05 February 2008

Depersonalizing translation

Lawrence Venuti is required reading for the program I'll be embarking on later this year, so I was especially interested to read The Literary Saloon's discussion of Venuti's essay, "Translations on the Market," from the current issue of Words Without Borders. (He has also reviewed Venuti's The Scandals of Translation. Twelve pages of Eco's The Name of the Rose missing from the English translation?? How do these things happen?).

I was particularly intrigued by this part:
Focusing on a single foreign text or a single foreign author winds up exacerbating this process: it mystifies the loss or sheer destruction of the foreign linguistic and cultural contexts and therefore gives the false and misleading impression that any literary work can be understood on its own. This encourages an essentially romantic notion of original genius that militates against the contextualized reading, the implicit comparisons among texts, which informed readers always do. To enable English-language readers to understand and appreciate a translation, publishers must restore in English at least part of the context in which the foreign text was written. With individual publishers each pursuing their own single-minded focus, this context is unlikely to emerge. [...]

I am suggesting that with translations publishers must take an approach that is much more critically detached, more theoretically astute as well as aesthetically sensitive. They must publish not only translations of foreign texts and authors that conform to their own tastes, but more than one foreign text and more than one foreign author, and they must make strategic choices so as to sketch the cultural situations and traditions that enable a particular text to be significant in its own culture. Translators too need to participate in these choices, since their expertise is invaluable in assessing the losses and gains in the translation process. But they must regard translation in more self-critical ways than is generally the rule today, when translators tend to take a belletristic approach to their work, making impressionistic comments which show that they, like publishers, find writing to be primarily personal, a form of self-expression or a testimony of their aesthetic kinship to the foreign author. Publishers and translators alike need to depersonalize translation and to become aware of the ethical responsibility involved in representing foreign texts and cultures. What a sad time it is for intercultural exchange when publishers and translators look abroad and see mainly opportunities to imprint their own values.
His solution is that
publishers can coordinate their efforts, banding together to select a range of texts from a foreign culture and to publish translations of them. This sort of investment cannot insure critical and commercial success. But in the long run chances are that it will pay off handsomely by laying the foundations for an informed readership that will not feel inadequate before translations from a particular foreign language and will actually be eager to sample new texts from it.
Why does such brilliant common sense sound so daunting to implement? Publishers must reconsider their approach to translated works and cooperate with each other to create a broader context in which these works can be more readily received. I look forward to reading further discussion on the matter.

UPDATE: Chad Post at Three Percent weighs in.

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