Pseudotranslation as discourse?

Texts discussed:

Michel Foucault “What Is Author?” in The Foucault Reader ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: Pantheon, 1984. pp. 101-120. Print.

Marcel Proust. The Lemoine Affair. Tr. Charlotte Mandell. Brooklyn: Melville House Books, 2008. Print.

Paolo Rambelli “Pseudotranslations, Authorship and Novelists in Eighteenth-Century Italy” in Translating Others ed. Theo Hermans. St. Jerome, 2006. pp. 181-194. Print.

Paolo Rambelli presents an interesting case study of the 18th-century Italian pseudotranslations from English and French, a phenomenon that was originally motivated by the changing economic conditions (dissolution of the patronage system) and the social stigma attached to the writing of novels. Using Anton Popovic’s 1976 description of pseudotranslation as a point of departure, Rambelli examines how the Italian translations fit into this description and what it meant for the domestic publishing industry. Popovic writes that:

An author may publish his original work as a fictitious translation in order to win a wide public, thus making use of the reader’s expectation. The author tries to utilize the ‘translation’ boom in order to realize his own literary program. From the standpoint of theory, the fictitious translation may be defined as the so-called quasi metatext, i.e. a text that is to be accepted as a metatext. The fictional translations are often motivated subjectively. (1976:20)

Rambelli concludes that Italian fictive translations fit very neatly in the above description. Yes, the authors did capitalize on the fact that Italian audiences were already familiar with the English and French novelistic genre and the novelty associated with “hot-of-the-press” translations. Yes, the authors did practice writing in a genre that was popular and lucrative, a condition that was granted by their anonymity. Yes, they were motivated subjectively. Pseudotranslations also spawned additional pseudo-genres in the form of fictive publishers’ and author’s letter, prefaces, and other paratexts. Eventually, when the publishers and the authors finally came clean, the practice was acquitted in deference to the larger nationalistic literature-building project — the Italian modern novel was born.

In my view, there is a bit of a paradox at play here: even though pseudotranslations are de facto “original” creations, their distribution and circulation is heavily indebted to the success of foreign works. To what extent are they merely “imitations” of the original?  Surely, this piggy-backing on a foreign genre, coupled with the understandable yet still off-putting profit motive, is parasitic. And yet, this parasitism is somehow redeemed by the existence of the larger national project, the use of deceit to introduce fresh values and novelties in the domestic culture (see Venuti, 1998).

I’d like to propose that pseudotranslation has much to do with the practice of literary pastiche. The difference lies, of course, in the increased transparency of the latter: for the most part, readers are aware that the author is willingly imitation others for the sake of a style exercise.  This past summer I read a little-known novella by Marcel Proust, The Lemoine Affair,  recently translated into English by Charlotte Mandell. Proust fictionalizes the real-life fraud conducted by Henri Lemoine at the beginning of 20th century. Lemoine managed to convince De Beers diamond corporation that he discovered a method for manufacturing real diamonds and blackmailed them out of tens of thousands of pounds (probably millions with today’s inflation). Apart from the obvious reference to the historical diamond fraud, the novel addresses the notion of fraud on stylistic level as well: Proust writes the entire novella as a series of fragments/pastiches executed in the style of Gustave Flaubert, the Goncourt Brothers, Saint-Simon, Balzac, and other French writers and critics.

To conclude, I’d like to propose that we look at pseudotranslation (and the cluster of satellite pseudo-documents it generates) as not so much as a genre, but as a discourse. In this, I am indebted to the distinction between genre and discourse delineated by Michel Foucault in his influential essay “What Is an Author?” Foucault writes that the true “founders of discursivity” create “a possibility for something other than their discourse, yet something belonging to what they founded” (114). According to this view, Anne Radcliffe is the founder of the Gothic horror novel genre in a sense that the ensuing novels by others share a certain number of resemblances with hers, but not the founder of discourse. The study of pseudotranslations, or course, include the study of the texts and how they are “made.” However, we can also study of “the modes of circulation, valorization, attribution, and appropriation” of this discourse, which vary in each culture and are firmly grounded in “the author function and in its modifications” (117). In this case, it is the study of the volatile relationship of an author with the pseudotranslation, which is also a nonrelationship, the owning that is simultaneous a disowning, that could be truly fruitful.

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