22 Theses on Translation

Originally published in Journal of Translation Studies (Hong Kong) 2 (June 1998): 92-117.

This paper presents a series of arguments or theses regarding the field of translation studies, some perhaps fairly obvious to all but I hope useful as a summary statement of where the field has been and where it is going, others rather more controversial and tendentious. All are intended as a goad to discussion. The theses fall into two sections, which I have titled “pluralism” and “anecdotalism,” the former urging an eclectic rather than a narrow or limited, dogmatic or exclusive approach to the field, the latter urging an acceptance and critical transformation of the field’s anecdotal roots rather than the out-and-out rejection of those roots in the name of “system” or “science.”

Part 1 Pluralism

Normative Structures of Equivalence

1. The traditional focus on normative structures of equivalence has stifled translators’ creativity.

This does not mean that translators laboring under normative theoretical regimes have never been creative; but the systematic restriction of translators’ expressive freedom of movement has had a negative impact on translators in several different areas:

2. Error-analysis, the hegemonic concern with making or avoiding, detecting and censuring errors has instilled a deficit model of translation in the imaginations both of the people who do the work and of the people who use it.

Subliminally, because hegemonically, every translation is not potentially wonderful but potentially error-ridden. No translation, we all assume as a matter of course, can ever hope to attain the greatness of the original. Traduttore, we say with a sigh, traditore. The crucial thing for both translators and their critics is not what expressive vision they brought to the work, but where and how and how often they fell short of it. Where translation has been taught, the incessant harping on errors, errors, errors has created a pedagogy that is by definition demoralizing.

3. When faced with problematic source-language passages requiring a creative leap out of the conventional into the radically innovative, translators afraid of censure have developed a chronic unwillingness to take risks.

This has fostered a variety of timid practices designed to protect the translator from attack — even, in many cases, from execution — such as literalism, transliteration (leaving the problematic word or phrase untranslated, see Pym 1992: 73ff), calque, or unobtrusive fluency (Venuti 1995), and has effectively demonized or repressed various “maverick” creative solutions.

4. Normative structures of equivalence have been stifling for translation scholars as well.

Because translation scholars for centuries (and until very recently) have been concerned solely with “the best kind of translation,” and have treated the translator as a mere vehicle for achieving that end, hundreds of fruitful and essential research avenues have been systematically cut off. As a result we know very little today about how translators translate, neurologically, psychologically, sociologically, or politically. Almost nothing is known about the cultural and political processes by which certain texts are selected for translation, translators found and supervised and paid for them, channels found for their marketing and distribution, etc.

New Knowledge

5. We need enormous quantities of new knowledge about translation.

Primary research is currently being done in all the areas mentioned in 4; we need to continue, and continue to expand, these efforts. We also need to push into other — areas that are hard to imagine, because our imaginations have been hegemonically shaped by a narrow and restrictive scholarly tradition focused on textual equivalence.

6. Any methodology that is capable of generating new knowledge about translation is beneficial.

The neurological research being done by the interpreting research and theory or IRT people (see Gile 1995); recent qualitative research on “black-box” processes of translation using think-aloud protocols or TAPs (see Königs 1987, Lörscher 1991, Kussmaul 1991, 1995, Jääskeläinen 1989, also Toury 1995); the sociological work of Justa Holz-Mänttäri (1984), Reiß and Vermeer (1984, see also Vermeer 1989), and Nord (1991), or, in a more complex socioeconomic context, of Anthony Pym (1992) — all of this is important. We also need large-scale sociological surveys of translator populations: where do they live? How did they grow up (bilingually? biculturally? traveling a lot? studying languages in school?)? How were they educated? Are their spouses people from another culture from the one in which they were raised? Are their children bilingual/bicultural? Do they live in bicultural communities? Where do they work? We need qualitative longitudinal studies of freelance, in-house, and academic translators: how do their careers develop? Cold quantitative data on all this will not be sufficient, but it will be an excellent foundation for later research. We need more historical research on translators, translation scholars, and the use of translation in various political contexts (the emerging field of postcolonial translation studies is crucial here; see Rafael 1993, Cheyfitz 1991, Niranjana 1992).

7. We need to deconstruct and demystify the old knowledge.

Despite the exciting proliferation of new translation studies methodologies, the old approaches and assumptions are still very much with us, and will continue to exert an unconscious influence on our thinking until we have worked through them in new ways.

8. For example, we need to rethink traditional conceptions of equivalence.

We can’t afford to ignore it — as, for example, various members of the skopos/Handlung and polysystems schools have done. Equivalence is essential to translation; the real issues are what it is, how it works, and who will control its operational boundaries in specific cases.

Anthony Pym, for example, in Translation and Text Transfer (1992: 43ff), explores equivalence as an economic concept: the equivalent of a gallon of milk may be a specific amount of money ($1.87), which will change from day to day; or a dozen eggs, or a handcarved spoon. The marketplace collectively controls the values on each side of the equation and thus the specific quality and quantity of equivalence required in any given transaction. This scenario’s analogue in translation practice and theory obviously makes it clear that there can never be a single correct or generally acceptable form of equivalence between two texts — which in turn obviates any normative discussion of sense-for-sense and word-for-word translations, foreignizing and domesticating translations, etc. Equivalence can never be defined or legislated in the abstract.

My own discussion of equivalence as a wide range of tropes or turns or swerves that the translator makes from the source text toward the target language, in The Translator’s Turn (1991), is another attempt to deconstruct traditional thinking about translation. This approach allows us to explore a variety of equivalence-based strategies; it helps us see those strategies as strategies, mental images or fictions that help translators translate (rather than as rigid guidelines for the academic testing of translation adequacy after the fact); and it opens our eyes to forms of translation practice aimed at a looser, more tangential mode of equivalence than is usually accepted under that rubric by normative theorists, such as propagandistic translation.

9. Political deconstructions and demystifications are essential.

George Steiner’s 1975 book After Babel was a bombshell for the field in many ways, one of which was his willingness to talk about translation as invasive, aggressive, as an act of political violence against another culture. Later postcolonial and feminist scholars, such as Lori Chamberlain (1988) and Tejaswini Niranjana (1992: 59, 61), have taken Steiner too to task for seeming to celebrate rape and colonization. The traditional focus on structures of equivalence has made the political study of translation, especially in terms of gender and colonial domination, a nonissue; we are just beginning to explore not only the history of translation as empire but the complicity of traditional theories in that history.

10. Philosophical deconstructions are often sneered at by translation theorists because they seem so alien to the important issues in the field; but philosophy is historically the discipline that keeps the others honest, and that remains as necessary today as ever.

Poststructuralist demystifications of the concept of “the original text,” for example, by Jacques Derrida (1985), Andrew Benjamin (1989), Rosemary Arrojo (1994, unpub.), and others — the notion that, since every text is based on other texts, there is no such thing as a stable “original” text to which translations must strive to remain subordinate and faithful — may seem to pull the rug out from under translation studies as a whole. If there is no distinction between source text and target text, then translation itself doesn’t exist and we may as well all pack up and go home (or change fields). It should be clear from recent work by Samia Mehrez (1992), Sherry Simon (1992, 1995), Rita Copeland (1991), Roger Ellis (1991), Ellis and Evans (1994), Ellis and Tixier (1996), and others, however, how fruitful this work has been. As long as we must conceive the study of translation in terms of a stable source text and a stable target text, we will not be able to see translation practices that blur those boundaries, especially in medieval “translations” where the “translator” radically transforms several source texts in a composite target text. Mehrez’s work on francophone African métissés and Simon’s work on Quebecois joual explore “translations” in which both the “original” and the “translation” are complex mixtures of two or more languages and cultures, and in many cases it is difficult to distinguish original from translation. Much journalistic translation, too, where editors glean bits and pieces of a story from the wire services of four or five countries (and thus languages) and intermix them with reporting from their own correspondents to create a new article, undermines traditional stable boundaries between “the original” and “the translation” and can benefit from the deconstruction of “originality.”

Also in some sense philosophy has always been about deconstruction. Philosophy is the “metascience” that inspects the claims made by the other sciences. And in this light it is essential that translation theorists “deconstruct” translation theory — that we philosophize about it, turn the harsh skeptical light of philosophical inquiry onto the things we do, the claims we make. This has been the burden of much of my own work, beginning in The Translator’s Turn (1991) and continuing through Translation and Taboo (1996) to Who Translates? Another recent book that undertakes similar tasks is Andrew Chesterman’s Memes of Translation (1997)

11. We need to be willing to extend our demystifications of traditional approaches to their survival in the most exciting and innovative work of our colleagues (and ourselves) as well.

Many recent “scientific” approaches to translation remain highly problematic philosophically: how does a quantitative methodology necessarily “deaden,” and thus significantly distort, that which it studies? To what extent do empirical sampling techniques and measuring instruments remain complicit in the same power discourses that have fostered narrowly prescriptive and instrumentalized translation practices — treating the translator like a machine to be programmed for the reliable production of equivalence — and have thus blocked both translator creativity and scholarly openmindedness? It is not enough to say that science has always done things this way, that this is simply how you have to proceed if you want to be scientific; we must be willing to subject our new and enormously productive and important scientisms too to rigorous scrutiny.

Another example of the need for deconstructing the traces of the old in the new might be the “foreignism” of Lawrence Venuti (1986, 1995), Antoine Berman (1984), Eric Cheyfitz (1991), and Tejaswini Niranjana (1992), all of whom call centrally on Walter Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator” (1923) in support of a “radical” translation practice that would transform culture by leaving traces of the foreign within it. Innovative as this work is, especially in its attempts to transform German romantic foreignism (see Schleiermacher 1813) and earlier literalisms through leftist postcolonial politics, it also remains (especially Venuti and Berman) largely prescriptive, aimed at narrowing translators’ and translation scholars’ options rather than expanding them, and mystificatory, unable to distinguish “fluent” or “domesticating” translation (the wrong way to translate) from “foreignizing” translation (the good way) except with examples based on an elitist “one just knows” mentality. Venuti, especially, always seems able to distinguish a “fluent” translation from a “foreignizing” one, but can never quite put his finger on the difference — suggesting a survival in his work (and Berman’s, perhaps in the others as well) of ancient mystical traditions that fostered “knowing without knowing” (see Robinson 1996). An age-old authoritarian regime surges into the present in a wide variety of forms, urging us to believe and say and attempt to convince others to believe and say that there is only one right way of doing things, and we don’t know why that is or how one can tell when you’ve done it right, but this much we do know, one has to obey the inner voice that tells one to obey, to toe the line, to conform to unstated norms and observe repressed taboos.


12. We need to help translators expand their creative repertoires of translation strategies.

Paul Kussmaul (1995: 39ff) is one of the first translation scholars to begin addressing this imperative in a systematic way, by assigning TAPs on “difficult” (especially poetic) texts and paying special attention to the ways in which his subjects, especially when they work in pairs, make the critical jump out of plodding timid solutions to brilliant creative ones. He writes:

Probably the most basic quality needed for creative activity is an ability which Guilford calls “fluency” [not the kind of fluency Venuti attacks, though it is perhaps significant that he is concerned to restrict both fluency and radical creativity]. It helps to produce a large number of thoughts, associations or ideas for a given problem in a short space of time (Guilford 1975:40) and plays an important part during the incubation phase. Does fluency play a role in the translation process and what form does it take? . . .

It could be observed in the protocols, and it is also a common experience, that when trying hard to find a solution to a problem our minds are sometimes blocked, and “illumination” is thus impeded. We all know the situation when we try in vain to recall a person’s name and after a short time, during which we have been engaged with some other task, we all of a sudden remember it. This technique of leaving one’s mind alone for a while and thus creating the necessary relaxation, which I propose to call parallel-activity technique was also made use of by the students I observed. (1995:41-43)

He goes on to explore the crucial importance of “divergent thinking,” or casting about “randomly” (associatively, but without restraints on appropriateness) in all different directions for a wide variety of radical solutions — the exact opposite of the traditional focus in translation on “convergent thinking,” avoiding errors by narrowing in on the most conventional solution and refusing to take, or even to contemplate taking, risks — and enjoyment:

Some neurologists have put forward the hypothesis that creative thinking is closely connected with the anterior hypothalamus in the brain, which is the centre of libido and lust and motivates not only sexual fantasies but fantasies and daydreaming of all types. Such fantasies seem to be important for creative thinking. Thus, sexual desire appears to be closely connected with creativity; and one of the conditions for creative work seems to be an atmosphere of approval and sympathetic encouragement (Stanley-Jones 1970:154f.)

It could be observed in the protocols, especially during incubation, when relaxation was part of the game, that a certain amount of laughter and fooling around took place amongst the subjects if they did not find their solutions at once. This, in combination with the “parallel-activity technique” described above, also prevented them from being stuck up a blind alley, and promoted new ideas. Laughter can also be a sign of sympathetic approval on the part of a subject and may help to create the gratification-oriented condition postulated by neurologists. (1992: 48)

Kussmaul is emphatically not saying that translation should be a creative free-for-all in which translators slap down any old thing on paper; indeed he immediately goes on to discuss the importance of evaluation and editing. He is merely stating what should be obvious, but has been obscured by centuries of narrow punitive prescriptivism: that translators translate better, and enjoy their work more, if in the “incubation” or brainstorming stage they indulge in wild divergent creativity. Even in technical translations, traditionally thought of as the least creative realm of professional translation, the translator may well profit from a brainstorming technique involving divergent thinking and wild imagination — when faced by a truculent syntactic structure, for example.

13. Translation theory should be creative and enjoyable as well.

Reading and writing about translation should partake of the parallel-activity techniques, divergent thinking, and raucous fun that Kussmaul identifies as crucial components of the creative process. Otherwise we will not only perpetuate authoritarian regimes among our readers and students, creating prescriptive or descriptive jails for them instead of the liberating “atmosphere of approval and sympathetic encouragement” of which Kussmaul speaks; we will also remain trapped in conventional methodological straitjackets, unable even to imagine exciting new directions, let alone to pursue them.

We could imagine a weak and a strong form of this thesis:

The weak form: translation theory should be creative and enjoyable only in private; the public rhetoric of theory should adhere strictly to academic decorum. The theorist’s creative pleasure in the divergent-thinking processes of inventing, developing, and articulating theories of translation opens up new avenues of thought, breaks through old blockages, smashes old unwieldy syntheses, leads to exciting new connections and discoveries, etc.—but none of that pleasure actually shows in the finished academic product. Enjoyment, pleasure, fun, “laughter and fooling around” are all essential heuristics, but are not reflected in the theorist’s public rhetoric, which shows no sign of enjoyment or other bodily pleasures. The heuristic pleasure is personal, the public rhetoric is impersonal—the neutral, dispassionate, objective voice of truth. It is never evident in the finished product that these new theoretical insights were in part or in whole the outpouring of creative energies tied to laughter, daydreams, sexual fantasies, or other forms of unacademic enjoyment. To all appearances the theorist’s innovative work is the product of calm, rational, logical thought.

The strong form: translation theory should be as creative and enjoyable for the reader as it is for the writer. We should be working toward an integration of private and public enjoyment: the theorist’s creative pleasure in the theorizing process should be reflected in her or his writing as well. Not only can the necessity of blocking or concealing enjoyment from public view stifle creativity in the writer; that concealment effectively blocks any potential readerly participation in the writer’s “laughter and fooling around.” In Kussmaul’s scenario, the process of creative problem-solving is social, a group activity that is fed by interpersonal feedback, each member of a group being inspired by and in turn inspiring others. This group dynamic is thwarted in an institutional context that defines originality as an individualistic property or possession and works to block the interpersonal contagiousness of creative enjoyment. Letting that enjoyment flow from the individual to the collective and back, from the private to the public and back, will accelerate the downfall of the ancient pieties and established positions.

Part 2 Anecdotalism

The Anecdotal Ethic

14. Translation theory from its beginnings has been insistently anecdotal.

Until the last few decades, in fact, theoretical pronouncements on translation have arisen almost exclusively out of specific translators’ engagement with specific texts:

  • In 51 B.C.E Cicero tells us that he grew dissatisfied with the pedagogical technique then current of trying to reword and rephrase Latin authors, and decided instead to reword and rephrase Greek authors in Latin
  • In his 395 C.E. letter to Pammachius Jerome defines his approach to translation in the context of an attack made on him by Rufinus for “mistranslating” a Greek letter for Epiphanius
  • Around 1170 Burgundio of Pisa tells the story of growing enamored of a Greek text by Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite while he was in Constantinople and paying two scribes to copy it for him so he could take it home and translate it
  • In 1470 William Caxton tells several stories surrounding his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid and the problems he faced while doing it
  • In 1521 and 1530, respectively, Erasmus and Luther defend their translations of the New Testament, Erasmus into Latin, Luther into German, in response to criticisms from Bible scholars who believe that Jerome’s Vulgate is God’s word
  • In 1661 Pierre-Daniel Huet writes his De interpretatione in the form of a dialogue among contemporary scholars, and sets his dialogue up by telling a story of his mentor’s comments on a translation he was doing and encouragement to write up his ideas on translation (all of these are anthologized in Robinson 1997)

And of course what a list of this sort cannot convey is the sheer weight of numbers, the thousands upon thousands of other translators who have commented on their work in prefaces and letters, usually in terms of the circumstances surrounding their work, the problems they faced and the solutions they came up with, their qualms and disclaimers for the fruit of their labors.

15. The anecdotal tradition in translation studies not only continues with unabated strength today; the field is also unofficially policed by what amounts to an anecdotal ethic.

Essay collections like Sherry Simon’s Culture in Transit (1995) and monographs like Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe (1992) consist largely or entirely of anecdotal material by translators about their engagements with specific texts — and are avidly read by other translators facing similar or parallel situations in their own work. Translator conferences are heavily populated with translators telling their peers about their work: how I translated this and that difficult word or phrase, how satisfied or dissatisfied I am with my solutions.

In addition, no matter how systematic, scientific, theoretical a writer on translation waxes, his or her credibility in the field continues to depend on assurances that all theorizing rests squarely on the theorist’s own practical experience as a translator. Scholars who come to the study of translation from poststructuralist theory—people who have never translated anything but have discovered that Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man have all written interestingly on translation—are widely regarded with suspicion as outsiders, interlopers, poachers, because translation theory for them is pure theory, insufficiently grounded in validating anecdotes from their own practical experience. Even translation theorists who are most actively hostile to the anecdotal roots and ethic of translation studies, like André Lefevere and Lawrence Venuti, find it necessary to slip quick anecdotes from their own translation practice into their theoretical works.

16. The emergence of an integrated scholarly field called “translation studies” in the last few decades has been predicated on the methodological repression or suppression of the field’s anecdotal origins.

What people usually mean when they say that translation “theory” or translation “studies” begins with John Dryden’s preface to Ovid in 1680, or Eugene Nida in the 1940s, or the polysystems (or other) school in the 1970s, is that in this or that watershed period writers on translation finally began to overcome the field’s overwhelming reliance on the anecdote by moving strongly into the “scientific” or at the very least the “systematic,” the erasure of the personal and the local in favor of the depersonalized rhetoric of universal truth.

For some writers, “overcoming anecdotalism” seems to be a marker for methodological progress. In the course of attacking the anecdotalism of my own book The Translator’s Turn, for example, André Lefevere cites Barbara Folkart, who “proves in her Le conflit des énonciations (1991) that the kind of research in translation that has come of age can dispense with the anecdote” (240) — the verb “proves,” with its aura of scientific method, acting rhetorically to banish any lingering “anecdotal” subjectivity in Folkart’s or Lefevere’s desire that this methodological “coming of age” does or will indeed dispense with the anecdote. The ancient and to some extent continuing domination of the anecdote and/or the anecdotal ethic in the field is felt by some scholars as a restriction or limitation, a straitjacket, a millstone about their necks; certainly an uncomfortable survival from an embarrassing past. If translation studies is ever to earn the respect of scholars in other fields, they argue, it must shake this old fetishistic attachment to the anecdote and become truly scientific. As long as translation studies remains grounded in personal stories about “how I translated X”, it will be scorned as unscientific, unscholarly, unrigorous. In addition, these scholars insist, the anecdote is too narrow, too limited to the experience of individuals, hence unable to rise above the local to the global, unable to generate new knowledge by comparing and contrasting, hypothesizing and testing and falsifying.

17. The recent collection of essays edited by Sherry Simon, Culture in Transit: Translating the Literature of Quebec, might be made to serve as a test case for the methodological issues surrounding anecdotalism.

Culture in Transit is insistently anecdotal throughout; indeed whenever one of Simon’s thirteen authors does resist the anecdotal ethic and strives to become systematic (Kathy Mezei), historical (Jane Brierley), or just rhetorically neutral (William Findlay), this resistance continues, easily or uneasily, to be grounded in an anecdotal ethic. Two of the pieces (Linda Gaboriau, Sheila Fischman) are based on interviews, one (Barbara Godard) on a translator’s journal. One piece (Suzanne Lotbinière-Harwood) takes us through three different phases of the translator/theorist’s personal voice in articulating the problems and joys of translation. There is not a single piece in the collection that does not address the writer’s own experience of translating specific Quebec authors; and for most of them, that is their main point.

If the antianecdotalists are right, therefore, the book should be a seamless failure: too local (Quebec-oriented) to enable generalizations to other translation practices; too subjective, biased, personal to generate useful scholarly insights; mired in the fleeting and the banal. If the book can be shown to transcend such limitations despite its thorough grounding in the anecdote, then perhaps the teleological model of translation studies “growing out of” anecdotalism is overly simplistic and needs to be rethought.

Complexity and Simplicity

18. Anecdotes assume explanatory power in theoretical works by exploiting the intrinsic complexity of local, individual experience in ways that complicate or problematize established theoretical assumptions, norms, or positions and thus advance the field.

Some anecdotes are theoretically banal; but anecdotes are not inherently banal. They only become (or remain) banal when they serve no scholarly or theoretical purpose. There are many anecdotal genres, and each has its own channels of charging the anecdote with general(izable) interest. In biography and autobiography, for example, the reader may be motivated to read anecdotes from the author’s or biographical subject’s life because of the subject’s celebrity (any story is inherently interesting), because given anecdotes shed important light on the subject’s achievements (only carefully selected stories are interesting), or because the author’s style is compelling (only well-told stories are interesting).

In theoretical writings, the primary motivation for anecdotalism is the power of local complexity to unsettle or unseat large universalized patterns or paradigms, which are by definition reductive. Anecdotes that do not elicit such complexity, or that do not apply whatever complexity is elicited to the unsettling of established universals, will be banal.

Simon’s collection too has examples of such “failures.” The opening pages of the opening piece, “On Becoming a Translator” by Wayne Grady, tells us stories of how Grady decided to become a translator (he wondered what feux d’artifices might be in English), how he got early jobs (a friend who was president of Methuen brought English-language rights to a novel by Antonine Maillet home from the Frankfurt book fair), etc. By page 23, however, the fourth page of his essay, he is telling a story about a conference he attended in Norway, where he was asked by a member of the audience: “Do you mean to say that Canadian translators spend all their time translating other Canadians?” (25). While not exactly true, this representation of Canadian translation practices was close enough to Grady’s sense of the truth, and surprising enough to him once he began to reflect on its implications, to be worth noticing and repeating. This is, in fact, almost certainly the insight that makes books like Simon’s worthwhile: the Quebec situation is substantially different from most in the world; whenever the intensely local situation of Quebec differs substantially from translation practice elsewhere, the complexities of local anecdotes will shed enormously productive light on translation everywhere, simply by dint of contrast.

Other anecdotal highlights of the book, passages where the various authors do harness their anecdotal insights to a complex theoretical imagination:

  • Luise von Flotow tells stories about growing up bilingual, German in English-speaking Canada after World War II, and notices: “The whispers and outright attacks had to be digested; we developed a form of ‘cannibalistic’ translation, I think, ingurgitating the insults and later, as we began to see clear, regurgitating them as disdain for the limited minds of our torturers” (31). Her “recall” of this childhood anecdote is partly structured, no doubt, by theoretical reading about cannibalistic translation, in George Steiner, Serge Gavronsky, and Lori Chamberlain, perhaps also in the Brazilian de Campos brothers; but recall is always structured by thought, and the more the anecdote interacts dialectically with complex theoretical ruminations, the better able it will be to give something back.
  • Suzanne Lotbinière-Harwood writes: “Francœur was the first and last male poet I translated. During the three years spent on his poetry, I realized with much distress that my translating voice was being distorted into speaking in the masculine. Forced by the poems’ stance, by language, by my profession, to play the role of male voyeur. As if the only speaking place available, and the only audience possible, were male-bodied. I become very depressed around meaning. Every word felt shadowed in doubt. Fortunately, the new context then being created by feminism, and by feminists’ analyses of, among other things, women’s relationship to language, helped validate the why of my depression and save my sanity. Demonstrating that the personal is indeed, political” (64). And of course that last line provides the methodological and ideological rationale for telling us how she felt, how close she may have been to mental illness. Anecdotes must not only be trenchant and insightful; they must have some larger application or applicability, in this case political. No translation scholar or translator needs to know about Lotbinière-Harwood’s mental state unless that same state somehow potentially threatens him or her as well.
  • Linda Gaboriau generalizes from experiential anecdotes: “The difficulty of translation lies in capturing the rhythms of the text, in understanding the points at which the dialogue chokes up, then come pouring out. This process involves identifying something quite intangible and then trying to communicate those terrible emotional blocks or outbursts” (89). This “is” the difficulty of translation because this is what feels difficult to Gaboriau. She is probably not “right” in any objective or universal sense; any “rightness” is rhetorical, in the impact her pronouncement has on the reader, who is nudged toward a testing of it against her/his own experience.
  • Philip Stratford relates his experiential sense that the translator’s advantage over the writer, that of being able to turn the page and know what comes next, is actually a disadvantage: “To know what is coming next is the kiss of death for a reader. It interferes with the creative process also. While novelists and poets do not usually write completely blind, they do rely heavily on a sense of discovery, of advancing into the unknown as they pursue their subject and draw their readers along with them. The challenge for the translator . . . is to find ways to reproduce this excitement, this creative blindness, this sense of discovery, in the translation process. The translator must, like an actor stimulating spontaneity, use tricks and certain studied techniques to create an illusion of moving into the unknown. To cultivate creative blindness one should never read a text one is going to translate too carefully at first, and once only. It helps to have a short memory” (97). No doubt some translators will react with shock and revulsion to this view. As it happens, it fits my experience exactly; but until I read Stratford I thought of my attitudes in this area as idiosyncratic — certainly nothing to generalize from. Generalization from such local insights continues to be problematic; but the problems inherent in such generalization also continue to be productive for the field.
  • Betty Bednarski addresses the complexity of “assimilation,” which is rather simplistically attacked by foreignists like Antoine Berman and Lawrence Venuti: “Assimilation is, of course, fundamentally ambiguous, a phenomenon that can be perceived in radically different ways, like the forms we see as alternately concave and convex, according to the conditions of their viewing. In the textual conditions imposed by most writing in joual, that assimilation, however amusing, will inevitably take on the appearance of an infiltration, and therefore of a defeat” (116).

Like systematic theorizing, anecdotal theorizing is only valuable to the scholarly community if it generates new knowledge, new understanding.

19. Systematic or scientific thinking is no less susceptible to banality than anecdotal thinking.

Just systematizing observations does not protect them against banality. Systematization is no more intrinsically productive for a field than story-telling. It may be rhetorically more effective for readers who have been trained to think systematically, just as anecdotes are rhetorically more effective for readers who remain suspicious of global systematizing; but even for systematizing readers some systematic thinking will be hopelessly banal, either because the system is poorly constructed or because it has nothing new or transformative to say.

Consider, for example, the piece by Kathy Mezei, the collection’s primary systematization of the field. She too tells a single anecdote, and that is utterly banal, which seems to confirm the antianecdotal prejudice. Indeed this single paragraph might be construed antianecdotally as Mezei’s unfortunate and damaging forced surrender to the anecdotal ethic that does still dominate translation studies. Significantly, however, the anecdote in question remains banal not because it is a story, but because it lacks the kind of dramatic tension and complexity that can complicate a systematic understanding. Indeed it is a systematic insight, a perceived comparison or contrast, that could have been equally persuasively presented without anecdotal trappings. While involved in two translation projects (showing that she is indeed a translator, and thus someone to be listened to) and a bibliography project, she writes, “I noticed that many of the English translations I read participated in a subtle subversion of Quebec culture,” in that many of the Quebec texts used English words “as a highly symbolic signifier” but this “was rarely acknowledged in the target or receptor text” (136). Even if this were not the central issue of Quebecois translation theory, certainly of this entire book, telling an anecdote just to say she noticed it would be banal. Her anecdote gives us no experiential complexities, no tensions, no insight into the conflicted subjectivity of a practicing translator; she was doing something practical related to translation and she noticed something.

The remainder of Mezei’s article constitutes a systematization of this initial insight. And certainly systematic thinkers do always gain their insights in specific situations — they would not be human if they didn’t. Whether it will be productive to present the germ of those insights anecdotally, however, will be controlled by several factors, uppermost among which would be generic norms (are Quebec translation theorists expected to couch their insights anecdotally?) and the heuristic power of an anecdotal account, its complicating effect on later systematization.

The taxonomy that follows in Mezei’s article, of “modes” by which Quebecois texts are translated into English, provides a useful instance of the banality to which systematic thinking is subject. For one thing, the taxonomy is systematic in appearance only: I found it almost impossible to distinguish any one of the three main categories from any other, or any of the subcategories from either the other subcategories or the main categories. Indeed, I found it difficult to determine just what she was attempting to taxonomize. She refers several times to “this mode,” suggesting that her three main categories do indeed refer to different approaches to the problems of translating Quebecois texts into English. But the first category is described as dealing with “some examples of the political use of English” (139), which does not sound much like a translational mode, and which almost certainly applies equally well to the other two. The second says “A second mode, this time of mistranslating English, also has cultural consequences” (142), and the third, “Finally, the mis- or non-translation of English has another consequence, less momentous than the previous two, but nevertheless significant in terms of the French author’s narrative strategies” (144). Taken together, these descriptions suggest that the first “mode” is nontranslation and the second mistranslation; but what is the third? It looks like more examples of what we’ve already seen in the first and second. “Nontranslation” seems like a strange category for the examples in the first mode: in (i), for example, the playwright Michel Tremblay has a Quebecoise housewife with pretensions use the English word “cheap”, and his English translator translates that as “cheap.” If this is “nontranslation,” would the desired alternative to it be “translation”? If so, into what language? Mezei seems to be suggesting that the translator should have marked “cheap” in some way as in English in the original; but this is not really a translation vs. nontranslation situation. In (ii) she considers translators who italicize English words that were in English in the French original; this too is nontranslation in a strict sense, but the term seems peripheral to the problem (and the term “nontranslation” isn’t in fact even mentioned until category 3). In (iii) she deals with the problems of translating parodic texts; the only examples of a “mode” of translation, however, involve the transliteration of joual words like Le Tchiffe as the Chief, Biouti Rose as Beauty Rose. Is this still nontranslation? In (iv) the submode becomes the creation of an equivalent street dialect in English, which I’m pretty sure entails translation — though still not a type she likes. Subcategory (v) isn’t a new submode at all, just a problematic comment on all this, quoted from Brandon Conron. (vi) is an example of intralingual translation. In all, an odd and certainly unsystematic collection of instances — instances of what, exactly, remains unclear.

Under (2), the “mistranslations” include changing a list of names (ii) and not including very many poems from the Quiet Revolution in an anthology (iii), of which latter she says “Although my final example in this mode is not one of mistranslating English, it again indicates how translations can distort the transmission of translated authors” (143). Why then include it under mistranslations? The question of whether a list of names is ever “translated,” too, and thus becomes susceptible to “mistranslation,” is an interesting one that Mezei begs. Most linguistic theorists of translation would argue that proper names have no semantic content and thus are not, or should not be, translated; clearly, however, the political and cultural significance of a list of names like “Gertrude Stein, Madeline de Verchères, Emma Goldman,” etc. poses a more complicated translational problem than either linguistic theorists or Kathy Mezei are willing to explore.

20. Systematic thinking is no more immune to begged questions than anecdotal thinking.

Our assumptions and prejudices are, after all, as Hans-Georg Gadamer reminds us, precisely what makes any form of understanding possible; you have to stand somewhere in order to think or say anything. Systematic thinkers make a virtue of examining all assumptions and prejudices, and scorn anecdotal thinkers for failing to do so; this collection shows that such scorn may in fact be misplaced and hypocritical.

Betty Bednarski, for example, tells us anecdotally that she imagines a certain type of reader for her translations: one who is more or less monolingual in English, unable to read French phonetic and graphic conventions very well; hence “For the reader who knows little or nothing, Ferron’s original spelling could pose serious problems” (121). Among the assumptions underlying this statement: (1) there really are readers like this in the world; (2) they will one day pick up the translation and try to read it, and will read on if their linguistic limitations are accommodated, put it down if they are not; (3) the existence and behavior of these readers is known to, and influences editorial decisions made by, members of the publisher’s editorial staff; (4) imagining readers of this sort, and doing it realistically, is therefore essential to successful translation.

But notice begged questions or uncritical assumptions in the collection’s systematizer as well, Kathy Mezei:

  • “[M]uch of the parody at the semantic level becomes lost in the English version” (140). Assumptions: (1) semantic loss in translation is avoidable; (2) semantic loss in translation is bad, and should be avoided; (3) semantic gain is irrelevant and need not be mentioned.
  • “What and how certain texts are translated, what is omitted, what is altered, and what is foregrounded can give us a biased and modified impression of Quebec culture. Quebec becomes not what it is, but what we wish it to be” (142). Assumptions: (1) an unbiased, unmodified, objective representation of Quebec is possible; (2) translators should strive to present such a representation; (3) translators who fail to present one, who impose their own subjective interpretations on it, are culpable.
  • “Therefore one is inevitably creating and not just translating meaning” (143). Assumptions: (1) meaning exists in a stable objective form; (2) it can be transferred intact from one language or culture to another; (3) this transfer is the ideal for translation; (4) this ideal sets an upper limit (“just translating”) for translation; (5) translators who exceed this limit and “create” meaning are culpable; (6) it is possible not to create meaning.
  • “[T]he alteration changes this emphasis, creating cultural difference” (143). Assumptions: (1) cultural difference is good when it is stable and objective (that between Quebecois and English Canadian culture, for example); (2) translation should respect and reflect such existing differences; (3) cultural difference is bad when it is fluctuating and subjective (introduced by the translator); (4) translators who introduce such alterations are culpable; (5) the relative stability of cultural difference can be controlled.

21. Anecdotal and systematic approaches to translation have different but complementary strengths, and ideally should work together, dialectically.

In the rhetorical traditions of the West, systematic thinking must be simple, concise, and elegant (Occam’s Razor says that the simpler explanation is likely to be the truer); anecdotal thinking should be realistic, novelistic, authenticated by a subjective narrative voice, true to the complexity and inconclusiveness of experienced reality. Hence the importance of using both. A good anecdote will “remember” complexities that a mediocre system represses; a good system will not only help people make sense of their anecdotes but will direct them to other experiences that they had never before considered, never before “anecdotalized” or narrativized. A system that loses touch with the wealth of anecdotal material from which it was reduced becomes reductive; an anecdote without systematic awareness or reflection becomes dumb.

A good example of the fruitfulness of a lively dialectic between anecdotal and systematic thinking is the exchange in Simon’s collection between Kathy Mezei and Betty Bednarski. Since Bednarski’s piece is printed first, and she explores at such complex anecdotal length the constraints on successful translation, Mezei’s systematic treatment of the same ground (immediately following Bednarski’s in the collection) seems reductive by comparison. Since Bednarski has just been telling us (125) how she has had to fight with editors for every foreignizing usage (such as Mezei advocates), it seems simplistic and “theoretical” (in the worst sense of the word) of Mezei to refer to “Sheila Fischman’s translation of [Hubert Aquin’s] Neige noire as Hamlet’s Twin, which is a deliberate and inappropriate anglicization of Aquin and ignores the signification of ‘snow,’ a dominant image of Quebec literature, and of ‘black’” (135). Ten pages (145) later Mezei belatedly remembers that translators are not entirely in control of such things; but here at the beginning of her essay she blames Fischman for a decision that was almost certainly made by an editor. This seems an excellent example of the anecdote remembering what the system forgets: Bednarski’s anecdotal piece is rich with the obstructions the translator must somehow hurdle in order to do an even halfway passable translation. But it should also be remembered that Mezei published her article in 1988; Bednarski has the luxury of responding to it. Whatever reductiveness Mezei built into her systematic treatment of Quebecois-English translation, Bednarski was able to test it at her leisure in her own translation practice and reflections thereupon, first in her book Autour de Ferron (1989), later in her English rethinking and rewriting of the second chapter of that book for Simon’s collection.

22. The differences between anecdotal and systematic thinking will be perceived and valorized differently by different readers.

Some readers, for example, will say that Kathy Mezei’s article is simply badly reasoned and/or badly written, and thus inappropriate as an example of the problems intrinsic in systematic thought. The problems in her writing aren’t intrinsic to systematic thought (and let me emphasize that I have not suggested that they are); they’re only an example of bad systematic thought. These readers will probably want to thematize the banality of the first few pages of Wayne Grady’s piece as intrinsic to anecdotal thinking while avoiding the extension of that judgment from Kathy Mezei’s article to all systematic thinking.

Other readers will find Grady’s opening fascinating, not banal; or will read Mezei’s taxonomy as incisive, not muddled.

Still other readers will want to minimize the methodological differences between, say, Bednarski and Mezei (they’re both hybrids, mixtures of systematic and anecdotal approaches); or will insist that the differences are other than what I claim they are.

I quoted above — to shift, by way of conclusion, from the systematic to the anecdotal — an attack on the anecdotalism of my work, which in the eye of the reviewer made my book purely subjective (limited to my own experience, without application beyond that experience) and based in utter ignorance of the recent history of the field and its attempts to overcome the harmful legacy of anecdotalism. From my point of view this attack is a symptom of the harmful legacy of uncritical systematizing: if you have to exclude all middles, clean up all messes by sweeping them under one or the other side of a dualism, then the kind of dialectic I build between anecdotes and systematic thinking will seem like ignorant subjective anecdotalism pure and simple. The ignorance, subjectivity, and unsystematic nature of these attacks amaze me — can readers advocating strict logical rigor really be reading my work so badly and incompletely? — and incline me slightly to defend anecdotalism . . . even though I too have sat at conferences thinking if I have to listen to one more translator telling me how she translated this or that difficult passage and why, I’m going to scream; even though I too have shaken my head in disgust at whole collections of essays that can say nothing more, over and over, than “this is how I did it.”

But maybe all that means is that the desideratum, at least for me, is a smart anecdotalism, or a systems approach that is soaked in experiential detail. It isn’t enough to tell the stories without thinking about them, without letting complex theoretical perspectives derail your understanding of what happened and why; and it is no solution to dumb anecdotalism either to exclude the personal, the experiential, the anecdotal entirely and create a bland depersonalized sham of “objectivity” or “neutrality.” Let’s not overthrow the anecdotal tradition of translation studies; let’s just smarten it up.

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