Translation Theory

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Translation Theory

Peter Connor

Toward the end of his 1813 lecture “On the Different Methods of Translation,” Friedrich Schleiermacher refers to “an inner necessity” that has driven the German people to “translating en masse” (28). Schleiermacher was thinking of the abundance of translations by contemporaries such as Friedrich Hölderlin, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and the brothers Wilhelm and August Schlegel, poets and scholars whose versions of Sophocles, Pindar, Aeschylus, Plato, and William Shakespeare promised to carry over into German culture “all the treasures of foreign arts and scholarship” (29). It is a noble and elevating vision of the role of translation and of the task of the translator. But another, much more authentically “mass” or “large-scale” form of translation activity escapes Schleiermacher's notice (it is beneath his notice): driven less by “inner necessity” than by commercial interest, carried out not by renowned poets but by anonymous journeymen, the translation of the novel marks the true beginning of mass literary translation in the nineteenth century. The popular appeal of novels outside of their country of origin created an increasingly lucrative international market for publishers, who were quick to capitalize on the growing literary reputations of certain authors abroad. Within a year of its publication in 1719, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, taken by some (e.g., Ian Watt) to be the first novel in English, was translated into French, German, and Dutch; by the end of the nineteenth century, in addition to 277 imitations (arguably a form of translation), it had been translated 110 times, including into Hebrew, Armenian, Bengali, Persian, and Inuit (Fishelov, 343). Thanks to an army of translators, Defoe's novel reached a vast, worldwide audience for which it was not originally intended. Defoe's publishers might well have mused, along with Goethe, that “national literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand” (qtd. in Damrosch, 1).

That the novel, the “most buoyantly migratory” of genres (Prendergast, 23), should so easily cross linguistic frontiers might appear somewhat paradoxical, given the important historical role it has played as a medium of national awareness. Literary historians and sociologists have argued that novel and nation evolved in tandem, in part because the novel was a capacious genre that accommodated the multiple and disparate voices or languages of large geographical units. Timothy Brennan, for example, argues that the novel “accompanied the rise of nations by objectifying the ’one, yet many’ of national life, and by mimicking the structure of the nation, a clearly bordered jumble of languages and styles” (49), while Franco Moretti, adopting Benedict Anderson's thesis that the novel provided the nation-states of Europe with the symbolic form they needed in order to be understood by the people, stresses the crucial representational role of the novel in a period when new economic, political, and technological processes conspired to “drag human beings out of the local dimension and throw them into a much larger [national] one” (17). Yet, through translation, this narrative form, designed to integrate the local into the national and to transform disparate territories into nations, reached (and shaped) an international market the members of which had little immediate interest in the local dynamics of nation-building. Whatever its function at the regional and national level, the history of the translation of the novel shows that its appeal was, from an early stage, transnational.

Critical examination of the immense corpus of translations reveals that the translation of the novel, like translation in general, is a complex and often problematic cultural transaction involving “asymmetries, inequities [and] relations of domination and dependence” (Venuti, 1998, 4). Moretti's research into the holdings of a number of British circulating libraries as well as cabinets de lecture (commercial rental or circulating libraries) in France in the mid-nineteenth century reveals the presence of remarkably few translations in libraries on either side of the Channel. Moretti concludes from this that Britain and France, being the primary producers of novels in the nineteenth century, had less interest in importing them than had, say, Italy or Denmark (151, figs. 71, 72). His research also reminds us that translation policy and practices vary enormously from nation to nation, with some nations, notably those that are politically and economically powerful, translating less than others. On the basis of statistics covering the mid- to late 1980s, for example, Lawrence Venuti estimates the translation rate (the percentage of published books that are translations) in the Italian publishing industry to be 25.4 percent, the German 14.4 percent, the French 9.9 percent, and the British and American somewhere between 2 and 4 percent (1995, 11). Venuti attributes the relative paucity of translations into English to a “complacency in British and American relations with cultural others” which expresses itself in a profoundly nationalist and even chauvinistic philosophy of translation—“imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home” (1995, 13).

The xenophobia and imperialism that Venuti detects in certain translation practices are aspects of a more general form of violence that is partly inherent in the act of translating (which perforce suppresses and replaces the original text) and partly contributed, more or less consciously, by the translator, who in addition to the external pressures of commodity capitalism must contend with personal cultural biases that may conflict with the source text, resulting in an ethnocentric rendering of the original. Venuti is particularly sensitive to the insidious violence of “domestication” in translating, meaning the tendency, in the interest of producing a “fluent” and “readable” translation, to assimilate the foreign text to the values and norms of the receiving culture. Current publishing and reviewing practices in the U.S., which valorize transparency and familiarity in translations, implicitly encourage this type of violence, perhaps especially in the case of the novel inasmuch as, if we except some important experimental fiction, intelligibility remains in this genre an entrenched readerly expectation. French theorist Antoine Berman sees in every culture an inbuilt resistance to the very notion of translation to the extent that it necessarily implies “the violence of métissage [crossbreeding].” The aim of translation—“to open at the level of writing a certain relation to the Other, to fertilize the Self through the mediation of the Foreign”—is an affront to “the ethnocentric structure of every culture,” which would prefer to imagine itself as a self-sufficient entity (16). On Berman's view, this fundamental cultural resistance to the notion of translation produces a “systematics of deformation” which “conditions the translator, whether he wants it or not, whether he knows it or not” (18).

The translation of the novel is accordingly subject to distortion and deformation at both conscious and unconscious levels. A simple but forceful example of the conscious manipulation of an original is the English translation of the title of Victor Hugo's classic novel Notre Dame de Paris, which becomes, in both the 1941 and the revised 2002 editions for the Modern Library (of the World's Best Books), The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The effect of this operation is to prime the Anglophone reader for a novel dealing with a single character (Quasimodo) and to privilege from among the multiple narrative strands in the work the theme of physical deformity (Hugo, 20022002). As Hugo's original French title suggests, the cathedral itself is the “protagonist” of the sprawling novel, the major themes of which (architecture, the print medium, religious fanaticism, social justice, etc.) are tributaries of this symbolically invested space. The repositioning of the novel as a tragic or pathetic story of unrequited love is a strategic marketing ploy that shapes the reception of the work as well as the perception of the author in North America. By deemphasizing Hugo's historical role as a revolutionary social and political commentator, the shift in title paves the way for the wholesale dilution of Hugo's oeuvre via musicals and films based on his works, including the 1996 Disney film of The Hunchback (Grossman).

Not all forms of conscious textual manipulation are so apparent. Wen Jin, analyzing The Lost Daughter of Happiness, the English-language version of Yan Geling's Chinese novel Fusang (1985), in which a young woman (Fusang) is abducted from her village in China and sold into a Chinatown brothel in San Francisco, notes that the translation omits or abridges key descriptions concerning the main character's “unruly sexuality” (572). This has led to two almost diametrically opposed readings of the novel. Anglo-American readers, having access only to a bowdlerized version of the original, have seen Fusang as “opaque” and regard her as an example of the proverbial “inscrutable Oriental.” Readers in mainland China, privy to explicit descriptions of Fusang's “effortless accommodation of forced sexual intercourse” (577), read her character in allegorical terms, recognizing in the young woman “the embodiment of a kind of feminine resilience that enabled China to hold its own against its Western enemies during the twentieth century” (573).

Unconscious interference in literary translation can take a number of different forms. Berman has attempted to classify the major “deforming tendencies” that beset translations; among these are “rationalization,” “clarification,” “expansion,” and “ennoblement,” as well as the “destruction” of the rhythms and signifying networks of the source text. Since these tendencies operate at the unconscious level, the ideal translator will have undergone a cathartic “ascesis” akin to a rigorous psychoanalysis (Berman recommends team-translation as a means to uncover and combat unconscious forces). Because the end result of these deforming tendencies is to suppress the alterity of the source text (rendering the original more transparent through rationalization, more aesthetically pleasing through ennoblement, more fluent or readable through clarification, etc.), Berman (following Schleiermacher and Wilhelm von Humboldt) advocates the “foreignizing” of literary translation through the use of literalisms, neologisms, and syntactical borrowings. The “foreignizing” method, witnessed mostly in the translation of poetry and drama by poets (e.g., Friedrich Hölderlin's translation of Sophocles, Pierre Klossowski's translation of Virgil, etc.), is rarely practiced in the case of the novel. This may reflect the novel's lowly position in the hierarchy of literary genres: of the many writers who also translate, few translate novels, work that is left to professional or amateur translators (often academics) who may feel uncomfortable with the degree of linguistic innovation such foreignizing entails. An exception, according to George Steiner, is the English translation of Hermann Broch's Der Tod des Vergil (1945) by Jean Starr Untermeyer. Carried out over five years in collaboration with the author, the “bilingual weave” of The Death of Virgil (1945) makes so few concessions to the “natural breaks and lucidities of English” that “English and German meet in a ’meta-syntax’” (337—38). Such a case remains rare, however, especially in the translation of novels into English, where the imbalance in the power relation between source and target languages often results in the obliteration of cultural difference. This risk is especially high in English translation of Third World literature, which, according to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “gets translated into a sort of with-it translatese, so that the literature by a woman in Palestine begins to resemble, in the feel of its prose, something by a man in Taiwan” (182).

While translation scholarship has focused largely on the interlinguistic translation of literary forms, attention has turned recently to multilingualism and translingualism, phenomena that are particularly prevalent in the novel. In multilingual and translingual texts, a mode of translation becomes the motor of the creative enterprise; here translation is less “a process applied to a text than a process that takes place within it” (Levy, 107). Multilingualism refers to the presence of two or more languages in a given text: Tristram Shandy (1759), which mixes learned Latin digressions with the vernacular, is an example, as is Tolstoy's use of French in Voyná i mir (1869, War and Peace) or Mann's in Der Zauberberg (1924, The Magic Mountain). In recent times, multilingualism has emerged as a significant stylistic feature in bicultural, colonial or postcolonial novels. Chicano author Rudolf Anaya includes both Spanish and English in Bless Me, Ultima (1972), as does Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), while the Martinican Patrick Chamoiseau mixes French and Creole in Texaco (1992). The technique is often employed to thematize issues of (split) identity as it relates to language, the presence of two languages symbolizing “the failure to achieve cultural symbiosis” (Zabus, qtd. in Grutman, 159). Translingualism, likewise observed among writers employing an imposed or colonial language, refers to the presence of lexical or syntactic traces of an indigenous language in a writer's use of a hegemonic language (cf. Venuti, 1998, 174). Translingualism can be a strategy in the othering or foreignizing of a colonial language, as in Chinua Achebe's self-conscious Africanization of English (“the world language that history has forced down our throats”) or Mário de Andrade's Brazilianization of Portuguese (Achebe, 431; Casanova, 258). Michael Cronin argues that such forms of “linguistic doubling” are subversive inasmuch as the embedding of indigenous words and phrases within an English-language text represents “the return of the linguistically repressed” (136). Recent studies have focused attention on the parameters and nature of various “other Englishes,” “weird” or “rotten” forms of English that rely on various strategies of intralinguistic translation (Apter; Ch'ien). Ch'ien includes in the category of “weird-English authors” the novelists Arundhati Roy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Irvine Welsh, writers whose espousal of linguistic hybridity challenges conventions of fluency, linguistic purism, and the hegemony of elite “educated English” (Crystal, 149).

Finally we might note the increased prominence of translators and translation as figures or an explicit theme in contemporary novels and other narrative forms. The House on Moon Lake (2000), by Italian Francesca Duranti, centers upon translator Fabrizio Garrone and his fascination with an obscure German author; Dai Sijie's partly autobiographical novel Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise (2001, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress) dramatizes the importance of Chinese translations of Balzac and other Western classics during Mao's Cultural Revolution; Egyptian-born Leila Aboulela's The Translator (2005) portrays a Sudanese translator of Arabic living in Scotland; John Crowley has constructed a spy novel, The Translator (2002), around the motif of translation and betrayal, and so on. The publication of a number of “language memoirs,” a term coined by Alice Kaplan to describe autobiographical accounts by bilingual subjects focusing on the forced or voluntary acquisition of a second language, complements and enhances the novelistic representations of the work of the translator. In addition to her own French Lessons (1993), this disparate category includes narratives generated by the experience of exile and war, such as Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation (1989) and Daoud Hari's The Translator (2008). Such publications suggest that translation itself can be a valuable narrative and novelistic resource; they perhaps signal further that the translator has begun to combat the condition of invisibility that until recently was his or her lot (Venuti, 1995).


1. Achebe, C. (1994), “The African Writer and the English Language,” in Post-Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory, ed. P. Williams and L. Chrisman.

2. Anderson, B. (1991), Imagined Communities.

3. Apter, E. (2006), Translation Zone.

4. Berman, A. (1984), Épreuve de l'étranger.

5. Brennan, T. (1990), “The National Longing for Form,” in Nation and Narration, ed. H.K. Bhabha.

6. Broch, H. (1945), Death of Virgil, trans. J.S. Untermeyer.

7. Casanova, P. (2004), World Republic of Letters, trans. M.B. Debevoise.

8. Ch'ien, E. (2005), Weird English.

9. Cronin, M. (2003), Translation and Globalization.

10. Crystal, D. (2003), English as a Global Language, 2nd ed.

11. Damrosch, D. (2003), What Is World Literature?

12. Fishelov, D. (2008), “ Dialogues with/and Great Books,” New Literary History 39: 335—53.

13. Grossman, K. (2001), “ From Classic to Pop Icon,” French Review 74(3): 482—95.

14. Grutman, R. (1998), “Multilingualism and Translation,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, ed. M. Baker.

15. Hugo, V. (1941), Hunchback of Notre Dame.

16. Hugo, V. (2002), Hunchback of Notre Dame, rev. trans. C. Liu, intro. E. McCracken.

17. Jin, W. (2006), “ Transnational Criticism and Asian Immigrant Literature in the U.S.,” Contemporary Literature 47(4): 570—600.

18. Levy, L. (2003), “ Exchanging Words,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 23(1/2): 106—27.

19. Moretti, F., ed. (2006), Novel.

20. Prendergast, C. (2004), “ The World Republic of Letters,” in Debating World Literature.

21. Schleiermacher, F. (1982), “ On the Different Methods of Translation,” trans. A. Lefevere, in German Romantic Criticism, ed. A.L. Willson.

22. Spivak, G.C. (1993), Outside in the Teaching Machine.

23. Steiner, G. (1998), After Babel, 3rd ed.

24. Venuti, L. (1995), Translator's Invisibility.

25. Venuti, L. (1998), Scandals of Translation.

26. Zabus, C. (1990), “ Othering the Foreign Language in the West African Europhone Novel,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 17 (3/4): 348—66.