Thursday, 26 December 2013

Considering Foreignization

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.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

‘Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…’ : Prefaces and the voice of the translator

The preface is not something I had spent much time considering in my literary studies until now. In spite of a few notable exceptions (think Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads), prefaces to literary works tend to go relatively unnoticed. The important thing is ‘the words on the page’ – and pages prior to page 1 don’t count. “WE CANNOT KNOW THE AUTHOR’S INTENTIONS,” we shout, drowning out the author’s (timid or otherwise) declaration of “What I meant to say was this…”
It is true that authors do not have exclusive ownership of the meaning of their work, nor are they always best placed to comment on it. A magnificent novel might be preceded by a pretentious or less-than-insightful preface, like a once-aloof film star posting inanities on Twitter. Perhaps for good reason, then, prefaces to literary works are relatively rare today. However, there is a school of thought that says translations should be an exception to this rule.
Why, then, might a translator write a preface? It may be partly to do with the fact that we ask questions of translators that we don’t tend to ask of authors: why did you choose this text? Why doesn’t your translation of this poem rhyme? Translating poetry is impossible, isn’t it? A preface can be a way of pre-empting some of those questions; and it is hardly surprising if they sometimes come across as somewhat defensive.
We could also look at it in a more positive way: prefaces are a way for translators to explain their approach. They allow us a glimpse of the translation process. Most significantly, though, they make the translator visible. They remind the reader that the text is a translation – something which is all too easy to forget, particularly when reading fiction, where all efforts have usually been made to disguise the text’s translated nature.
Translators speak to the reader in the texts they translate, but it is only in a preface that they can speak entirely in their own voice. Prefaces can sometimes be political: for example, they have often been used by feminist translators to explain why a text by a woman writer has been neglected, or why they have adopted a ‘hijacking’ strategy, where a text that was not originally feminist is ‘appropriated’ in translation through alterations such as the introduction of gender-inclusive language.
Opponents of the translator’s preface argue that a translated text should ‘stand alone’, should speak for itself. However, this is not as straightforward as it sounds. No translation stands alone; it always bears the trace of its source. Any text is a palimpsest of influences and allusions, and is completed by a reader in a particular cultural context. It does not exist out of context. A non-translated text, however, is interpreted directly by the reader. In the case of a translation, the source text is interpreted by the translator, who then inevitably brings this interpretation to bear on his or her translation; reading translation is a more intertextual experience than reading a non-translated text.
Why, then, pretend that the need to explain is a weakness? We too often expect reading a translation to be like reading any other text; as a result, we do not want to hear the voice of the translator. Hearing that voice in a preface forces us to acknowledge the translator’s presence in the text itself; it reminds us that what we are reading is not a fixed, finite object, but is slippery, multi-layered, polyphonic.
Olivia Hanks translates from French to English, with a particular interest in poetry. She blogs about French literature at and can be contacted at

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Translation and Resistance

Translation can be a wonderful means of resistance in all sorts of ways. One of the most recent and prominent forms of resistance through translation has resulted from the issue concerning feminist punk rock group ‘Pussy Riot’. Pussy Riot staged a provocative performance of their song ‘Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!’ in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and were venomously charged and imprisoned by the Russian government for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.
Many of their speeches and court hearings have been translated, raising their profile in the West and perhaps hopefully, with the whole world watching, ensuring a certain amount of their safety in Russia. The translation of Pussy Riot has meant that both the western and Russian governments’ actions have become more visible to the general public and thus arguably, more accountable. Recently, correspondence between the only member of Pussy Riot to remain in prison, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and the famous Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, was translated into English and featured in The Guardian. Interestingly Nadezhda states:
“Here in Russia I have a strong sense of the cynicism of so-called first-world countries towards poorer nations. In my humble opinion, "developed" countries display an exaggerated loyalty towards governments that oppress their citizens and violate their rights”.
Through translation, we have an opportunity to bring such views to the world stage, and potentially as a result to constrain our own government to take action. It is important that we continue to support these brave actions and to keep them in the spotlight. It is however necessary to try to understand why Pussy Riot has become so widely recognised and someone like Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who dedicated her life to human rights and because of her actions was assassinated in her own apartment, barely acknowledged.
In ‘The Invisibility of the Translator’ Venuti criticises the idea of Simpatico; the way in which a translator may empathise with an author s/he is translating in order to ‘improve’ the translation. Venuti posits that simpatico causes the work of literature to be centred on the ‘poetic I’, he states that: “Here it becomes clear that the translator’s feeling of simpatico is no more than a projection, that the object of the translator’s identification is ultimately himself, the “private associations” he inscribes in the foreign text in the hope of producing a similarly narcissistic experience in the English language reader.” In other words, Simpatico can lead us to impose a predominantly Anglo-American style of writing onto a foreign text and to recognize ourselves within it. Simpatico will therefore also lead us to choose to translate works of foreign literature that embody this particular style.
Perhaps, then, our overwhelming recognition of Pussy Riot stems from their mode; first of all the band name ‘Pussy Riot’ is not a translation, the name was originally in English and is therefore easily recognisable for an English-speaking audience. Secondly, as a feminist punk-rock group, Pussy Riot appeals to many young individualistic adults and teenagers in the West. We may conclude then, that through translation and the close analysis it requires, we can come to recognise how we relate to other cultures, and in turn we can learn to pay attention to narratives which do not necessarily have an initial impact on us, to recognise a plurality of outlooks and world-views, rather than ones which instantly appeal to our own.
Hannah Collins studied Russian and French at the University of Nottingham. She works as a freelance translator and is currently studying on the Literary Translation MA at the UEA. Her email address is

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Fear of Theory

During the final year of my undergraduate degree I wrote a dissertation on translation. It grew from a need for more engagement with poetry in my course and a suspicion that long essays need enjoyment and interest behind them, as well the impetus of a deadline. Little did I know how far from my previous life this particular long essay would take me. I threw myself into a reading list provided by my supervisor, hoovering up whatever I could get my hands on.
 Sitting down to read, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had already translated some poetry by the French poet Pierre Alferi and it seemed to have gone well. However, what I found in books by Lawrence Venuti, Basil Hakim and Susan Bassnett, among others, was a new world opening up before me. Sometimes alarming, always exciting, this discipline of literary translation theory presented challenges I had never envisioned, much less been prepared to tackle.
Imagine this - you are standing over a chasm, toes gripping the surrounding cliff edges like a cartoon bird, desperate not to plummet into the darkness. In black clothes and holding a duffle bag in which the entire culture of a country is hidden, you creep towards a large building. A moment later you’re calmly shelling peas, separating the delicious from the inedible. These are strange metaphorical situations to find yourself (metaphorically) in. These images arose in my mind from the apprehension of how little I felt I really knew about other readers, other writers and the way others think, how essential this had suddenly become. I asked myself, what did this mean for the translation I had just done? What had I got myself into?
Translation theory and much historical thinking about translation makes liberal use of metaphor to explain the sometimes mysterious act of making one text into another one. It was the first thing which struck me about the discipline and the aspect that still interests me now, as a wiser, more experienced MA student. There are so many sites of activity in any one translation, so much happens! Anything which can bring the complications of language difference, cultural difference and historical changes in society into one neat package is very valuable. Metaphor does this.
But what about the similarities, what about the need to explore the literature of other languages from sheer curiosity, from respect? There are metaphors for that too, different from the figures I mentioned before, though no less important. My favourite comes from Walter Benjamin’s essay The Task of the Translator1. Language, he says, shouts into the forest and waits to hear its own echo, transformed yet familiar. This is beautiful, and expresses the reason why the potential mistakes and dangers the previous metaphors entail are worth it in the end.
Here at the university, in the controlled environment of the seminar, I no longer feel the vertigo I once did when faced with the metaphors for translation. In fact, I have learned to look behind them to the many truths about the practical considerations of translating literature. Not only that, but I have learned to live with the risks of translating. I trust my languages and my instinct; I trust theory to keep my mind open. Can you think of a metaphor for that…?
1 Benjamin, W. (2012) in L. Venuti (ed) The Translation Studies Reader, London and New York: Routledge, p80
Anna Bryant is from County Meath, Ireland. She translates from French into English, and also occasionally from Irish. She is currently enjoying studying on the MA in Literary Translation course at the University of East Anglia and can be contacted at