The Translator's Turn

by Douglas Robinson

The John Hopkins University Press, 1991

An excerpt from:

Part Two: Dialogical Turns

Chapter Three: The Tropics of Translation

p.173 (Irony):

... the Source Language (SL) writer usually does not think of him- or herself as a writer at all. He or she is a technician or a scholar who has been asked, or is expected for purposes of promotion, to write up his or her work. Such texts are often produced under the pressure of a deadline and often come to the translator in rough draft, with interlineal emendations and the possibility of further textual changes after the translation is completed. They are often riddled with inconsistencies, infelicities, and sheer incomprehensibilities. What is the translator to do with a text like this? Commonsense-for-sense theorists like Peter Newmark say you must improve the text, not translating what the author says but what he or she means - but, as we will see in the next section (on hyperbole), that assumes the writer knows what he or she means, and with problem texts this is often too much to assume.

The ironic translator, or the translator in an ironic mood, sick of rewriting SL texts from scratch, building good arguments out of garbage, doing for the writer what the writer should have done for him- or herself, and then getting no credit for it, not even getting mentioned in the publication, or getting mentioned in a preface along with the writer's spouse and children, and then, on top of all that, having to feel guilty because the translation did not conform to idealized standards of "equivalence" - the translator who is fed up with all of this may just decide to do a "metaphoric" rendering of the text in all its ghastliness. He or she will disambiguate no ambiguous phrasings, silently correct no noun-verb incongruencies, register shifts, or factual errors, prune no repetitiveness or prolixity, mend no style-context conflicts, rearrange no flaccid sequencing. He or she will be faithful to the letter and the spirit of the text - not out of a fanatic adherence to a principle, of course, but out of an extremely gratifying form of malice, indeed a highly creative and artistically demanding form of malice, in which vengeance is exacted against bad writers through an artful search for just the right degree and shade of TL (Target Language) verbal shoddiness. Here faithfulness, the metonymic and metaphoric translator's lofty aim, becomes an insult to the writer; self-effacement becomes a kind of aggression by omission, a passive violence marked by an active refusal to do violence to the text. In this way the translator externalizes his or her own TL words, disowns his or her own translation, assigns or ascribes it solely to the writer, indeed may even forbid the writer to mention his or her name in connection with the work. in effect, this sort of ironic translator negates his or her own work, negates his or her own role in the creation of an inferior work.

There is a deep animus against this sort of translatorial behavior in mainstream translation theory (and practice); but the animus is really directed only against the translator's presumption, the idea that the translator could ( or would) ever dare inflict a symbolic wound of this sort on the SL writer. There is a good deal of debate among prescriptive theorists over whether translators should ever be allowed to improve an SL text, but it is a civilized debate; neither side has ever been branded as irresponsible. What keeps the debate civilized is the shared assumption that, whether the translator improves on a bad text or seeks the closest natural SL equivalent of a bad text, he or she will always remain the docile servant of the SL writer. What will anger or alarm the mainstream translation theorists in this type of ironic translation is precisely my suggestion that the translator might put aside his or her docility and try to "get back at" the SL writer. This, in a tradition that prescribes translatorial introversion (see Chapter 4), is unforgivable.

But all that this type of ironic translator is really doing is taking to its logical extreme the absurd ideal of instrumentality, in order to demonstrate the absurdity of its blanket application. As long as you agree with the SL writer and feel perfectly comfortable about going along with the illusion of instrumentality, there is no problem. You know that you are not a mere instrument; it takes an immense amount of creative activity even to give the illusion of instrumentality, but never mind: you are willing to do it, you have no qualms, and everybody is happy. But Western translation theory has tried to legislate that willingness, tried to generalize from individual translators' willingness to go along with the illusion of instrumentality in certain cases to a forced submission to that willingness (be willing, or else!) in all cases. Anybody who refuses will be denied the name of translator.

The problem, in other words, is not the illusion; we all have illusions, and as long as they seem to work for us, we do not demand immediate contact with reality. The problem is in the authoritarian generalization of the illusion to all translations, its application to all translators in all circumstances dealing with all texts. It is this idealized universality that the ironic translator seeks to explode - or at least expose. And whether the irony is playful, cheerful, aestheticist, or angry, malicious, vengeful - whether the ironic translator strives for "accidental," backhanded success or deliberate, instructive failure - the end result in terms of translation ideals is the same: they crumble.


I mentioned a minute ago that the commonsense-for-sense translation theorist defends improving a bad SL text on the grounds that the translator must translate what the writer meant, not what he or she said. If the writer's unclear writing reflects unclear thinking (and it always does) and the writer does not therefore even know what he or she meant, the translator's task is then to consult the writer, show him or her each problem spot, and present him or her with the alternatives. That way, you are still acting as the SL writer's humble instrument: helping him or her to bring forth what he or she "means," just as the knife helps the cutter slice the bread.

But I have done this and my experience points to different conclusions. You get an unbelievably bad text from a research fellow, say, and call him up to discuss the problem areas. At each point you ask him what he means by a certain word or phrase, and he says, "Isn't that clear?"

"No," you say, "it's ambiguous."

"No, it's not," he says, "it's perfectly clear."

"Well," you explain patiently, "it's unclear just what this 'which' is referring to. If it refers to 'statistics,' you're making a methodological claim, but if it refers to 'infant mortality,' you're making a historical claim. Which do you want here?

"I'm not sure I follow you."

So you explain it, and explain it, until finally, realizing that this poor sod hasn't a clue about what he is trying to say, you make a guess, which you have made already, and really just want to check with him:

"It seems to me that the thrust of your argument is methodological rather than historical - that the historical events are mainly brought in as illustrations of your methodological argument. And in that sense 'which' would probably make the best sense if it referred to 'statistics.'"

"Hm, well," the professor mumbles, not really knowing what you have just said, or what possible bearing it has on his article, "maybe you're right."

So you go on through the article, over and over again referring your questions back to that "decision" you and he reached over the methodological thrust of his argument (that's settled, see, he agreed to it, which makes it the one clear thing in his mind about the whole article, and thus a handy reference point). By the end of your phone conversation, you have essentially imposed your reading on his understanding of his own article and have received his permission to cohere your TL rendering around that reading. You have taught him both to write and to think, clarified his understanding of his own field of expertise, his own article, and in an important sense catalyzed the formulation of "what he meant to say." This exceeds the metonymic translator's authority, but it is clearly what much technical and scholarly translation entails. In fact, I have stopped going through this charade with scholars and technicians: I just interpret the SL text, assign it an argumentative coherence that seems to work (I have a good feeling for these things), and translate my version, not the writer's.

I call this hyperbole (Louis Kelly calls it "symptom," chap. 3.2): the translator's "exaggeration" or improvement of the SL text in the TL, in order to give it its "proper" fullness, a fullness that in (tropic) practice is not actually the writer's but the translator's. "For, after all," John Dryden wrote in his introduction to Sylvae, a translator is to make his author as charming as he possibly can, provided he maintains his character and makes him not unlike himself." But unlike which self - the translator's or the writer's? The ambiguity of Dryden's pronouncement is indicative of the problem at the heart of hyperbolic translation: is he calling on the translator to make the writer not unlike himself the writer, or not unlike himself the translator? This is the crux: whose text is the TL? Whose personality does it body forth? It is supposedly the writer's, but when the translator finds the SL text lacking, the contradictions embedded in that supposition begin to surface. As Dryden implies, the translator gives the TL text its "proper" fullness (or charm, as Dryden says) out of a sense of duty to the writer; but all that means is that the translator protects the writer by patronizing him or her, protects the writer from him- or herself, like a parent protecting an immature child. And then, like the proud parent who is too grown-up to demand recognition for doing his or her job, the translator steps back to let the writer take credit for the improved text: the writer's name appears over the translator's words; the translator's name appears, if at all, in the preface or in a note, along with all the other support staff that contributed to the writer's triumph. By the logic of entitlement, the persona of the TL style is summed up in the writer's name, even though it is very largely the translator's invention.

The hyperbolic translator improves a bad text, then, not by submitting to the writer's concealed and elicited intention, but by bringing his or her own personal vision to an understated text and creating the writer's intention. If scholarly and technical translators could recognize that they do this and get others to recognize it too, one important practical consequence might be an improved public (and self-) image. The hyperbolic translator stands to the instrumentalized translator-ideal as the ghost writer stands to the stenographer: as a creator and shaper of ideas and personality through words, as opposed to a mere recorder and transmitter of words.

Courtesy of Mr. Douglas Robinson