Wednesday 13 April 2011

Lawrence Venuti's The Translator's Invisibility

Lawrence Venuti's book, The Translator's Invisibility (2008, 2nd edn) is a polemical history of translation into English from the seventeenth century to the present day, and it is littered with contradictions. I think we can understand these contradictions if we understand his argument not as a recommendation of a certain translation process, but as a way of critically reading translations. I also think that his polemic can be recast as a discussion of location. The notion of location will undo some of his more flagrantly rhetorical argument, hopefully opening the way for more open discussion.

This critical appreciation was written shortly after reading Anthony Pym's review in Target, and owes a good deal to his thoughts. I should further mention though, that I am engaging primarily and simply with Venuti, imagining that this can be worthwhile despite all the scholarship which has moved on from his position. The first edition of his book was published in 1995, and I recommend in particular Maria Tymoczko's work on post-colonial translation and ethics.

Venuti's most basic distinction is between domestication and foreignization. He draws heavily on Friedrich Schleiermacher's notion that the translator can take the reader to the author, or bring the author to the reader. So these two nouns are verbal: they refer to ways of translating: translation which domesticates, and translation which foreignizes. Venuti is against domestication, and for foreignization, on ethical grounds.

He first takes issue, though, with a distinction between qualities of discourse: fluency and resistancy. These are not however to be simply aligned with domestication and foreignization, nor are the latter to be seen as poles in the manner of many historical pronouncements on translation.

Violence is essential to the nature of translation. Venuti denies that this is a metaphorical description, but that violence is literally done to the semantic, syntactic, phonemic, phonetic structures of the source text.

He seems to indicate that he would prefer more violence to be done to the target language, in order that the cultural status (I must admit I struggle to understand this section of his argument) of the source text might retain its uniqueness, emerging undamaged into the target culture, where it might have a 'dissident' or disruptive effect.

I will now turn to his contradictions. Archaism is approved, as in (Cardinal) John Henry Newman's Iliad or Ezra Pound's Wayfarer. Archaism is disapproved, as in Robert Graves' Twelve Caesars, 'catamite'. Fixed form is approved, as in the balladic stanzas of Newman's Iliad. Fixed form is disapproved, as in Matthew Arnold's recommendations and criticisms of Newman.

But why, in each of these cases, is there approval or disapproval? In Newman's Iliad and Pound's Wayfarer, archaism is a populist or playful gesture. In Graves' Twelve Caesars, 'catamite' is an abstruse word meaning 'young man with whom one engages in sexual relations' and is disapproved of as homophobic. In Newman's Iliad, the balladic form is a popular way to tell a tale in verse, as it has long been in English tradition. Arnold's recommendations of heroic couplets and hexameter, which had long been considered a close way of rendering Homer's Greek versification while maintaining some of the tradition of the English epic, are disapproved of as evidence of elitist, exclusivist sensibility.

Liberal humanism is approved, insofar as the tolerance and acceptance of others is in focus. Liberal humanism is disapproved, when it seeks a principled implementation of its values. (Nida's functional or dynamic equivalence is dismissed as the pragmatic proselytising of a confirmed evangelist).

Venuti perceives a 'trade imbalance' between (the many) books translated from English and (the few) books translated to English: more translation to English would be good. But the co-opting or appropriation of foreign literatures to some kind of hegemonising 'world literature' would be bad.

Hence the importance of the ethical approach to translation: we translators should present the foreign faithfully, we have a duty to our authors, to our readers, and to our various cultures, whether distinct or shared.

Here is my one point of detail: when reading in chapter six Venuti's account of his own 'foreignizing' translations from the Italian, I was struck by how naturally they read. I mean naturally both in the discursive sense of 'fluency' and the ethical/cultural sense of 'domestically'.

There's a particular word choice he picks out: 'carefully.' Perhaps I was prepared for too much of a shock, perhaps I've read too much slightly shocking English literature, or perhaps Venuti's argument has had such a great effect since 1995 (when the first edition came out) that my youthful understanding has formed entirely in his wake. I'm not so sure. He claims his translation of 'carefully' is suggested by the English translation of Hegel's works, and that the whole poem is working out a tension between the positions of Hegel and Nietzsche. Perhaps my ignorance of the German philosophers should hold me back from commenting, but perhaps he is just going a long way around the houses to seek justification for a very simple choice.

What if this is turned on its head, though? If I ignore that Venuti seems fruitlessly to seek justification for a choice, then I can notice that he is very carefully inferring a great deal from the text of his translated poem. Then foreignization is no longer to be considered an attitude which can motivate the translation process. Foreignization is not a way to translate. It is an attitude of reading-in, a way to critically appreciate translation.

Then Venuti's apparently contradictory readings of Newman and Arnold and Pound and Graves and others could stand - or fall - on the specific arguments of his readings. My basic criticism is that Venuti is too ready to ascribe specific intentions and values to the translator, and that he does not seem to recognise or make explicit the way in which his criticism is simply a way of reading.

This can move one step further. Frequently, in casual discussions of translation, the terms 'domestic' and 'foreign' very quickly become confusing. Whose domestic? Foreign to whom?

I translate only to English, so it might seem simple enough at first. But a book written and published in English and set in Tripoli, Libya, such as 'In the Country of Men' by Hisham Matar, uses 'Baba' and 'Mama' on the first page. At home (domestically) I would say 'mum' and 'dad', and in New York (Matar's birthplace) 'mom' and 'pop' might be more usual.

Location might be a more helpful word for translators. Location would, at first, be more concerned with cultural concepts that occur within a text - places, foods, dances, modes of address, and so on and on - than with the form and style and feel of a text. We might later argue that form and style and feel and rhythm do as much if not more to locate a text, but there is unfortunately no room for that exploration here.

What the notion of location does, is recognise that the cultural setting of a work of literature is far more specific than simply its language. And that the languages we call 'French' and 'English' and 'Arabic' are far more heterogeneous than those easy names give credit. There are traditions - plural - within any language. And it is harder by far to define a 'Standard English' than might be imagined. Venuti's polemical terms of 'foreignization' and 'domestication' flatten the field of argument so much that they are difficult to engage with in dialogue. Location would allow us to account for a literary and cultural pluralism.

When translating novels, which is probably the most visible area of literary translation today (at least if you look at certain best-selling crime novels) the question of location occurs often. The question at many points of difficulty could be, how will I locate this?

The translated novel need not be afraid of the new. I don't remember the last time I read about an utterly familiar setting. Some student moves about a bit, and ends up in a small room with many books and a view (over the rooves on the edge of the estate) of a horse in a field just outside Norwich. Even in this, though, I realise that there is much here that is still unfamiliar to me. Whose is that horse?

Insofar as any literature is concerned with the particular, it will be unfamiliar to its readers. Without that, we could have neither the joy of pure escapism nor the food for thought of more difficult reading.

The central thrust of Venuti's book is that translators should do two things. We should seek for quality. And we should assume responsibility. Venuti is perhaps embarrassed to say such a simple thing, but in the end his call to action asks simply for translations, and translators, to be good.

--- Tom Russell is a literary translator from French to English. He read French and English at Oxford and is currently studying for an MA in Literary Translation at UEA. Particular interests include eighteenth and twentieth century short fiction, and problems in the translation of rhythm. He is also currently co-editor of Norwich Papers, an annual journal of translation studies.


  1. I've come to this rather late but this is really interesting, thoughtful and well written. I hope you don't mind if I reference it in my undergraduate mini-thesis which talks about translation as a means of reception of Classical literature in C20th poetry? Thanks

  2. This is interesting. As belonging to a post-colonial country, translation I feel has been must revised subject with the intention of 'an empire writing back'. I do recognize some of the difficulties you have spelt out here as far as the culture variations are concerned. Also language tool that translators use , sometimes itself has no equivalents in other languages and it really must be a tough and a responsible job at hand. Like you say, maintain the quality with responsibility.

  3. "My basic criticism is that Venuti is too ready to ascribe specific intentions and values to the translator, and that he does not seem to recognise or make explicit the way in which his criticism is simply a way of reading." Thanks. This sentence summarizes what I had in mind while reading Venuti's "Invisibility of The Translator", I simply could not make sense of the fact that he does not see it, o does not want to...