4. Translation Art, Translation Theory

by Sidney Wade
The University of Florida

First of all, I want it understood that I often appreciate the contrarian positions Lawrence Venuti has been known to take. In his essay arguing for the “foreignization” of translations into English (“Translation as Cultural Politics: Regimes of Domestication in English,” published in Translation: Theory and Practice, eds. Weissbort and Eysteinsson), he argues for the rather unpopular position, offered originally by Friedrich Schliermacher (1768–1834), that making clear the distance from which the original actually sits from English in the English translation is important, that embedding some of the strangeness that marks this difference in the translation itself is the way to move the reader more closely to the author of the original piece. In that essay, he carries a clear and forceful vision eloquently to its logical conclusion. When I teach my graduate-level translation workshops, I invariably assign this piece, and while in the end, most (usually all) of my students end up disagreeing with his position, it always produces lively and thoughtful debate.

Venuti’s “Towards a Translation Culture,” however, which I first heard as the plenary address at the 2010 conference of the American Literary Translators Association, is a different form of argument altogether, introduced, as it is, by the strategy of picking on straw men and women (“Editors X and Z”) in an unnecessarily manipulative vein. I would also suggest that the entire essay is based on two basic false premises.

The first and most obviously erroneous assumption is that the woeful lack of sales of literary translation in our country is the fault of the translators who provide what Venuti calls “belletristic” translations, and of editors who don’t require translators to include theoretical prefaces to their translations. I would venture to guess that if all translators did as Venuti suggests, retail sales would fall precipitously. The American market for books is a large and ungainly beast, comprised mostly of works of popular fiction and creative nonfiction, with a miniscule portion made up of literary translations of prose and poetry. As we all know, even poetry in English is a money-loser for publishers; translations of poetry are still less remunerative. If translators were to saddle their books with theoretical discussion, at best the public would ignore the prefaces, and publishers would complain about the extra cost. At worst, such additions would bewilder, perhaps irritate, and then drive away customers, as anyone who has read some of the more impenetrable academic “theory” could attest. If the public were made up entirely of academic theorists, of course this would be a different story. Unfortunately—or fortunately—academic theorists are almost as thin on the ground as translators are, and their attention to the prefaces would likely have no effect on sales one way or another.

There is nothing wrong with Venuti’s suggestion that translators be cognizant of their “theories” of translating—this understanding, in fact, comprises much of what I try to teach my graduate students as they begin their work as translators—but saddling the reading public with academic treatises when they are most interested in the literature would be a mistake.

The second false premise in Venuti’s argument is the assumption that all translators should also become theorists or critics. This is, of course, ridiculous. Translating is an art and not a science. Even if a translator of poetry is not a poet, I would argue (along with the good folks in one particularly memorable 2009 ALTA panel) that the best translators become poets in the process of translating. Would Venuti have all painters pin theoretical defenses of their work to their paintings? Should Jackson Pollock have scooped Clement Greenberg and published a defense of his work as he dripped his paint? Theory, of course, is not an art, but in the best cases, a science. It proceeds through rational argument to its conclusions, as impenetrable as the language describing that process can sometimes be. An artist should not be asked to supply the rational basis upon which his or her work stands, because more often than not, these bases are great, intuitive, irrational leaps of faith. The fundament here is aesthetic, not rational, and should not be held to rational account.

It seems to me that what Venuti is attempting to do is to elbow the literature into the background and place theory at the forefront of readers’ attention. Raising theory to or even above the level of the art of literature is a standard post-structuralist ploy, as is blurring the distinction between the two kinds of writing. But, unless I’m terribly mistaken, readers buy books of literary merit to read and interact with the literature itself, not to assess the filter without which a certain cadre of intellectuals insists it is impossible to “read” literature. What Venuti wants us to believe is at stake here is our culture of reading, but in privileging theory over literature and translation, he will diminish, rather than extend and excite, readers’ interest and publishers’ profits.

Something Venuti fails to mention in his opening litany of complaint and rejection is his signal success in placing his translations of the work of Ernest Farrés. I myself admired and published two of them in Subtropics (Issue 9: Spring/Summer 2010), and his collection of Farrés’ Edward Hopper poems was exceedingly well-published (Graywolf Press) and reviewed. That this came to be is certainly due to Venuti’s own aesthetic choices in making his translations and not to the theory behind and in front of them. What excited my interest in the poems was the marvelous sensuality evoked by Farrés in response to Hopper’s paintings, and Venuti’s skill in rendering this sensuality in aesthetically pleasing and resonant English. No “foreignization” here, by the way, even though Venuti tries to argue in his preface that using some of the phrasing that Hopper himself used, as found in his letters and other contemporary documents, might jangle the ear of a modern English speaker. While I can’t honestly say that the poems “blew the top of my head off,” I can say that regardless of the translator’s theoretical arguments and of whether they dictated his choices, it was the aesthetics of the poems that impressed and pleased me and made me want to share them with our readers.