Translation and the Repayment of Debt
Originally published in Delos 7.1-2 (April
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; thats 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 hed 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 wasnt just that I hadnt studied economics since college
(and not much of it there). It was that this just didnt 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. Ive 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
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 wont 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
translators 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, Ciceros from The
Best Kind of Orator (55 B.C.E.), refers to money, even if only metaphorically:
This is the first mention ever of the
phrase "word for word," and Ciceros 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 Jeromes coinage is now common coin, most readers nowadays
tend to pay the metaphors 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
Hence it seems perfectly natural, for
example, for André Lefevere to translate Horaces "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 Ciceros 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
translators 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:
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 languages
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
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 Gods authorial
intention, but John Q. Public, target reader of the classics, and the
publishers that cater to (and partly control) that readers interpretive
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 Ciceros 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 corporations losses.
Even closer to the currency-exchange
metaphor of Cicero is John Dryden, in his prefaces to his edition of Ovids
Epistles translated by several hands (including his own, 1680)
and to his translation of Virgils Aeneid (1697, the same
year as Leibnizs 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 whats 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 doesnt deal in uncertain futures, and in any case
he doesnt 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 Drydens conception of the translators
relation to his reader. In this scenario the bourgeois reader seems to
have bought a copy of the Aeneis in Virgils original Latin, and
to have discovered that he cant 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),
Virgils 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 writers 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
elites 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, lets say, to be able to say theyve
read Homer, but as easily irritated by verses 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 Ciceros 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 disciplines 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 translators version of Homer, the publisher
may decide not to put the translators 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 translators name prominently: Richard Lattimores powerful
verse translation of The Iliad, say, or Robert Fitzgeralds
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 Butlers 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 youre 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 youre 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 dont 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 doesnt 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, Ill leave up to you.
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