Hijacking Translation


an abstract by Lawrence Venuti
Despite the increased attention that translation has received in conjunction with the newly revived topic of “world literature,” translation research and practice remain marginal in Comparative Literature as the field has developed in the United States. The evidence takes various forms, institutional and intellectual, including reports on the state of the field, the curricula of departments and programs, anthologies adopted as textbooks, and recent research that promulgates a discourse of “untranslatability.” Even though Comparative Literature could not exist without the extensive use of translations, relatively few curricula require or even offer courses in translation theory, history, or practice. A key factor in this situation is an instrumental model that treats translation as the (usually inadequate) reproduction of an invariant contained in or caused by the source text, whether its form, meaning, or effect. Instrumentalism preempts a more productive understanding of translation as an interpretive act that inevitably varies the source text according to intelligibilities and interests in the receiving culture.

This essay examines several publications to consider the continuing suppression of translated texts by comparatists. Haun Saussy’s 2004 report to the American Comparative Literature Association, Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, reflects an uncertainty about what translation is and does: he argues that “A translation always brings across most successfully aspects of a work for which its audience is already prepared” but then asserts the implicitly contradictory view that “A translator always perturbs the settled economy of two linguistic systems.” The Longman Anthology of World Literature (2004), under the general editorship of David Damrosch, contains mostly English translations of foreign-language texts. Yet not until the second edition (2009) did the translations receive any editorial commentary which, however, adopts an instrumentalist rhetoric of loss.

Barbara Cassin’s influential “dictionary of untranslatables” searches for “mistranslations” to chart the history of philosophy. But any charge of mistranslation assumes that translation can and should reproduce a semantic invariant, an essential, unchanging meaning believed to be inherent in the source text but actually inscribed by the analyst—in other words, a rival interpretation. The elision of this inscription in the French edition (2004) privileges Cassin’s and her contributors’ poststructuralist, posthumanist discourse; in the English edition (2014), it validates the editors’ assimilation of the French text to the current critical orthodoxy in Comparative Literature. Both cases exemplify a narcissistic approach to linguistic and cultural difference that stops short of interrogating receiving institutions. Michael Wood deploys the “untranslatable” to consider “Translating Rilke” (2014) with the caution, “Let’s not reach for the ineffable, the notion of something mystically secreted in Rilke’s language.” Yet Wood explains the English translations as “searching not for a final or better version but something else, something closer to a sharing of what can’t be shared”—i.e., the ineffable. The impact of Cassin’s dictionary is most egregious in Emily Apter’s Against World Literature (2013), where the “untranslatable” is defined as “an incorruptible or intransigent nub of meaning,” not a variable interpretation, but a semantic invariant that enables judgments of mistranslation which favor her own interpretations.


  1. Academic casuistry is never as egregious as when it pivots on the lexical. Venuti’s precis of his essay promises to show that when the target of translatability becomes the term translation itself, especially when it is deemed impossible by assertion and simultaneously demonstrated by questionable practice, the enterprise becomes downright jejune–a self-fulfilling prophecy that illustrates the inevitability of its failure and assures its success by trading on its impossibility. Venuti is one of the most honest translators we have, principally because he does not partake of the presumption that is enshrined by his target of analysis and critique as orthodoxy, i.e., that everything should be translatable and, if it proves not to be so, then it is untranslatable and all attempts to translate it are destined to be failures. Hence, if everything to be translated in the object of translation is not translatable, everything is untranslatable. “There ain’t no success like failure,” said the bard, and the book in question banks on it, eliding the next verse in the process–“and failure is no success at all.” As a critic, Venuti is no less implacable in his honesty. Hence his perplexity as to how such a self-illustrative exercise in impossibility, not to say failure, could be turned into academic capital and circulated as intellectual currency. One suspects he is not alone in his perplexity, pace the groupie zeal such casuistry can engender in academic sophistry.

  2. George Steiner covered the whole translatable/untranslatable controversy (which he dubbed universalist/monadist) in his magisterial After Babel, and one of the things he notes is how narrow the compass of ideas and issues concerning translation has been, and how few truly original theories of translation have been offered in its long history since St. Jerome. It is sad to see Steiner’s work so neglected today while the same issues get brought up as though they were some incredible new discovery.

    We could, if we weren’t afraid of choking off our publication ops, agree that untranslatability is in the eye of the beholder and dependent on how rigorous or latitudinarian our definition of translation is. This is certainly true of the translation of single words and concepts as in the Vocabulaire. In fact, both sides of the coin are present in this dictionary: a particular language is chosen, somewhat arbitrarily, as delivering the “most untranslatable” version of a concept — for example, German “Bild” is chosen over French “image” or Greek “eidolon” as the main entry for that idea. But the main entries are then followed, thesaurus-like, a series of partial equivalents in a variety of languages — translatability. It is unfortunate that Cassin’s rich, complex, avant-garde book should be degraded to a reductive “search for mistranslations,” though of course she is partly to blame for putting “intraduisibles” in the title in the first place.

    Lawrence Venuti has done much for raising the visibility of translators and translation in the US and Europe and for putting coherence into our discussions of the subject. I’m sure this article will be another valuable contribution to this campaign.

  3. Only when we talk about translation does perfection seem to be the prerequisite of existence. Most assertions of “untranslatability” seem to overlook the fact that translations are taking place all the time, so I’m very glad to see Venuti rectify the discussion with the rejoinder and reminder that “any charge of mistranslation assumes that translation can and should reproduce a semantic invariant, an essential, unchanging meaning believed to be inherent in the source text but actually inscribed by the analyst—in other words, a rival interpretation.” Another problem with ideas such as Apter’s that the “untranslatable” represents some kind of “incorruptible” stance against the market is how it acts like translation was created by capitalism, when of course it is much, much older (I find Apter’s argument all the more dispiriting when I think of the fall from her earlier Translation Zone claims that “nothing is translatable” and that “everything is”). And yet, I’m not as convinced as Venuti is that translation is everywhere debased in and by the discipline of Comparative Literature; I don’t, for instance, see the necessary contradiction between Saussy’s statement that “A translator always perturbs the settled economy of two linguistic systems” (with which I agree) and that “A translation always brings across most successfully aspects of a work for which its audience is already prepared” (even if I’m less convinced by this claim); couldn’t translation perturb settled economies even if its success depends in part on its readership being prepped, one way or another? At any event, I can’t wait to read Venuti’s article in full.

  4. I can’t wait to read Venuti’s article. It promises to address an irritation that translation studies academics have been facing for a few years now as the discipline we have struggled to create and develop over the past thirty years gets ‘hijacked’, literally, for various other purposes. There is an important difference between studying actual translations, their contexts and effects, and the relations between the new texts and the older ‘source texts’ from which they derive, and on the other hand, positing some notion such as ‘untranslatability’ and then finding a number of disparate translated texts to serve as evidence. The study of translation and translations is the study of change; change in meaningfulness, in interpretation, in the uses and functions of texts. It is the study of difference. The idea that there may not be such a thing as Apter’s “incorruptible or intransigent nub of meaning” seems to be unsettling, but translation studies show that this is in fact the case.