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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  The Translator: From prestige to invisibility, across centuries and cultures

The Translator: From prestige to invisibility, across centuries and cultures

By Sara Maghini | Published  08/3/2010 | Art of Translation and Interpreting | Recommendation:
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Sara Maghini
Reino Unido
inglés a italiano translator

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Translation studies as a discipline has explored, for decades, the practice and theory of translation, in the attempt to unveil its underlying processes and to provide translators with strategies and techniques which might help them in their job.
On the one hand, the activity of the translator has indeed been scrutinised from various angles and points of view; nevertheless, the focus has been predominantly on the end product of such an activity, and on the processes leading up to that final product.
On the other hand, however, the figure of the translator as an individual and as a professional has long remained in the shadow of academic theories, almost disregarded as being too material and practical to deserve a place in translation studies. By now, what goes on in a translator’s mind during the translational process has been repeatedly described (consider, for example, Think-Aloud Protocols), while what happens after the product leaves its creator has not had the same fortune.
This situation has recently begun to change. In 1995, Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility has opened the path to new considerations on the social, economic, and professional status of the translator, offering new perspectives on the topic. In his view, the concepts of foreignization and domestication are closely entangled with the condition of the translator, as we shall see over the course of this essay.
In the present study, I intend to answer the following questions: has the translator always been a secondary figure in translation and in society? Was Venuti really the first to write about the condition of the translator and the strategies s/he can adopt to emerge from ‘invisibility’? I will therefore demonstrate how the figure of the translator has changed throughout the centuries, integrating my analysis with an evaluation of Venuti’s role in giving a strong, contemporary voice to considerations which were previously fragmentary and diffused in time and space.
In order to broach Venuti’s point of view, let us now first present an overview of the condition of the translator at different times and in different cultures, from the prestige of medieval Arab translators, passing through the heretic craze which targeted translators in the Reformation period, until their ‘invisibility’ in the twentieth century.
The ninth and tenth centuries represented the Golden Age of translation in the Arab world, as witnessed by the unrivalled centres of culture in Cordoba in the West and Baghdad in the East. During the Abbasid caliphate of Al Ma’moun (813-833), an unprecedented hub for translation was located in Baghdad: in the House of Wisdom, structured as a centre of excellence, translation departments played a pivotal role in the transmission of knowledge (Faiq, 2000).
Why was translation so important? Since the establishment of the Islamic polity in the seventh century, the need to strengthen the new state led the rulers to ‘import’ knowledge from other peoples, and the only way to make it accessible was, clearly, through translation. For this reason, translators were seen as guardians of knowledge, being privileged individuals who could access foreign wisdom and transmit it (Salama-Carr, 2000). Translators were recruited from all over the world and translated from almost any language they encountered; an example is cited in Hatim and Mason: “the Caliph of Baghdad […] had philosophers brought from Egypt to translate from Greek and Coptic” (1990:13). Furthermore, hardly any topic was left untranslated –literature and religion being the exceptions, as they were considered incompatible with the Arab culture.
With translation becoming an official undertaking, translators became state employees with a regular income, with a consequent increase in the number of people wanting to enrol, attracted by the money and prestige offered by the job. A legend even narrates that rulers were so grateful to translators that they used to give them the weight of their translated texts in gold (Faiq, 2000). Leaving myths aside, it is true that translation was encouraged as never before, having become a governmental enterprise with its own budget and institutions, and that translators were highly respected.
At this point, it is legitimate to question why the situation has changed over the centuries, considering that such a prestigious status cannot be found any more. A number of factors contributed to the decline of translation, although the chief causes are twofold: on the one hand, translation was considered the first step towards the creation of a defined national Arab identity, which meant that more needed to be done on the part of Arab scholars, who were encouraged to produce texts in their own language; on the other hand, the success of translators was also the main cause of their later failure. Not only did the growing number of translators lead to a surplus of supply over demand, but also the fact that translation was ‘in vogue’ gave rise to growing sponsorship in the private sector, which in turn resulted in the loss of national momentum of translation and in the subordination of translators to individual patrons’ tastes (ibid).
The power of the translator was seen in a completely different light in sixteenth-century England: during the Reformation, such power was regarded as a potentially subversive force, due to the possible manipulation of source texts, which could be shaped into something different and then disseminated (Bassnett, 1996).
In a period of such widespread suspicion, numerous translators were condemned to death for being suspected of heretical translation activities. Religion was in fact the main field in which translation was held to be a threat, as the number of Bible translators burnt at the stake attests: among them William Tyndale (c.1494-15369), found guilty of having translated the Bible using vernacular instead of Latin.
On the other side of the Channel, the French translator Etienne Dolet was hung and burnt for heresy in 1546 after publishing in 1540 La Manière de Bien Traduire d’Une Langue en Aultre, which is considered the earliest treatise on translation in a modern European language (Lefevere, 1992). Dolet’s text contained five rules for the translator: first of all, translators should have a perfect understanding of both the meaning and topic of the source text; secondly, they should possess a thorough knowledge of both the source and target languages; thirdly, and most importantly, they should not enter into slavery by translating word for word.
Dolet was thus repeating what Martin Luther had already asserted a decade before in a letter on translation, berating as “literalist asses” those people –mainly papists– who advocated for a word-for-word translation, and warning that “I too shall translate as I want and not to please them” (Luther, 1530).
The fourth of Dolet’s rules was, once again, going against mainstream canons: he was encouraging translators to be bold by using everyday language instead of Latin. The fifth and final rule recommended harmonious translations and, together with the fourth rule, proclaimed the right of modern languages to be on the same level as their ancient predecessors.
Not only was Dolet encouraging an active role of the translator, but he was also declaring an equality between writers and translators, thus subverting the subordination of the latter.
In sixteenth-century Spain, translators were among the targets of the Inquisition: both Francisco de Enzinas and Casiodoro de Reina were condemned (in 1543 and 1562 respectively) for having translated the Bible in Castilian (Bassnett, 1996).
Between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, the diffusion of printing brought about the expansion of two notions simultaneously: the idea of authorship, according to which a text is the property of its author, and the idea of translation as a derivative copy, a non-original; as Bassnett and Trivedi confirm, “medieval writers and/or translators were not troubled by this phantasm. It arose as a result of the invention of printing and the spread of literacy, linked to the emergence of the idea of an author as ‘owner’ of his or her text” (1999:2). In this context, any change to the original was seen as a betrayal, especially in the age of dictionaries, when people were led to believe that every word could have an equivalent, as they could see for themselves in the now largely available dictionaries (Bassnett, 1996).
Leaving behind the idea of betrayal to explore that of invisibility, let us now progress to the twentieth century, and more precisely to Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility (1995). In his work, the term ‘invisibility’ refers to both the condition and the activity of the translator in contemporary Anglo-American culture, and this will be the focus of the present discussion as well. The scope will be further restricted to literary translation, where more criticism has been produced.
From a practical point of view, how are translators and their translations invisible? First of all, translations are hardly ever mentioned in reviews and, on the rare occasions that praise is given, it is reserved exclusively for not seeming like a translation at all.
Secondly, numerous pejorative neologisms have been coined to criticise translation whenever evident: translationese, translatorese, and the like (Venuti, 1995:4).
Thirdly, translations are considered acceptable by publishers and readers alike when they seem original, not translated: “A bestselling translation tends to reveal much more about the domestic culture for which it was produced, than the foreign culture which it is taken to represent” (Venuti, 1998:125); the same concept is restated by Devy: “Western individuals […] view translation as an intrusion of ‘the other’. This intrusion is desirable to the extent that it helps define one’s own identity, but not beyond that point” (1999:182).
For these reasons, translators try to make their texts fluent and transparent by avoiding foreign words (even ‘Britishisms’ in American texts and vice versa), and by adapting language and syntax to target-language standards. In other words, texts are fluent and transparent when translated according to English-language values, which make the translator’s intervention disappear. Translation then becomes an “attempt to produce a text so transparent that it does not seem to be translated” (Venuti, 1995:1).
The greatest risk of this approach is that of “reducing individual authors’ styles and national tricks of speech to plain prose uniformity” (Cohen, 1962:35). Marilyn Gaddis Rose provides evidence of this trend when she describes her experience as a member of the committee at the first edition of the MLA Scaglione Translation Competition in 1994, where “all the novels submitted by one major American publishing house, regardless of language of origin, sounded as if they had been written by the same author” (1997:29).
If this approach is detrimental to the original authors, the impact on the translator is no less serious, since the more fluent the translation, the more invisible the translator. In fact, “publishers almost uniformly exclude translators from book covers and advertisements” (Christ, 1984:8). An exception in the Anglophone world is to be found in Ireland, where “translators have had and still have a great deal of visibility […]: translations of Irish texts into English are almost always acknowledged under the names of the translators” (Tymoczko, 2007:193). According to Tymoczko, this is due to their explicit affiliation to broader politico-cultural movements, through which they affirm their active role in society.
Moreover, translators do not get any royalties for a translated book, while any other professional involved does (for instance, writers, editors, and so on).
Translators’ invisibility reaches its apex in the US, where ‘work-for-hire’ contracts are extremely common; as witnessed by the following passage taken from a standard contract for translators of the Columbia University Press, the employer is considered the author of the target text: “[…] we shall be considered the sole and exclusive owner throughout the world forever of all rights existing therein, free of claims by you” (Venuti, 1995:10).
Alienated from the product of their work, what remains to be done by translators themselves? Venuti suggests that the first and foremost way to react is to dismiss domestication, a strategy which seeks conformation to dominant target-culture values to give the illusion that the target text is actually an ‘original’ rather than a translation (as stated above when discussing fluency and transparency). In order to achieve this effect, foreign texts undergo significant adaptations on a number of levels, mainly the language, the plot and the literary forms (Tymoczko, 2007).
This approach implies an ethnocentric violence which naturalises the foreign: Venuti is here recalling Schleiermacher’s naturalizing method, which was meant to move the source-text author towards the target-language reader (Venuti, 2004). This is the dominant approach to translation in the Anglo-American world and, according to Baker, “Domesticating strategies have been implemented at least since ancient Rome” (1997:312).
Indeed, a satiric dialogue written by Schlegel in 1798 to criticise the French attitude towards translation clearly exemplifies domestication well before it had been theorised: “We look on a foreign author as a stranger who has to dress and behave according to our own customs, if he desires to please” (Schlegel, quoted in Lefevere, 1977:50). This attitude does not belong purely to fiction, considering that highly-regarded translators agree on the purposes of domestication: according to Eugene Nida, translation “aims at complete naturalness of expression” (1964:159).
The most worrying aspect of the transparency promoted by domestication is that it “entirely eclipses the translator’s domesticating work –even in the eyes of the translator” (Venuti, 1995:6). Indeed, self-translation is equally affected by domestication: authors translating their own work are often influenced by the fear of rejection, given that deviations from the accepted standards may endanger the publication of their translations, thus destroying a prospective foreign market for their works (ibid): “[…] depletion effectuated not only by critics and reviewers, but also by writers themselves seeking to fit the canonized and commercially successful model” (De Zavalia, 2000:193).
Two examples can demonstrate the insidious intrusion of domestication in self-translation: the first is the case of the Indian author Rabindranath Tagore who, in translating his verses into English, deprived them of their original richness “to make them acceptable to European tastes” (Ramakrishna, 2000:96).
The second, well-known example concerns Milan Kundera’s translation of The Joke, which he wrote in 1967. After having defined “unacceptable” (Kundera, 1992: x) the English translations of 1969 and 1982 for being adaptations “to the taste of the time and of the country for which [they are] intended” (ibid), the author finally resolved to translate his own novel. In contrast to his criticism of the domesticating approach adopted by his translators, Kundera’s final English version actually transformed the original, altering characters and omitting cultural references which might have troubled the average Anglo-American reader (Venuti, 1998).
Venuti’s alternative to domestication is foreignization, which “seeks to restrain the ethnocentric violence of translation” (Venuti, 1995:20) and is designed to make visible the presence of the translator by means of, for example, convoluted syntax and archaisms, as in Ezra Pound’s case (ibid). Schleiermacher defined this ethnodeviant method alienating, as it moves the target-language readers towards the source-text author and not vice versa, giving them “the feeling that they are in the presence of the foreign” (Schleiermacher, quoted in Fawcett, 1997:116).
By drawing on marginal rather than dominant target-culture values, foreignization deviates from fluency and transparency, thus manifesting the foreignness of the text instead of concealing it: in Berman’s words, “receiving the foreign as foreign” (in Munday, 2001:149).
Even before performing the deviation from dominant target-culture values outlined above, foreignization can be achieved in the first place through the choice of the text to translate, for example by selecting foreign literatures previously excluded for not conforming to the target culture, or by translating texts which challenge contemporary literary canons: for instance, in the eighteenth century, John Nott chose to translate love lyrics instead of epic or satire, which were the most popular genres of his time (Baker, 1997).
In the last analysis, it is undeniable that both foreignization and domestication are partial in their treatment of the foreign text, which is always manipulated to achieve one goal or another; the difference between the two, however, is that foreignization displays such partiality instead of masking it under false pretences (Munday, 2001).
Venuti, however, considers foreignization to be superior in any case, as it represents the translator’s resistance to domestication and the invisibility it promotes. The concept of resistance in translation, although shared by other authors (Cronin, 2000) has been rightly criticised by a number of scholars for its implied passivity and lack of initiative on the part of the translator, who can only react to a situation. As Tymoczko points out, the idea of resistance “is unnecessarily restrictive […], limiting the translator to a more passive role than is required or desirable” (2007:210).
Tymoczko does not limit her criticism to the concept of resistance, but goes on to include foreignization itself, defining it an elitist strategy: the textual complexity and obscurity which can derive from foreignization appeal more –and are more comprehensible– to a highly educated audience. This concept was expressed already in the fifteenth century by the German translator Niclas von Wyle, who affirmed that translations produced for “high-born and well-educated princesses [and] illustrious princes” should be less intelligible than those for the “simple common and uneducated man” (in Fawcett, 1997:117).
On top of resistance through foreignization, Venuti also propose a –possibly more active– call to action. First of all, translators should insist on their authorial rights during negotiations with publishers, boycotting work-for-hire contracts in order to obtain the recognition of original work of authorship (Venuti, 1995). This suggestion, although very admirable in theory, could concretely lead to a job loss, since there would always be someone else ready to take on such contracts. This strategy can therefore be put into practice only after a mentality change has taken place at a global level, when translators stop giving up their rights for the sake of money.
Secondly, and more realistically, Venuti encourages translators to develop innovative strategies to make their work visible, signalling their presence in any forms of paratext available, for instance prefaces, footnotes, and the like.
Venuti’s call to action is not addressed solely to translators: indeed, reviewers are called to mention translation more often, not to criticise it when lacking fluency, but to praise “how it demonstrates the translator’s skill” (Ramakrishna, 2000:98). In order for reviewers to overcome their prejudices on fluency and the lack thereof, they should finally understand that “the use of rare or untranslated words in translation and the inclusion of unfamiliar cultural material are not necessarily defects of translated texts” (Tymoczko, 1999:25).
Teachers are also exhorted to make trainee translators more aware of their role. Tymoczko agrees on this point, and adds that “these issues can be made more prominent in translation training, […] by explicitly developing translator consciousness about their own agency” (2007:317). This can be achieved through the promotion of vocational modules, for instance the simulation of a true-to-life translation environment, where translators have to negotiate with the client and make their voices heard. Projects of this kind are finally beginning to develop, and a successful example is the Translation Project Management module which I have personally experienced this year at the University of Salford.
In conclusion, from being highly respected state employees in the medieval Arab world, to being burnt at the stake during the Reformation in Europe, to being considered ‘invisible’ in the twentieth century, translators have occupied and still occupy a controversial—and hotly debated—position in society. It is up to trainee translators to assume an active role to make the situation change in the near future, unmindful of discouraging signs and threats: “the translators may still be hostile, and editors may still be resistant, but there will be new norms and/or new potential choices in circulation” (Rose, 1997:27).
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Robinson, D. (2003). Becoming A Translator. An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation, 2nd edn. London: Routledge

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