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10 August 2009

The Invisible Translator (3)

Chapter 3 of The Translator’s Invisibility is called “Nation” and it examines three studies of a “foreignising” approach to translation.

The first part is about Friedrich Schleiermacher’s 1813 essay “On the different methods of translating”. Schleiermacher was writing in a context where German-language culture was seen as subservient to the French, and from the account given here, it appears that he believed that there was an inherent superiority in German culture – actually, it’s becoming clear how often people involved in translation theory find their own culture to be superior – but could improve if translations incorporated some foreignness so that the scope of the thought would be widened. It’s a position that’s inherently contradictory in many ways, and I can’t actually see that Schleiermacher’s a good model to follow. What’s more interesting in this chapter is the underlying tension between Venuti and André Lefevere, who has translated Schleiermacher and Schlegel, using a very domesticating style. Sometimes this only shows up in the footnotes. But when I was reading the quoted text, this caught my eye. Schlegel wrote an imaginary dialogue in which a Frenchman says:
The Germans translate every literary Tom, Dick, and Harry.
That can’t be right, and it turns out, in a footnote, that the original reads
Die Deutschen sind ja Allerweltsübersetzer
which is quite different.

The second part is about the quarrel between Francis Newman and Matthew Arnold over Newman’s translation of Homer. He explicity tried to make the work seem strange, using a ballad metre, and copious archaisms. Arnold attacked the translation on grounds that rely on the existence of a cultural elite which is the arbiter of taste. He refers, tellingly, to the “nobility” of Homer’s prosody, while admitting that this nobility is hard to define but easy to recognise. Which sounds precisely ideological and hegemonic to me. Venuti argues that Arnold’s view (which became dominant) denigrates anything but the elite form of discourse, excluding class and regional differences.

But again, I don’t think the issue’s entirely clear-cut. Newman’s strategy is not to make the work look Greek, but to make it look generically ancient. Here’s an extract that is quoted:
“Chestnut! why bodest death to me? from thee this was not needed.
Myself right surely know also, that ‘tis my doom to perish,
From mother and from father dear apart, in Troy; but never
Pause will I make of war, until the Trojans be glutted.”
He spake, and yelling, held affront the single-hoofed horses.
Naturally, Arnold found that yelling ignoble (it “leave[s], to say the very least, much to be desired”), but criticised the use of Chestnut for Xanthus, Achilles’ horse, as an unnecessary translation. But that’s a domesticating usage. Arnold’s concern isn’t so much with domestication v foreignising as with valuing and maintaining the position of the cultural elite.

But the history shows that it was the fluent strategy that came to be seen as democratic.

In the third part, Venuti looks at how foreignising translations can work and avoid the tag of elitism. His strongest case here is the 1990 translation of The Brothers Karamazov by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Apparently this has been enormously successful, and Venuti compares its somewhat alien style with the smoothness of Constance Garnet’s Edwardian version. It is, he says, a better reflection of the changes in register of Dostoevsky’s original. I have to take his word for that, of course.

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