22 Theses on Translation
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 fields anecdotal roots rather than
the out-and-out rejection of those roots in the name of system
Part 1 Pluralism
Normative Structures of
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.
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
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 cant 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 scenarios 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
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 Translators
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
George Steiners 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 doesnt 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.
Mehrezs work on francophone African métissés and Simons
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 Translators
Turn (1991) and continuing through Translation and Taboo (1996)
to Who Translates? Another recent book that undertakes similar
tasks is Andrew Chestermans 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 Benjamins
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 Bermans, 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 dont know why that is or how one can tell when
youve 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:
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:
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,
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 theorists 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 theorists public rhetoric, which shows
no sign of enjoyment or other bodily pleasures. The heuristic pleasure
is personal, the public rhetoric is impersonalthe 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 theorists
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 theorists 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 writers laughter and fooling around.
In Kussmauls 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
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:
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 Simons
Culture in Transit (1995) and monographs like Suzanne Jill Levines
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 theorists own practical experience as a translator.
Scholars who come to the study of translation from poststructuralist theorypeople
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 translationare 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
fields anecdotal origins.
What people usually mean when they say
that translation theory or translation studies
begins with John Drydens 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 fields 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 Translators 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 Folkarts or Lefeveres 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 Simons 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 translators journal.
One piece (Suzanne Lotbinière-Harwood) takes us through three different
phases of the translator/theorists personal voice in articulating
the problems and joys of translation. There is not a single piece in the
collection that does not address the writers 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 authors or biographical
subjects life because of the subjects celebrity (any story
is inherently interesting), because given anecdotes shed important light
on the subjects achievements (only carefully selected stories are
interesting), or because the authors 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.
Simons 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
dartifices 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 Gradys
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 Simons 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:
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 collections 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 Mezeis 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 Mezeis 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 didnt. 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 Mezeis
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 authors 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 weve 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 isnt 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 Im pretty sure entails translation
though still not a type she likes. Subcategory (v) isnt 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
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, Ferrons 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 publishers 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 collections systematizer as well, Kathy Mezei:
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 (Occams
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 Simons collection between Kathy Mezei and Betty Bednarski. Since
Bednarskis piece is printed first, and she explores at such complex
anecdotal length the constraints on successful translation, Mezeis
systematic treatment of the same ground (immediately following Bednarskis
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 Fischmans translation of [Hubert Aquins] Neige
noire as Hamlets 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: Bednarskis 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 Simons collection.
22. The differences between anecdotal
and systematic thinking will be perceived and valorized differently by
Some readers, for example, will say that
Kathy Mezeis 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 arent intrinsic to systematic
thought (and let me emphasize that I have not suggested that they are);
theyre only an example of bad systematic thought. These readers
will probably want to thematize the banality of the first few pages of
Wayne Gradys piece as intrinsic to anecdotal thinking while avoiding
the extension of that judgment from Kathy Mezeis article to all
Other readers will find Gradys
opening fascinating, not banal; or will read Mezeis taxonomy as
incisive, not muddled.
Still other readers will want to minimize
the methodological differences between, say, Bednarski and Mezei (theyre
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, Im 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 isnt 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. Lets
not overthrow the anecdotal tradition of translation studies; lets
just smarten it up.
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