The most intimate act of reading

The Translation Studies Reader
November 24, 2000

This collection of texts by 20th-century theorists of translation comes historically framed by Lawrence Venuti, a leading American post-structuralist scholar of literary translation, and chosen in consultation with Mona Baker, his advisory editor, a UK pioneer of translation studies who entered the field from the discipline of applied linguistics. The creative tensions of such an alliance are acknowledged by Venuti, who comments in his introduction on their significant differences and debates, which tested positively "the notion of interdisciplinarity" by showing in practice the possibility of scholars advancing a project on translation though they share neither conceptual paradigms nor research methods.

This catholic selection of essays is aimed at students on a range of courses who have to develop an understanding of translation theory or those embarking on doctoral research. They can now find in one elegant volume the following: key hermeneutical statements from Walter Benjamin's "The task of the translator", complete with critical notes on Harry Zohn's translation of Gayatri Spivak's "The politics of translation", foundational statements by James Holmes on "The name and nature of translation studies" and exemplary translation exegesis by Jorge Luis Borges on the translators of A Thousand and One Nights in Esther Allen's excellent new translation. This heterogeneity will also be welcomed by those involved in training in the context of translation practice, where the intellectual need to hone strategies is increasingly accepted as part of the necessary baggage of professional status.

National UK associations such as the Translators Association of the Society of Authors and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting may lean respect-ively towards the literary and the scientific, technical and legal but their membership policies are inclusive and many individual members cross discipline divides. Trainers of translators have long recognised the implications of the interdisciplinary nature of translation and debated generalist or subject-specific slants to their pedagogy. Having used interdisciplinarity to exclude translation as an act of scholarship and avoid confronting the sophisticated interpretative interventions of translators in areas of study, the academy is now responding more positively to a hermeneutics that has shed invisibility and its reliance on such lone rangers as George Steiner, here represented by "The hermeneutic motion".

The Reader's varied contents can thus nurture developments at professional and academic levels in their ever-increasing intersections. Spivak's critical recognition of translation as "the most intimate act of reading" and Philip Lewis's emphasis on "writing performance" challenge the assumption behind many translation studies courses that a professional practice will be shaped through osmosis via linguistic or stylistic analyses or critical theory. Annie Brisset's study of the nationalist use of translation policies in Quebec or Lewis's analysis of a translation of a Derrida essay both point to the necessity of an understanding of the process of translation in the writing of cultural and political history and the discussion of philosophy. The late André Lefevere's critique of patronage and the history of Brecht translations has implications for translator trainers and cultural studies.

Inevitably, juxtapositions foster comparison and a few essays seem too dated to merit their selection merely as part of a historical setting of the discipline. Katherine Reiss's outline of text typologies may have once seemed an academic innovation but the fact that "the text-type determines the general method of translating" now seems a simplistic statement. Willard Quine's approach to translation and meaning is based on an unconvincing hypothetical meeting of "jungle linguist", native and rabbit: high-flying philosophy boosts High Table anecdote. Was it necessary to have both Jiri Levy and Ernst-August Gutt's comments on Max Knight's translations of Christian Morgenstern's " Das aesthetische Wiesel "? There is not the same vital polemical charge as in the repetition involved in Lori Chamberlain's feminist riposte - "Gender and the metaphorics of translation" - to Steiner's sexual politics.

What is surprising is the accurate reflection of the narrowness of the content base of these 20th-century statements by scholars shaping the new discipline. Although critical perspectives are varied, the examples are by and large literary and often decontextualised by general statements about language, explicitation and efficiency. Translation, Gutt predicates, "should be clear and natural in expression in the sense that it should not be unnecessarily difficult to understand", while Shoshana Blum-Kulka claims that "explicitation is a universal strategy in the process of language mediation". Where are theoretical approaches arising from major research into the translation of medical and scientific or philosophical and political texts? Where is the recognition and description of the impact of publishing practices and the centrality of the editing process? Some of the voices from the 1990s indicate other paths to follow. Kwame Anthony Appiah, from the translation of African proverbs, argues for a "thick translation" accompanied by historical and cultural explanation. Through "Translating camp talk", Keith Harvey concludes with a programmatic rallying call for a theoretical inclusiveness by mapping the complex interactions of translation from the subjectivity of the translator to macro-cultural trends and close text-linguistic analysis. Such inclusiveness may lead to a more independent discipline of interdisciplinarity that can match what Venuti dubs "the relative autonomy of translation".


Peter Bush is director, the British Centre for Literary Translation, University of East Anglia.

The Translation Studies Reader: First edition

Editor - Lawrence Venuti
ISBN - 0 415 18746 X and 8747 8 18797 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £65.00
Pages - 524

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