Book review: The Translator's Invisibility

The Translator’s Invisibility; A History of Translation, Second Edition, by Lawrence Venuti, Routeledge, 2008.

Last month I was walking through the Mid-Manhattan Library looking to see what books they had that dealt with translation theory. Relatively recently, I’ve been holding some doubts about the translators and their invisibility in the world, so while browsing the translation theory section on the shelves, I was just unable to go by without taking a look, and eventually took it out to read through.

The central subject of this book is the invisibility of the translator, and the dominance of that style of invisible and fluent translation in the English-speaking cultures of US and the UK. Invisibility is the when “a translated text, whether prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, is judged acceptable by most publishers, reviewers and readers when it reads fluently, when the absence of any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities makes it seem transparent, giving the appearance that it reflects the foreign writer’s personality or intention or the essential meaning of the foreign text — the appearance, in other words, that the translation is not in fact a translation, but the ‘original.’”

This is essentially the thing that I had previously doubted, but was unable to really find an articulation to. I find it very odd that we all seem to prefer this illusion of invisibility, when it is so clear to me that the act of becoming invisible seems to inflict more “adjustments” to the translation.

However, Venuti also mentions that it’s not simply the translator’s choice in picking that particular strategy for translating, but because readers themselves also play a part, often reading for meaning and ignoring stylistic considerations.

To Venuti, the act of creating a transparent translation is a “domesticating” act, in that you scrub out foreign elements, strange wording, different terms, any ambiguities that could confuse the reader, and so on, so that all that remains of the text are things that are familiar for the reader. It is an act of extreme ethno-centricity on the part of the receiving culture.

Meanwhile, to place in contrast to this, Venuti proposes a notion of “foreignizing” strategies of translation. I still haven’t wrapped my brain around the notion sufficiently, but in effect, it is a style that doesn’t try to hide all the foreign things for the sake of the illusion, instead it highlights the foreign values and styles that exist in the text. If you consider domesticating styles as emphasizing what’s “the same” between cultures, then foreignizing would be emphasizing “what’s different.”

The book then applies a genealogical method to try to cast light on how we’ve come to become a culture that values transparency so much. The history starts in the early modern period, when translators who tried to present a Greek or Roman author’s work in a way where the author would have expressed themselves had they been English. Meanwhile, at the same time, those same translators were excising “vulgar” parts of works “for the sake of women and children” and picking specific words and images to further their current social and political agendas (such as using imagery of the State and Royalty, etc). Of course, theories of transparency didn’t start in this period, but the story has to start somewhere.

On the other side, one of earlier theories of foreignizing translation appears with Friedrich Schleiermacher, who advocated translations where the reader can now read a work without constantly pondering on each word (which they would do if reading the original while not knowing the language) but can still be conscious of, and appreciate, the fact that it is a foreign work.

Venuit quotes (on p.84) “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.” If nothing else, this struck a deep resonance with me. I even have IRC logs where I try to express a similar notion, months before I ever came across this book. In presenting a foreign work to someone, why shouldn’t that person be reminded that they are reading a foreign work?

Moving on, there are many other examples in the book, showing the struggles of different translators who tried to carve a foreignizing style of translation and the manifestations it took, even Venuti himself from his work in translating Italian poetry.

It is here that I admit that the book began to go over my head. Since this book seems to be built off the style of academia, it does a great deal of textual analysis. Reading deep insights from an author’s choice of word here or there, framing the whole discussion in contexts of power, or this or that agenda, all the talk of literary canon. Not even an undergraduate major in Continental Philosophy has quite prepared me to understand it on the first or second readings.

The scale of these comparisons feels a bit grand to me, but then, I’m not used to looking at literary works in such a light, nor do I have any particular sense of canon, or how a translator can be a force of change by deciding to translator works that are different from the existing canon.

Also, the vast majority of the examples Venuti gives are about translations of epic poetry, Homer and Virgil, Beowulf, and so on, things with a long tradition of being translated, and so it has become a kind of area where a translator can come and be different and be judged against others. How many times do we see two translations of a work of more common things?

This is a tough book to read, with it’s grounding in academic literary criticism and such. It also makes quite a number of controversial statements. But I have a feeling that everyone could benefit from just reading through some of the main ideas in the earlier chapters, just to raise that important awareness that’s needed for critical self-reflection. I’d highly recommend that people try to track down a copy in their library system to get a taste, though for most of us, it may be too over our heads to justify buying.

One thing in the book’s final chapter, a call to action for readers and translators alike, that I agree with enough to write about here is that translators tend not to think upon how and why they translate, and when they do look at themselves, they tend to look only at the relation between their translation and the foreign text, while neglecting the relation between their translated text and others int he translating language (p.275). Essentially this can encourage thinking that whatever interpretation they chose is the correct one, as opposed to one of many possible interpretations.

The notion of “the invisible translator” has never sat well with me, and reading this book has only made me more confident that there’s something not quite right about it. I certainly don’t have the daring to produce something like the difficult and rather disorienting examples of foreignizing translation that are quoted in the book. However, now I know that there’s a road out there where I can find a balance that suits me, even if I’ll have to cut it myself.


  1. 01/23/2009 03:06 AM | #

    Technically, when you translate something from one language to another, you’re already making a major change in the method of information transfer. No two languages are alike, though they may share similar parents and thinking patters.

    Once you start translating things, you’re going to leave your mark. No matter how much you try to scrub it off.

    Heck, I should know. Biblical translations have been a sticking point for certain denominations, and frankly, be it the flowery prose of the Authorized King James, or the easily understandable New International Version, or something in between, like the American Standard Version and New Living Translation, no one translation can get something as grand as the Bible right. Heck, if we have multiple Bibles, then it’s to be expected that we’ll have multiple translations of a single work.

    And that’s just the freakin’ Bible. Think of the other works in languages other than Hebrew and Greek, for a start.

    I prefer to leave a light footprint when I translate. While that would mean I’m not invisible, at least I’m unnoticed enough to make a difference.

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