The Iowa Review Forum on Literature and Translation

The Iowa Review is up to a lot of cool things . . . First off, as you can see in the ad below, they’re sponsoring a writing contest for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, with the winners each receiving $1,500 and the first runners-up getting $750. That’s pretty solid.

But more to the point of this website, they’ve also launched a more digital component to the Review—the “TIR Forum on Literature and Translation.”:

Translations have played an important part in the history of The Iowa Review, especially through the magazine’s various affiliations with writers from around the globe who have visited Iowa City over the years, to read at Prairie Lights Bookstore, study or teach in the Writers’ Workshop, participate in seminars and conferences, or in the International Writing Program or Summer Writing Festival, or because we’ve published their work and they have an inkling to meet us in person. Iowa is also the home of the oldest MFA program devoted to literary translation in the United States, a spin-off of the Workshop from the 1960s, guided for many years by Daniel Weissbort, long-time editor of Modern Poetry in Translation and translator of Joseph Brodsky, Nikolai Zabolotsky, and Claude Simon, among many others.

Here we are proud to publish a new forum on literature and translation, with an inaugural essay by translator and scholar Lawrence Venuti. This essay originated as a plenary lecture delivered to the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association in October of 2010, where, to put it mildly, it caused a bit of a stir.

Yes, yes it did. You can read Venuti’s piece in full by clicking here, but as a gloss, here’s a few key paragraphs:

This state of affairs, however, is not only to be recorded and lamented. It must also be interrogated. What, I want to ask, can a translator learn from rejections? I will present two recent instances from my own experience, although I have chosen to preserve the anonymity of the editors in question. What follows is not a personal attack on these particular editors, but a critique of current editorial methods and their assumptions about translation. My account, therefore, should not be dismissively reduced to sheer sour grapes. What happened to me can and does happen to many other translators. I have decided to go public in an effort to engage issues that urgently need to be discussed by both translators and readers of translations alike. [. . .]

After an editor with whom I was acquainted had rejected some poems, I questioned the decision. I didn’t expect the rejection to be reconsidered. No, I rather wanted to force the magazine to do what magazines rarely do: to make explicit the standards by which it judged the translations, or if not this particular submission, then translations in general. Editor X was kind enough to reply, explaining that the poems “didn’t make us feel as if the tops of our heads were taken off.” I pressed further: had Editor X ever considered that translations, by their very nature, should be judged differently from original compositions in English, or that the standard might include but should nonetheless differ from a visceral reaction that is evidently rooted in a homegrown sensibility? After all, Emily Dickinson was being quoted at me. Editor X thought my view novel and promised to give it some thought, but the conversation stopped there. [. . .]

The experiences I have been describing reflect the continuing dominance of a belletristic approach to translation among literary translators, whether they are affiliated with academic institutions or work independently, whether their writing also includes poetry and fiction or focuses on translation, and whether or not they also write about translation in the form of reviews and commentary. The belletrism stretches back to the early twentieth century: it originated in modernist literary practices, particularly in the insertion of translations or adaptations in original compositions, but also in the polyglossia that characterizes many modernist texts, the use and quotation of foreign languages, whereby the reader is turned into a translator. These practices erased the distinctions that can usually be drawn between first- and second-order creations, permitting a translation or adaptation to be regarded as an original composition. [. . .]

Remarkably, Pound makes no mention of the source text when he describes the sort of translation that is “original writing” or aspires to be such through adaptation. He assigns it an aesthetic autonomy from the source text and judges it not according to a concept of equivalence, but according to the “standards” by which he judges original compositions.

I call this approach belletristic because it emphasizes the aesthetic qualities of the translated text itself. It is also impressionistic in the sense that it is vague or ill-defined. Pound’s essay is filled with intriguing ideas, but it is the statement of a practitioner, not a theoretical formulation, and he does not make explicit exactly what the standards might be. They could be inferred from his practice, it might be argued, although any inference would constitute an interpretation, dependent on and varying with the theoretical assumptions that different readers bring to the interpretive act. [. . .]

During the 1960s the belletristic approach was decisive in improving the cultural status of translators because it characterized translation as a writing practice. As Edmund Keeley has observed, “translators began to be accepted as legitimate creative artists during the mid-1960s and, eventually, as legitimate teachers of translation in the various university workshops that came into existence as part of the rapidly expanding field of study called Creative Writing.” In 1963 Paul Engle, then director of the Writers Workshop at The University of Iowa, invited Keeley to teach what was the first translation workshop in the United States. The pedagogy was belletristic, emphasizing the translation as an independent literary text. When in September of 2010 I interviewed Keeley about his work at Iowa, he recalled that Engle instructed him to “treat [the translation workshop] like a poetry or fiction workshop” and to “focus on the product in English.” The students were master’s candidates in poetry or fiction who translated from a variety of foreign languages. They were asked to present their translations to the workshop by explaining why they chose the foreign text, what rival translations they might have worked with or against, and what specific problems the text posed for translation into English. The content of the course consisted solely of the students’ translations. Keeley saw no need for readings in translation theory and commentary. In the interview, in fact, he described himself “as ardently against the idea of translation theory. You don’t read the theory of poetry to learn how to write a poem or to teach the writing of one.”

What recommends the very different hermeneutic model is both its explanatory power and its practical application. The interpretive activity begins with the choice of a source text and continues in the development of a strategy to translate it. These stages in the translation process are determined not merely by the source text and culture but by values, beliefs, and representations in the receiving culture. Translators should be able to give an account of their work that is cognizant of these cultural conditions. They should be able to show how, given these conditions, their translation aims to fix the form and meaning of the source text so as to inscribe a particular interpretation. The inscription can never be more than provisional, one interpretation among several different possibilities, and it is always subject to further interpretation by the range of cultural constituencies in the receiving situation. Nonetheless, translators should be capable of articulating the interpretants that make possible their translations. By “interpretants” I mean the various factors that every translator applies to transform the source text into a translation. Interpretants can be formal, including a concept of equivalence, such as a semantic correspondence based on dictionary definitions, or a concept of style, a set of linguistic features linked to a particular genre (as when a foreign crime novel might require a suitably hard-boiled prose in the translating language). Interpretants can also be thematic, meanings or codes. Examples include an interpretation of the source text that was presented elsewhere in commentary (such as scholarly research) or an ideological standpoint affiliated with a specific social group (as when a feminist or queer translator encodes a foreign text with a political agenda).

OK, I know that’s a pretty long quote, but I think it’s worthwhile in laying out the basics of Venuti’s argument, his objections to the “belletristic” approach to translation, and his belief in creating a more theoretically informed translation culture. (And, just a reminder: read the entire piece here.

Since the “TIR Forum” is geared towards discussion and argument, yesterday they posted Mysteries of the Meta-Task, Tim Parks’s reaction to Venuti’s piece:

But let us turn to the more interesting area of the paper: the insistence that translation theory be at the fore when we present and publish translations. Venuti doesn’t offer a theory of his own here, so it’s not easy to be entirely sure either what he means by theory in the context of translation, or whether he envisages any number of competing and equally valid theories, or assumes that through a scientific approach one might arrive at a theory superior to all others. [. . .]

Rather, he wants to change the nature of the phenomenon, to change the way people translate and the way readers approach translations (“the new translator I am fashioning,” he says boldly). In particular, he appears to be encouraging translators to be unconcerned that their work seem originally written or effortlessly fluent in the language into which they translate, and encouraging readers to accept the idea that reading a translation is a different experience from reading a text originally written in their language, requiring on the contrary a more “thoughtful” rather than “spontaneous and immediate” response. (Here I have difficulty with the idea that the two responses are mutually exclusive. Many fine works of literature provoke both an immediate and a thoughtful response, the latter being largely prompted by the former.) [. . .]

Such an approach arises from an optimistic and political vision that ascribes to translation not the task of making a product of one culture available for appreciation in another but the meta-task of constantly heightening our awareness of language and the way we use it, regardless and perhaps at the expense of the commercial and maybe even the critical success of the work. This approach is thus in line with aspects of Benjamin’s famous “The Task of the Translator” and Derrida’s famously abstruse commentary upon it. (What remains of Derrida is always a sense of wonder that he should have rendered a quite reasonable line of thought so strenuously obscure and nearly mystical, as if it were important that only a small group of initiates or acolytes subscribe to it.) [. . .]

If we assume that Venuti is proposing that a translated text offer a series of surprises and novelties in our language unlike those of an original text, how are those surprises generated, and how are they linked together to form a coherent whole? How do they stand in relation to the content and style (if we can ever separate the two) of the original text? What if our author had a considerable investment in the conventional forms of languages—was a member, perhaps, of a highly conservative society—and wished to have nothing to with subversive techniques or texts that foregrounded the problematic of translation?

Venuti’s position perplexes me to the point that I feel sure that there is something I haven’t understood, something he could set me right on, and I wish he would spare us his litany of complaints and offer some exciting in-depth analyses of translations that he feels exemplify all he aspires to and admires; or if he has already done this (for I haven’t read all he’s written), then he might refer us to it so we can go away and do our homework. [. . .]

But to get back to my question for Venuti: when a translator works this way, each word he sets down—and of course, above all, the play of words semantically and rhythmically—has to do with what he understands of the original and the pattern of impressions it creates on his mind. I repeat: it is not a question of elegance or “belletrism” (how I hate that word), but of trying to find a way to make a particular text, which the translator has explored in-depth, happen in his or her own language. If I ask one of my students why he chose this word or that syntactical structure, he will show me something in the original that prompted this solution; he will tell me how this fits in with what he thought was going on in the original—it is conventional or unconventional, fluent or awkward, in a way he feels was prompted by the original and appropriate in the present context of Italian letters.

My question is simple: when Venuti’s aware and progressive “new” translator chooses solutions that are provocative and non-standard in his own language, provoking a thoughtful rather than a spontaneous response, heightening awareness and alerting the reader to the translated status of the text, is he doing so in response to the pattern of effects and impressions he believes he has found in the original? Or is he imposing a predetermined strategy that could perfectly well lead to similar effects being generated in translations of quite different originals (the case with Pound), and translating regardless of the impressions those originals created in the translator?

Both pieces are extremely interesting, and should be read in full. (Again, click here for Venuti’s, and here for Parks’s.) And they should be debated. Expanding this sort of discussion is great for translators, scholars, and all other interested parties. TIR has a great comments section, so if you want to speak your piece you can go to it.

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