Literary Translation Essay
Literary studies have always, explicitly or implicitly, presupposed a certain notion of `literariness’ with which it has been able to delimit its domain, specify, and sanction its methodologies and approaches to its subject. This notion of `literariness’ is crucial for the theoretical thinking about literary translation. In this paper, I have attempted to analyze various recent theoretical positions to the study of literary translation and sought to understand them in the context of the development in the field of literary studies in the last three decades of the twentieth century.
The recent developments in the literary studies have radically questioned the traditional essentialist notion of `literariness’ and the idea of canon from various theoretical perspectives. I have contrasted the traditional discourse on literary translation with the recent discourse in order to highlight the shift in the notion of `literariness’ and its impact on translation theory. The traditional essentialist approach to literature, which Lefevere (1988:173) calls `the corpus’ approach is based on the Romantic notion of literature which sees the author as a quasi-divine `creator’ possessing `genius’.
He is believed to be the origin of the Creation that is Original, Unique, organic, transcendental and hence sacred. Translation then is a mere copy of the unique entity, which by definition is uncopy-able. As the translator is not the origin of the work of art, he does not possess `genius’, and he is considered merely a drudge, a proletariat, and a shudra in the literary Varna system. This traditional approach is due to the Platonic-Christian metaphysical underpinning of the Western culture.
The `original’ versus `copy’ dichotomy is deeply rooted in the Western thought. This is the reason why the West has been traditionally hostile and allergic to the notion of `translation’. The traditional discussion of the problems of literary translation considers finding equivalents not just for lexis, syntax or concepts, but also for features like style, genre, figurative language, historical stylistic dimensions, polyvalence, connotations as well as denotations, cultural items and culture-specific concepts and values.
The choices made by the translators like the decision whether to retain stylistic features of the source language text or whether to retain the historical stylistic dimension of the original become all the more important in the case of literary translation. For instance, whether to translate Chaucer into old Marathi or contemporary are very important. In the case of translating poetry, it is vital for a translator to decide whether the verse should be translated into verse, or into free verse or into prose.
Most of the scholars and translators like Jakobson (1991:151) believe that in the case of poetry though it is “by definition impossible … only creative transposition is possible… “. It is the creative dimension of translation that comes to fore in the translation of poetry though nobody seems to be sure of what is meant by creativity in the first place. The word is charged with theological-Romantic connotations typical of the `corpus’ approach to literature.
The questions around which the deliberations about translation within such a conceptual framework are made are rather stereotyped and limited: as the literary text, especially a poem is unique, organic whole and original is the translation possible at all? Should translation be `literal’ or `free’? Should it emphasize the content or the form? Can a faithful translation be beautiful? The answers to the question range from one extreme to the other and usually end in some sort of a compromise.
The great writers and translators gave their well-known dictums about translations, which reflected these traditional beliefs about it. For Dante (1265-1321) all poetry is untranslatable (cited by Brower 1966: 271) and for Frost (1974-1963) poetry is `that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation ‘(cited by Webb 203) while Yves Bonnefoy says `You can translate by simply declaring one poem the translation of another” (1991:186-192). On the other hand theorists like Pound (1929, 1950), Fitzgerald (1878) say” … the live Dog is better than the dead Lion”, believe in freedom in translation.
The others like Nabokov (1955) believe “The clumsiest of literal translation is a thousand times more useful than prettiest of paraphrase”. Walter Benjamin, Longfellow (1807-81), Schleriermacher, Martindale (1984), seem to favour much more faithful translation or believe in foreignizing the native language. While most of the translators like Dryden are on the side of some sort of compromise between the two extremes.
Lefevere has pointed out that most of the writings done on the basis of the concept of literature as a corpus attempt to provide translators with certain guidelines, do’s and don’ts and that these writings are essentially normative even if they don’t state their norms explicitly. These norms, according to Lefevere, are not far removed from the poetics of a specific literary period or even run behind the poetics of the period (1988:173). Even the approaches based on the `objective’ and `scientific’ foundations of linguistics are not entirely neutral in their preferences and implicit value judgements.
Some writings on translation based on this approach are obsessed with the translation process and coming up with some model for description of the process. As Theo Hermans (1985:9-10) correctly observes that in spite of some impressive semiotic terminology, complex schemes and diagrams illustrating the mental process of decoding messages in one medium and encoding them in another, they could hardly describe the actual conversion that takes place within the human mind, `that blackest of black boxes’.
Lefevere notes, the descriptive approach was not very useful when it came to decide what good translation is and what is bad. Most of recent developments in translation theory look for alternatives to these essentializing approaches. Instead of considering literature as an autonomous and independent domain, it sees it in much broader social and cultural framework. It sees literature as a social institution and related to other social institutions. It examines the complex interconnections between poetics, politics, metaphysics, and history.
It borrows its analytical tools from various social sciences like linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, history, economics, and psychoanalysis. It is closely allied to the discipline of cultural studies, as discussed by Jenks (1993:187) in using culture as a descriptive rather than normative category as well as working within an expanded concept of culture, which rejects the `high’ versus low stratification. It is keenly interested in the historical and political dimension of literature.
Paradigm shift’ to use Theo Hermans’ phrase or the `Cultural turn’ in the discipline of translation theory has made a significant impact in the way we look at translation. Translation is as a form of intercultural communication raising the problems that are not merely at the verbal level or at the linguistic level. As Talgeri and Verma (1988:3) rightly point out, a word is,’ essentially a cultural memory in which the historical experience of the society is embedded. H. C.
Trivedi (1971: 3) observes that while translating from an Indian language into English one is faced with two main problems: first one has to deal with concepts which require an understanding of Indian culture and secondly, one has to arrive at TL meaning equivalents of references to certain objects in SL, which includes features absent from TL culture. The awareness that one does not look for merely verbal equivalents but also for cultural equivalents, if there are any, goes a long way in helping the translator to decide the strategies he or she has to use.
Translation then is no longer a problem of merely finding verbal equivalents but also of interpreting a text encoded in one semiotic system with the help of another. The notion of `intertextuality’ as formulated by the semiotician Julia Kristeva is extremely significant in this regard. She points out that any signifying system or practice already consists of other modes of cultural signification (1988:59-60).
A literary text would implicate not only other verbal texts but also other modes of signification like food, fashion, local medicinal systems, metaphysical systems, traditional and conventional narratives like myths, literary texts, legends as well as literary conventions like genres, literary devices, and other symbolic structures. It would be almost tautological to state that the elements of the text, which are specific to the culture and the language, would be untranslatable. The whole enterprise of finding cultural equivalents raises awareness of the difference and similarities between the cultures .
It also brings into focus the important question of cultural identity. Else Ribeiro Pires Vieira (1999:42) remarks that it is ultimately impossible to translate one cultural identity into another. So the act of translation is intimately related to the question of cultural identity, difference and similarity. A rather interesting approach to literary translation comes from Michel Riffaterre (1992: 204-217).
He separates literary and non-literary use of language by saying that literature is different because i) it semioticicizes the discursive features e.g. lexical selection is made morphophonemically as well as semantically, ii) it substitutes semiosis for mimesis which gives literary language its indirection, and iii) it has “the` textuality’ that integrates semantic components of the verbal sequence (the ones open to linear decoding)-a theoretically open-ended sequence-into one closed, finite semiotic, system” that is , the parts of a literary texts are vitally linked to the whole of the text and the text is more or less self contained.
Hence the literary translation should “reflect or imitate these differences”. He considers a literary text as an artefact and it contains the signals, which mark it as an artifact. Translation should also imitate or reflect these markers. He goes on to say that as we perceive a certain text as literary based on certain presuppositions we should render these literariness inducing presuppositions.
Though this seems rather like traditional and formalist approach, what should be noted here is that Riffaterre is perceiving literariness in a rather different way while considering the problems of literary translation: `literariness’ is in no way the `essence’ of a text and a literary text is, for Riffatere one that which contains the signs which makes it obvious that it is a cultural artefact.
Although he conceives of literary text as self-contained system, Riffatere too, like many other contemporary approaches sees it as a sub-system of cultural semiotic system. However, if one is to consider Riffatere’s notion of `text’ in contrast to Kristeva’s notion of intertextuality one feels that Riffaterre is probably simplifying the problem of cultural barriers to translatability. The assumption that literary text is a cultural artefact and is related to the other social systems is widespread these days.
Some of the most important theorization based on this assumption has come from provocative and insightful perspectives of theorists like Andre Lefevere, Gideon Toury, Itamar Evan -Zohar, and Theo Hermans. These theorists are indebted to the concept of `literature as system’ as propounded by Russian Formalists like Tynianov, Jakobson, and Czech Structuralists like Mukarovsky and Vodicka, the French Structuralists thinkers, and the Marxist thinkers who considered literature as a section of the `superstructure’.
The central idea of this point of view is that the study of literary translation should begin with a study of the translated text rather than with the process of translation, its role, function and reception in the culture in which it is translated as well as the role of culture in influencing the `process of decision making that is translation. ‘ It is fundamentally descriptive in its orientation (Toury 1985).
Lefevere maintains, `Literature is one of the systems which constitute the system of discourses (which also contain disciplines like physics or law. ) usually referred to as a civilization, or a society (1988:16). ‘ Literature for Lefevere is a subsystem of society and it interacts with other systems.
He observes that there is a `control factor in the literary system which sees to it that this particular system does not fall too far out of step with other systems that make up a society ‘ (p.17). He astutely observes that this control function works from outside of this system as well as from inside.
The control function within the system is that of dominant poetics, `which can be said to consist of two components: one is an inventory of literary devices, genres, motifs, prototypical characters and situations, symbols; the other a concept of what the role of literature is, or should be, in the society at large. ‘ (p. 23). The educational establishment dispenses it.
The second controlling factor is that of `patronage’. It can be exerted by `persons, not necessarily the Medici, Maecenas or Louis XIV only, groups or persons, such as a religious grouping or a political party, a royal court, publishers, whether they have a virtual monopoly on the book trade or not and, last but not least, the media. ‘ The patronage consists of three elements; the ideological component, the financial or economic component, and the element of status (p. 18-19).
The system of literature, observes Lefevere, is not deterministic but it acts as a series of `constraints’ on the reader, writer, or rewriter. The control mechanism within the literary system is represented by critics, reviewers, teachers of literature, translators and other rewriters who will adapt works of literature until they can be claimed to correspond to the poetics and the ideology of their time. It is important to note that the political and social aspect of literature is emphasised in the system approach.
The cultural politics and economics of patronage and publicity are seen as inseparable from literature. `Rewriting’ is the key word here which is used by Lefevere as a `convenient `umbrella-term’ to refer to most of the activities traditionally connected with literary studies: criticism, as well as translation, anthologization, the writing of literary history and the editing of texts-in fact, all those aspects of literary studies which establish and validate the value-structures of canons.
Rewritings, in the widest sense of the term, adapt works of literature to a given audience and/or influence the ways in which readers read a work of literature. ‘ (60-61). The texts, which are rewritten, processed for a certain audience, or adapted to a certain poetics, are the `refracted’ texts and these maintains Lefevere are responsible for the canonized status of the text (p179).
`Interpretation (criticism), then and translation are probably the most important forms of refracted literature, in that they are the most influential ones’ he notes (1984:90) and says, ` One never translates, as the models of the translation process based on the Buhler/Jakobson communication model, featuring disembodied senders and receivers, carefully isolated from all outside interference by that most effective expedient, the dotted line, would have us believe, under a sort of purely linguistic bell jar.
Ideological and poetological motivations are always present in the production, or the non production of translations of literary works… Translation and other refractions, then, play a vital part in the evolution of literatures, not only by introducing new texts, authors and devices, but also by introducing them in a certain way, as part of a wider design to try to influence that evolution’ (97) . Translation becomes one of the parts of the `refraction’ “… the rather long term strategy, of which translation is only a part, and which has as its aim the manipulation of foreign work in the service of certain aims that are felt worthy of pursuit in the native culture… ” (1988:204).
This is indeed a powerful theory to study translation as it places as much significance to it as criticism and interpretation. Lefevere goes on to give some impressive analytical tools and perspectives for studying literary translation, `The ideological and poetological constraints under which translations are produced should be explicated, and the strategy devised by the translator to deal with those constraints should be described: does he or she make a translation in a more descriptive or in a more refractive way?
What are the intentions with which he or she introduces foreign elements into the native system? Equivalence, fidelity, freedom and the like will then be seen more as functions of a strategy adopted under certain constraints, rather than absolute requirements, or norms that should or should not be imposed or respected. It will be seen that `great ‘ages of translation occur whenever a given literature recognizes another as more prestigious and tries to emulate it.
Literatures will be seen to have less need of translation(s) when they are convinced of their own superiority. It will also be seen that translations are often used (think of the Imagists) by adherents of an alternative poetics to challenge the dominant poetics of a certain period in a certain system, especially when that alternative poetics cannot use the work of its own adherents to do so, because that work is not yet written’ (1984:98-99).
Another major theorist working on similar lines as that of Lefevere is Gideon Toury (1985). His approach is what he calls Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS). He emphasizes the fact that translations are facts of one system only: the target system and it is the target or recipient culture or a certain section of it, which serves as the initiator of the decision to translate and consequently translators operate first and foremost in the interest of the culture into which they are translating.
Toury very systematically charts out a step by step guide to the study of translation. He stresses that the study should begin with the empirically observed data, that is, the translated texts and proceeds from there towards the reconstruction of non-observational facts rather than the other way round as is usually done in the `corpus’ based and traditional approaches to translation. The most interesting thing about Toury’s approach (1984) is that it takes into consideration things like `pseudo-translation’ or the texts foisted off as translated but in fact are not so.
In the very beginning when the problem of distinguishing a translated text from a non-translated text arises, Toury assumes that for his procedure `translation’ will be taken to be `any target-language utterance which is presented or regarded as such within the target culture, on whatever grounds’. In this approach pseudotranslations are `just as legitimate objects for study within DTS as genuine translations.
They may prove to be highly instructive for the establishment of the general notion of translation as shared by the members of a certain target language community’. Then the next step in Toury’s DTS would be to study their acceptability in their respective target language system followed by mapping these texts, `Via their constitutive elements as TRANSLATIONAL PHENOMENA, on their counterparts in the appropriate source system and text, identified as such in the course of a comparative analysis, as SOLUTIONS to TRANSLATIONAL PROBLEMS’.
Then a scholar should proceed to `identify and describe the (one-directional, irreversible) RELATIONSHIPS obtaining between the members of each pair; and finally to go on to refer these relationships- by means of the mediating functional-relational notion of TRANSLATION EQUIVALENCE, established as pertinent to the corpus under study-to the overall CONCEPT OF TRANSLATION underlying the corpus. It is these last two concepts which form the ultimate goal of systematic studies within DTS…
only when the nature of the prevailing concept of translation has been established will it become possible to reconstruct the possible process of CONSIDERATION and DECISION-MAKING which was involved in the act of translating in question as well as the set of CONSTRAINTS which were actually accepted by the translator. ‘ (1985:21) Toury’s step by step procedure is descriptive, empirical and inductive, beginning with the observed facts and then moving towards uncovering the strategies and techniques used by translator and the implicit notion and presupposition of equivalence rather than treating the notion of equivalence as given.
The concept of constraint puts him in the company of Lefevere. The essential question is not of defining what is equivalence in general, whether it is possible or not, or of how to find equivalents, but of discovering what is meant by equivalence by the community or group within the target culture. These approaches are also extremely useful in the area of comparative literary studies and comparativists like Durisin (1984:184-142) whose approach is in many ways similar to Lefevere and Toury in focusing on function and relation of literary translation in the target or the recipient culture.
He is of opinion that it is impossible to speak of theories of translation without applying the comparative procedure, as the aim of analysis of a translation is to determine the extent to which it belongs to the developmental series of the native literature.
He like the other two theorists discussed, considers the translation procedure as well as the selection of the text being ` primarily determined by the integral need of the recipient literature, by its capacity for absorbing the literary phenomenon of a different national literature, work, etc. and for reacting in a specific manner (integrational or differtiational) in its aesthetic features’ as well as the norm of time.
This type of theorization is far from the traditional paradigm of translation theory that is obsessed with the ideas of fidelity and betrayal, and the notions of `free’ vs. literal translation. Thanks to the proponents of system approach to literary translation, translation studies can boast of becoming a discipline in its own right due to the development of powerful theoretical models.
However, the problem with Leferverian system is its terminology. The words `refracted’ and `rewriting’ presuppose that a text can be written for the first time and that it exists in a pre-non-refracted state. These presuppositions take him dangerously close to the very `corpus’ based approach he is so vigorously attacking. Perhaps Derridian philosophy can explain why one is always in danger of belonging to the very system of thought one is criticizing. Another obvious limitation of these types of theories is that they are rather reductionist in their approach.
Though Lefevere maintains that the system concept holds that the refracted texts are mainly responsible for the canonized status of the corpus and the intrinsic quality alone could not have given canonized status for them he fails to point out the exact features and qualities of the literary text which solicit refractions.
Then there are problematic words like` the system’ which Lefevere points out `refer to a heuristic construct that does not emphatically possess any kind of ontological reality….’ and `is merely used to designate a model that promises to help make sense of a very complex phenomenon, that of writing, reading and rewriting of literature… (1985: 225). Besides types of theories are descriptive and hence have a limited use for the translator as well as translation criticism, which is a rather neglected branch of translation studies till date. Lefevere says that translation criticism hardly rises much above, `he is wrong because I’m right level… ‘(1984:99).
He also points out that it is impossible to define once and for all, what a good translation is just as it is impossible to define once and for all what good literature is. And ” critic A, “judging” on the basis of poetics A’ will rule translation A “good” because it happens to be constructed on the basis of the principles laid down in A’. Critic B, on the other hand, operating on the basis of poetics B’, will damn translation A” and praise translation B’, for obvious reasons… “(1988:176). He believes,” Translators can be taught languages and a certain awareness of how literature works. The rest is up to them.
They make mistakes only on the linguistic level. The rest is strategy. ” (1984:99). The perspective of course is that of a value relativist and a culture relativist, which seem to be the politically correct and `in’ stances today, but the stance can be seen as symptomatic in the light of deeper moral crises in the larger philosophical context. An ambitious and insightful essay by Raymond van den Broeck, `Second Thought on Translation Criticism: A Model of its Analytic Function’ (1985) attempts to go beyond the mere descriptive and uncourageous approach of Lefevere and Toury which tries to incorporate the ideas of their theories.
Like Toury and Lefevere, Broeck stresses the importance of examination of the norms among all those involved in the production and reception of translations and remarks that it is the foremost task of translation criticism to create greater awareness of these norms but he also gives room for the critic’s personal value judgements. The critic may or may not agree with the particular method chosen by the translator for a particular purpose. He is entitled to doubt the effectiveness of the chosen strategies, to criticize decisions taken with regard to certain details.
To the extent that he is himself familiar with the functional features of the source text, he will be a trustworthy guide in telling the reader where target textemes balance source textemes and where in the critic’s view, they do not. But he must never confuse his own initial norms with those of the translator (p. 60-61). Broeck attempts a synthesis of the target culture oriented inductive – descriptive approach and the notorious task of evaluating translation and the result is indeed very useful and commendable as translation evaluation is a neglected branch of translation studies.
As opposed to this descriptive approach is Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility (1995). With a normative and extremely insightful point of view he examines historically how the norm of fluency prevailed over other translation strategies to shape the canon of foreign literatures in English. He makes a strong case for `foreignness’ and `awkwardness’ of the translated text as a positive value in the evaluation of translation. The other approaches to the study of translation which seem to be gaining ground lay greater emphasis on the political dimension of literary translation.
The more recent literary theories like New Historicism are interested in reading the contexts of power relations in a literary text. In his critical exposition of New Historicism and Cultural materialism, John Brannigan (1998) states, `New Historicism is a mode of critical interpretation which privileges power relations as the most important context for texts of all kinds. As a critical practice it treats literary texts as a space where power relations are made visible ‘(6). Such a perspective when applied to the texts that communicate across cultures can yield very important insights and open an exciting way of thinking about translation.
Tejaswini Niranjana’s book Siting Translation, History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context (1995) examines translation theories from this perspective. “In a post-colonial context the problematic of translation becomes a significant site for raising questions of representation, power, and historicity. The context is one of contesting and contested stories attempting to account for, to recount, the asymmetry and inequality of relations between peoples, races, languages. ” In translation, the relationship between the two languages is hardly on equal terms.
Niranjana draws attention to a rather overlooked fact that translation is between languages, which are hierarchically related, and that it is a mode of representation in another culture. When the relationship between the cultures and languages is that of colonizer and colonized, “translation… produces strategies of containment. By employing certain modes of representing the other-which it thereby also brings into being–translation reinforces hegemonic versions of the colonized, helping them acquire the status of what Edward Said calls representations or objects without history ‘(p.3).
She points out in the introduction that her concern is to probe `the absence, lack, or repression of an awareness of asymmetry and historicity in several kinds of writing on translation’ (p. 9). Harish Trivedi (1997) has demonstrated how translation of Anatole France’s Thais by Premchand was distinctly a political act in the sense that it selected a text which was not part of the literature of the colonial power and that it attempted a sort of liberation of Indian literature from the tutelage of the imperially-inducted master literature, English.
St-Pierre observes the fact that translators when faced with references to specific aspects of the source culture may use a variety of tactics, including non-translation, as part of their overall strategy and use many other complex tactics in order to reinvent their relations in a postcolonial context (1997:423). Mahasweta Sengupta has offered a rather engaging and perceptive reading of Rabindranath Tagore’s autotranslation of Gitanjali. She points out giving numerous examples, of how Rabindranath took immense liberties with his own Bengali originals in order to refashion his Bengali songs to suit the English sensibility.
He modified, omitted, and rewrote his poems in the manner of the Orientalists to cater to his Western audience (1996). Bassnett and Trivedi (1999) believe that the hierarchic opposition between the original work and translation reflects the hierarchic opposition between the European colonizer culture and the colonized culture. This hierarchy, they observe, is Eurocentric, and its spread is associated with the history of colonialization, imperialism and proselytization. Because of these historical reasons, radical theories of translation have come up in the former colonies.
Recalling how members of a sixteenth century Brazilian tribe called Tupinamba ate a Catholic priest, an act which could have even been an act of homage, Bassnett and Trivedi suggest that the metaphor of `cannibalism’ could be used for the act of translation as it is one of the ways former colonies might find a way to assert themselves and their own culture and to reject the feeling of being derivative and appellative `copy’, without at the same time rejecting everything that might be of value that comes from Europe.
Else Ribeiro Pires Viera has considered the translation theory of Haroldo de Campos, a renowned Brazilian translator who uses very interesting metaphors for translating like, perceiving translation as blood transfusion and vampirization which actually nourishes the translator and thus subverting the hierarchic polarities of the privileged original and inauthentic translation in a post colonial context. This type of approach to translation promotes the awareness of political and historical field in which translation operates among the readers as well as the translators.
Another significant statement on `The Politics of Translation’ comes from Gayatri Chakaravorty Spivak (1998:95-118) who conceives of translation as an important strategy in pursuing the larger feminist agenda of achieving women’s `solidarity’. ` The task of the feminist translator is to consider language as a clue to the working of gendered agency. ‘ Translation can give access to a larger number of feminists working in various languages and cultures.
She advises that a translator must `surrender’ to the text, as translation is the most intimate act of reading. It is an act of submission to the rhetorical dimension of the text. This act for Spivak is more of an erotic act than ethical. She also advises that one’s first obligation in understanding solidarity is to learn other women’s mother tongue rather than consider solidarity as an `a priori’ given.