This semester my peers and I took to holding casual workshops of one another’s work between classes. As few people shared the language of the translator whose work we were looking at, the main drive in those meetings was to try and help the translator’s work sound more fluid, more readable, more like English. It seemed like the most natural way to go about things, both because it was the only help we could offer and because, well, an English translation should read as flawless English. That was the thought.
For me this all changed after reading some of Lawrence Venuti’s work on foreignizing and domesticating translations. In his book, The Translator’s Invisibility, Venuti talks about the state of translation and the translator’s role in the print culture, and what he has to say is not very encouraging for an aspiring translator. According to Venuti, and probably many people working in translation or translation theory, translators are overlooked. I would agree with this. In a translation of Hesse’s Steppenwolf I am currently reading, there is no biography of the translator, but there is one of the cover artist. That seems imbalanced to me, though the publisher found it reasonable. More shocking was Venuti’s comments on how translators often rewrite a text in an ethnocentric fashion, making it accessible to the new readers at the expense of its cultural heritage. This in turn erases the sense of a text as a translation and imagines it as a new, original text which makes the translator an invisible entity and elevates the original author and his or her work. This can also flatten a text, smoothing out its many potential idiosyncrasies, which is a complaint in regards to poetry which I have heard among my course mates.
Venuti calls for a translation that to some degree foreignizes a text. This means including some idiosyncrasies of the original (language) as well as some of the translator’s hand. By making sure a translation reads as a translation, with some of the strangeness of a foreign language and the translator’s influence, the translator will not be so invisible and the foreign culture will not be subject to the hegemony of the English language. Or so goes the idea.
This has all given me something to think about in relation to my dissertation project, which I intend to be a translation of German poetry. By no means do I intend to write a half German translation, one abound with foreign references and my own flights of fancy. But before reading Venuti the question of translation would have been ‘how can I make this sound like good (English-language) poetry?’ Now I think the question of how to translate is a more complicated one. The first question is still relevant, but in addition to that one I must also ask ‘what marks can I leave as a translator?’ and ‘what marks of the original German should I maintain?’ Translation has always seemed like a delicate balance, but this issue of domestication and foreignization has added more weights to be allocated to just the right spots.
Cole Konopka was born in 1988. He lived, studied, and worked in Germany in 2007 as a participant of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Vocational Program. After studying English and Anthropology at the University of Iowa, Cole began his studies in literary translation at the University of East Anglia. In addition to translation, Cole also enjoys writing original works and painting.