Translation theory without literary translation?

“Alternative histories” are growing in popularity. People love to imagine what might have happened if big historical moments had gone a different way. Here is one that might seem to be rather strange but actually says a lot: imagine if translation theory had never been led by literary translation.

Where have translation theories come from?

First of all, we need to figure out whether Translation Theory has been led by literary translation at all. We don’t have to go far for an answer. From Venuti’s discussion of translator visibility, to polysystem theory and even good old Descriptive Translation Studies (arguably a method or approach, rather than a theory), the vast majority of our well-known theories have emerged from discussions of literary translation.

Why might this be? There are several reasons, ranging from the simple matter of literary texts being generally very accessible and available, to the growth of Translation Studies within literature (and comparative literature) departments. Before the advent of the internet, it was much simpler to go to the library and grab some copies of Hamlet in three languages than it was to compile a one million word corpus of marketing texts.

There is also a kind of kudos that has always been attached to the study of (canonical) literary texts. Far more has been written about symbolism in Shakespeare than coherence in Mills & Boon novels or intertextuality in car manufacturer websites. In terms of cultural capital, knowing the canonical texts and showing appreciation of them is always a winning strategy. We study and esteem Homer and Aeschylus more than Stephen King largely because the school and university system and public taste makers tell us to.

Translation theory without literary translation

So what would translation theory have looked like if it had come of age away from the literary scene?

Going by the marked difference in tone between much research in literary translation and areas such as corpus translation studies or the sociology of translation, it is likely that the first thing we would notice would be a massive decline in statements beginning with the words “translation is.” We have literary translation to thank for statements like “translation is a mirror”, “translation is rewriting,” “translation is a wave”, “translation is refraction”, “translation is cultural rebellion/appropriation/newness”.

For many researchers in commercial or legal or technical translation, the focus has on trying to understand individual issues, such as terminology, the relationship between translators and technology, and ergonomics. Once we get those pinned down, they sigh, we might just be able to get some big theory done. Researchers therefore tend not to get around to making big theoretical statements or even theorising much more than the relationship between their studies and other work.

Translation theory without literary translation would therefore likely have less theory, or at least, much more restricted theories. If we want to see an example of what this would look like, we only have to look at Interpreting Studies, which developed with (one part of) a profession as its focus and still to this day borrows heavily from neighbouring fields. Whether this would mean more practical work or a weaker discipline is a matter for debate.

Translation Theory is wider than literature but…

Translation theory without literary translation would therefore probably have been more anchored to the profession. True, there is a lot of work going on now that sees the profession and academia working closely but much of this is a fairly recent development. As much as it might have been a myth, the view that translation research is/was divorced from practice is probably a symptom of the feeling that the high-brow discussions over shifts in retranslations of Shakespeare or post-structuralist rethinkings of translations of Brecht aren’t exactly applicable to the realities faced by those who rely on getting this next report translated before Thursday or ensuring that this medical term is correct so no-one dies.

It’s hard, bordering on Sisyphian and Pyrrhic, to convince people whose livelihood relies on access to IATE and CAT tool stability that theories derived from Homerian epics are that helpful. Whether helpfulness is a good criterion for a theory is a matter of debate (unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool research philosophical pragmatist like me) but, if we are going to use the work of translators in research, we probably owe them something more than another expensive book on a subject that is of no interest to them.

Translation theory and other academic departments

It’s likely that, if translation theory had been birthed in the computing department, it might have started out examining the interface between translators and technology. If it began in the business school, we might have cut our teeth on ergonomics, translation marketing and the relationship between clients and contractors. That might have given translation theory a very different reputation among professionals.

All of these subjects have come up in research but many are recent additions and for most, if not all, their existence has involved calling on theory from neighbouring disciplines than harking back to Schleiermacher or Benjamin. That might tell us something.

It’s not that literary translation hasn’t given us useful theory. There is something to be said for understanding translation as part of intermeshing systems. There is a lot to be said for bringing cultural studies to bear on translation. But it’s true to say that the practical, economic and I dare to say it, business aspects of translation aren’t normally considered when we are looking at accents in Harry Potter or puns in John Donne.

Moving away from home

If it has taken a move away from the mainstays of translation theory for translation researchers to dig into the everyday realities of professional translators, then it is the theory that is at fault. If we have to look to sociology or management or economics to explain what we find when we look at text flows or technology adoption or translator status then we simply need new theory.

While it is entirely possible that without the literary bent of most translation theory we might never have got a room of one’s own for cogitation on translation but it does seem that we have had to knock down a few walls to let in some more daylight. Perhaps, if translation theory had grown up in Computer Science, there might be fewer spurious claims about the capability of machine translation. Or we might all have been turned into cyborgs. If translation theory had started in economics departments, we might not be so scared to explore the financial side of translation. Or we might all have been side-lined for more powerful sectors.

Truthfully, no-one can ever know what would have happened if translation theory had been kicked off elsewhere. We don’t even know if it could ever have started anywhere else. One thing is for sure, we do need to keep asking hard questions about the theories we do have and trying out some new ones that are more tightly connected to the majority of translation practice.

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