Fluency in Translation: Avoiding Homogeneity and Ethnocentrism

Today, fluency is widely considered a necessity of literary translations into English. But what is fluency, and is it a goal to aim for in translating, or something we should avoid?

First, we must address the question: what is fluency? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one definition is ‘the ability to express oneself easily and articulately’. Writing with fluency in the target language is something that is constantly in the back of a literary translator’s mind, whether that be a result of their own thoughts or those of their publishers. Nowadays, fluency is considered to be the sign of a good translation, however, within literary translation, the definition of fluency has gone far further than simply ‘ease and articulation’ and become something much more profound. Often, translations are only considered fluent if they relate to the target language’s cultural specificities, that is, if the translator has both translated and domesticated the text. Translations containing elements of a source language or culture, that is, allusions to the origins of the text, are often considered ‘foreignizing’ and quite simply: not fluent. Venuti discusses the idea of fluency in his book The Translators Invisibility, stating that its consideration as the ultimate stamp of approval in translation is problematic. In the first two chapters of this book, Venuti breaks down the ideas of fluency and rendering the translator invisible. But what exactly is problematic about fluency and transparency in translation, is it not the translator’s goal to be invisible and create a text that does not appear translated? Perhaps it shouldn’t be…

As stated earlier, more often than not, in order for a translation to be considered fluent, the target text needs also to be domesticated towards the target language culture. A fluent and domesticated text creates what Venuti calls an ‘illusion of transparency’, this is when the text is so fluent in the target language that the translation becomes ‘transparent’ and the translator ‘invisible’, with the fluency of the text ‘attempting to pretend that the situation is other than it actually is’, for example, la France and le mode de vie français becomes England and the English way of life. However, this domestication in translation hides the inevitable social and cultural conditions that the original text was written in, conforming instead to the target language cultural norms.

“The viability of a translation is established by its relationship to the cultural and social conditions under which it is produced and read. This relationship points to the violence that resides in the very purpose and activity of translation: the reconstruction of the foreign text in accordance with values, beliefs and representations that pre-exists it in the translating language and culture, always considered in hierarchies of dominance and marginality, always determining the production, circulation, and reception of texts.” – Venuti

Here, Venuti describes the act of domesticating a text as ‘violent’ – I guess it could be considered that the text is ripped from its origins in the source language culture, and forcefully moulded to fit the ideals of a new culture and language. In erasing the foreignness of the text and moulding it to fit into a new experience, a dilution of cultural difference occurs. From Venuti’s perspective a translator should ‘do justice to unfamiliar cultural differences’, on this I agree. I chose to become a literary translator as when learning French, I myself fell in love with French literature and culture. As a literary translator, I have the opportunity to share with the Anglophone community something they otherwise would not have access to. In domesticating one of my translations so much so that the text no longer resembles French culture and French origin in the slightest, a wonderful aspect of literary translation is lost: the sharing of cultures. The beauty of translation is not only the sharing of foreign literature to worldwide audiences, but also the sharing of cultural differences. Through the domestication of texts, translated literature risks becoming homogenous and all too familiar to the new audience – particularly if the translation is into English.

“British and American cultures […] have long been dominated by domesticating theories that recommend fluent translating. By producing the illusion of transparency, a fluent translation masquerades as a true semantic equivalence when it in fact inscribes the foreign text with a partial interpretation, partial to English language values, reducing if not simply excluding the very differences that translation is called on to convey.” – Venuti

Domestication in translation in order to convey fluency is a norm that is particularly expected of British-American translations into English, in fact, the discussion of the illusion of transparency and the translator’s invisibility almost uniquely pertains to translation into English.  In his book Is That A Fish In Your Ear? David Bellos considers the theory of translating ‘up’ and ‘down’. He describes translating ‘up’ as translating into a superior language, and translating ‘down’ as translating from a superior language into one considered inferior. The English language, having a hegemonic status and political prominence, can be considered as a superior language, it is thus extremely easy for translators to render foreign language texts into ‘fluent’ and domesticated translations in English, translating ‘up’ and making themselves (the translator) and the act (translation) invisible. By domesticating a text into English is the translator as a result representing Anglophone culture as superior to the source language of the text? Potentially. By erasing cultural differences in the source text, and domesticating it for an Anglophone target audience, the translator risks ethnocentrism and homogeneity. Whether a translator chooses to be ‘fluent’ and domesticate the text, or keep an element of the foreign can have huge percussions on how the text is received.

“The terms domestication and foreignization indicate fundamentally ethical attitudes towards a foreign text and culture, ethical effects produced by the choice of a text for translation and by the strategy devised to translate it.” – Venuti

Depending on how a text is domesticated, it can hide and manipulate many things. Tradition and history can be re-written in English translations to create a ‘more suitable’ or ‘ideal’ text. But surely the traditions and cultures that appear in the source text cannot be more suitable, as they are written in and about the language and culture the text is situated in.

“Fluency can be seen as a discursive strategy ideally suited to domesticating translation, capable not only of executing the ethnocentric violence of domestication, but also of concealing this violence by producing the effect of transparency, the illusion that this is not a translation, but the foreign text, in fact the living thoughts of the foreign author.” – Venuti

In eradicating an entire culture or tradition in translation, the international literature that appears on British or American bookshelves, might as well not be called international. What is the point in reading international literature if it is only going to echo all of the other English language books in the shop? International literature offers the monolingual speaking world a door into another culture, but domesticating translations close this door. Foreignization counteracts the homogeneity of domestication, and as well as facilitating the sharing of literary and cultural differences, also combats many other undesirable results.

“Foreignizing translation in English can be a form of resistance against ethnocentrism and racism, cultural narcissism and imperialism, in the interest of democratic, geopolitical relations.” – Venuti

So how can homogeneity and ethnocentrism be avoided? Venuti believes that translators have long been complicit in being invisible. They often adopt methods of translating with invisibility in order for their translations to comply with the sought after standard of fluency. Translators need to bring about a different methodology to stop this domestication and homogenisation of translations into English. A translator always has a choice on how ‘violent’, in other words how domesticating their text is. Maybe it’s time that we translators stopped worrying so much about how ‘fluent’ our writing is, and, in a world that is becoming more global and more connected, think about the benefits of foreignization in translation and the benefits of opening doors. 

Works Cited: Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility, 1995

David Bellos, Is That A Fish In Your Ear?, 2011

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