Friday, 12 August 2011

Translators should remain invisible

Domestication; Foreignisation; Venuti: some of the most bandied about words in translation theory. Particularly in the case of the first two, extensive usage , along with their evolving meanings over the course of Venuti’s publications, has led to their suffering from a certain erosion in their precision of meaning. It seems all too simple to identify certain features in a translation – the inclusion of ‘foreign’ words in the translation, the presence of non-standard spellings - and to jump to the conclusion that the translator was foreignising.
Much of this conjecture focuses on what lays within the body of a translated text when what lies a step away can be of equal interest. Metatextual content, for example, is barely touched upon by translation theoreticians. How it integrates with the notion of invisibility is, I feel, a fascinating subject.
At its most fundamental, invisibility is an affliction affecting a given entity’s visual existence within the space of a limited environment . Any attempts to address and alter the level of the entity’s visibility will question not only the ecology, but also the finite nature of the environment.
Most commonly, the provision for footnotes, translator’s forewords and prefaces enables the reader to be more more aware of translatorial decisions and, as a consequence, of the translator. As translators (hopefully) become more inclined to incorporate such features into their published translations, or at least clamour for their inclusion, existing literary conventions will be broken for the better.
As long as this quest for visibility is kept strictly textual, the translator will, in theory, be able to use his or her ability with the written word, the skill which comes most naturally, to address this invisibility. The problem arises when translators follow the lead of the publishing world as a whole, and seeking to appropriate the space on the cover of a dust jacket.
The dreaded photo of the author alongside that of the translator. I say ‘dreaded because I feel that the practice, in both translated and untranslated literatures, is aesthetically unfortunate. It detracts from the power of the written word by placing more emphasis on the visual image of the translator. Perhaps mimicry is understandable as the translator vies for the same rights as that of the source author. Yet it reduces the book, translated or otherwise, to little more than an item for consumption as opposed to a work of art.
While there may well be something endearing about seeing a kindly face on the front of book, it will more likely than not attract the consumer to consume, firs t and foremost, and to read as an after- thought. In the same way that a pop band’s image is arguably more important than the music it produces, the written text becomes secondary to the image of the author.
Respect must therefore be reserved for those faceless authors and translators who consciously choose the path of invisibility ( and a certain pity put aside for those, such as the dead translators, who have no control over it). Or rather, Dust jackets should be allowed to gather dust without the dust having sleepless nights about the toothy mugs, often times two, that may be gasping for attention and breath.

-- Andrew Nimmo is a translator working from Spanish, Portuguese and French into English. His areas of interest include music, journalism, fiction and film. You can contact him at

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