The idea that a translation should be a faithful representation of the source text is a widely accepted truism that few would think to question. It is a concept that has guided most writing about translation for the past two thousand years, as debates in translation studies have tended to revolve around questions of the best methods for achieving “faithful” representation, whether it be St. Jerome’s idea of “sense for sense” translation, or Schleiermacher’s recommendation of a “foreignizing” technique; only in a few rare cases has the debate turned to whether such “faithful” representation is even possible… or desirable.
A typical example of the implicit assumption that fidelity to source text should be the guiding principle in translation can be found in the “translation analytic” proposed by French translation scholar Antoine Berman. Berman’s “translation analytic” is basically a taxonomy for categorizing the different types of meaning shifts that may occur in the process of translating literature. Berman classifies these shifts into twelve “deforming tendencies”, which, he argues, conspire almost against the translator’s will to “cause translation to deviate from its essential aim” (286). Needless to say, this essential aim is absolute fidelity to source text, which Berman posits as an ethical obligation upon the translator.
This idea of fidelity carries with it an implicit assumption of the sanctity and incorruptibility of the source text, which is probably a legacy of the translation of holy texts like the Bible, for much of the history of Western translation the main focus of translators and translation scholars. Because of its sacrosanct nature, the source text must be brought as “whole” as possible into the target language. Berman offers a compelling image of this idea in citing Foucault’s image of translation, as “taking the original text for a projectile and treating the translating language as a target” (285). According to this image, problems such as unnatural sounding language or incomprehensibility for target language readers might be viewed merely as necessary collateral damage.
Russian author and translator Vladimir Nabokov takes the position advocated by Berman to its logical extreme. Indeed, his views on the matter make him look almost like a caricature of the literalist school of translation. Nabokov begins an article on his experience of translating Pushkin’s Onegin with a vituperative attack on any translation judged as “readable”, as this surely means that it is the product of a “knavish” translator who has committed the great crime of “free translation” (71). His claim that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase” (71, emphasis added) is revealing, as it suggests that “utility” is to be given priority over aesthetic considerations in literary translation. If we apply this criterion for literary translation to literature in general, the absurdity of Nabokov’s position becomes clear (in what way is literature “useful”?). His call for “footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers” (82) hardly seems a recipe for great literature. It is thus perhaps not surprising that translation scholar Willis Barnstone describes his translation of Onegin as “unread and hard to read” (Barnstone 48).
As an antidote to Nabakov’s extremism I would like to propose the perspective of Argentine author and translator Jorge Luis Borges, a perspective that is truly refreshing in its complete disregard for the traditional views that implicitly (or explicitly) view the source text as sacred. In his article on the translation of Arabian Nights, Borges offers an entertaining account of various European translators of this classic work of literature, who took such extreme liberties with their source that they would surely have sent poor Nabokov into fits of rage. But for Borges, the French translator Dr. Mardrus, whose translation of a ten-word sentence in the original Nights into a seven-line paragraph makes him guilty of at least three of Berman’s “deformations” (clarification, expansion and ennoblement), should be praised, not for his fidelity (obviously), but for “his happy and creative infidelity” (45). On the other hand, the dry, technically accurate German translations of the Nights are criticized for their lack of contribution to literature, as Borges remarks that “the commerce between Germany and the Nights should have produced something more” (46).
Borges’ assessments of these translations suggest a very different perspective on the role of translation, not as an instrument to be used to hurl the source text violently at the target language, but as a medium of exchange, through which source text and target culture may be mutually enriched. Obviously, such mutual enrichment cannot take place if translators are to be hemmed in by the supposedly ethical obligation to subjugate all – including their readers – to the supreme sanctity of the source text.
Berman, Antoine. “Translation and the Trials of the Foreign”. Translation Studies Reader. L. Venuti (ed.). London: Routledge, 1999. 284-297.
Barnstone, W. Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights”. Translation Studies Reader. L. Venuti (ed.). London: Routledge, 1999. 34-48.
Nabokov, Vladimir. “Problems of Translation: Onegin in English”. Translation Studies Reader. L. Venuti (ed.). London: Routledge, 1999. 71-83.