Translation as Reading

“A text’s unity lies not in its origins, or in its creator, but in its destination, or audience.”

Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

This famous quote from Barthes The Death of the Author, states that what makes a text is its reader, its audience. Barthes discusses the idea that a text comes alive, is ‘activated’ not through its creator, the writer, but through its destination, the reader. For Barthes, this is when the text’s true meaning and purpose comes to life. And in order to do this – to bring the text to life – the author must ‘die’…

“We know that in order to restore writing to its future, we must reverse the myth: the birth of reader must be requited by the death of the author.”

Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

In effect, the reader takes the words from the page, and ‘translates’ them into their own text, their own story. The reader writes the text, the writer simply provides them with the means to do so. The role of the text is not to offer the reader a word by word account of everything which is possible within it, instead it offers just a part, a frame. It is up to the reader then, to paint the rest of the picture, to fill the frame in whichever way they see fit. The reader is the true creator, with the writer only providing the tools needed to ‘write’ the story.

If this is how we consider the reader of a text (as its creator) then what does this mean for translation? A translator’s task is to put their reading, their ‘painting’, into words on a page. A translator provides their reading of the source text, in a new language for another reader to then ‘write’ themselves.

“We are then, translating a reading, but a reading is not just a sequence of language on a page. We are translating also a set of textual possibilites. And we are translating reading as a particular kind of duration.”

Clive Scott, Translation and the Spaces of Reading

A translator writes only one possible reading, many others exist, because a text is read, and ‘written’ by a variety of readers. A translator writes only ‘one textual possibility’. Through the act of translating, the translator becomes a reader/writer hybrid, creating a palimpsest consisting of the source text, their reading of it, and finally, their ‘re-writing’. Is it then possible that a translated text’s unity can override Barthes’ call for the ‘Death of the Author’? Through translation, a reading of the source text is produced and put into words, does this then mean that the unity of a translated text can lie with both it’s origins (the translator who is ‘writing’ their reading) and with its destination (the new reader)? Or, could we consider the act of translation in a different way, with the author not only dying with the translator’s reading, but also being further buried under their new re-writing? Some food for thought…

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