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Translation's Burden


At Public Books, literary scholar and translator Matt Reeck reviews three recent books that offer fresh takes on shopworn debates among translation scholars: Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic by Lawrence Venuti, Literary Translation and the Making of Originals by Karen Emmerich, and Fictional Translators: Rethinking Translation through Literature by Rosemary Arrojo. As Reeck observes, translation studies has long been locked in a debate between advocates of literal translation (who follow what he calls the “Instrumentalist Dictum”) and advocates of looser, more interpretive translation (who pursue what he calls “Hermeneutic Truth”). But as these books suggest, the instrumentalist approach has little foundation to stand on when you examine the way language work in the real world. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

In different ways, these three books combat foolhardy thinking, providing new methods and insights to increase the accuracy and sophistication with which academics talk about translation. All three complicate ideas of the “original” and the “author.” They also advocate for us to understand translation as a transformative, creative, and interpretative act—a perspective that reveals that all acts of reading are transformative, creative, and interpretative.

In combatting the clichés of translation, Venuti’s Contra Instrumentalism is the most broadly applicable. Venuti examines two conflicting views on translation—which I’ll call the “Instrumentalist Dictum” and the “Hermeneutic Truth”—that together define the discourse around translation. Emmerich and Arrojo write about specific translation contexts; like Venuti, both set their arguments in opposition to the Instrumentalist paradigm.

Using the basic vocabulary of Venuti’s Contra Instrumentalism as guide, I summarize the underlying logic of the two views in the following way:

The Instrumentalist Dictum

  1. There are originals.
  2. Originals are more valuable than translations.
  3. This decrease in value is attributable to endemic translator error.
  4. Translators are language experts, akin to automatons.

The Hermeneutic Truth

  1. There are no originals.
  2. Translations are creative, interpretative works.
  3. Translations are valuable within their own receiving culture.
  4. Translators are creative intellectuals.

How to reconcile these two opposing views of translation? Each of these books deals with a separate, necessary part of that collective task. Taken together, with Venuti at the forefront, we can begin to see the new shape and direction that theories of translation can—and perhaps must—take.

Image: St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin. Via