by Johannes Goransson on Jan.01, 2011
[Lucas Klein wrote the following in response to Josef’s original post about translation. I thought it made many good points so I thought I should post it as its own post so that people can then respond to it.-Johannes]
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.