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

Gender in Translation (1): Gender and Translation Theory

After writing my undergrad dissertation on postcolonial feminism, and centering many of my essays on feminist texts in translation and gender in writing, it quickly started to become clear that my academic interests were centering around two particular topics: feminism and gender. Continuing to combine these topics with ideas from my current MA in Literary Translation, it seems only appropriate to begin a series of posts on this blog entitled: ‘Gender in Translation’. Throughout this series of posts, I intend to explore issues surrounding gender in translation and hope to discuss topics such as the translation of feminist texts and working with gendered languages.

To begin the series I want to start with the topic of gender in translation theory. In her essay entitled Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation, Lori Chamberlain explores the many ways in which translation theory has been gendered over the years. In a striking number of different translation theories, the source text author and translator are considered or described as male, with the source text and the translation itself being described as female. These theories consider the male as active and the female as passive. This consideration of a translated piece as feminine, a passive object that is manipulated by the active male, is described in a number of different ways, using a variety of metaphors. 

One theory that uses gender to discuss translation, considers the author/translator as father, and the text/translation, as daughter. Roscommon suggests that the source text is considered as a daughter whose virginity is protected by her father, the author. The translator then usurps the father’s or author’s role and takes the daughter’s, or text’s virginity, whilst still presenting her/it as ‘chaste’, or as loyal and faithful to the original text. As the translator becomes author (or father), he incurs certain paternal duties in relation to the text (or the daughter), protecting, instructing and potentially even structuring it. The active translator (male) guides, protects and manipulates the passive translation (female). The text and the translation are both passive objects – female, whilst the author and the translator are active – male. Another theory that genders translation as female is that which considers the author and translator as owner or captor, with the source text and translated text as the (willingly) seduced or captive. Francklin represents the translator as a male who takes over the role of the also male author, with the source text considered as a ‘mistress’, the male translator is then seen as the seducer, with the text being a willing female participant in her ‘beautification’ through translation. Once again, the active male roles are given to the translator and the author, with the passive source text and translation being described using female metaphors. Francklin’s theory opens the door to sexual connotation in translation theory, taking the idea of the male (author/translator) as active, and the female (source text/translation) as passive even further.

Not only are these incredibly sexist theories, but they are also, in today’s world, quite flawed. Roscommon’s theory suggests that the translator and his translated text are deceptive, as the translator ‘tears’ the source text from the author, rids it of it’s ‘pureness’, yet still presents it as ‘pure’ and ‘chaste’. With the vast majority of translation as we know it today, this is not the case, in fact, in some cases, both author and translator can actually work together to create the translated text, a text that is presented as exactly what it is: a translation. The fact that a text is a translation is rarely hidden and translations are not presented as ‘pure’ or ‘original’ works. Similarly, Francklin’s theory suggests that the source text is manipulated and ‘seduced’ by the translator in order to create a ‘beautified’ translation. Again, in today’s translation age, this theory is easily dismissed. The idea that a translator, ‘seduces’ and ‘beautifies’ a text is tricky, it is rare that a translator will elaborate on a translated piece so much so that it is seen as ‘more beautiful’. Literary translators work in order to transport an already beautiful source text, into a new, equally beautiful text, in another language. 

In always describing a translated text as the ‘inactive’ or passive part of a theory, Roscommon and Francklin almost dismiss translation as a piece of art or literature that is not powerful enough to hold its own space. A translated piece is, in fact, an active, living and evolving organism, as times change, it changes, words in the text can develop new meanings or connotations, and peoples perceptions of it change. A translated piece is also incredibly active in the fact that it crosses borders, languages, and cultures in order to reach others. In defining the source text and the translated text as ‘passive’ Roscommon and Francklin have dismissed texts and translations of text that have left incredible and profound marks on history as passive, as just the result of a ‘males’ work, the fact that these ‘passive’ pieces are being described as feminine only adds to the problem more.  

     As we have seen, the author and translator are conventionally figured in masculine terms, whilst texts and their translations are conventionally figured in feminine terms. Language itself is also often conventionally figured in female terms, for example, ‘mother tongue’. Schleiermacher uses this term, ‘mother tongue’, in his theory that discusses the idea that the father (translator) must be true to the mother (language, or text) in order to produce legitimate offspring (translation). He states that natural law requires a monogamous, or loyal relationship to produce beautiful offspring (translations), the translator must be loyal to the source text and language in order to create what is considered a good translation. This comparison of the act of translation to the act of monogamy opens up a whole new can of worms as it brings up the discussion of fidelity, a word that is no stranger to gender in translation theory. When thinking about this word, fidelity, in relation to translation theory, one can not help but think of the infamous Les Belles Infidèles quote, this ludicrous quote manages to form two stereotypes in one sentence, suggesting that women, like translation, cannot be both beautiful and faithful, they have to be one or the other. This quote suggests that if a translation is faithful to the source text (much like Schleiermacher considers it has to be) then it cannot be a beautiful translation. However, if it is not faithful to the source text, it can become a beautiful translation. First of all, one must consider, what is fidelity? What makes a translated piece ‘faithful’ or ‘un-faithful’? It is of my opinion that it is harmful to discuss translation in terms of faithfulness, as the question of what faithfulness is, is so open to interpretation, however, this goes beyond the scope of the discussion of translation theory and gender, thus, for the purposes of this essay, it could be said that Schleiermacher considers faithfulness as a close rendering of each word from the source text. This is something that Les Belles Infidèles quote believes then renders the translation ‘ugly’. Of course, it is widely considered that a translation can, in fact, be beautiful and ‘faithful’ to the meaning of the source text. Beautiful translated prose, that does justice in bringing the source text to life in a new language is appearing on bookshelves around the world every day. 

     Another theorist whose translation theories are centered around gender is Gavronsky, who discusses translation theory in relation to the oedipal complex. His theory is divided into two, with the translator choosing one route or the other in regards to his translation methods. According to Gavronsky, some translators are pietistic, pledging fidelity to the ‘unravished lady’, or the source text. The translator takes vows of ‘humility, poverty, and chastity’, rendering a ‘close’ and ‘loyal’ translation. He argues that the ‘master/slave’ schema underlying this metaphoric is the foundation of the oedipal triangle, as the translator considers himself the ‘child’ of the ‘father-creator’ (source text author) with the mother (the source text), becoming the ‘object of desire’ that has been completely defined by the paternal figure, or the source text author, the ‘phallus pen’. The translator feels that to tamper with the text would be to eliminate the father’s author(ity)’, and in order to remain faithful (there’s that word again) to the source text author and the source text, the translator writes a ‘pietistic’ translation. On the other hand, the child, or the translator is cannibalistic, holding a desire to kill the symbolic father text or author. Gavronsky states that this ‘liberates the translator from servility to cultural and ideological restrictions and allows him to take and manipulate the source text and translation in whichever way he wishes’, in other words, he is ‘unfaithful’ to the text. This is quite an extreme idea, the idea that in translating a text more freely, the translator is cannibalistic, and in attempting to ‘kill’ the source text author, taking the source text, whilst on the other hand, in offering a close translation, the translator is succumbing to his mother and father, the source text and the source author. 

All of these gendered translation theories are closely linked to the discussion of fidelity and faithfulness towards a text. This begs the question, what is fidelity in translation? How ‘faithful’ a translator chooses to be towards the source text, how closely they choose to translate it is completely dependent on a huge number of factors, perhaps the most significant factor is the content of the text. The translator chooses which elements of the text are most important, the elements that they the translator will then be ‘faithful’ to. Therefore, it is backward to define a translation as passive, as simply a daughter or a mother, a source text and its translation contain multiplicities, they are active pieces containing a whole host of different elements, some that the translator chooses to transfer, and some that they choose to leave behind. A text cannot be considered as one thing, but a nebulous of many different organisms. A translator may be ‘faithful’ to some of the organisms but may choose to leave others in the source text. The translator still renders a beautiful translation that does justice to the meaning of the original text. These sexist and outdated analogies of translation are therefore flawed. 

Other than the obvious problems behind labeling the active parts of a theory as male, and the passive ideas of a theory as female, we also need to change our ideas surrounding the idea of ‘faithfulness’. The idea of fidelity is problematic, as discussed above, it is possible for translation to be ‘faithful’ to certain elements of the source text, whilst also making the decision to leave others behind. All too often, translations are reviewed on how ‘faithful’ they are to the original, according to Schleiermacher, how monogamous they are. Translations are also discussed on how ‘fluent’ they appear, according to Roscommon, how chaste or pure. Instead of considering translations in this way, we should be discussing each of the unique elements that that translator has bought from the source text, the prose, the writing style, the story, and its messages and metaphors, and not getting lost behind how much it matches the book that already exists in another language. Jacques Derrida says:

“Translation is writing; that is, not translation only in the sense of transcription. It is a productive writing called forth by the original text.” 

Here, Derrida makes the progressive point, that translation itself is an active piece of prose, a translation is activated by the translators reading of the source text, and how they choose to render this in the new language. Chamberlain concludes that what is required for a feminist theory of translation is a practice governed by what Derrida calls the double bind. Such a theory might rely, not on the family model of oedipal struggle, or the idea of father-daughter or husband-wife relationships, but on the double-edged sword of translation as a collaboration where author and translator are seen working together in both the co-operative and the subversive. As well as this, we need to eliminate the idea that the author and translator are always ‘he’, and the text and translation are always ‘she’, to eliminate the sexist language.