Lost in Treason: How Translators Shoot Themselves in the Foot with Their Critical Incompetence

by on Dec.28, 2010

I either protest or zone out whenever the debate at translation-related events shifts to the topic of how marginalized translation and translators are. First of all, I don’t think it’s entirely true everywhere; there seems to be a lot of hunger for good translations of poetry in the small press community, in my experience. Secondly, not all publicity is good publicity.

Tonight NPR’s All Things Considered opened a series on collaboration in the arts. Lo and behold, the first installment was about translation. My interest was piqued, but I only set myself up for disappointment. First off, the story wasn’t about collaborative translation, as I anticipated, but about translation as a sort of collaboration between an author and a translator. (Interestingly, though, the authors given as examples were long dead.)

Edith Grossman, the first interviewee and translator of Don Quixote, articulated a very straightforward and uncomplicated connection between the text and its author:

When Edith Grossman translates a book, she begins to feel a closeness to the author who wrote it. “The more talented the writer, the more open the door is into his or her mind,” she explains. […] “I dearly love him,” she says. “I would love to have a meal with him, I’d love to have a couple of drinks with him, to sit and chat and talk about literature and all the other things you talk about with someone you are really very fond of.”

Later on, she did return to speaking about the text, only to revert back to fantasizing about her man Cervantes:

The key to unlocking what the author intended, says Grossman, can always be found in the text itself.

“The text brings you in,” she explains. “I think one of the things that happens when you read carefully is that you feel as if you are looking at the world through the eyes of someone else.”

Lydia Davis, the translator of Madame Bovary (and, perhaps more importantly, of Proust and Blanchot), begged to differ, although NPR’s Lynn Neary didn’t realize there were two conflicting views:

Like Grossman, translator Lydia Davis also says the text is paramount. “It’s usually been a partnership between me and the text, rather than me and the original author,” Davis says.

After a promising start, though, Davis reached for the most atrocious of translation clichés (and let me also point out Neary’s curious distrust of the translator who is also a writer):

Davis […] is also known for her own writing. But Davis doesn’t think a translator should ever impose his or her own style on the translation. “I think that’s a tremendous betrayal of the author,” Davis says. “And so I am very used to keeping myself well in the background, and speaking in the voice and in the manner — as much as I can — of the original author.”

How do we explain that a translator of Davis’ caliber is capable of spewing out such a hackneyed platitude? She even uses the B-word. In reality, and to her credit as a translator, what Davis says she’s doing and what she’s actually doing are two different things, as even a small excerpt can attest. This disconnect between theory and practice is all too common in the centuries-long metatalk on translation.

If nothing else, the conversation needs a third voice. Someone who not only understands the complex relationship between the author as a function of the text and the author as a physical person, but can also speak competently on issues currently debated in translation theory. Here’s Jen Hofer, whose recent translations include sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and Septiembre by Mexican poet Dolores Dorantes and lip wolf by Mexican poet Laura Solórzano. The following excerpts come from Hofer’s essay Suspension of Belief: Some Thoughts on Translation as Subversive Speech.

Jen Hofer on translation as a reflexive practice:

Translation is sunspots: what we are seeing (or hearing or reading) is the obstruction and the thing (the word and the idea of words) itself as set off — contoured — illuminated — by the obstruction. The obstruction is the snag in language that foreign syntax or vocabulary or construction creates — a little sunspot in an otherwise smooth field of light — the outlines of which heighten our awareness of the spot, our awareness of the sun. That small strangeness that throws both the foreign and the familiar into relief so we see the thing seen, and also see our sight, our process of apprehension and assimilation.

On the fallacy of neutral style:

Contemporary American English is too often polluted by a monological megalomaniacal English-only xenophobic imperialism that seeks to impose — via “shock and awe” or “enduring freedom” or “extreme rendition” — a language of hegemonically-defined totality on the rest of the world. This English needs to have its ears boxed. Literally, English needs to learn to hear differently. And thus to speak differently, to think differently, to act differently.

On translation as transformation and the importance of the reader:

This is, I believe, the only way to consider translation of any sort, and even the translation which is communication: the same phrases spoken in exactly the same words do not mean the same things in different contexts, sounded through different bodies, at different moments. Communication can only exist in the space between two bodies or fields, between two intentions: the intention to be understood, the intention to understand. It is an act of trust, and any kind of singularly top-down or one-way utterance cannot be communication, but is instead imposition: leaflets dropped from fighter jets to bombard the populace with “information,” no chance of response, no chance of conversation.

Enough said.

23 comments for this entry:
  1. Jake Levine

    Working with the text, 100%, is bullshit. Everyone imposes their aesthetic values whether intentionally or not and often times the translation is reflective of the translator’s power to bend the language into that mold. That’s why good writers generally make better translators, well than… translators. They have some idea about aesthetics, the function of the language that the text is being translated in, it’s contemporary context. I like some of that Tao Ching Stephen Mitchell where he throws in some Star Wars reference, well because he thought of Star Wars.

    I’m working with a team of Lithuanians helping them translate some contemp. work (I don’t speak Lithuanian). It’s a trying process, collaborative translation, particularly when you have a language gap and there are so many poets with opinions involved… but it makes it interesting.

  2. Johannes

    Something people don’t talk about is that translators are also influenced by the source text. It’s such an obvious point but it’s usually brought up in a different context alltogether. What this leads me to is that translation challenges the very notion of this stable text that can be brought over into another language – the only way to read translations is as junctures of flows, not as these stable products/texts.


  3. Johannes

    Also, Jake, most translators are also writers. They have to be. Unless you want the translation to be an academic footnote in the scholarly edition. I reject any blanket statement that translators are worse than writer-translators. Or that such a person exists. Of course Lydia Davis is quite the writer and quite the translator despite her short-comings when it comes to theorizing her work.


  4. Alex Cigale

    Egyptian scribes were required to be begin by swearing an oath to the effect that “I have neither added nor subtracted a note,” a warranty of faithfulness. There may be absolutes in the spiritual realm, but in life there are no guaranties. Do not trust what a writer says (it’s mre likely he/she mean the exact opposite); get it in writing. The reality is of course more analogous to the Hippocratic oath, an acknowledgement of one’s (everyone’s) responsibility to “above all else, do no harm.” But in life there is no such thing as a free lunch. For the translator — as for the physician, who must weigh the often contradictory survival rates vs. life expectancy and leaven that with the imprecision of quality of life, as for the economist who must balance risk vs. return and also consider unintended consequences, as fighting is for healthy marriages an opportunity for more positive interactions — there’s no gain without pain. That is (as for any writer,) the higher the risk the higher the payoff. I did identify more with Grossman’s sense of accomplishing an intimacy with the writer being translated but would question the nature of her ideal relationship (having dinner with, as she puts it.) In my experience, a succesful translation requires an even greater act of empathy and humanity: while retaining a critical distance, simultaneously, as fully as it is possible, stepping into another’s shoes.
    P.S. I had the opportunity recently to address the issue of “faithfulness” with respect to my, and Paul Schmidt’s, translations of the Russian modernist Khlebnikov: http://elimae.com/2010/07/Khleb.html

  5. Jake Levine

    I didn’t quite understand that last msg, A.C. but maybe it’s late for me and too absent.

    Dear J,

    there are better and worse translations. maybe not. maybe so. lydia davis is a genius writer / translator. I’m thinking maybe celan. hamburger v.s felstiner v.s joris. joris is kind of a gangster. so i take his gangsterliness and translate that upon his translation of celan. not to detract from the others, but to state my preference of joris over the others translation. felstiner’s over hamburger’s deathfugue obviously, but joris over everyone else generally, and in particular, all of breathturn. dear jesus. genius. but i have no right, as i can’t access the text in its own language. so i add my own sensibility as a reader… not an author or translator. as far as translation… i take the nicanor parra route. let the translator try to transmit the duende or energy or interpretation or whatever. there is so much the author can do outside their own language… so much the translator can do with a text outside the translation. it is always a new text.

  6. Josef Horáček

    Yes: “above all else, do no harm.” That is the translator’s hypocritical oath. Damage control, the treatment of symptoms, false modesty. Acknowledge some losses, but by no means admit to any creative input. The whole operation may appear successful if you leave out the dead Iraqis.

    In her book _Enlarging Translation, Empowering Translators_, Maria Tymoczko calls this the postpositivist theory of translation. It certainly has close ties to literary realism. I don’t have any particular problems with realism, as long as it’s one of many approaches. (But then, would it still be realism? It appears that realism is adverse to multiplicity.)

    It seems that an increasing number of translators no longer subscribe to this mode of thinking. And again, there are many competent translators (Davis) who preach one thing and practice quite another.

    Let’s stop preaching to the choir and reach out. There’s a comment stream attached to the NPR story on their website (see link above). Put in your 5c worth.

  7. Johannes


    I actually find Joris and Hamburger very similar as translators in the sense when you compare their actual translations, they are pretty similar. Joris’s is a bit catchier, more affective perhaps. But as translator-editors they are quite different, Joris emphasizing the later work more. And that’s important I think.

  8. Lucas

    I don’t think there’s anything theoretically unsophisticated–let alone “hackneyed platitude”–about a translator saying she wants her style to stay in the background (“the B-word”). Rather, I think it’s an essential portal into some of the most necessary–and necessary to investigate–paradoxes of literary translation.

    As for the “disconnect between theory and practice” in “the centuries-long metatalk on translation” being “all too common”… what, you think things would be better if theory and practice were united? You think theory and practice ever could, let alone should, speak as one? If they did, what need would we have for theory at all?


  9. Natallia Stelmak

    I’m not sure how Jen Hofer’s point about sunspots creates any distinction between translation and literature itself. Isn’t this what all writing does — lets us “see the thing seen, and also see our sight, our process of apprehension and assimilation”? If writing doesn’t do that, why is it worth reading? But the last business just seems like an obscurely put platitude. Language is about communication? Wow.

    As for Davis and Grossman, when someone can translate as well as either one of them, I really don’t care too much about what they say about their process. And I am inclined to believe Davis, at least, given how different her translations of Proust and Flaubert are from one another, and from her own stories, which she is also able to write as her own unique works.

  10. Josef Horáček

    Those are good questions, Lucas. Let me try to clarify some of my points. Translation theory, according to the long-dominant postpositivist school (other people may call it linguistics-based, instrumental, mimetic – take your pick) argues that the translator ought to remain invisible, meaning he or she shouldn’t impose their own stylistic choices but simply follow certain established rules of translation to produce a “faithful” rendition. The resulting text shouldn’t read as a translation – it should sound “fluent” or “idiomatic.” This approach is based on a belief in the primacy and irreproducible originality of the source text and often treats the source text as a stable, transcendent entity. A translation, by extension, is secondary, derivative, and outright deficient (hence the phrases “lost in translation” or “traduttore, tradittore”). The result is a conundrum: a text that creates a powerful illusion of being the original and yet is never accepted as such.

    Critics have argued that the focus on fluency compels translators to 1. privilege the standard version of the target language over dialect, slang, neologisms, archaisms, unusual syntax, etc.; 2. explicate culture-specific references and anything else that might appear too foreign and unassimilable; and 3. use a well-established literary genre (in the target culture) as the context with which the translation will resonate. It’s generally more about avoiding mistakes than it is about producing a text with a personality. In practice, of course, the combined influence of the source text and the translator’s individual style results in deviations from these rules, sometimes for the worse, other times for the better.

    What I see happening in Lydia Davis’ case, for example, is that she doesn’t follow these traditional rules in her translations, at least not fully. In order to translate as well as she does, one must be aware of the stylistic choices one is making and how they relate to one’s own personal style. Also, one must weigh multiple possible approaches to translating a text and not be afraid to make bold, sometimes irreverent choices.

    Even if a translator feels that they are being closely guided by the source text, in reality it is them who selects and organizes every single word in the text. In short, a translation is a brand new text and it is necessarily different from its source.

    When I speak about critical incompetence, I don’t mean to say that those translators don’t have a theory or a method. Most often, they have simply inherited a theory without any critical reflection. They may have also inherited or developed a set of practices that may directly contradict their implicit theory. Then it’s up to other critics to point that out. That’s what we’re doing in this forum.

    I absolutely agree that theory is important in all its forms: speculative theory, descriptive theory based on empirical research, theory as a form of criticism. To better explain what I meant to say: often (you see that happening with influential “theorists” like Jerome, Dryden, etc.), theorists write introductions and commentary to describe or validate their own translations, but these efforts are not always well thought-out or even genuine. They are apologies rather than theories. Again, it’s the theorists’ job to point this out.

  11. Natallia Stelmak

    Well, but if there is such a thing as “art of translation”, are there any rules for this art? Guidelines or theories could be given to the translators, but wouldn’t they limit creativity in some way? Is theory an aid to practice or to study of practice?

  12. Josef Horáček

    Natallia, I agree that the “sunspots” analogy can be taken to describe literature, or even art in general, and I think that’s precisely the point. Translation that doesn’t illuminate the process of seeing and apprehension, both the translator’s and the reader’s, is not worth reading. The so-called invisible translator, which is the well-entrenched ideal, must mask all these processes to remain invisible. He or she produces a transparent text, which is easily mistaken for a transparent translation, that is, a translation that allows for the source text to shine through, as Benjamin would say, but that’s not the case. Instead, the text is transparent in the sense of being flat and unobtrusive, thin rather than thick, barely literature at all.

    The distinction between translation and non-translation (adaptation, imitation, version, pastiche, appropriation, reworking – there are all these borderline genres) is fuzzy and unstable, and translation shares more with the creative process than some are willing to admit. Like all cultural practices, translation lacks a precise definition; it’s organized around a set of conventions or norms that change over time.

    As for your second point, I think that communication wasn’t a well-chosen concept. I’m pretty sure that Hofer doesn’t intend to reduce literature to communication in the strict sense. The main point I take from that excerpt is that the meaning of a text mutates as the the text passes from context to context and from reader to reader, even if the words appear unchanged. Which in translation they don’t.

  13. Josef Horáček

    Good point. As I mentioned in the previous comment, translation doesn’t have a definition or rules, more like norms that are defined through usage. To put it simply: we translate (and read and critique translations) in a certain way, because, well, that’s how we’ve been doing it up till now. But we may of course choose to bend the rules if we’re willing to take that risk. (Although not bending them may be risky, too. In spite of all the empty praise and encouragement that get tossed around, translation is generally viewed as a suspicious and possibly immoral activity.)

    I’m not a big fan of prescriptive theories, like those proposed by the various postpositivist schools, which actually formulates sets of specific rules to follow or else. A lot of translation theory today is descriptive (how things have been done) or speculative (how things could be done). Of course, you can argue that even those may be de facto prescriptive if they become influential, but that’s another topic.

  14. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Put very simply, my feelings are that as long as there’s a kind of acknowledgment that a translated text will always include some ratio of involvement on both ends whether one likes it or not, I’m all right with someone feeling that they want to strive for minimizing their involvement as much as possible. It will never be zero but I think that’s a given.

    Should go without saying I’m even more all right with someone deciding they want to sink their fingers into the subtle dips & cracks and tear that text wide open, letting dirty air into all the freshly torn recesses.

  15. Lucas

    Hi, Josef–

    I’m very aware of the critique of what you (via Tymoczko) call “postpositivist” translation theory, and I appreciate your laying it out there for those of us a bit less clear on its arguments. But while that critique–which I associate mostly with Lawrence Venuti–has moved the debate forward in a lot of ways, it’s also blind to a handful of other questions.

    First of all, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the ethic of fluency makes the translator invisible. Look at Hawthorne, who had an ethic of transparent language in his fiction–yet no one believes his stories wrote themselves; Johnny Depp inhabits his roles more than any other Hollywood actor I can think of, but no one would suggest that he doesn’t exist. Rather, the translator’s invisibility, as I see it, is a matter of context, not text. Conversely, there’s no benefit to us as a class (translators) in having our visibility come at the cost of bad translations (the problem is that while we all seem to know what it means for something NOT to “read as a translation,” we have no consensus about what it might mean to “read as a translation,” except to say that it’s full of awkwardness and impenetrable, ungrammatical language). And while obviously translation shares a lot with the “creative process,” in our age of indulgent post-Beat workshop writing, too often that turns into an excuse for an anythinggoesism that’s happy to leave the source text behind (see my review of a particular anthology of Chinese poetry in English: http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2008spring/zhanger.shtml). As a result, we’re replacing the “author function” and its “belief in the primacy and irreproducible originality” of the “stable, transcendent entity” that is “the source text” with a “translator function” that does the same thing but for the piece of writing in English instead of the foreign language. All Italians become Italian-Americans. A “xenophobic imperialism that seeks to impose … hegemonically-defined totality,” indeed!

    Things get even worse when we deal with non-Western languages. While in English we can tolerate a good deal of stylized foreignism from Italian or Spanish–even JH’s primarily Mexican Spanish–we haven’t done so well with Asian or African languages and representing their grammars in ways that don’t sound essentializing and racist. In Chinese, which is the language from which I translate, it’s pretty clear that “our” representation of how “they” think/speak is possible only within the confines of “our” imagination of “them” as an underdeveloped “other” (w/r/t Chinese, I want to call foreignizing translations Charlie Chanism, but Huang Yunte’s new book makes me think I should find another example). So the critique of postpositivism ends up being as ethnocentric in its premises as it accuses postpositivism of being.

    And that’s not the only place that the bad old attitudes of postpostivism creep back in. If you say “a translation is a brand new text and it is necessarily different from its source,” then essentially you’re agreeing with the “impossibility of translation” thesis, which is where I see the “phrases ‘lost in translation’ or ‘traduttore, tradittore'” coming from, as if no translation were ever possible, despite the fact that they happen all the time. Such an attitude, I think, posits that the loss, that the treason, occurs in the duplicity of calling a new original text–which of course must be valued, because we haven’t really deconstructed the ideology that sets us worshiping at the altar of “originality” at all–a translation, which of course it cannot be, because nothing ever is. And I don’t like that one bit.

    So, keeping in mind that translators in general have a very hard time of understanding–of really paying attention to–what they’re doing, let me be clear: I believe that different texts need to be translated in different ways. But that essentially means that the translator’s own style must be “in the background,” because the translator has to listen to what the source text–in all its largeness, in all its polyvocality–is saying, and also what the target language–and the sub-languages of the target genres–are saying, too, instead of imposing his or her own will on the text in question and saying, like Humpty-Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, that the words mean whatever the translator wants them to mean. If that’s where we sit, then we’re probably up for a great fall, and all the king’s horses won’t be able to put us back together again.

    That means, then, that the way to avoid “simply follow[ing] certain established rules of translation to produce a ‘faithful’ rendition” is not to buck those traditions reflexively, but rather to engage with those established rules and in the process change them, create out of them something more fitting for us as translators and readers of translations. We may want to challenge norms, but we can’t just start over from scratch, as if human history has not been in existence for a very long time.


  16. Johannes

    Lucas (this is not the regular Lucas BTW),

    You make lots of good points here. Can I just post this as a new post so that then we can post responses to it with greater ease??


  17. Lucas

    Hi, Johannes–

    Thanks. Please do.

    (but… I’m not the regular Lucas? You mean, there’s some regular Lucas out there?)


  18. Johannes

    Yes, we have a regular contributor named Lucas de Lima. He’s the regular Lucas, you’re the irregular Lucas.


  19. Lucas

    I like that. I’m going to start signing my posts as “irregular Lucas.”

    irregular Lucas

  20. Josef Horáček

    Irregular Lucas, I’d like to respond to your comment in some detail, because I think we have a good conversation going here. I’ll post my reply after Johannes converts your comment to an (ir)regular blog entry.

  21. Alex Cigale

    “In theory there is a big difference between theory and practice, but in practice there isn’t.” Thus spake that guru of the diamond, Yogi Berra. I am also reminded of the quip and would say that like politics, translation IS “the art of the possible” (given that much of the ideal Josef has outlined for us here is impossible, at least in translating poetry). I should add then that my practice is in no way analogous to the two discussants who instigated this post precisely because I translate poetry. I would say that both my practice and my theory operate on a single principle: contigency (by any means necessary). Jake: In general, I was weighing in on the side of “doing violence” (but only of the absolutely necessary kind) to text. I have already imposed my aesthetics on the target text by virtue of having selected it, so that there is I think a remarkable consistency to most of the poets’ work in my English versions. This is the case covering a decade of work and scores of poets from quite distinctive poetic practices. It may or may not surprise that the strong poets I’ve translated (at least the living ones) not only not balk but even grudging approve of such a practice because I do so in the service of the text. As I ask in the article on Khlebnikov with regard to faithfulness: “Is the translator’s primary allegiance to the author, the reader, or the text? What could the last of these possibly mean in practice?” And “Is it inadmissible to ask whether a translator may improve on the original? Since so few of the possibilities of the original are available in the target language, may it ever be legitimate for the translator to add her own contributions suggested by the possibilities of the new language?”

  22. Josef Horáček

    Alex, I’m not aware of outlining any ideal. I definitely prefer to think about translation within the realm of the possible. Check out the comment stream below Lucas’ more recent post on the same topic.

  23. alex

    Talking about translations – here is from Russian, the great one%
    The 25th ANNIVERSARY EDITION of the most scandalous book in Russian
    Literature has been just published:

    Alexander S. Pushkin Secret Journal 1836-1837

    ISBN 978-0-916201-28-9
    see: http://www.mipco.com/english/push.html


    The hero of the work, Alexander Pushkin, presents in an encapsulated form his various sexual relations, his complex thoughts on life, the nature of sin, love, and creativity, as well as the complicated path that led him to his tragic end.

    The Secret Journal has incited and continues to incite the most contradictory responses reflected in three volumes of Parapushkinistika.
    Now published in 25 countries (http://www.mipco.com/win/AllCovers.html), the Secret Journal deserves to be placed among the most scandalous works of Russian literature.
    In spite of the international success of Pushkin’s Secret Journal lasting now a quarter century, no major U.S. publisher has dared to publish it.

    New French (http://www.belfond.fr) and Spanish (http://www.funambulista.net) editions of the Secret Journal are being published in 2011.