Scandals of translation and moving towards minoritizing theory of translation, and remainders

Lawrence Venuti. The Scandals of Translation. Routledge: 1998. Print.

I’ve been meaning to read this book by Lawrence Venuti for a while. Having listened to his interviews (Reading the World podcast series has a great one) and read a few essays arguing against translator’s invisibility in a translation seminar, I was looking forward to a spirited rant against domesticating tendencies in translation, insidious copyright restrictions, opaque publishing practices, and teaching translated literature in the English speaking countries as if it were written in English. I was not disappointed. Granted, much of what Venuti is arguing seems impractical and he clearly draws inspiration from the German tradition of idealists and romantics that includes Goethe, Holderlin, Schleiermacher, and Benjamin. However, Venuti’s arguments are also deeply pragmatic, especially the ones concerning the applications of translation theory to pedagogy, the importance of studying both the original author and translator, the deep ramifications of choosing what to translate to both the sending and receiving culture, and the pivotal role that publishing and copyright industries play in this global interchange. No translator is an island.

Venuti draws on two main ideas to sustain his arguments: Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s theory of the “remainder” and Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “minor literature.” In brief, Lecercle proposes that the remainder is a textual remnant as a result of accumulated uses, and something whose variable and heterogenous nature “frustrate any effort to formulate systematic rules” (cited in Venuti 10). The text, as a result, expresses not only the author’s meaning, but the destabilized nature of that meaning, and translation may serve as a catalyst in releasing the remainder. To quote Lecercle again, “in releasing the remainder, a minor literature indicates where the major language is foreign to itself.” This connects to Venuti’s injunction for the translators to “seek to invent a minor language that cuts across cultural divisions and hierarichies” (13) and ultimately “create a work of minor literature within a major language” (20). The way I understand, the importance of this, let’s call it “third literature,” has important cultural and material effects, jolting at once the reader’s preconceptions about the source and target cultures.

Having set off in the direction of remainder, Venuti spends most of the book using it against the concept of “original authorship” (translation changes the original with each successive reworking). Hence, the translators deserve all the credit for the work well done, as well as all the shame for producing the work to suit the market. Venuti’s focus is essentially one of translation and publishing ethics (especially the latter). In short, you can use the minoritizing powers for the good (he provides an example of his own translation of 19th century Italian “Gothic” writer Tarchetti for American market, where he deliberately used archaisms of Poe and various Britishisms). However, the minoritizing project can potentially go too far towards the domestication end of the translation spectrum. An example of this would be American publishers’ selectivity of Japanese authors in 1950s and 1960s, which effectively established the idea of Japan for Western audiences (an exotic land longing for the past, but suffering from a distinctly American, post-WWII nostalgia) (72).

The goal of creating minor literature and choosing to translate and teach literature with high remainder content is a noble one: to fights against fluency and easy, unconscious identification of the readers with so-called “foreign culture.” The focus should be always on the remainder, especially in a classroom, on “those textual effects that work only in the target language, the domestic linguistic forms that are added to the foreign text and the culture of translations” (emphasis mine 95). The true import of this strategy is not so much reading pleasure, but active questioning. Why, for example, did a translator choose to use low-class British English in translating a dim-witted character from Plato’s Ion? Of course, this teasing out (or, to use a photographic term, “developing”) of the remainder can only happen with perspicuous instructors and students examining multiple versions of the same text. Hmm…perhaps this is what really should be called “comparative literature”?

So, Venuti is curiously both practical and impractical in his Scandals. Although he raises our awareness to the prevalent cultural and economic conditions of literary translations (something we can do very little to change), his insistence on the importance of active questioning of how texts are translated and why provide an insightful pedagogical blueprint. If “the most remarkable thing about the translation […] is that the inscription of domestic codes and ideologies [is] invisible to American readers,” then his book does a splendid job of bringing those blindspots to the fore of current translation debate.

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