Still Invisible? Visiting and Revisiting Venuti

Hi everyone, after attending a seminar entitled ‘Domestication vs Foreignisation revisited’ a few days ago, I thought I’d share some of the interesting insights that I picked up as well as giving a couple of my own thoughts on the topic.

The seminar was given by Terry Hale of the University of Hull, a man with an astounding array of experience in translation and publishing and, as one of my MA lecturers back in the day, a man who is something of a translation hero of mine.

As the title suggests (for those who are familiar with his work), the seminar was based around developing a deeper understanding of Lawrence Venuti’s seminal 1995 The Translator’s Invisibility – an absolute must-read for all translators as it is the text that put translation studies on the map and shaped our understanding of the subject today.

Terry is in fact a good friend of Larry’s – as he calls him – and was instrumental in Venuti’s reception here in England. He wrote a fantastic review of Invisibility for the Times Literary Supplement at the time of publication (I haven’t been able to find a copy online unfortunately) and was even included on the back cover of Venuti’s excellent 1998 The Scandals of Translation with this quote:

[O]ne of the most provocative and far-reaching books to be published in the field of Translation Studies in recent years. Lawrence Venuti has proved himself a cultural commentator of the very first order. This book should be required reading for all those engaged in the humanities.

So who better to take a retrospective look at what The Translator’s Invisibility has to offer?!

While I don’t want to go over the book’s contents in too much detail here (I did write a brief overview in a previous post), the key contribution to come from The Translator’s Invisibility is Venuti’s new theory of translation, formulated around the basis of hermeneutics, which builds upon largely philosophical ideas from Friedrich Schleiermacher and Antoine Berman to distinguish between ‘foreignising’ and ‘domesticating’ types of translation in order to forward his ideas of deviation from dominant linguistic forms.

Venuti laments the domesticating strategies that prevail throughout Western literary translation and render texts as fluent, readable target language pieces, smoothing over the uniqueness of the foreign language that he seeks to retain. According to Venuti, his foreignising strategy allows the disturbing and stimulating effects of translation to be shown in the domestic setting and follows Berman’s idea that a bad translation negates the foreignness of the text.

While that’s the basic gist of it, however, Terry was able to provide a more nuanced appraisal of Venuti’s work by integrating a highly developed understanding of his background. Interesting snippets include how Venuti’s own personal life provided the basis for his Utopian ethics and how his interest in translation and ideology can be traced back to his PhD thesis Our Halcyon Dayes, which focuses on prerevolutionary English texts without even mentioning translation.

Indeed, it was within the Caroline period that Venuti first discovered these ‘fluent’ tendencies in translation that later formed the basis of Invisibility and led him to argue that every text since roughly 1600 has potentially been corrupted, pandering to the lowest common denominator of a readership wanting texts that simply uphold their own ideological views rather than challenging them.

This effect is achieved by selecting texts that fit within dominant ideologies or even by altering the ideology within the text, and this fact is key to understanding Venuti’s goals. His main aim was to demonstrate how every text we have ever read could have been politically, socially or sexually censored while suggesting a strategy (foreignisation) that leaves this ideology in tact. Ultimately, while Venuti demonstrates on numerous occasions that this process of domestication (and ideological shifting) is taking place in translation, he never quite fully demonstrates that translation is the key to unlocking ideology.

Perhaps even more interesting than these insights, however, is the fact that one of Venuti’s key influences remains largely unheralded. While everyone links Venuti’s thought with that of Schleiermacher due to the obvious equivalence between the two (Schleiermacher’s key contribution to translation is summarised by the quote: “Either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.”), the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser receives little mention despite having a huge influence on Venuti’s writing.

Althusser was Venuti’s intellectual hero and all of his thought on ideology stems from Althusser’s conception of ‘symptomatic reading’ – problematising a text to uncover ideology, something that Venuti is so good at. Furthermore, Althusser’s influence can be clearly felt in the Marxist terminology that Venuti employs. While a basis in Marxism in itself is not a problem, the way in which his use of Marxist language renders the text impenetrable and ambiguous in places certainly is. Indeed, Invisibility is already an extremely heavy text and the addition of Marxist terminology only serves to complicate matters further as well as sacrificing a degree of credibility as interest in these theories has subsequently subsided.

More worrying, however, is Venuti’s intellectualism and exclusion of non-literary translation, which dictate that the technical translator cannot realistically follow Venuti’s ideas at all given the economic concerns and client demands foregrounded in the professional setting.

Venuti is in the fortunate position of being able to translate with a degree of cultural experimentation rather than bending to commercial constraints and publisher demands as would probably be the case with an inexperienced translator desperate to give a good impression.

Indeed, in one of very few cases of negative reception that his work received he is criticised for this very focus on literary translation and supposedly more legitimate, ‘high brow’ texts. As Anthony Pym suggests in his review of Invisibility: “As long as the translations are kept distant from the masses’ cheap understanding, the professors will be employed to read and talk about those translations,” thus stressing the importance of Venuti’s own continued visibility in academia.

While we cannot underestimate the value of Venuti’s contributions, as modern-day freelance translators we are still left questioning what it really offers us. Ultimately, the more you agree with Venuti’s damning verdict on ‘fluent’ translation strategies, the more galling it is to have zero power in changing this state of affairs (this is something that Terry alluded to in saying that the focus on translators is perhaps misplaced in Venuti’s work, as it is the publishers and decision-makers who have a much greater – yet perhaps still inconsequential – degree of control).

Overall, the fact that we are still talking about Venuti’s work 20 years down the line (perhaps less so these days but still a considerable amount, as demonstrated by recent republications of Invisibility) is both a tribute to the enduring power of his writing and a condemnation of the lack of progress that has been made since. The situation hasn’t changed and neither has our outlook on translation and translation theory. Until something major happens, however, Invisibility remains the key text for understanding what really goes on in the world of translation.

8 thoughts on “Still Invisible? Visiting and Revisiting Venuti

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