Thursday, September 5, 2019

The ethics of the anti-smooth translation - to do right abroad, this translation practice must do wrong at home

The multiple translations of Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Hārabārta fall along a continuum of the domesticated and foreignized translation.  What makes both of these cases so interesting is that the same translator has created translations at different points on the continuum, which cannot be too common.

Joe at roughghosts, who pointed me to the Bhattacharya novel, notes that the practice or something like it in fact is common in translation from Afrikaans.  Here we see Leon de Kock, the translator of Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf (1994), describe what happened to them:

We’d been counting on a South African publisher only, so we were making a mixed language polyglot translation, and suddenly Marlene’s agent in London came up with a contract with Little, Brown, a major trans-national publisher. She phoned me up and said, “We have a big problem here. We can’t go on with this mixed, bastardized publication. We have to render it in straight English.”

The translator actually moved in with the author.  Together they squashed the “Afrikaans-isms” and “South African-isms.”  The result was two translations, one for the South African market and one for everyone else.  De Kock thinks that maybe today this would not be so necessary.  “[P]eople have begun to realize that it’s OK that not everything be in proper English anymore.”

He might be right.  The newer versions of The Foundation Pit and Hārabārta suggest he is.  Even with a more domesticated Harbart from New Directions and a wilder Herbert from Seagull, both are more linguistically out-there than previous translations.

I thought I would remind myself about what I meant by “domesticated” and “foreignized,” so I took a look at Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (2nd ed., 2008).  I was surprised to see that the distinction was so old, going back at least to Friedrich Schleiermacher:

In an 1813 lecture on the different “methods” of translation, Schleiermacher argued that “there are only two.  Either the translator leaves the author in peace as much as possible and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him” (Lefevere 1977:74)*.  (p. 15 of Venuti)

The translator chooses, Venuti paraphrases, between domestication, “an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to receiving cultural values, bringing the author back home,” and foreignizing, “register[ing] the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text, sending the reader abroad” (p. 15).

Schleiermacher and Venuti make an ethical case for the foreignized translation.  You should want more messiness and obscure references and endnotes explaining it all.  The last thing you should praise is the “smoothness” of the translation.  “Fluency” is the word Venuti finds in professional review.  We have been lectured that we should say something about the translation, so professionals say it is “fluent” and amateurs say it is “smooth.”  The hell with that, argues Venuti: “to do right abroad, this translation practice must do wrong at home, deviating enough from native norms to stage an alien reading experience” (16)

I don’t know.  On the one hand, yeah!  That’s what I like.  That’s what Joe argues for: “If you read literature from foreign cultures, don’t you want your equilibrium challenged a little along the way?”  But he is not quite willing to make an ethical argument, and – this is the other hand –  I am not either.  It is more an argument about taste.  It is too much like telling people what to read.  If you want smooth, read smooth; there is plenty of that.   But it is great to see translators and publishers who recognize that there is also an audience for foreignness.

* André Lefevere’s Translating Literature: The German Tradition from Luther to Rosenweig (1977) is Venuti’s source for the quotation.


  1. Venuti's ideas about translation give me the heebie-jeebies; I vented about them here. And the distinction goes back well before Schleiermacher -- I'm pretty sure translators of the Bible were discussing it in the 16th century, but I can't lay my cursor on a link at the moment.

  2. I know that Luther was bringing the Bible to the reader, so the other position as at least implicit, isn't it? There's probably a humanist version of the distinction, too.

    Your Venuti post - man, what a discussion! In the end, I just can't but "should"s on translation, or even reading. Not only do you not have to read more translations, you don't have to read at all. There are a million valuable things to do with your life.

    I'm really arguing with certain book bloggers there more than Venuti.