Showdown at the Translation Saloon: On Lawrence Venuti’s “Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic”

By Jan SteynAugust 2, 2020

Showdown at the Translation Saloon: On Lawrence Venuti’s “Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic”

Contra Instrumentalism by Lawrence Venuti

I AM CURRENTLY EDITING a book called Translation: Crafts, Contexts, Consequences — a collection of new essays exploring the topic from a broad range of perspectives — and recently received a piece written by two prominent neuroscientists. It is a fascinating contribution, which presents well-established neuroscientific findings on how brains translate and also offers more speculative insights into the nature of the process. Here is how it begins:

How do we recognize our cat as the same cat, seen from behind, seen side-on, or heard meowing at the end of a passageway? How do we recognize the same idea, expressed in poetry or prose, expressed in Russian or in English? This phenomenon — invariant neural response to variable input— is a fundamental property of our brains, which needs to be explained by any theory of brain function. Both neuroscientists and literary translators aim to understand how invariance of meaning can arise across different forms. But literary translators must render experiences that are subtler, more contextual, more entire, than a glimpse of a cat’s tail. Thus, for the neuroscientist who seeks to understand invariances, the goals of literary translation match the highest levels of scientific aspiration. From the point of view of neuroscience, it is fascinating that literary translation is possible at all. From the point of view of translation studies, it can be useful to understand the kinds of invariances that have been demonstrated in the neural systems that support our perception and understanding of the everyday world.

Perhaps because I received this essay when I had just finished reading Lawrence Venuti’s most recent book, Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic, I was immediately struck by how these two authors — astute scholars and rigorous scientists, respected members of a field that rarely overlaps with translation studies — were working with a commonsense and widely unquestioned picture of translation that corresponds to what Venuti calls the “instrumentalist” view. An instrumentalist model of translation assumes there is an identifiable “invariant” that can and must be preserved in the move from source text to the translation, a move that is consequently seen as a transfer rather than a transformation. The essay by the neuroscientists confirms the dominance (decried by Venuti) of this instrumentalist paradigm in our everyday, and even our learned, conceptions of translation. But it also hints at a possible explanation for why the instrumentalist view has held out as long as it has — the observable “invariable neural response to variable input.” Venuti does a wonderful job of critiquing the instrumentalist model; someone ought to do similarly rigorous work in explaining its persistent appeal.

Opposed to the instrumentalist model is what Venuti calls a “hermeneutic” understanding of translation. Despite the name, Venuti’s hermeneutic take is not an extension of philosophical hermeneutics in the tradition of, say, Rudolf Bultmann, Wilhelm Dilthey, or Hans-Georg Gadamer, nor of George Steiner or Paul Ricoeur. There are no references to the “hermeneutic circle” here, but there is plenty about textual interpretation. Where instrumental thinking about translation posits something fixed that must be, as the etymological cliché goes, “carried across,” between the source and receiving contexts, a hermeneutic understanding acknowledges that each translation is, ineluctably, an interpretation, and that all interpretations, inevitably, change a text. It is in accounting for these changes, their methodological motivations, and their creative or scholarly impetus, that translation commentary can become (and at several points in Contra Instrumentalism does become) fascinating. Thinking of translation as interpretation, rather than as an act of slavish copying that is doomed to fail, not only cuts closer to the bone of the activity itself, it also evokes an added appreciation for the resulting literary product. This is why many of us who teach world literature encourage our students to think about translators as interpretive cocreators whose agency can be felt in every word. The reader’s deeper understanding of the origins of the texts before them begets deeper investment. It’s no wonder, then, that Venuti’s works on translation are among the most assigned in college classrooms. Contra Instrumentalism will be no different.

For longtime Venuti readers, there is not much that is new in Contra Instrumentalism at the level of theory. Aside from an earlier version of the first chapter, “Hijacking Translation,” which first appeared in boundary 2, all the content — two further chapters and a significant introduction and conclusion — is hitherto unpublished, but most of the key concepts and interventions have already appeared in earlier work, and readers interested in the arguments of Contra Instrumentalism would be especially well advised to also read Venuti’s bracing collection of essays Translation Changes Everything. What Contra Instrumentalism does offer is the crystallization and (further) active polemicizing of Venuti’s work, especially his work from the 21st century. Indeed, what is perhaps most original in this particular book is not the concepts, nor even the stance with respect to the field, but rather the active embrace of polemic as a form. This consciously and calculatedly antagonistic mode of engagement is not only meant to clarify Venuti’s position but to advance it, creating converts to his cause.

Let me be clear: there is much to be gained from a new paraphrase. After all, paraphrase, which has sometimes been conceived as its own “intralingual” form of translation, is produced for a new context and inevitably transforms its object. And Venuti’s writing on particular translations and their contexts are always filled with fresh insights. His third chapter, “The Trouble with Subtitles,” for example, curates material by theorists, teachers, and practitioners (including a particularly fascinating interview with the English subtitler of French auteur cinema, Lenny Borger) in order to give a thorough overview of the field of professional subtitling, an overview that, no surprise, names and shames instrumentalist thinking. But it also gives several extensive, sensitive close readings of particular subtitles, readings that take into account the receiving context rather than (as is the habit in talk about subtitles) only the soundtrack of the original. Through these moments of analysis, and by invoking particularly ingenious positive examples, Venuti demonstrates the awareness-raising potential of the hermeneutic approach. There are deep and subtle lessons here for translators, teachers of translation, critics, and casual cinemagoers alike. Yet, at the end, this chapter too returns to the book’s more general, simpler, and relentlessly belligerent leitmotif: “Isn’t it time that we acknowledged instrumentalism to be a hoax, born out of the fear that translation contaminates and falsifies when it ought to reproduce or transfer a source invariant?”

The wager of Contra Instrumentalism is that polemic will go further in changing the discourse around translation than would a more measured tone. Frustration is the book’s driving affect. Venuti strategically channels anger, disappointment, bemusement, and scorn. He rails against contemporary translation discourse for remaining riddled with clichés and misleading metaphors; he derides those who talk about “messages,” and “equivalences,” and “transfers of meaning”; he bristles at theorists who make a fetish of untranslatability; and, as he does all this, he gives his reader the distinct impression that he’s done it before and resents having to do it again.

Yet, mixed in with the late-style polemic essay of an eminent scholar railing against the times, is another, more future-oriented genre: the manifesto. In his frame essays — one at the beginning and one at the end of the book — Venuti applies the Deleuzian conceit of a “desiring-machine” to his reader: “I see this book functioning as a device of ‘desiring-production’ in [Deleuze and Guattari’s] sense, producing in you, my reader, the will to critique a model that has been so deeply entrenched in thinking about translation for so long as to be unconscious, knee-jerk, rote.” The implication is that a reader is a machine, or “machinic assemblage” that can be made to “START” and “STOP.” We are, for instance, told to “STOP assuming that a source text possesses an invariant form, meaning, or effect; START assuming that a source text can support multiple and conflicting interpretations and therefore an equally heterogeneous succession of translations.” If we fall in line and do “START” and “STOP” on command, Venuti will have succeeded in changing the future of translation discourse.

What is less clear is whether a screed, or a document that is fundamentally “Contra” something, is the best lever to engage our desires. In “Theses on Translation: An Organon for the Current Moment,” a pamphlet even more recent that Contra Instrumentalism, Venuti provides a further distillation of his translation philosophy, delivering lapidary condensations like, “Translation is imitative yet transformative” and “The term ‘cultural translation’ is sheer tautology: translation is a practice that mediates between cultures.” If being persuasive is the goal, then I am the last person to judge Venuti’s success; with me, pardon the cliché, Venuti is truly preaching to the choir. Still, for my money, the positive claims of Venuti’s theses seem more likely to convince readers than the negative criticisms in his book-length polemic.

Of course, bare-knuckled prose is thrilling in its way, and the publishers at the University of Nebraska Press have decided to capitalize on that thrill through the pre-arranged conflict of curated critical responses. Ideally a series like “Provocations,” of which this is the fourth volume, will result in robust, clarifying, and intellectually productive, rather than merely dramatic, exchanges. The series editors have attempted to make this kind of intellectual debate a built-in feature, soliciting article-length responses to their books from prominent thinkers in the field. Contra Instrumentalism has already received rejoinders from teacher and practitioner of literary translation Chantal Wright and professor of world literature Stefan Helgesson, with forthcoming essays by Vincent Adams, Lisa Foran, and Tze-Yin Teo, capped off with a final piece by Venuti himself. Part of the book’s promise, then, is a ringside seat to an important intellectual bout. But, as it turns out, Chantal Wright neatly sidesteps the expectation of a polemic answer to the initial provocation, instead delivering her own reflections on the temptation of translation clichés, the virtues of reading translations as self-standing works, and the need for translation literacy training at universities. Helgesson, for his part, while generally agreeing with the main points of Venuti’s argument, is reluctant to endorse the war-between-two-camps setup:

Semantic invariance is a mirage. Translation commentary is still bogged down with clichés. Studying translation requires not less but more linguistic competence (this point is directed at comp lit colleagues in the USA). But the very fact that Venuti detects instrumentalism everywhere, even among experienced translation scholars, makes me suspect that the instrumental/hermeneutic binary might not be as useful as it first seems.

More fundamentally, Helgesson worries about the potential for relativism with respect to quality inherent in Venuti’s emphasis on interpretation. How can a translation be good or bad, he asks, if it’s all a matter of interpretation? “To simply say it ‘all depends’ can, taken to its logical conclusion, devolve into a sheer anything-goes position,” he writes. “But to resist such relativism will inevitably force us back to the source text — which, supposedly, is an instrumentalist position.” To be sure, Helgesson’s claim is not that the interpretation of the source text is fixed, only that the words themselves are, that what he calls the text’s “linguistic code” is invariable, providing something fixed against which the translation can be measured. Nor does he claim that some sort of correspondence or fidelity to the source text is, or should be, the sole measure of translation quality, only that it is an inescapable one.

To me, Helgesson’s desire for a fixed source text is very understandable, but it also seems like the wrong intervention given the state of translation discourse today. Source texts, or “originals,” as Karen Emmerich shows in her wonderful Literary Translation and the Making of Originals (2017), are rarely as fixed as Helgesson might imagine, even just as “linguistic code.” What’s worse, talk of translation quality based on the source text plays into the obstructive and over-developed discourse of translation “accuracy,” ignoring the demands exerted by the receiving context, as well as the agency and creative contribution of the translator, and frequently leading to the worst kind of pat “gotcha” pseudo-criticism. But forget about my two cents. The real question, dear reader, is this: after Adams, Foran, and Teo have had their turns, what will Venuti have to say? Buy the book and tune in for the showdown at the Translation Saloon.


Jan Steyn is a scholar of world literature and translation studies. He teaches in the MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa.

LARB Contributor

Jan Steyn is a scholar of world literature and translation studies. He teaches in the MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa.


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