Agency and authorship in poetry translation: a conversation with Laurie Gries, Lambros Malafouris, and Raul Sanchez

Having run into Gries, Malafouris, and Sanchez at “The Bull” yesterday, and finding them communicative, I decided to ask for some teaching advice. One of the students in my “Writing Through Translation” course has recently expressed her discomfort with adapting a 19th century Spanish poem into 21st century English. The student mentioned that she doesn’t feel “it’s right to change the form and content of the poem” because it’s “disrespectful to the author’s original intentions.” How would you respond to the student, I asked my colleagues, if you were in my place?

Gries: Before I take a stab at this, I may need some more context here. Have you already discussed the idea of authorial agency in your translation class?

Me: We haven’t gotten too much into theory, but we did talk about dual authorship and that the translated text is always, in some way, bears the imprint of translator’s personal choices and cultural biases.

Gries: All right then. It’s a good start, but I think you can takes this even further. Your student’s question, for example, can ground a whole class discussion about the notion of human agency vs non-human agency. Ask the students why is it they attribute so much agency to the original author, when that author was most likely influenced by a variety of environmental and technological factors (their mental state, weather, writing implements, and so on). I find this question quite productive in letting go of the idea that intention is entirely in the hands of human writer or rhetor.

Malafouris: Yes, to piggy back off of Laurie’s suggestion, you may further problematize the idea of human intention by bringing up cognitive science. You can explain to your students that some studies have illustrated that brain “decides” to initiate the act before there’s any reportable subjective awareness that such decision has taken place. And, if intentionality is not an internal property, it cannot be used as the criterion for the attribution of agency to humans.

Me: I think I understand what you’re getting at, but am afraid that this will just go over their heads.

Sanchez: I don’t see why it should. It’s really quite simple. Instead of the traditional, individual, and material figure of the “writer” we’re now moving closer towards the idea of the writer-subject. In other words, the boundaries between the “writer” and the “subject” are becoming more transparent. As I see it, the translator could be seen as a mediating figure between these two extremes.

Malafouris: Yes, the idea of mediation is an important one. Cognitively speaking, so much gets lost in the spaces between intention and physical action. Because of the gap, there is so much room for error in agency attribution.

Me: I understand where you’re coming from, but somehow don’t think that scientific argument will be the most productive in addressing my student’s sense of awe of “the author.” It’s so culturally instilled in us to respect the original work.

Malaforis: Your student’s sensibility is, in many ways, admirable. But it is essentially counterproductive.

Gries: You know, you could attempt to address this by showing a few examples of visual arts and remix in class. Take my iconographic tracking of the Obama Hope image, for example. The transformation of the original image certainly involved the change in the original photographer’s intention, but look at the tremendous culturally productive afterlife that image has had.

Sanzhez: I also think it’s important to bring up the way in which the world and language are changing as the result of new technologies. Greg Ulmer, as you know, argues that the whole entire “apparatus of language” in a civilization has changed. If that’s the case, how is it possible to retain the author’s original intention (if such a thing every existed) if you’re working in a new language.

Gries: Also, I think it would be a good idea to explain to your student that these conversations are happening in all areas of language studies, and that what she’s bringing up is important and relevant.

Sanzhez: Yes, just tell her to do her best and not treat her translation as a final product.

Malafouris: Or tell her to imagine the original author as a time traveler in the 21st century who is trying to make himself or herself understood.

Me: Thanks for the input, guys. Let me get the next round.

Sanchez: When you get your tenure, perhaps. 

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One Response to Agency and authorship in poetry translation: a conversation with Laurie Gries, Lambros Malafouris, and Raul Sanchez

  1. Thanks for this fun read. I really like how you inserted yourself and your skepticism into the dialogue in order to think through how this conversation about agency might be useful for your students, especially as it indeed might go over their heads. Perhaps sticking to Baktin’s work with heteroglossia would be easier in some respects. Also, I love the ending. Lol. ps. I hope you can see how this assignment might help undergrads put themselves into conversations with different sources.

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