Translation and the Repayment of Debt

Originally published in Delos 7.1-2 (April 1997): 10-22.

Translation theory has always had a bit of a problematic relation with the issue of money. How much should the translator be paid? Um, well, sorry; that’s not an appropriate question for theory to ask. What is a translation worth — to its user, commissioner, target culture, source author, translator? Next question, please.

A year or so ago Anthony Pym sent me a printout of an article he’d written called "Translation as Transaction Cost." The idea was straight out of economics: translation costs money (you have to pay the translator, possibly also an agency, editor, printer, etc.); in any intercultural transaction, the cost of translation relative to the benefits to be gained from that transaction will be an essential factor. In many cases, for example when you have ongoing dealings with a person or group in a specific foreign country, it will be more cost-effective to learn the foreign language yourself, or have one or more of your subordinates learn it, than to rely on translators to mediate your transactions. I must have read that article four times before I began to understand what he was talking about and why it mattered. And it wasn’t just that I hadn’t studied economics since college (and not much of it there). It was that this just didn’t seem like an appropriate or relevant or worthwhile topic for a translation theorist to be writing (or reading) about; that attitude, more than my relative ignorance, I think, blocked understanding. Surely Pym should have been more concerned with the quality of the translations, or the techniques by which they were performed — ? What was all this about?

Of course, I also have real-world experience with the economics of translation. I’ve been a freelancer for twenty years, have billed clients and agencies, discussed rates with those same clients and agencies and with fellow translators, chafed at nonpayment or late payment, been stiffed by clients with whom I neglected to contract for services rendered; translation has provided me with a welcome source of extra income over the years, and many projects and trips have only become possible because of a big translation job that came in just at the right time and provided the necessary funding. Why then was it so difficult to understand a theoretical piece about those same economic issues?

My new book is entitled Translation and Taboo; there I argue that ancient taboos on handling sacred texts were contagiously transmitted (or "displaced," as Freud would say) into the social practices surrounding the translation of those same texts — at the end of Apuleius’ Golden Ass, for example, the priest Mithras translates from the Egyptian Book of the Dead for Lucius only within the ritual space, after being instructed to do so in a vision from Isis, and after ritual cleansing — and from there into other forms of translation as well. I won’t summarize the argument of that book in detail, or even dwell on it beyond this paragraph, but it does seem to me that filthy lucre is one of many tabooed subjects within the Western tradition of translation theory — along with the translator’s body, feelings, inclinations, motivations, political opinions, social interactions, etc., generally the psychology and sociology of translation. Translation is a process for ferrying meanings intact from one language or culture to another, period.

Interestingly, however, the subject of money, payment, debts, and so on does come up in the history of translation theory. One of the most famous passages of all, Cicero’s from The Best Kind of Orator (55 B.C.E.), refers to money, even if only metaphorically:

Converti enim ex Atticis duorum eloquentissimorum nobilissimas orationes inter seque contrarias, Aeschines et Demostheni; nec converti ut interpres, sed ut orator, sententiis isdem et earum formis tamquam figuris, verbis ad nostram consuetudinem aptis. In quibus non verbum pro verbo necesse habui reddere, sed genus omne verborum vimque servavi. Non enim ea me adnumerare lectori putavi oportere, sed tamquam appendere. (5.14)

That is to say I translated the most famous orations of the two most eloquent Attic orators, Aeschines and Demosthenes, orations which they delivered against each other. And I did not translate them as an interpreter, but as an orator, keeping the same ideas and the forms, or as one might say, the "figures" of thought, but in language which conforms to our usage. And in so doing, I did not hold it necessary to render word for word, but I preserved the general style and force of the language. For I did not think I ought to count them out to the reader like coins, but to pay them by weight, as it were.

This is the first mention ever of the phrase "word for word," and Cicero’s monetary metaphor, paying by weight rather than counting words out like coins, is usually read fairly simplistically as referring to sense-for-sense translation — a concept that was in fact not to be invented for four and a half more centuries, by Jerome, in his letter to Pammachius (395). Since Cicero clearly means something like sense-for-sense translation here, and since Jerome’s coinage is now common coin, most readers nowadays tend to pay the metaphor’s tenor out by weight rather than counting its vehicle out like coins — tend to assume, in other words, that behind all these different words, images, metaphors (coins) for translation lies the same stable "meaning" or "weight," namely sense-for-sense translation.

Hence it seems perfectly natural, for example, for André Lefevere to translate Horace’s "Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus / Interpres" as "Do not worry about rendering word for word, faithful interpreter, but translate sense for sense" (15). Horace had never heard of sense-for-sense translation, would not have been at all interested in it, or, for that matter, in translation of any sort — his remark was an attempt to warn writers against translating — but hey, if he tells us not to translate word for word, he must mean we should translate sense for sense, right?

What I want to do in this essay is to tease out of Cicero’s and other later translation theorists’ passing (and often metaphorical) remarks an alternative view of translation, not as a meaning transfer but rather as a currency exchange. Cicero and Horace both, for example, use the verb reddere for translation, and we use its English cognate "to render" in more or less the same way today. Reddere comes from the Latin roots for "to give back," thus to restore or return; when what is given back is money, it takes on the economic meaning of "to pay back, repay." To "render" a text in a foreign language is to imagine oneself doing with words what one does with money.

Following this figuration, we can imagine Cicero imagining the translator in debt to the reader, "owing" the reader a rendering, and repaying his debt by weight rather than number, a "pound" of sterling silver, say, rather than 100 pence. Also, of course, in order to build up lexical equity, Cicero urges the translator to coin new words while rendering freely from the Greek — and it remains an open question today whether the translator is to be regarded as someone with the right to coin words, mint new money, or whether that activity is to be considered off limits, counterfeiting, a felony and a federal offense. For Horace, in that passage I quoted earlier from the epistle to the Pisos (better known as the Ars poetica or "Art of Poetry"), it was essential to "acquire private rights in common ground" by transforming received materials through personal vision. The translator, in this metaphoric conception, is a kind of lexical stockbroker or real estate speculator, amassing the "property" of "proper words" or verbal propriety through personal initiative, entrepreneurship, enlightened self-interest.

With the collapse of the Roman money economy in the Middle Ages, and with the increasing theologization of translation under the medieval church, this financial metaphor for the translator’s activity lost currency, as it were: the medieval translator was no entrepreneur out to expand his or her private dominium but the humble servant of the Source-Language Word, a worshipful (at least neutral) tool or channel of divine meaning. And monetary metaphors for translation too disappeared for many centuries, and did not reappear until a capitalist money economy was firmly in place, in the seventeenth century. The rise of capitalism over the centuries of the late Middle Ages was tied, of course, not only to the resurgence of a money economy and the emergence of a new urban merchant class, but also to the revival or "renaissance" of Roman property law; and the correlate of that revival in Renaissance linguistics was a renewed interest in lexical proprietas, in the verbal properties of a language and in individual languages as competing proprietors of words. In Interpretatio, Frederick Rener discusses the history of the idea that languages are lexical treasure-troves, bank vaults, and that individual words are a kind of currency that renders one language "richer" or "poorer" than another:

Echoing Jerome, the anonymous English translator of the Lives of Saints speaks in his preface of "diverse wordes that are propur to on tunge and not to a nother." (qtd in Workman 74) This means that the term proprietas refers to things as well as to languages, both being ‘proprietors’ of words. The language looks upon these ‘proper’ words as precious objects which are to be kept in a safe much like gold or jewels, an idea still present in the German word Wortschatz [vocabulary, lit. word-jewelbox] and in the word thesaurus [from the Latin and Greek for treasure, treasury] in English.

The existence of this lexical treasury was important for every language because the number of proper words kept in this safe determined the hierarchical status of that particular language in the assembly of languages. Languages, just like humans, were divided into two categories: the rich and the poor. While there was no exact sum required in order to become a member of the rich, this being the common aspiration, there was a criterion by which this status was determined. According to this criterion, a language was rich not when it had sufficiency of words but when its treasury had an excess of words, or, to use the technical formula, when it had copia et abundantia. (40)

And the practical test of this criterion, as Leibniz wrote in 1697, was translation: "Die rechte Probierstein des Überflusses oder Mangels einer Sprache findet sich beim Übersetzen guter Bücher aus anderen Sprachen. Denn da zeigt es sich, was fehlt oder was vorhanden; . . . Inzwischen ist gleichwohl diejenige Sprache die reichste und bequemste, welche am besten mit wörtlicher Übersetzung zurechtkommen kann und dem Original Fuß vor Fuß zu folgen vermag" (28-29, pars. 60, 62) — "The true test of a language’s superfluity or deficiency lies in the translation of good books from another language, for that shows what is lacking and what is available . . . The richest and most adept language is still the one that can best manage literal translations, that can follow the original step by step" (my translation). Leibniz goes on to detail his social program for the enrichment of the German language, through the recuperation of obsolete or archaic German words, the naturalization of alien words, and the coining of new words, a three-prong plan that involves the formation of a German academy to broker lexical wealth: to hunt up good words from the best German literature, to police lexical imports, and to validate neologistic "coins."

Note again, though, what Rener says: the "common aspiration" for languages too, as for individual human beings, was to "become a member of the rich." Our familiarity with this aspiration today may make it difficult for us to appreciate just what a social innovation it was in the late Middle Ages. The middle-class idea of upward mobility, of "getting rich," becoming a member of the moneyed classes, effectively undermined the feudal hierarchies that had reigned in Europe in both aristocratic conceptions of social structure and theological conceptions of the Great Chain of Being (God as territorial lord, humans as his vassals and peasants) — undermined, in fact, the very notion that, as Rener says, "humans were divided into two categories: the rich and the poor." Increasingly wealth and poverty became relative positions on a shifting scale, dynamic categories that displaced both the bondage and the security of hierarchy: a merchant could become rich(er), but could never actually "become a member of the rich," could never feel self-evidently part of an upper class the way the old feudal nobility did, precisely because his or her wealth was dynamic and relational. S/he was richer than someone, poorer than someone else — and had to keep striving for more wealth so as to maintain the illusion of consolidating his or her position.

The insecurity of this new economic dynamic affects translators too. Increasingly, in the bourgeois era, the translator feels hard pressed to please not God, Source-Language Author of the Bible, nor the ecclesiastical authorities that controlled God’s authorial intention, but John Q. Public, target reader of the classics, and the publishers that cater to (and partly control) that reader’s interpretive needs.

This shift begins to surface in the seams and fissures of late-seventeenth-century translators’ prefaces. Writing in 1656 in favor of a most Ciceronian concept of translation as imitation, for example — indeed insisting that this approach to translation should be recognized as "among the lost inventions of antiquity" — Abraham Cowley reintroduces Cicero’s pecuniary metaphor for translation as well, though now in the context not of currency exchange but of enriching the original author: "And when we have considered all this, we must needs confess, that after all these losses sustained by Pindar, all we can add to him by our wit or invention (not deserting still his subject) is not likely to make him a richer man than he was in his own country." To be translated is, in a sense, to be bled dry by a foreign subsidiary: to suffer repeated and indeed unavoidable financial losses as a result of going international. To translate well, then, is to run the subsidiary as efficiently as possible, so as to minimize the mother corporation’s losses.

Even closer to the currency-exchange metaphor of Cicero is John Dryden, in his prefaces to his edition of Ovid’s Epistles translated by several hands (including his own, 1680) and to his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (1697, the same year as Leibniz’s booklet). In the 1680 preface to Ovid, for example, he advises against imitation on the grounds that "’tis not always that a man will be contented to have a present made him, when he expects the payment of a debt." The translator owes the target-language reader something, clearly; Dryden feels that the English translator of Ovid owes a debt of some sort to the English reader, which must be paid in a specified currency and cannot be settled through gift-giving. Here the bourgeois reader to whom Luther addressed his Testament is no longer an ordinary unprepossessing citizen whom the translator can approach condescendingly ("matronizingly") like a mother her child, but a creditor, a solvent and financially sophisticated member of the bourgeois community who knows his rights and insists on getting what’s coming to him. The translator who offers a "free" translation or imitation of a classical text in lieu of a paraphrase is like the artist who offers his or her bank manager a painting in lieu of a mortgage payment: certainly the painting may some day be worth much more than the entire mortgage, but the banker doesn’t deal in uncertain futures, and in any case he doesn’t know anything about art; all s/he knows, and all s/he wants, is good cold cash.

The banking scenario Dryden adumbrates in 1680 is still only half-formed, however, and it is difficult to determine from the simple juxtaposition of gift and debt, contentment and discontent just how Dryden conceives the actual social relation between the translator and the target-language reader. He exfoliates the metaphor more fully seventeen years later, three years before his death in 1700, in his "Dedication of the Aeneis":

Virgil, above all poets, had a stock, which I may call almost inexhaustible, of figurative, elegant, and sounding words: I, who inherit but a small portion of his genius, and write in a language so much inferior to the Latin, have found it very painful to vary phrases, when the same sense returns upon me. Even he himself, whether out of necessity or choice, has often expressed the same thing in the same words, and often repeated two or three whole verses which he has used before. Words are not so easily coined as money; and yet we see that the credit not only of banks but of exchequers cracks, when little comes in, and much goes out. Virgil called upon me in every line for some new word: and I paid so long, that I was almost bankrupt; so that the latter end must needs be more burdensome than the beginning or the middle; and, consequently, the Twelfth Aeneid cost me double the time of the First and Second. What had become of me, if Virgil had taxed me with another book? I had certainly been reduced to pay the public in hammered money, for want of milled; that is, in the same old words which I had used before: and the receivers must have been forced to have taken any thing, where there was so little to be had.

Here the banking metaphor shifts slightly: the translator is now no longer a debtor, but a banker or government treasurer, and the target-language reader is no longer a creditor, but a tourist who has brought back an almost inexhaustible supply of lira from his trip to Italy and wants to change them all into pounds sterling, at once. But this shift brings new clarity to Dryden’s conception of the translator’s relation to his reader. In this scenario the bourgeois reader seems to have bought a copy of the Aeneis in Virgil’s original Latin, and to have discovered that he can’t read it; he is a merchant, not a scholar, and has no Latin. So he loans his copy to the translator and wants it back in his own currency, in the coin of English speech. As Dryden insists, however (and this is the secularized bourgeois version of medieval hierarchizing: the source author is still the dim analogue of the Creator), Virgil’s foreign currency is so strong that the translator/banker, in attempting to exchange it for his own local currency, breaks the bank. The local currency is weak, inflated, and cannot be exchanged for strong foreign currency without financial disaster. The target language is always inferior to the source language; the translator has always inherited but a small portion of the original writer’s genius. By definition — and specifically by medieval definition. The hierarchy between writer and translator, which harks back to the relation between God and human, must remain firmly in place.

Congruent as the tenor of this metaphor is with medieval theology, however, its vehicle points us in new directions. Implicit in the scenario Dryden evokes is the notion that "culture," as represented here by a knowledge of the classics, is a possessable commodity, something the bourgeoisie desperately want to own. For some it may be enough just to own the books, to display their leather backs prominently on their shelves; but the bourgeoisie are driven by a desire for social authenticity, for legitimation on the terms defined by the nobility, and that typically requires actually reading the classics, "owning" them in the fullest sense of that term. Thus the importance of education, which becomes the most important channel of bourgeois self-legitimation: possessing an education, the best education money can buy. Money is important, of course, and as the bourgeoisie becomes increasingly established, legitimite, social status more and more comes to be defined by how much money you make; but money, as Thorstein Veblen saw, is only important for what you can buy with it, specifically for what your cash purchases can do for your social status, and education is one of those commodities (along with automobiles, houses, and the like) that best demonstrate your social worth.

So you have to read the classics. But that requires learning a foreign language, typically a dead one, which does not sit well with the bourgeois inclination toward practical, utilitarian pursuits; so instead of going to the trouble of learning to read Virgil in Latin, you loan him to the translator and ask to be repaid in English. That way, anybody can read him. Knowledge of the classics is no longer restricted to the cultural elite, successors (and cultural perpetuators) of the nobility; it becomes generally available. And the more generally available "culture" is, the broader the base of bourgeois self-legitimation.

The implications of this analysis for a sociological study of translation should be obvious. The bourgeois need for translations of literary texts (and other "cultural" texts, like art books and nonfiction) for purposes of social self-legitimation is one important factor behind the translation boom of the past century or so. This is in fact the only way that literary translation can have become a financially feasible project that will support a few "professional" literary translators, alongside the more economically viable forms of professional translation, such as commercial and scitech translation, which support increasingly large numbers of in-house and freelance translators and translation agencies. This economic "need" for translation, clearly, along with the social context it both generates and reflects, places particular demands on the translator. A historically, ideologically, and sociologically sophisticated approach to translation in bourgeois society would render it unnecessary, for example, to ponder in the abstract — in terms of abstract rules or structures, the formal problems of linguistic equivalence in the null context — questions like whether one should render verse in prose. A certain upper-middle-class "society" or monde will want verse translations of, say, Homer, because verse is associated with elitist culture and thus can best serve a cultural elite’s needs for self-legitimation. A "lower," more populist sector of the middle class raised on novels may insist on a prose translation: we might imagine them as wanting, let’s say, to be able to say they’ve read Homer, but as easily irritated by verse’s habit of not running all the way to the right side of the page, as really are only interested, apart from the importance of having read Homer, in the story, in the plot, in "what happened." A more populist sector still, also younger and more impatient with print media, may want Homer translated into a television miniseries or Komic Klassics (and may even want Homer effaced, may prefer to read or watch the "adventures of Odysseus" or "the Trojan War" without a 3000-year-old writer credit). This is the implication of Cicero’s monetary metaphor: if you pay out cultural capital by weight rather than by coin, in the abstract a TV miniseries version of the Odyssey is precisely as weighty as a verse translation; the differences between them are determined not in the abstract, by rules, but in socioeconomic interaction, by the market. Translation "rules" are only defined in the abstract by normative translation theorists who remain true to the discipline’s medieval heritage. The only truly binding constraints on translation are generated in specific social contexts, and are historically and ideologically contingent.

The sociology of bourgeois translation is further complicated, of course, by the mediation of various publication and distribution networks, all of which seek to translate the self-legitimation needs of the bourgeois reading public into financial terms that can be used to twist translators’ arms, in order to ensure that the public gets what it wants. This is the seam in which such things as translators’ fees are determined; and fees in turn help determine translators’ work schedules, how many hours a day and how many days a week they must work in order to make a living translating. The economics of publishing translations for and distributing them to a bourgeois public also controls the amount and type of credit the translator is given for his or her work: if the bourgeois reader wants to believe he or she is reading Homer, for example, and not some translator’s version of Homer, the publisher may decide not to put the translator’s name on the cover of the book. For an intellectual bourgeois elite, on the other hand, who pride themselves on knowing that Homer was an ancient Greek (even, perhaps, on being able to read the Greek alphabet), and who are aware that there are numerous English translations of Homer to choose from, a publisher might display the translator’s name prominently: Richard Lattimore’s powerful verse translation of The Iliad, say, or Robert Fitzgerald’s acclaimed verse translation of The Odyssey, or even, since the new technology is relatively expensive and thus largely restricted to the upper middle class, Samuel Butler’s classic rendition of The Odyssey on CD-ROM.

In bourgeois society, in fact, literary translation comes increasingly to resemble advertising translation: in both cases the translator is paid and controlled by a manufacturer and promoter of commodities the primary consumer-function of which is class legitimation. Whether you’re buying the latest translation of Homer or Virgil at your local bookstore or an elegant set of dishwasher-proof imitation crystal from Hobby Hall, what you’re really buying is social legitimacy. You want to look right and sound right, in hopes that you will then be right — at least in others’ eyes.

So what do we gain by studying translation in terms of monetary transactions, private property, and class legitimation? Is this just another case of dragging lofty humanistic pursuits down to the lowest common denominator?

I don’t think so. As an increasing number of translation theorists are showing, from the polysystems people (Even-Zohar, Toury, Lefevere) through the skopos and Handlung people (Vermeer, Holz-Mänttäri), to Anthony Pym, a sociological and even economic approach to translation enables us to get past the tired old quasiproblems that have exercised mainstream thinkers about translation for the last two millennia: whether to translate word-for-word or sense-for-sense; whether a translation that doesn’t overtly strive for equivalence can really be called a translation at all; whether to translate verse as verse or prose (or comic books); whether it is permissible for a translator to elaborate on a text or tighten it up. All of the various positions taken over the centuries on these issues have been predicated on the assumption that translation has (or should have) a stable ideal form or shape, to which all real-world translation must be conformed as far as is humanly possible; the only remaining questions, then, are (a) what is that shape, and (b) how can we achieve it? A socioeconomic approach to translation has the enormous advantage of not (necessarily) needing to appeal to, or even worry much about, such a Platonic ideal — except, of course, insofar as disagreements about that ideal reflect and channel the social and economic dynamics under study, and thus become a potent indicator of those dynamics.

Certainly this means a deidealization of translation — especially, perhaps, of literary translation (which I compared above, perhaps traitorously, to advertising translation), which for many translation scholars has been the Great White Hope in a largely neglected and even contemptuously dismissed field. The only justification for such a deidealization is a concomitant increase in realistic real-world understanding; whether this approach does in fact mark an increase of that sort, I’ll leave up to you.

Works Cited

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Batteux, Charles. A Course of the Belles Lettres, or the Principles of Literature. Trans. John Miller. London: Printed for B. Law and Co. T. Caslon, J. Coote, S. Hooper, G. Kearsly, and A. Morley, 1761.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Butler, Samuel, trans. The Odyssey. CD-ROM. Garden Grove, CA: World Library, 1994.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De optimo genere oratorum/The Best Kind of Orator. Trans. H. M. Hubbell. In De Inventione, De optimo genere oratorum, Topica, 354-72. Vol. 2 of Cicero in Twenty-Eight Volumes. 1949; rpt. London: Heinemann, 1976.

Cowley, Abraham. "’Preface’ to Pindarique Odes." Excerpted in Steiner, English Translation Theory, 66-67.

Dryden, John. "’Preface’ to Ovid’s Epistles." Excerpted in Steiner, English Translation Theory, 68-72.

__________. "Dedication of the Aeneis." Excerpted in Steiner, English Translation Theory, 72-74.

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__________. "Translation Theory Today: A Call For Transfer Theory." Poetics Today 2.4 (Summer-Autumn 1981): 1-7.

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__________. The Odyssey. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.

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Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus). "The Art of Poetry." Trans. E. C. Wickham. In Adams, Critical Theory Since Plato, 68-75.

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__________. The Odyssey. New York: Harper & Row, 1967

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Pym, Anthony. Translation and Text Transfer: An Essay on the Principles of Intercultural Communication. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1992.

__________. "Translation as Transaction Cost." Meta 40/4 (1995): 594-605.

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