Translation’s Burden

A book is a strange vessel of expectation. A published book imagines a reader, for a published book without a reader is a book that loses someone’s money. And a book about translation seems to have ...

A book is a strange vessel of expectation. A published book imagines a reader, for a published book without a reader is a book that loses someone’s money. And a book about translation seems to have the added burden of addressing a diffuse and eclectic reading community that may be united only by its shared awareness of the clichés that have dogged thinking about translation—for instance, that there exists a transparent relationship between an authentic “original” and a derivative “translation.” Against a backlog of such simplistic thinking, how it is possible to rethink translation? Could such a reevaluation help reveal how the Western obsession with pure forms and authentic originals has limited our understanding and appreciation of art? If so, how urgently should we approach this task?

These were the questions I found myself asking when reading three recent books on translation: Karen Emmerich’s Translation and the Making of Originals, Rosemary Arrojo’s Fictional Translators, and Lawrence Venuti’s Contra Instrumentalism.

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.

Venuti and Emmerich, in their conclusions, bemoan the prevalence of the clichés that dictate most people’s assumptions about translation, which essentially align with the Instrumentalist view. To counteract cliché is a Herculean task by definition: clichés are so widespread as to lack authorship. They define thinking without being attributable to a certain source (which could be counteracted with appropriate interventions).

Even so, we might wonder why we have to combat the Instrumentalist cliché today. Wasn’t the idea of pure authors and pure originals—of texts excised from context or ambiguity—decisively buried decades ago, by the so-called poststructuralist? Julia Kristeva’s Sèméiotikè: Recherches pour une sémanalyse (1969), for instance, defines the text as a “permutation of texts, an intertextuality” in which “several utterances, taken from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another.”1 But since clichés about authors and originals persist, so, too, persists the need to combat them.

The Instrumentalist belief in the unimpeachable, inviolable, and exultant value of originals and authors is, as I see it, defined by three main features. The first feature arises from the idea of pure presence, which governs the Western metaphysical tradition. That is, the West is obsessed with the idea that something could be wholly, unequivocally, one thing and not another. Jacques Derrida, most notably in De la grammatologie (1967), argues that this belief, which permeates ideas around the nature of being, also affects notions of transcendence and the divine.2 This obsession distorts how many people, even famous thinkers, talk about translation. Because of the search for origins as a site of pure authenticity, the West fabricates an unquestioned authority for the original.

Second, the Romantic cult—the idea of the author’s genius acting as an emissary of the divine—persists. We can see this belief today in the pedagogic insistence upon canons, as well as in the capitalist fetishization of the author.

Third, there exists a common prejudice according to which language is viewed as an abstract system of signification; this diminishes the reality of language as a living system in which context contributes to meaning. To elucidate how context cannot be separated from meaning, the linguist Émile Benveniste once noted that each “bonjour” is unique.3 The Moroccan French-language writer Abdelkébir Khatibi, when writing about common Arabic proverbs in Morocco, emphasizes the significance of “ritual time” in understanding how proverbs mean different things in different contexts.4 The words of life repeat, you might say, but the context is forever different. With different contexts arise different shades of meaning.

The Western obsession with pure presence, the Romantic cult of the author, and the lack of emphasis placed on language as a living system in which context shapes meaning are the supports that allow the Instrumentalist paradigm to continue to thrive.


A Thousand and One Translations

By Amanda Hannoosh Steinberg

Each book here employs a unique method to address these Instrumentalist clichés. Venuti does not shy away from naming names, condemning contemporary scholars, translators, commentators, and philosophers who employ such tired ways of thinking and end up harming translation in the process. At first, I was skeptical of this desire to confront so directly the perpetrators of uninspired Instrumentalist thinking, but I soon realized its value. To combat cliché, Venuti would seem to suggest, one must return to the source of offense as often as possible.

Emmerich’s book uses a narrative method in which she tells the stories of texts, focusing on how editors, scholars, and other actors actually fabricate “originals” after the fact, driven by various political and personal motivations. Emmerich’s engaging essays demonstrate how editorial choices help construct texts as monuments: allegedly permanent, enduring artifacts that demand preservation and honor, not interpretation or discussion about their fraught histories as oral texts or written documents.

Unlike Venuti, Emmerich does not condemn the specific motivations of particular people. Instead, she shows that the various historical and literary processes that turn fragmented, often conflicting versions of texts into pure monuments are underwritten by specific goals and beliefs. She wishes to destabilize the notion of the unimpugnable authority of one textual version. She hesitates, judiciously, to state how editing should be done; rather, she hopes the reader can become aware of the terrain of choices through which editors navigate. Her implicit goal is to show readers how texts are produced across time and often as a result of multiple decisions on the part of scholars, historians, and editors. Texts are far from revealed in an austere, integral wholeness, Emmerich makes clear; instead, texts are constructed.

Arrojo is similarly reserved in calling out those who perpetrate the clichés that hamper the critical discourse around translation. (Only French poet Joachim du Bellay is singled out as an offender, and he lived in the 16th century.) This reserve is understandable given the parameters of Arrojo’s book, which focuses single-mindedly on how a close reading of fiction can generate new understandings of translation. She focuses on fiction because of its polyvocal nature and its presentation of unfamiliar situations in which new creative and critical dialogues can take place.

In fictional works that deal explicitly or implicitly with translation, therefore, new creative possibilities for ways of thinking about translation are produced. Fiction, consequently, can be used to reconsider translation as a process. Arrojo ends up writing a practical and philosophical handbook for literary scholars and students interested in developing new ideas about translation.

if Western modes remain so chained to the ideas of pure originals, how many times will these arguments have to be made to recalibrate thinking?

Arrojo’s and Emmerich’s books are both fascinating studies; intellectually rigorous, they light the way for further work. But, for me, it is Venuti’s self-professed “polemic” that engages most fundamentally with the intellectual problems of translation—the obstacles that need to be addressed to allow the discourse about translation to become increasingly sophisticated and accurate.

Venuti illustrates the sclerotic thinking of Instrumentalist clichés by using the term “invariant.” Instrumentalist thinking about translation is guided by a list of what cannot (and should not) be changed from the source language text. The invariant is the untranslatable element.

In his book, Venuti strives to approach the practicalities of translation by cataloging how the idea of the invariant has been produced and reproduced across time, what its scope has been, what the flaws of the notion are, and how translators and thinkers can move beyond its clichés and, in so doing, rethink translation itself.

To believe in semantic invariance means that, whatever other freedoms a translator may have, the translator cannot interpret meaning. An essential meaning is fixed. Yet the promotion of a pre-inscribed, authoritative meaning crumbles upon examination. Language must be activated by humans to have meaning; each context of communication is inherently an interpretative one. Venuti argues that when one reads anything, one applies interpretants, or conscious and unconscious conditioning lenses through which meaning is produced. Semantic invariance is based on a belief in language’s supposed transparency and a notion of its context-free purchase.

Meanwhile, translations that perpetuate a notion of formal invariance require total adherence to word order. Basing a translation upon formal invariance means that the syntax of the source language text must be maintained in the translation, regardless of how an adverbial phrase, for instance, is positioned differently in French or Urdu than in English. A translation demanding formal invariance might be most troublesome in the translation of pre-20th-century poetry; the question arises whether Baudelaire’s French poetry requires an English translation to have the same formal dimensions (rhyme scheme, stanza pattern), especially in a reading context—like the world of American poetry—in which rhymed, metered verse is all but antique nostalgia.

Venuti also describes effect invariants. To explain a translation’s lack of semantic invariance, the translator might state that they were aiming instead to convey the effect of the original. Yet what is the original’s effect? No literary text affects all readers in the same way, and, when speaking of effect, the translator cannot presume to know anything beyond how a text affects himself or herself. No particular idea of effect is guaranteed at the textual level; instead, effect is superimposed upon texts through the biases that govern any person’s reading. While attempting to distance themselves from semantic invariance, translators nevertheless do not increase their authority by trying to retrofit their interpretation to some presupposed universal effect.


Translators and Other Icons

By Lily Meyer

Collectively, these books work ably to help deconstruct the ideas of the author and the original, and they act just as ably to reconstruct the idea of translation as a critical task involving subjective interpretation.

Yet, if Western modes remain so chained to the ideas of pure originals, then this reader wonders how many times these arguments will have to be made in order to recalibrate thinking. Can translation studies not just expose, but remake, the Western obsession with pure forms—an obsession that also hampers critical discourse about translation?

Venuti’s rhetorical claims upon us as readers (he goes so far as to address the reader directly as “you” in the conclusion) draw out other doubts. The structural issue of where to house new, anti-traditional discourse about translation seems paramount. If, as Venuti writes, academia is slow to change, then where will new scholars, translators, and thinkers be allowed to think and translate? Will academia allow the innovation on a structural level that these individual writers wish to have take place?

Combating uncritical thinking about translation—using epistemology, methods of historical analysis, and sophisticated literary reading—is the collective goal of these works. Yet I also wonder where the desired reversal of thinking would lead for translation and translators. Are we ready to argue that translation is not merely an interpretative task, but also an artistic one, and that translators are artists?

As tempting as this upgrade in status seems, I would argue for something else. The notion of art shares many of the cultural prejudices that undergird the fetishization of the original and the author; wanting translators to be valued as artists thus misses the point. Perhaps we should limit our claims to state simply that, like artists, translators are creators, whose choices involve rational and aesthetic dimensions. But would such a levelheaded statement have the power to excite anyone, to incite any change?


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. Julia Kristeva, “The Bounded Text,” in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, translated from the French by Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 36.
  2. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated from the French by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, rev. ed. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).
  3. Émile Benveniste in Conversation with Pierre Daix” (1968), translated from the French by Matt Reeck, Jacket2, no. 35 (2008).
  4. Abdelkébir Khatibi, “Le discours parémiologique,” in La Blessure du nom propre (Denoël, 1974).
Featured image: Photograph by Richard P. J. Lambert / Flickr