affective equivalents,” images which, like Eliot’s “objective correlatives,” capture emotion and as many of the cognitive implications of the original as possible. If this search entails changing the “literal” meaning–as defined by some compiled listing of linguistic “equivalents”–then [. . . t]hat change should be undertaken in the search to create a poem which reads like and shares the tonal inflections and qualities of the prevailing poetic tradition of the new language. That is, poetry translated into contemporary American English becomes part of a tradition–or prevailing literary condition–in which rhythms are easy and in which there is no sense of linguistic stress or forced collocation of image. The reader of the translation must feel that he is reading an original contemporary American poem.
Zdanys’s dismissal of theory, except for the concepts that make possible his own translation practice, leaves him unable to examine his position critically. With T. S. Eliot he assumes that every reader’s response to the “objective correlatives” in a poem or to the “affective equivalents” in a translation will be exactly the same, regardless of the “subjective, relative, and personal” factors he had associated with “questions of art.” He also articulates a deeply conservative view of translation, whereby foreign poetries must be assimilated to “the prevailing poetic tradition of the new language.” We are very far from Pound’s experimentalism here, from the modernist impulse to challenge literary traditions. Still, Pound’s notion of translation as original composition underlies Zdanys’s belletrism.
Today the dominance of this approach among literary translators has resulted in their general inability to comment insightfully on their own work. A recent clash between a translator and a reviewer is a case in point. In July of 2010 the London Review of Books published Michael Wood’s negative review of two new collections of Jorge Luis Borges’s poems, Poems of the Night and The Sonnets. Wood built his case against Borges the poet through extracts from both the Spanish texts and the translations. Early on he indicated his preference for closer versions by referring to particular translations as “loyal” or “faithful,” although by the end he simply inserted the parenthetical phrase “slightly modified” to indicate that he had revised a translation so as to bring it closer to the Spanish.
In a letter to the editor, Stephen Kessler took issue with Wood’s modification of his translation, arguing that it not only “violates critical ethics” but “displays a rather serious misunderstanding of what a translator does.” Yet when Kessler formulated what he saw as the proper understanding, he restated the familiar belletristic approach:
The translation of a poem is an independent work of art created by the translator, not a transcription. Wood’s ‘modified’ citations do not serve as a direct critique of the translations–a legitimate reason to offer alternate readings–but seem to be small attempts to improve on otherwise acceptable versions. Such tampering with a published text is tantamount to altering any other text under review as a way of ‘correcting’ what the author has actually written.
Even though Kessler’s English version appears in Poems of the Night with Borges’s Spanish text printed en face, here he erases the distinction between translation and original composition, arrogating to himself a notion of authorial originality. He apparently thinks that viewing a translation as “an independent work of art” is sufficient justification for his verbal choices, and so he doesn’t need to explain what concept of equivalence he applied to make his version “acceptable.” Unfortunately, this stance led to a missed opportunity to offer such an explanation in his letter.
The material at issue is a sixteen-line extract from the poem, “Amanecer,” translated as “Break of Day.” Wood modified two lines of Kessler’s English translation. Here is Borges’s Spanish with Wood’s revised version:
la imagen de las calles
que definirán después con los otros.
the image of the street
that later they will define with others.
Kessler’s version reads: “the image of the streets/that later others will define.” In Wood’s closer rendering, the word “they” refers to an earlier mention of people “who have been up all night.” Why Kessler departed from the Spanish is not at all clear, particularly since to omit “they” significantly changes the meaning by removing the group of people that Borges had singled out and by shifting the emphasis to the “others.” A reader who knows Spanish might regard the departure as an error. Kessler’s rendering does establish a metrical regularity in the line, making it consistently iambic. And a reader inclined to speculative interpretations could certainly fill a word like “others” with a conceptual density, especially given the attention that the term “otherness” has received in recent years in cultural theory and philosophy. But Kessler’s belletrism prevents him from providing an account that would illuminate what he has done. Claims of the aesthetic autonomy of the literary work have never been as anti-intellectual as they have come to be among contemporary translators.
The translation workshop and its limitations
During the 1960s the belletristic approach was decisive in improving the cultural status of translators because it characterized translation as a writing practice. As Edmund Keeley has observed, “translators began to be accepted as legitimate creative artists during the mid-1960s and, eventually, as legitimate teachers of translation in the various university workshops that came into existence as part of the rapidly expanding field of study called Creative Writing.” In 1963 Paul Engle, then director of the Writers Workshop at The University of Iowa, invited Keeley to teach what was the first translation workshop in the United States. The pedagogy was belletristic, emphasizing the translation as an independent literary text. When in September of 2010 I interviewed Keeley about his work at Iowa, he recalled that Engle instructed him to “treat [the translation workshop] like a poetry or fiction workshop” and to “focus on the product in English.” The students were master’s candidates in poetry or fiction who translated from a variety of foreign languages. They were asked to present their translations to the workshop by explaining why they chose the foreign text, what rival translations they might have worked with or against, and what specific problems the text posed for translation into English. The content of the course consisted solely of the students’ translations. Keeley saw no need for readings in translation theory and commentary. In the interview, in fact, he described himself “as ardently against the idea of translation theory. You don’t read the theory of poetry to learn how to write a poem or to teach the writing of one.”
A belletristic pedagogy was widely adopted in the translation workshops that began to proliferate at universities in the United States from the 1960s onward, initially in creative writing programs, both undergraduate and graduate. The orientation was resolutely practical, focusing on specific translation problems, discussing solutions, and excluding readings in translation theory and commentary or using only those readings that had some direct bearing on practice. Frank MacShane, who in 1966 instituted the translation workshop in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia, noted that he “presented the students with a number of ideas about translations of the sort collected and edited by Reuben Brower,” but he made clear that “we were not interested so much in the theory of translation as in the practice of it.” In 1973 Daniel Weissbort was hired to direct an MFA program in translation in the Comparative Literature Department at Iowa, and although it included a course that surveyed translation history and theory from antiquity to the twentieth century, Weissbort was later careful to remark that “Our primary interest was in the production of translated texts, rather than in the consideration of the theoretical dimension of translation.”
By the 1980s, the belletristic approach had firmly linked translation to creative writing in academic institutions, even when the workshops were taught in literature departments and programs. This link insured that the workshop became the dominant curricular form for teaching translation. As with poetry and fiction workshops, the content of the translation workshop was primarily the students’ own work, occasionally combined with professional translations, and the pedagogy was practically oriented towards the production of a literary text in English. The relations between the translation and the source text might actually receive little attention, in some workshops none at all. And with rare exceptions translation theory and commentary were absent or given limited attention.
What qualified as theory and commentary, moreover, differed with the instructor, but in most cases the readings did not include material in which theoretical concepts were formulated abstractly with or without illustrations drawn from translations. According to Weissbort, Engle “was particularly adamant” about the need for “a theoretical/historical component” in the graduate translation program at Iowa, although what he had in mind was “a historically focused rather than theory-based” course to supplement the workshop. When Weissbort taught the course, he tended to stop at Pound because he “found contemporary translation theory, especially that which drew on French critical theory (Derrida, for instance), rather daunting.” By the mid-1990s, as former student Christopher Mattison recalled, Weissbort’s reading list had been narrowed mostly to essays by practitioners.
In 1987, in an article that appeared in the magazine of the American Literary Translators Association, Translation Review, Jonas Zdanys listed the readings that “best suit the introductory nature of an undergraduate translation workshop” such as he taught in the Comparative Literature Department at Yale. The list is dominated by belletristic and practically oriented material to the exclusion of theoretical statements. It includes the essays by Fitts and Mathews from the Brower anthology as well as essays by two poets, T. S. Eliot and Yves Bonnefoy. Zdanys had clearly selected readings that could be useful in solving the translation problems he found most urgent, problems that hinged on recreating the formal features of the source text. Such readings can certainly be helpful to beginning translators, but they will not enable students to examine critically the authors’ underlying assumptions about translation–or their own.
The translation workshop as it has been conducted for some fifty years reveals what is most harmful about the belletristic approach. Without any consideration of theoretical readings, students do not acquire a conceptual vocabulary to describe, explain, and evaluate their translations and those of the professional translators whose work they might be asked to read in the course. MacShane’s account of his workshop is typical: “I thought that such general principles as there are would emerge more forcefully if they came out of a visible problem in a student’s work than if they were considered abstractly.” MacShane’s pedagogy is based on that most hallowed of British and American cultural traditions, the epistemology known as empiricism: he assumes that a real object or process is not constructed for knowledge but given, independent of the knowing subject, and upon observation that object or process yields a knowledge that is free of illusion and prejudice. But translation problems do not simply appear in a translator’s work, whether student or professional, they need to be formulated, and the formulations can occur only on the basis of theoretical concepts. Theory, especially abstract speculation, creates conceptual parameters within which certain problems become visible while others do not; once a problem is formulated, a solution can be developed, but only within the parameters set up by specific concepts.
This process can be seen in a rare detailed account of a translation workshop. Although Zdanys insisted that the aim of his Yale workshop was “to understand the necessary organic unfolding of each translation apart from the constraints of predetermined aesthetic theories,” he described the theoretical concepts that governed his teaching. “The best translations of any given time,” he would tell his students at the first class meeting,
were those that were most fluent and idiomatic in the new language, and those qualities depended not just on the translator’s eye and ear but also on the aesthetic qualities of the original poem. I suggested that it would be most interesting for all of us if students would avoid translating work more than a generation old [. . .] and concentrate on more contemporary poets, who might in many ways be rendered into contemporary American English easily.
A serious problem with these prescriptions is their lack of precision. Zdanys seems to be defining fluency or easy readability as the use of current standard English in a translation, but the term “contemporary American English” can embrace many different Englishes, not only the standard dialect but a range of nonstandard forms, including regional and social dialects, slang and colloquialism, obscenity and jargon. In referring to “the aesthetic qualities of the original poem,” he evidently assumes a concept of equivalence. But what if the source text is not “fluent and idiomatic”? What if it isn’t written in the current standard dialect of the source language? Should the translator deviate from current standard English to create an analogous style in the translation? Zdanys’s prescriptions insure that students will analyze and judge translations within rather narrow parameters. He also forces them to adopt a thoroughgoing presentism by excluding the possibility of translating earlier poetries as well as any consideration of past theories and practices.
Here the crucial problem with treating translation merely as creative writing becomes apparent. The typical translation workshop is staffed by a poet-translator or a professional translator who inexorably and often unwittingly imposes his or her own aesthetics on student translators. This imposition happens in two ways: (1) by discriminating among verbal choices, not according to relations to the source text or to the receiving culture, but according to unexamined notions of good writing and taste and (2) by emphasizing practical problems which are solved according to the instructor’s aesthetics. As a result, student translators lack the conceptual resources that might allow them not only to comment incisively on translations, their own and those of other translators, but also to assess the ideas advanced by the instructor, if not the belletrism which supports them. An instructor usually commands authority through experience, but if the teaching simply doles out a product, here an obscure notion of literary value or a ready-made translation solution, the authority becomes repressive and counterproductive. Students may develop certain translation skills, but they do not learn to think about translation critically or to translate independently.
Imagining a translation culture
The dominance of the belletristic approach has severely limited the development of literary translation, not only thinking about translation but translation practice. This is perhaps especially true of the United States, where translation workshops have long been offered in creative writing programs, but it applies to anglophone cultures generally, even if in varying degrees, because belletrism characterizes the discourse about translation in reviews and commentary. Despite recent generations of highly accomplished translators, despite the existence of awards and cultural organizations that recognize and support the work of translators, despite the creation of presses and publishing series devoted to translations, despite the emergence of translation studies as an area of research and teaching in academic institutions, the fact remains that literary translation continues to be grossly misunderstood, undervalued if not discounted or neglected, and persistently exploited. The belletristic approach has proven useless to change this situation.
Nonetheless, to submit an idea or practice to critique, to interrogate its assumptions and consequences, is not to dismiss it entirely. I am not arguing, then, that belletrism should be simply abandoned. Insofar as literary translation is a writing practice, any approach must be writerly to a significant extent, acknowledging that a translated text is relatively autonomous from its source text, and that the relative autonomy consists, at least in part, of a certain aesthetic independence. To advance translation at the present time, however, this idea is insufficient: translation must rather be conceived, practiced, and taught according to a hermeneutic model, as an act of interpretation.
We must leave behind the instrumentalism that still dominates thinking about translation. According to this view, an acceptable translation reproduces or transfers an invariant contained in or caused by the source text, whether its form,its meaning, or its effect, usually a combination of these features. Varieties of instrumentalism prevail among literary translators and their readers. In her book, Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman formulates the instrumental concept of equivalent effect. “The most fundamental description of what translators do,” she asserts,
is that we write–or perhaps rewrite–in language B a work of literature originally composed in language A, hoping that readers of the second language–I mean, of course, readers of the translation–will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers.
But which “first readers”? Readerships are notoriously fragmented today, regardless of the language and culture: readers bring the most diverse kinds of knowledge and taste to their reading, so that their responses are difficult, if not impossible, to predict. Later Grossman suggests that the linguistic and cultural differences a translator must negotiate are ultimately insurmountable: “Languages,” she observes, “even first cousins like Spanish and Italian, trail immense, individual histories behind them, and with all their volatile accretions of tradition, culture, and forms and levels of discourse, no two ever dovetail perfectly or occupy the same space at the same time.” How, then, can the translation produce an effect on its reader that is the same as or similar to the effect that the foreign text produces on the foreign-language reader? Grossman responds that “a translator’s fidelity is not to lexical pairings but to context–the implications and echoes of the first author’s tone, intention, and level of discourse.” But how can a translator be sure that the translation realizes the foreign author’s intention when that author did not intend to write in the translating language? And when the translator possesses an incontrovertible record of the author’s intention–for instance, in the use of a particular genre–that record might be ignored. Take the sonnet: the meter and rhyme scheme are undoubtedly deliberate. Yet in translating Spanish Renaissance sonnets Grossman chooses to avoid any recreation of these formal features. She does write that translators do no more than “hope” to produce an equivalent effect, so perhaps we should regard this concept as a convenient fiction, consoling to the translator who at every point confronts the sheer impossibility of any instrumental understanding of translation.
What recommends the very different hermeneutic model is both its explanatory power and its practical application. The interpretive activity begins with the choice of a source text and continues in the development of a strategy to translate it. These stages in the translation process are determined not merely by the source text and culture but by values, beliefs, and representations in the receiving culture. Translators should be able to give an account of their work that is cognizant of these cultural conditions. They should be able to show how, given these conditions, their translation aims to fix the form and meaning of the source text so as to inscribe a particular interpretation. The inscription can never be more than provisional, one interpretation among several different possibilities, and it is always subject to further interpretation by the range of cultural constituencies in the receiving situation. Nonetheless, translators should be capable of articulating the interpretants that make possible their translations. By “interpretants” I mean the various factors that every translator applies to transform the source text into a translation. Interpretants can be formal, including a concept of equivalence, such as a semantic correspondence based on dictionary definitions, or a concept of style, a set of linguistic features linked to a particular genre (as when a foreign crime novel might require a suitably hard-boiled prose in the translating language). Interpretants can also be thematic, meanings or codes. Examples include an interpretation of the source text that was presented elsewhere in commentary (such as scholarly research) or an ideological standpoint affiliated with a specific social group (as when a feminist or queer translator encodes a foreign text with a political agenda).
In interpreting the source text, the translator alters it in the most material way. It is detached from its originary context where it supported meanings, values, and functions specific to the source language and culture, and it is simultaneously inserted in a different context, created by the translation, where it supports meanings, values, and functions specific to the receiving language and culture. To assert that translation is transformation does not mean that no correspondence, formal or semantic, exists between the source and translated texts. The point is rather that a literary work is much more than any such correspondence: it is a complex cultural artefact that never survives intact the move to another language and culture where it comes to signify, to be valued, and to function differently. My idea of translation as interpretation is thus very different from George Steiner’s “hermeneutic motion,” where the translator is imagined as performing a “restitution” to “compensate” for the “aggression” of interpreting the source text, establishing, “ideally, exchange without loss.” I am arguing that a ratio of source loss and translating gain cannot be avoided or resolved, and the only way that a translation can do right abroad, in relation to the source text and culture, is to do wrong at home, making an appreciable difference in the cultural norms and institutions of the receiving situation, contributing to a change, for instance, in how a foreign literature is perceived in translation.
To translate according to the hermeneutic model and to be capable of addressing translations as interpretive acts, translators must be equipped with an array of qualifications that they do not receive from the prevalent workshop pedagogy. These qualifications start with advanced proficiency in a foreign language, but include the ability to write a variety of styles in the translating language with clarity, precision, and resonance. Translators must also possess a broad and deep knowledge of translation traditions in the translating language and culture, i.e., a historical grasp of theoretical concepts and practical strategies. And they must be specialists in the fields in which they translate as those fields have developed in both the foreign and the translating cultures. A translator of French poetry into English should be not only proficient in the French language, but learned in French literary traditions, not only proficient in the English language but in English literary traditions, capable of imitating and assessing English poetries, and knowledgeable in translation traditions both in anglophone cultures and in the cultures, past and present, that have informed the theories and practices which constitute anglophone traditions. The promise of theory is self-consciousness and self-criticism, as well as an expansion of the translator’s stylistic repertoire. But the teacher must be able and willing to move between the theoretical concept and the verbal choice, to show how the verbal choice is at once writerly and interpretive, productive of cognitive and literary effects, to start with, and ultimately cultural and social in its potential impact. The more deeply immersed in these kinds of knowledge literary translators are, the greater the command they will exercise over their translating, and the more articulate and judicious they will be in describing, explaining, and evaluating translations.
The current state of literary translation, particularly in anglophone cultures, indicates the urgent need for the kind of translator I am fashioning here. Belletrism has long been rampant in translation commentary, and this has led, on the one hand, to an unreflective impressionism that has not illuminated what a translator does and, on the other hand, to an aggressive anti-intellectualism that discourages thinking about translation. As a result, a continuing public discussion has yet to materialize, and the consequence for publishing has been catastrophic, since an understanding of the translator’s work is essential to the creation of an informed readership who can appreciate translated literature. Too many translators are as guilty of this problem as their teachers and readers are. They naively believe that theory can be divorced from practice in any kind of writing or research, that translation practices can be assessed simply by comparing the translation to the foreign text instead of taking into account the cultural conditions of the translating, and that a historical knowledge of translation is unnecessary when without such knowledge translators have no sure basis on which to understand and criticize the cultural status quo and so they wind up reaffirming it. Recently, translators have claimed that translation is de facto a form of scholarship, but they remain so deeply invested in a belletristic approach that they can’t–some say they won’t–provide a scholarly account of their translating. Merely to assert that translation is scholarship will not compel scholars to abandon romantic concepts of original authorship that have long been entrenched in the academy, and that have either stigmatized translation as hackwork or restricted it to a derivative form of creative writing. Such an attitude towards translation will not be changed simply by putting a translation of a novel or of a poetry collection before a scholar, especially when it might be accompanied by commentary that lacks incisive thinking and scrupulous research. Translators should be able to write well, without a doubt. But today they also need to think, write, and speak about their translations with a high degree of critical sophistication.
We lack a discourse about translating that can foster and sustain what I would like to call a translation culture, a culture where translated texts are knowledgeably written and read, taught and studied, recognized as works that are not simply distinct from the source texts they translate but vital to the receiving culture and to its ongoing exchanges with various foreign cultures. If we lived in a translation culture as I am imagining it, translators would simultaneously learn how to translate and how to comment on translations in compelling ways. Their commentary would be grounded in a body of knowledge that is literary and historical, theoretical and critical, a knowledge of translation as well as of the fields in which translations are produced and used. Translators would be capable of situating their projects in relation to past theories and practices but also of assessing the appeal of those projects to readers in the present. They would be capable of sharing their knowledge with the diverse readerships who use and depend on their work, and this sharing would take an equally diverse range of forms: research monographs and articles in translation theory and history intended for scholars, evaluative reports on translations to help publishers, reviews of translated novels and poetry collections for periodicals large and small, prefaces to translations written by themselves and others, interviews about their projects and their careers, and blogs on current issues in translation. It is only with the emergence of a translation culture that readers will learn how to appreciate translations as translations without reducing them to their source texts, that the practice of translation will be understood and valued in academic institutions as both a creative form of writing and a rigorous form of scholarship, and that, as a result of these developments, publishers will see a financial return that motivates and supports their continued investment in translations. If translators want to change the cultural marginality of translation, they need to change the ways that they themselves think about and represent their work.