Invisible translation in literary reviews

Essay 2015 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of contents


Lawrence Venuti: The Translator’s Invisibility

André Lefevere: Mother Courage’s Cucumbers: Text, System and Refraction in a Theory of Literature

Case study: Book reviews today


Works Cited


Translation of literary texts suffer always an ungrateful position in academic and cultural discourse. Generally, there are only two ways of treatment: no acknowledgment at all or criticism about the unfaithfulness. One can decide which way he prefers but translators todays are mostly praised for their invisibility and not for their actual work. This is especially the case in book reviews where the focus is on the meaning, thus the content of the book, instead on the translator’s work. Already in 1994 Lawrence Venuti wrote his influential essay about The Translator’s Invisibility concerning the focus on fluency in translation instead of a foreignization. Here, book reviews show exactly this trend. Nevertheless, the fact of being from another culture comes into account in their attempt of settling the book into their own culture. Linked to that is André Lefevere’s theory of literature as a system which he depicts in his essay Mother Courage’s Cucumbers: Text, System and Refraction in a Theory of Literature (1982).

In my essay I would like to show how both Lefevere’s and Venuti’s concepts and criticism are internalised in contemporary book reviews and therefore in our (literary) culture in general. Concerning that, I will shortly present the theoretical background of Venuti and Lefevere with their most interesting points for literary criticism. Followed by that is the case study where I analyse three different literary reviews and finish with a contemporary translator dispute in newspapers. Thus, the invisibility of the translator as well as the disappearance of the source culture will be highlighted.

Lawrence Venuti: The Translator’s Invisibility

According to Venuti, the translator has a specific status within the literary system nowadays: he is hopefully invisible. Translation is a mass market in our globalized culture where the best read is a fluent one. Regarding that, the most important goal of the translation the focused on the meaning whereas the translator’s intervention is concealed:” “Invisibility” is the term I will use to describe the translator’s situation and activity in contemporary Anglo-American culture.” (Venuti 1). Here, the term ‘fluency’ becomes important since Venuti sees it as the most influential in Anglo-American culture today:

“A translated text, whether prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, is judged acceptable by most publishers, reviewers, and readers when it reads fluently, when the absence of any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities makes it seem transparent, giving the appearance that it reflects the foreign writer’s personality or intention or the essential meaning of the foreign text—the appearance, in other words, that the translation is not in fact a translation, but the “original.” (Venuti 1).

Thus, he claims that a translation has to be fluent in order to be published. There are several discourse features which are important to gain this fluency. Generally speaking, all of them try to evoke the image of a work of the target culture. Thus, the translation attempts a modern style since otherwise the reader focuses on the language which is not important. Linked to the modern style is the usage of common words and a standard language. Hence, the reader experiences the work as from its own lingual background. Concerning the Anglophone communities, also Briticism or Americanism are avoided as well as any pidgin words or a foreign syntax. (see Venuti 4f.) The work is now part of the own language environment. However, there is an adaptation to age and nation concerning older translation but still with a focus on the target language.

The concept of fluency is part of transparency. Shifting from the translation to the translator, the translator receives minimal recognition, his status is a marginal one. Since his work is not an original one, he is not as important as the author. Furthermore, his work is also written by himself which makes it difficult regarding copyright law. The translation is a fake contradicting the original as an author’s representation. However, the focus on the plain style emphasizes the importance of meaning which is connected to the power of the scientific research:” dominance of transparency in contemporary writing is enforced by its economic value.” (Venuti 5). Due to the rise of science with its content wise orientation, language becomes less interesting.

Thus, the transparency is a strategy of domestication which is in itself already a negative term Venuti uses: “A fluent translation is immediately recognizable and intelligible, “familiarised,” domesticated, not “disconcerting[ly]” foreign, capable of giving the reader unobstructed “access to great thoughts,””(Venuti 5). Hence, representation of a culture is xenophobic at home and imperialistic abroad. Meant by this is again the elimination of the source culture in the translated work with its focus of integrating it into the target language and culture. Venuti clearly presents this as a negative concept. Instead of the domestication followed by transparency followed by fluency, he emphasizes the strategy of resistance a translator should take on. Resistance, in his concept, is the foreignization of the work. Regarding that, the translation should attempt to match the complexity of the original work including expression and language. There might be some aspects of domestication be included but these should not be concealed. Instead, they should be pointed out to make the reader aware of the transgression between two cultures and languages. Here, one could see Schleiermacher’s idea of ‘moving the reader towards the author’ and to foreignize the work for the benefit of the target language and culture.

André Lefevere: Mother Courage’s Cucumbers: Text, System and Refraction in a Theory of Literature

In his essay Lefevere uses Bertolt Brecht and his reception in the US to establish his concept of literature as a system. Connected to that is the term ‘refraction’ which refers to everything surrounding the literary work like translation or criticism.

Leaving aside his example of Brecht, Lefevere criticises the genius idea of Romanticism who treated the text like a sacred item. Thus, every translation has its faults since it loses the status of the original. This concept is for Lefevere still operating today and is rejected by him. Instead, he advocates a systematic approach to literature where translation is the borderline between two cultures (see Lefevere 204). Therefore, translations gain an important status for Lefevere. Furthermore, he introduces his term of refraction which means the “adaptation of a work of literature to a different audience, with the intention of influencing the way in which audience reads the work” (Lefevere 205). In short, refractions are nearly everything surrounding a literary work including translations, criticism, canons, scholar, reviews or commentary. The last part of his explanation hints at the importance for the author because refractions determine the way a work is received. Despite this importance, Lefevere claims that refraction have not been studied because they are seen as marginal in the Romantic view of literature. However, in a systematic approach, refractions belong to the same system as the work itself does.

Following that, Lefevere illustrates his approach furthermore starting with the fact that literature is a system within a culture in a heuristic mode system. Since it consists of the works as objects and the people who are contributing to them it is a contrived system commenting on itself. Moreover, it is also stochastic which a rather indeterminate nature since its components are not fixed but rather predictions. (see Lefevere 205). After this rather theoretical introduction to his systematic approach, he goes more into the specific details of the literary system.

First of all, there is the patronage which regulate the system. Patronage does not necessarily refers to one person but also several persons or institutions. However, “patronage consists of at least three components: an ideological one…, an economic one… and a status component.” (Lefevere 206). The first one is linked with the other systems of the society and should not contradict them too much in ideological terms. Secondly, the economic component concerns more the writer himself because the patron supports him. The last one focuses on the relationship of author and society since the writer gains a specific status in the culture. Although the second component might suggest otherwise, “patrons rarely influence the literary system directly; critics will do that for them” (Lefevere 206). The concept of patronage can be divided into two categories again. The undifferentiated one where it consists of a single ideology no matter if one person or institution. Contrasting to that is the differentiated patronage which “occurs in the type of society in which the ideological and the economic component of patronage are no longer necessarily linked” (Lefevere 206). In a rather critical remark he points out that is also possible that the economic component substitutes the ideological one, thus, the sales getting more important than any ideological ideas. The concept of patronage highlights mostly the relation of author and society or support.

However, concerning the actual works, “the literary system also possesses a kind of code of behaviour, a poetics” (Lefevere 206). This is divided into two categories again; the inventory and the functional component. Whereas the first one mostly concerns with genre, symbols or characters, the second one focuses on how literature should function in society. Regarding that, there is a difference between undifferentiated patronages and the differentiated ones. Hence, in one system the poetics will be supported by the patronage to maintain their ideology. In contrast to that, the latter one encourages several poetics with their individual circles. (see Lefevere 206). Here, the gap between the competing poetics grows wider with a specific emphasis on the distinction between high and low literature. Thus, there might also be commercial reasons for a specific kind of literature which usually enforces a conservative poetic. The same applies for propaganda which comes from an ideological perspective.



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Title: Invisible translation in literary reviews