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Thursday, March 31, 2016

In Favor of Belletrism

In an article by Lawrence Venuti I re-read recently, "Towards a Translation Culture," the author rails against what he calls "belletrism" in translation. The idea of belletrism, as he defines it (he uses the word over and over again in his chapter, is that the translated text should be autonomous, that it should stand in its own feet. He traces the idea back to Pound:
Remarkably, Pound makes no mention of the source text when he describes the sort of translation that is “original writing” or aspires to be such through adaptation. He assigns it an aesthetic autonomy from the source text and judges it not according to a concept of equivalence, but according to the “standards” by which he judges original compositions.
One objection he makes is that belletrism is a-theoretical or even anti-theoretical: it cannot articulate the standard of taste which invokes. This standard is taken for granted: it is merely the standard literary taste of the target culture. Or, perhaps, the taste of an individual translator. But this is in fact a debasement of Poundian ideas about translation. What Pound was trying to do was to use translation in order to get into English the main achievements of what he felt were the greatest poets in all languages. The translations had to be good poems in the same way as the originals were good originally. So it wasn't a matter of achieving "fluency" in English, or satisfying existing taste, but of forging new kind of taste. There are ways that poets charged language with meaning, and translation had to live up to that ideal.

Venuti's critique is on target as far as it goes, but it falsely implies that there is a theory of translation that can resolve issues of aesthetic value. There are, in fact, many ways of theorizing translation, but there is no ultimate word, no way of deciding what the most valuable ways of translating are. It also subordinates poetics to translation theory. If translation theory is at the service of poetics, and not vice-versa, then we cannot appeal to a translation theory in order to sidestep issues of poetics.

Implicit in Venuti's critique is the idea that there should be another standard, perhaps not belletristic or tied to such a standard in the target culture. In some says, he already has his way, since I could demonstrate that translations often don't achieve results that would be acceptable to the literary culture: the culture of translation in fact makes allowances for texts that are not as aesthetically satisfying. In other words, if we took the idea of belletrism seriously, we might have much better translations (from this perspective at least).

Venuti claims that the absence of a theory means that translators cannot talk insightfully about their own work. Well, maybe not. Can poets talk insightfully about their own poetry? About poetics? Wouldn't it depend on the poet?

Venuti seems to think that negative reactions to his own translations have to arise from a lack of theoretical sophistication. In other words, since he has an elaborate rationale for what he is doing, his translation must be compelling.

Another bugbear here is the idea of fluency. For me, the idea that translation is autonomous does not imply that all translation should be have the same, fluent style. The problem seems to be in the lack of rigor of translations, that they are not belletristic enough, not Poundian enough in their commitment to poetics. Vent has been railing against the idea of fluency for decades now in a kind of tiresome way.


Leslie B. said...

Glad to get confirmation, someone else who doesn't like Venuti.

Interestingly, my colleague the linguist seems not to, either.

We're team teaching a course in translation studies in the fall, but most students will not be interested in literary translation.

Jonathan said...

What do people not like about him? The same thing I don't, or something different?

Leslie B. said...

We'll have to articulate better. Off the cuff, I would say the clumsy attempt to turn an art into a science. Art is not fuzzy, but his assumption that it is makes his scientific fetish fuzzy.

And, he commits all the sins people who do not like theory say that theorists do -- it is all for the theory, and the wiggier the better, but it is divorced from reality.

Finally, it is as though he never worked on his own prose in his native language, nor really learned a foreign language -- he just started worrying about translation and translation theory.

Linguist says he takes simple ideas and makes them obtuse.

Both of us are speaking very impressionistically.

Jonathan said...

I think his Italian must be pretty good? I don't object to his prose either, though it's not my style. What I object to is a simplistic binary opposition disguised as a seemingly sophisticated theory.