Lucas Klein on Translation

by 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]

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: 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.


11 comments for this entry:
  1. Lucas

    As a point of clarification, the passages that appear in quotes here are taken from Josef’s original post and the comments that follow ( ). Exceptions are “translator function,” “impossibility of translation,” and where I’m talking about “our” representation of how “they,” the Chinese “others,” think. The point about “xenophobic imperialism” is from Jen Hofer, and she’s the JH I mention in the following paragraph.

    Since the link to my review of Another Kind of Nation has gotten cluttered, here it is again:

    and here’s a link to another piece that talks about — in a very different way — translation and the ego, in a write-up of the event where I first met Johannes:

    irregular Lucas

  2. Johannes

    Thanks for links. You dont really explain my argument for being opposed to “american literature” so when i later respond to your piece ill do that as well.

  3. Kent Johnson

    “Irregular Lucas,” indeed– one of the most serious, provocative thinkers going in area of translation poetics… We need you around more, Lucas.

    See Lucas’s journal Cipher, an irreplaceable gathering of materials on thinking-through the problems of translation.

    Lucas, one thing I’m wondering here: Where would, for instance, Jerome Rothenberg’s views, as expressed in “Composition as Translation/Translation as Composition”
    fit, in relation to your comments here? In other words (and I realize it’s the old problem), how much closer are we to figuring where translation stops and poetry begins? Or vice versa? That seems to me still the most interesting question, worked over in some ways as it’s been, with a whole final frontier beyond it.


  4. Johannes Göransson


    Do you ever express any thoughts without falling back on rankings – greatest writer, best young british poet, most provocative thinker etc?


  5. Kent Johnson


    Reading your post again, this question occurred to me: Is there (or should there be) a clear line dividing “translation” from “imitation”? In the Renaissance, that golden age of Translation, it doesn’t seem the line was always all that clear, and numerous poets were happily engaging in quasi “post-positivist” treatments of texts. Still, it seems these were considered translations, without too much anxiety, or at least until Dryden began to parse things along proto-theoretical lines.

    Regardless, where would we be without those liberally supplemented efforts of imitation? And given that they’ve proven so worthy, so central to everything, really, in the canon, I wonder why the practice is largely abandoned now? A very few poets practice it as a form of poetry, I know, but translators don’t seem to much consider it a legitimate mode within their own art.

    You have much greater expertise on these issues than I do, but don’t you think there are senses in which the freer mode of imitation might sometimes render a greater, more total faithfulness than more “precise” modes of translation? Or at least fathom particular dimensions of faithfulness that more literal gestures can’t reach (I’m speaking more of poetry here than prose–it seems the previous discussion around Lydia Davis was conflating the two genres vis a vis translation problems, which I don’t think one should)?

    Curious what you think. Don’t know if you might have seen this, but here’s something I’ve written regarding the matter:


  6. Lucas

    Hi, Kent–

    Thanks for those questions (& for the superlatives). I’m not sure where to begin (and even less sure where to end; I am sure only that this will take some time), so I guess I should start at the beginning…

    My long post above was preceded by a shorter response to Josef’s take on Lydia Davis’s “critical incompetence” in saying, “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.” I wrote, ‘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.’

    Josef’s response elaborated on Venuti’s argument, and led to my longer post (above), but I go into this expository detail just to say that my thoughts here are in response to a specific instance, and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as my attempt at a prescriptivist aesthetic of how all translations should be, let alone a descriptivist take on how all translations always have been. And yet, at the same time, they both describe and prescribe something of how I want translations, and translation theory, to be.

    When I said “necessary … paradoxes of literary translation,” I wasn’t kidding.

    So to answer both your questions, Kent, I think it’s plain that in history, translations have been made for many purposes. Not only that, very good translations have been made for many purposes. As far as the Renaissance goes, one thing that’s happened between then and now was the development of the ethic of accuracy, of fidelity. It seems like a 19th century German invention to me, probably concomitant with the rise of the modern university and disciplines such as philology and the belief that everything could be scientific, but honestly I’m not sure. But at any rate, I don’t think any contemporaries of Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses (1567, the book Pound called the most beautiful in the language) were reading it looking for “howlers” in his handling of the Latin. I don’t think Pope’s Homer (c. 1720) was criticized by professors of Greek. And yet Ezra Pound’s translations always have to come up against people like me saying, this isn’t what the original says! This isn’t what the original means! or meant! (probably what it “meant” is more important to a lot of people in my line of work than what it “means”; we like to act as if what it “meant,” at any rate, is determinate.) In George Kennedy’s 1958 article “Fenollosa, Pound and the Chinese Character” ( ), the review closes with this little nugget: “Undoubtedly this is fine poetry. Undoubtedly it is bad translation.” For most of the modern era, many people have viewed translation as something very different from poetry. Even poetry translation. I mean, I don’t have to quote Robert Frost to prove this point, do I?

    But if it’s not too hard for us to realize that translation has a history and over the course of that history the things readers have demanded of it (and who those readers have been… once upon a time you could believe that translations were meant for people who couldn’t read the source language; nowadays you have to wonder if anyone who can’t read the source language ever bothers with translation at all!) have changed, it’s harder to remember that poetry, too, has changed. I don’t mean that poems have changed (because that’s obvious), but rather that what it means for a poem to be a poem has changed. At the same time as the birth of modernity and the scientifically-oriented university was the rise of its shadow, the Romantic poet, the lone rebel, the isolated genius, the self, the author, the ego… poetry was no longer accountable–its strength was in its unaccountability–but all of a sudden translation was.

    As a reader and a scholar of translation, the writers I’ve been most interested are those who are trying in one way or another to change the norms of poetry and translation, and using one to push (and push against) the other. Ezra Pound is an obvious node, as is Jerry Rothenberg. Interestingly, Charles Olson seems to link these two in strange ways. In JR’s piece on CipherJournal (also his pre-face to _Writing Through_), he mentions ‘Olson’s rant, say, against “the lyrical interference of the individual as ego.”’ I don’t know enough of the context of Olson to know what JR’s referring to here, but it does resonate with something Olson says in his “Mayan Letters” to Robert Creeley: “Ez’s epic solves problem by his ego: his single emotion breaks all down to his equals or inferiors … thus creates the methodology of the Cantos, viz, a space-field where, by inversion, though the material is all time material, he has driven through it so sharply by the beak of his ego, that, he has turned time into what we must now have, space & its live air” (no period ending that sentence).

    Again, I have little clue about what that might mean, but it does at the least show the unifying factor of the CANTOS to be EP’s ego. This seems to be a central idea, too, in both poetry and translation under modernity. Certainly EP’s SHIH-CHING translations are similarly organized around the principle of EP’s ego. Certainly, in translating a collection of bronze-age texts that, in Chinese, have become organized around a historical unification that led to a moral unification and spawned a mythological unification in the idea that they had been compiled by Confucius (who supplants their original authorlessness, their communal origins), maybe EP had no other choice but to use his own ego as the organizing principle of these poems in English. Interestingly, however, EP’s CATHAY translations are not so ego-driven. There, he seems interested above-all in suppressing his ego… they’re barely even recognizable as Ezra Pound works… but I wonder if he isn’t doing this to get at a central idea of Chineseness… or maybe the fact that they’re mostly by one author (Li Bai, whom EP calls “Rihaku,” paradoxically one of the most ego-centric of all pre-modern Chinese poets…)…

    Before this descends into an endless string of ellipses, I think I should just say that, in looking towards the history of poetry and the history of translation and trying to advocate for a new ethic of egolessness that can remain open to certain paradoxes, my mind often circulates around these two points, as written down by Eliot Weinberger (I’ll link to your “Notes on Notes on Translation, Kent: ): “The object of a translation into English is not a poem in English,” and “A translation is based on the dissolution of the self. A bad translation is the insistent voice of the translator.” The paradoxical rub I find between these two points, Kent, leads to your comment that “Our selves are always in our translations, and no less, I’d say, when we pretend they aren’t…”

    Anyway, I’m sure there’s more to say. Thanks again for the opportunity to let loose with a few rounds.

    irregular Lucas

  7. Kent Johnson

    Lucas, thanks for this incredibly rich and thought-provoking reply. I’ve printed it out to spend more time with it.

    In meantime, I can’t help but share this link from a new “video sharing website,” launched by some younger culture jammers. They’ve just sent it to me, asking if it’s OK to have their main page devoted to a torqued excerpt from the essay on translation by Alexandra Papaditsas, from the Jacket link I gave yesterday.

    True serendipity!

  8. Josef Horáček

    irregular Lucas,

    Your post raises a lot of good issues. Let me respond to some of them:

    You say, “it doesn’t necessarily follow that the ethic of fluency makes the translator invisible.” Sure, the translator can never be completely invisible. There are always breaches in the surface of the text. The difference is that postpositivist theories view those moments where the act of translation comes to the surface as undesirable disruptions and choose to either point them out as mistakes or gloss over them, whereas many translators and critics today may embrace them as meaningful in various ways.

    As you probably know, in his earlier critiques, Venuti used the term fluency unproblematically and drew fire from folks like Douglas Robinson. Since then, he and others have recognized that fluency is not “natural” but like everything else concerning language is constructed and highly contextual. It differs depending on the reader’s language proficiency, education level, cultural background, etc. As I said in my initial post, there’s no such thing as neutral language, even though realism would like us to believe there is. But when you say, “we all seem to know what it means for something NOT to ‘read as a translation,’” you imply that we all have a very specific idea of what fluency means for us (even if it’s not the same for everyone), and I think there’s definitely a link between fluency and the idea of the translator’s invisibility. When something doesn’t read as a translation, then the translator remains invisible.

    Invisibility is not a passive position but an active, creative decision, and I agree with what you said about Hawthorne (but not with what you said about Depp, because he’s certainly not a realist).

    And yes, the conversation has moved forward (or away) since the initial wave of critiques in the 1980s and 1990s. I’m very interested in writing about translation without falling back on all the classic dichotomies (original/copy; word-for-word/sense-for-sense; domestication/foreignization). I was simply reacting to Lydia Davis’ pronouncements, which seemed to rehash a bit too uncritically tired old ways of talking about translating and translators. It just struck me as rather disconnected from what she’s actually doing as a translator, as her choices seem very deliberate, premeditated, and individual.

    You add that “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.” Not necessarily, at least not the way I see it. We’re not trying to replace one hegemony with another but allow for a plurality of approaches. I like when translators try out multiple approaches and develop methods that are specific to each particular text. Even fluency is a perfectly acceptable choice for many situations (unless it becomes hegemonic). Here I’m clearly agreeing with what you said. The difference is that I don’t think simply staying “in the background” will do the trick. The translator, just like any writer, must experiment with various writing styles and processes in order to discover his or her strengths or weaknesses as a writer and to know his or her aesthetic proclivities and how they may mesh with particular source texts. We may call it staying in the background, but it requires a lot of active work, critical reflection, and creativity.

    I didn’t understand your connection between the author function and the belief in a stable, original text. I think you may have misunderstood what I was saying. But anyway, of course the “translator function” takes a certain primacy in the translated text. The translator is the person that chooses every single word in the new text. And the text operates in a completely new context. It doesn’t hurt for translations to be aware of this. But no, impenetrable and ungrammatical language is not the only way to produce reflexive or non-realist translations, even though there are some excellent ungrammatical translations, in my opinion.

    “So the critique of postpositivism ends up being as ethnocentric in its premises as it accuses postpositivism of being.” Precisely. Translation is ethnocentric, violent, and appropriative, and it helps to be clear and open about that, rather than hiding behind a false ethic of invisibility. It also matters how a particular translation functions in the target culture. Does it challenge our own stereotypes (“the Chinese are underdeveloped”)? Does it offer an alternative perspective? Does it force us to be perhaps a bit less ethnocentric in our worldview? I, for one, would love to see more translations from contemporary Chinese writing, especially poetry.

    I’m not talking about the impossibility of translation. On the contrary, I talk about translation as a cultural practice, as already happening, whether we like it or not. That things change in translation doesn’t imply loss; it’s a simple statement about translation, not a comment on its (im)possibility.

    We’re certainly not starting from scratch. There’s a long history of precedents to what we see happening today. The problem is that that history is rarely presented in any coherent way – it’s mostly brought up as a series of disconnected aberrations. Although, you and Kent have begun piecing together a certain lineage: Pound, Olson, Rothenberg…

  9. Josef Horáček


    I think you misunderstand what I mean by postpositivist translation (when you say “numerous poets were happily engaging in quasi ‘post-positivist’ treatments of texts”), probably because my initial post got mashed into the ground by the pointy feet of a hapless ballerina. Postpositivist schools of translation are those that aspire to a science and advocate for the translator’s invisibility.

  10. Lucas

    Hi, Kent — looks pretty cool. I look forward to it. Also to your thoughts in this conversation.

    And hi, Josef —

    Obviously you and I agree on a lot of things. At the root of this, probably, is a real care and concern for, and a belief in the importance and possibility of, translation, even and especially literary translation. So when you say you see “translation as a cultural practice, as already happening, whether we like it or not,” of course I agree. And when you say “That things change in translation doesn’t imply loss; it’s a simple statement about translation, not a comment on its (im)possibility,” I know what you mean, and trust that you’re not interested in being mired in the logic of translation equating loss. Nevertheless, I think there’s a possibility that if we talk about “change” in translation and the “originality” of the translation, we’re no further away from fetishizing closure and denying difference, within or between texts and cultures.

    But disagreements of this sort are mild, can be resolved by a matter of tweaking, and may ultimately be based on misunderstanding each other. Another example is when you say “Sure, the translator can never be completely invisible” in response to my comment that “it doesn’t necessarily follow that the ethic of fluency makes the translator invisible.” Actually, you’re responding in the wrong direction: probably what I should have written was “it doesn’t follow that the ethic of fluency is what makes the translator invisible.” In other words, I think that the “translator’s invisibility” is indeed a problem, but I don’t see it having much to do with the way we translate. When I said it’s “a matter of context, not text,” this is what I meant: that the fact that we as literary translators are underpaid, don’t get our names on the covers of the books we write, are not evaluated even when our books are reviewed, don’t have much say in the publication of our work, and so forth, are all testaments to how we have been made invisible at the hands of … well, let’s not turn this into a polemic. But not only do I not see that this is not related to how we translate, one way or the other, I actually think that if we tried to actively foreignize our texts, things could very easily get worse. Imagine if I wanted to bid on a new translation of Proust, and for “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure,” I translated: “Longtime, I put myself down of good hour” — would I be more or less invisible if I couldn’t get hired as a translator?

    (Now, obviously I know that there is a time and place for that kind of translation. That’s why I started CipherJournal, to create that time and place. I just think that when we’re talking about Grossman and Davis and Cervantes and Flaubert, we’re talking about a different plot in the field of translation. Suffice it to say, I’ve discovered that foreignization usually works better in literature that presents itself as translation, but is not in fact translation proper.)

    Other disagreements we have may be more fundamental. For instance, when you say “Translation is ethnocentric, violent, and appropriative,” I really very adamantly disagree. First of all, translation “IS” not anything at all. Rather, translation only “CAN BE” this or that. As for it being ethnocentric and violent, well, I have to compare it to non-translation: is it more ethnocentric and violent to translate, or not to translate? Is a culture in which there is more or less translation more or less likely to have systemic violence and ethnocentrism? And while it’s possible to say that translation performs, or traffics in, a certain kind of violence, well, I’m afraid that strikes me as faulting the Spanish Republic for being violent, without talking at all about the inherent violence of Franco’s fascists. It’s possible–indeed, very easy–to apply a term to so many things that it ends up being meaningless, and then easily re-deployed by the people we don’t want it to be deployed by (see the Reagan era; see the… well, let’s not turn this into a polemic).

    But back to foreignizing. Actually, I’m not against it. I just think that it has often given me permission to do some pretty lousy translations, because I’ve taken it too far. And when I noticed that, I saw some flaws in the argument–Venuti’s, and so on–that brought me to it. That doesn’t mean that I believe in nativization, necessarily; it just means that we have to find the right balance. And that balance is hard. (if it’s hard for us as translators, it’s probably even harder for us as intellectuals, academics, and/or thinkers: we like to see connections everywhere. but just because we see them doesn’t mean they’re there. Just because Jen Hofer sees a certain translation as imperialistic doesn’t mean it is, and just because we have underpaid translators and translators who believe in “fluency” doesn’t mean that one causes the other. We should also keep in mind that when someone is quoted on NPR, she’s usually being taken out of context, and so there’s not necessarily a connection between what she believes and what she says, let alone what she says and what she does, as you’ve noticed).

    When I teach translation — where I’m not only teaching literary translation, but legal and practical as well — the balance I’ve tried to find in explaining how to translate is not to ask them to translate as if it weren’t translated, but rather to ask them (and this in a city where everything is bilingual, but where most signs marked 女洗手間 then say “Female Toilet”!) to translate so that people can’t tell which came first. And while there are differences between practical, legal, and literary translations, I’ve found that it’s actually a pretty useful way to think about it. Maybe we’re leaving the translator “in the background,” but translation itself is very much at the forefront.

    irregular Lucas

  11. Josef Horáček

    You’re right, Lucas, some of our differences were misunderstandings and some are fundamental disagreements. To clarify a possible misunderstanding before I get to the big stuff: change in translation doesn’t necessarily imply originality. Aside from the fact that I find the term originality problematic, my point is that things change in all translations, or rather, translations are new texts (there is a difference here between “new” and “original”). This is so no matter what the translation method is. What I try to argue for are translations that are reflexive, that is, aware of and open about what happens in translation and how the translator is instrumental in the act. You can produce a fluent translation, but if you frame it with a translator’s preface, for example, you’ve made a step toward reflexivity that most mainstream translations lack. Scholars have been doing this for decades.

    Now for the major disagreements. I do think there is a link between the emphasis on fluency on one hand and merit and economics on the other. And I disagree with what you say. If I were to follow your argument, then I should quit translating poetry, because no one will ever “hire” me to do it in the first place.

    As for foreignization, it can be done poorly, and it can be done well. And what if it panders to certain trends and expectations, however marginal – is it still foreignization? That’s why, as I said earlier, I’m trying to move away from thinking about translation in terms of dichotomies, like foreignization/domestication.

    When I say that translation is ethnocentric, I’m not saying that the alternative (no translation) is better or less ethnocentric. All I’m saying, again, is that it doesn’t hurt to be aware of what actually happens in translation. We are removing a text out of its cultural context and making it intelligible to readers who live in a different cultural milieu and speak another language. That process of making something foreign intelligible amounts to appropriation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. It all depends on how it’s handled.

    Let me rephrase what I said about translation in the previous paragraph (I’m testing ways of writing about translation that don’t rely on the metaphor of [unidirectional] transfer): when we translate, we produce a text in our language and with resonances in our literary and cultural context that bears some recognizable resemblance to a text in another language. This resemblance varies according to what we happen to accept as translation in our culture at a given time. Most of the time, we as readers just take some else’s word for it.

    But now I’m digressing. I’m perfectly comfortable leaving our differences unresolved. Thanks for a good discussion, Lucas and all. Let’s move the conversation to more recent posts on the blog.