Monday, October 01, 2007

Lawrence Venuti on prominence of Anglo-American writing

“By routinely translating large number of the most varied English-language books, foreign publishers have exploited the global drift toward American political and economic hegemony in the postwar period, actively supporting the international expansion of Anglo-American culture. This trend has been reinforced by English-language book imports….”

“British and American publishing, in turn, has reaped the financial benefits of successfully imposing Anglo-American cultural values on a vast foreign readership, while producing cultures in the United Kingdom and United States that are aggressively monolingual, unreceptive to the foreign, accustomed to fluent translations that invisibly inscribe foreign texts with English-language values and provide readers with the narcissistic experience of recognizing their own culture in a cultural other.”

“The translator’s invisibility is symptomatic of a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described – without too much exaggeration – as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home.”

I disagree with Venuti about a lot of things, but about this he's very insightful. Right on the money.


Blogger Max said...

Though the other (another) side of the (a) coin might be that some translators secretly ache to transform another's work of art into their own.

I mean, to what extent can we accept translation that doesn't attempt primarily to relate at least the gist of the source text to its readership? How un-Anglo can an English translation be before it becomes something quite unlike, and really unrepresentative of, the source text? What does it even mean to translate something in an Anglo-American way? What is so bad about "transparency"? Is the argument against transparency really an intellectual issue about the concealing of collaborative authorship, or does it have more to do with rendering the translator visible, and therefore valid as a target of praise and all of the various resources that come with praise?

11:30 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Well Max you raise some interesting issues.

I think Venuti would argue is that by making the foreign text read like mostly another Anglo-American text you are in fact not being representative of the foreign text, which after all is foreign.

However, your point is good because sometimes what translators see as "foreignizing" the translation text is actually another kind of domesticating the text - ie making it "exotic" in a way that we want from out translated texts. Thus we are in fact Americanizing. And we're also back to a rather dull idea of "estrangement" or "defamiliarization."

This is of course a very complex issue. I tend to think that actually his thinking here is a little bit off. Off in this way: The talk about foreignizing vs domsticating still see the translation as a copy of the original. What I have in mind is something more rhizomatic, a different way of talking about translation - not as copies or renditions but as meeting points of languages, explorations of connections between languages, a way of talking about "the original" that doesn't render it so stable, dead, immobile. The mobility of the translation involves the original.

As for praise etc - you have a very cynical way of phrasing your observation, but certainly the translator is a kind of collaborator on a text.But it's these stable notions of authorship that translation can challenge.

By making the translation process invisible - by making it seem like was written in English, by making it seem like yet another American piece of writing, and by making the translator "invisible" - a monolingual, monoglossic culture defends itself against one of the big threats/promises of translation - the destabilizing of the text, language and authorship.

8:51 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I think what this ignores, though, is that translation is, at least in some small way, utilitarian. The core purpose of translation, it would seem to me, is to allow readers of one language to understand communications originally composed in another language, without having to put in a years-long painstaking effort to learn the language just to read, for example, a single poem or book of poems.

It seems to me that this point of view you're presenting wants to sublimate, deny, or completely ignore this. It seems to me that this point of view takes translation away from something with use value and recreates it as something with an intrinsic value of its own, something to be done for itself, for note, for praise, etc. It feels, to me, like a deliberate effort to raise the translator to author status. And the guise it uses to conceal this effort is a sort of modern crusade against the Anglicization of foreign texts. You know, this idea that translators should be doing the good work of preserving foreignness in the face of English-language hegemony, and nevermind the fact that this also increases the profile of the translator, positions him/her as an ersatz author, an oracle mediating between the source and the representation of the source.

It would seem to me that the tendency here is to think that, if you can use a translation, if it has an actual use value, then it is "Anglo." You must, therefore, reconfigure the translation such that it perhaps unnecessarily complexifies the source, stupefies the reader, and only then have you de-Anglicized the text. And of course, then it is not very useful to anybody other than the translator, who has basically wrested control from the author of the source and installed him/herself in that position. I'm not quite sure why there is such hostility toward the utility of art. What does it matter to you if a bunch of stupid people who don't think about the issues of translation read an "Anglicized" copy of some poem and think to themselves, "Oh, what an American poem this is! It feels so familiar, even though it is by a foreign author!"? Those people are stupid, but they are not the only people reading your translation.

You say that Anglo translations, translations that make the text appear to have been written in English, written by an American, etc are bad because they defend against the perceived threat of textual and authorial destabilization. But what about the other (another) side of the (a) coin in which deliberately de-Anglicized translations become so useless in the transmission of foreign ideas that those ideas, which may be revolutionary, destabilizing forces in themselves, never bear fruit in the Anglo-American psyche? Translation can certainly challenge ideas of authorship, but the ideas translation spreads across societies and culture can challenge governments and institutions. Which challenge do you think is of greater import?

10:45 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I certainly never said that a translated work should be incomprehensible. That's not the same as foreign. The fact that you seem to equate the two very telling. You make a lot of hasty conclusions.

I don't understand: What do you think is so scary about the translator/translation being recognized?

As for the "stupid" readers. It's not that they think "ah this sounds familiar." It's that it IS familiar. Thus part of the point of translation is lost.

5:33 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Perhaps I'm making hasty conclusions because I'm not quite sure what constitutes "Anglo-American" writing. If the term weren't so hazy, my argument might not require such broad coverage.

11:22 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

It means us...

11:02 AM  
Blogger Max said...

So a translation of a text to English can't look like anything written in English by Americans or other English-speakers without being the type of "Anglo-American" writing that translators should avoid?

Once a foreign text is successfully translated into non-Anglo-American verse, does that translation then become part of the database of Anglo-American verse to avoid in future translations?

I'm not getting it, Johannes.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I see what you're not getting. You think I am arguing for a common notion that we need foreign literature to refresh our own literature - to give us more tools to work with so to speak.

I believe it is often interesting to see what poets elsewhere (even within Anglo-American Poetry) are doing, and I think part of the fear of translation is based on the problem that other literatures show that no stylistic is transcendent or objective etc.

However, I think the most important part of the translation is that it alters people's relationship to language.

The difference between a monolingual and monoglossic poet and a heteroglossic, multilingual poet is the difference between Robert Frost and his "poetry is what is lost in translation" and Aase Berg, whose language is - by Frost's definition - always continually lost due to the flow of her instable, permutated, translated language - a poetry that makes the word "pun" seem quaint. Or Paul Celan. Or Vallejo.

It is the difference between a poetry that tries to uphold an illusory idea of pure/true language versus a poetry that is interested in exploring the flux of language and the "errors" of language.

But as I said above, I oppose turning translation's foreigness into exotic tricks (which, as you suggest, are then made part of the american tool box, just like any other device).

8:32 AM  

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