The Art of Translation


To discuss the art of literary translation is to a large extent to mystify it if we disregard the unruly manner in which it has been practiced throughout history. For although writing between two different languages has always been integral part of national literatures and the exchanges between them, the most striking, the truly captivating thing about it is its variations rather than any single characteristic or aspect.

This cannot be overstressed. Even though we have grown accustomed to the fact that translation is today a field of academic study, no different than, say, applied linguistics or sociology, translating literature has always been perceived and practiced in a variety of manners and styles, following a variety of literary and writerly traditions. The very idea that an academic course could be an inlet into writing would strike even an early twentieth-century aspiring poet as absurd. Compare with the practice of Antoin Galland who translated liberally the Arabian Nights into French and into a ninetieth-century best-seller, the very man to whom we owe the notion of les belles infidèles; or with Mallarmé, or Chateaubriand who out of admiration for sublime forms and imagery found in the works of E. A. Poe and Milton respectively translated them to international notoriety.

Let us also remind ourselves that mastery of the foreign languages out of which these literati translated was not in the least a consideration. Translation in the whole of the nineteenth century in France, for instance, was being done entirely by established authors with a vivid interest in foreign literatures but with no linguistic training to speak of. Nor was it necessary back then to compare the source-text to the target-text in order to judge the quality of the translation, as seems to have become the norm in Eurocentric letters after the 1830s. As a matter of fact, it seems that the less ‘professionally’ – to be anachronistic – these authors translated, the more effective their work was. Not only did they translate – widely and eclectically for that matter – but they also prefaced their translations, wrote extended reviews and critical pieces and at times went out of their way to promote them ardently in the receiving culture. The history of translation and literature is full of instances of authors, reviewers and scholars who ‘campaigned’ for previously unknown foreign authors through translation: Voltaire for Hamlet, Hugo for Shakespeare, Kafka for Conrad, Zide for Taha Hussein, Giono for Melville, and the list goes on.

In other words, literary translation was for a very long time considered to be a literary workshop for writers of prose and poetry, a kind of a rite de passage and an invaluable exercise in literary writing. This type of translation puts the emphasis not so much on linguistic equivalence – as the modern perception would have it – but rather on eclectic affinities between the two writers in dialogue, the translated and the translating; on experimentation with forms, structures and creative devices that the foreign work makes explicit, and which would stretch the target-language usages and conventions once appropriated; finally, on discovering genres, traditions, narrating styles and voices and importing them to their own writing, both translational and non-non-translational. This is why influential writers from the likes of Goethe down to Pound, Paz and Nabokov, have insisted on the irreplaceable value of acknowledging the Other embodied in a foreign work to be translated. Without any doubt, literary writing is enriched in ways unimaginable were it to contend itself with resources found in national language and literature alone, were it not, that is to say, for the activity of translation.

The distinction between contemporary and past ideas about the art of literary translation does not need to polarise our understanding of it. Interestingly, the standardisation of literary translation we are experiencing today, which is so typical of the institutionalisation of translator training, led to a similar emphasis on the creative potential of translation, even though from a different path. Theory might be a large part of most Western-European translation curricula, still in need of some justification for some. But such an approach, cautious in establishing links with the past and ongoing debates on core issues of translation, has led to a renewed valorisation of the source-text.

Whether focussing on belles-lettres or applied and communicative approaches to translation, there is more consensus today about the need to maintain the foreign essence in form and content of the source-text. Foreignisation makes all the rage today for reasons that do not have only to do with the ideological stakes of emerging categories of the population which, although very much part of a society’s diverse pool of creative forces, were until recently eclipsed by history – women, ethnic minorities, gays. Foreignisation has become central to translation debates because it is seen as a means to fertilise the native literary ground. This potential might seem destructive in terms of conventional traditions but it is hugely enriching in terms of creativity and can only come forth in translation.

Extract taken from the website of the British Council.

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