Translation’s Identity Crisis

In today’s post I want to take a quick glance at the content and usage of some famous quotes from translation history in an attempt to explore the curious way that translation is viewed and views itself.

For so long now translation has struggled with its identity as a supposedly second-rate activity, with its derivative link to writing, the subservient implications of following someone else’s words and the sense of distrust that the process elicits all feeding into a fairly unflattering stereotype.

This being the case, it is only natural that its practitioners would want to address the way their activity is viewed and, as such, so often in talking about translation we see mentions of artistry and the unfathomable complexity of our task. Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is often done in an attempt to gloss over underlying anxieties related to invisibility and unimportance that remain at the heart of the profession.

Looking through a range of the most frequently cited quotes on translation provides the perfect glimpse into this situation; the majority fall into two distinct categories that neatly characterise the state of our profession from a psychological perspective – ultimately verging on the emergence of a bipolar image of translation and a serious inferiority complex.

The first set of quotations (examples in green below) is filled with a sense of grandeur that ensures that  translation becomes the most important thing in the world, overcompensating for underlying anxieties as a means of justifying career choices and supposedly reinforcing professional standing (echoes of this are found in the title of Lawrence Venuti’s recent release – Translation Changes Everything).

The other set, meanwhile, (examples in red below) directly addresses the underlying worries about unworthiness and inability in our activity and ultimately reverts to the insecurities mentioned above. These quotes reinforce the negative image of copying (e.g. translation as ‘an echo’) and emphasise ideas of failure and loss.

While the true image of translation perhaps lies somewhere in the middle, it is fascinating to see the contrast in viewpoints: the impressions given are either hugely impressive or overwhelmingly disparaging, rarely anything less. (One quote that I do feel finds quite a nice balance and gives a valuable image of translation is this from Edith Grossman: ‘A translation is not made with tracing paper. It is a critical interpretation.’)


Translation is one of the few human activities in which the impossible occurs by principle – Mariano Antolín Rato

Writers make national literature, while translators make universal literature – José Saramago

Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world – Paul Auster

Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence – George Steiner

Translation is the circulatory system of the world’s literatures – Susan Sontag

Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes – Grass Günter

Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture – Anthony Burgess

Translation is entirely mysterious. Increasingly I have felt that the art of writing is itself translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else – Ursula K. Le Guin

Poetry is what gets lost in translation – Robert Frost

As far as modern writing is concerned, it is rarely rewarding to translate it, although it might be easy. Translation is very much like copying paintings – Boris Pasternak

Nothing which is harmonized by the bond of the Muse can be changed from its own to another language without destroying its sweetness – Dante

Translation is sin – Grant Showerman

Poetry cannot be translation – Samuel Johnson

Translation is at best an echo – George Borrow

Translation is the art of failure – Umberto Eco

What is lost in the good or excellent translation is precisely the best – Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel

For me, Eco’s lament perfectly sums up the bipolar view of translation that has dominated history: an overall sense of futility is combined with the elegant label of translation as art.

These days, the positive quotes crop up with great regularity in translation circles and are undeniably pleasant to read. They give us a sense of recognition and allow us to convince ourselves that translation is equal to, or even surpasses, writing. We become ‘heroes’, cultural saviours or super-powered readers who do the ‘impossible’ for the good of the universe.

Beyond their extravagance, however, the main problem here lies in the fact that in using these quotes within translation circles (as is so often the case) we are looking inward in an act of patting ourselves on the back, lauding the fact that we achieve this ‘impossible’ goal on a daily basis while the outside world still doesn’t see the significance of our work.

Translation needs to develop its wider image in order to be seen as a truly legitimate profession and what we need to change is the misguided perceptions that exist of what is involved in our task. Outside of translation the most commonly used cliché is that of things being ‘lost in translation’ and this reflects badly on us. In professional terms, meanwhile, translation is all too often viewed as a part-time activity that anyone with some knowledge of a second language can fit into their spare time to earn a bit of extra pocket-money.

In schools (in the UK at least) we are taught from the very outset that translation is merely a means of ensuring comprehension. When faced with the command ‘translate this passage’ in an exam we are to show that we have done our vocabulary homework – notions of entire contexts or cultures are completely ignored.

Nowhere is it mentioned that so much of our literature, so much of the world around us has undergone this process of translation, leaving us with the implication that it is just a case of swapping one word for another.

I’ve often tried to dispel myths such as these in my blog by demonstrating the complexity of the task at hand but claiming that we are producing works of art or changing the world on a daily basis (as seen above) smacks of overcompensation when given the reality of the situation. Indeed, this in turn feeds into a lack of professional credibility as we can’t expect to be taken seriously if we make such outlandish claims beyond our own community.

Ultimately, ideas such as that of good translation going unnoticed may well be deeply engrained (to the extent of being the ideal by which translations are judged in many professional contexts) but we can still increase awareness of what we do. Unfortunately, in offering up exaggerated accounts of our work’s demands to one-another or wallowing in self-pity, we are going about it the wrong way.

It is clear that translation remains misunderstood by so many people and perhaps what is needed is a focus on consistently and clearly explaining what is at stake to communities beyond the confines of the discipline/profession for them to learn to trust and value translation for what it is.

What is certain for now is that translation needs to be more secure in its own identity. Our inability to provide perfection has gradually led to the development of a profession that can seem to be unduly insufficient. We need to be not only sure of our own value, but also realistic about the value we offer as we look to overcome this professional identity dilemma.

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.