Translation Without Theory

By V. Joshua AdamsOctober 7, 2018

Translation Without Theory

Sympathy for the Traitor by Mark Polizzotti

EVERYBODY KNOWS that translation is fraught with difficulties. Languages are not identical, so rendering a text written in one language into another seems impossible to do, at least with complete accuracy. Translations of literary texts compound this basic problem, since literature takes language beyond its usual communicative or referential functions. How can we hope to translate something into a foreign language that already requires translation into its own? At the same time, because language and meaning are public and shared, the claim that translation is impossible seems like a mystification. The mere fact of a word’s having a meaning implies that it can be put into other words. And if something can be put into other words, it certainly can be translated.

The real challenge posed by the translation of literature — and perhaps by translation in general — is not impossibility but indeterminacy. There is always some sense in which the task could be performed in a different way. Consider the following example mentioned in Mark Polizzotti’s new book, Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto. The first sentence of Albert Camus's novel L'Étranger (The Stranger in the United States, but also occasionally The Outsider in the United Kingdom) is: “Aujourd'hui, Maman est morte.” Should this be translated as “Mother died today” (Stuart Gilbert) or “Maman died today” (Matthew Ward)? “Mother” sounds more impersonal to English readers than “Maman” does to French ones, but “Mom” or “Mommy” clearly won’t do either. Perhaps “Today, Maman died,” (Ryan Bloom) on the grounds that it reveals Meursault's psychological orientation toward living in the present? What about “My mother died today” (Sandra Smith)? All four translations are legitimate. Together, they remind us that the central question about translation is not whether we can do it but how it should be done. And this depends, in turn, on how we think about the text we are translating.

St. Jerome famously suggested that one should translate secular works with a “sense for sense” rather than a “word for word” approach, while sacred texts should be approached literally, since “even the order of words” is divinely inspired. Contemporary translation theory in the West reflects this divide, with the positions of sacred and secular flipped. Eugene Nida, an influential force in Bible translation and a pioneer of modern translation studies, argued for finding “dynamic equivalences,” to secure the transmission of meaning across languages (he would sacrifice the letter for the spirit). Ostensibly secular theorists of literary translation like Antoine Berman, Lawrence Venuti, and Emily Apter, on the other hand, argue for translation practices that underscore the foreignness of the source text, and its resistance to assimilation by other cultures (they would risk the spirit for the letter).

Polizzotti’s Sympathy for the Traitor engages the question of how we should translate, but it rejects the answers offered by contemporary translation theory. By reject, I do not mean refute. This is a manifesto, not a treatise, and, if its goal is “to encourage you to think differently about translation,” it is also “an unabashedly opinionated examination,” from what the author calls a “resolutely unfashionable standpoint.” The standpoint is unfashionable because it comes from outside the academy, which, thanks to the rise of translation studies as a discipline, has become an arbiter in these matters. Polizzotti is not an academic but a successful lay practitioner in the field (he's translated some 50 books from the French), a player in the art world (as editor in chief for the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and a man of letters with a taste for the canonical vanguard (he has written a biography of André Breton, a book-length study of Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, et cetera). Less interested in general claims than particular choices, Polizzotti invites us to discard much if not all of contemporary translation theory, as well as old chestnuts like the pessimistic notion that translators are traitors to their source texts (as in the famous Italian pun traduttore, traditore), or its more optimistic counterpart, that translators are basically benign servants of cross-cultural understanding. Instead, Polizzotti urges us to consider translation as “less as a problem to be solved than an achievement to be celebrated.” He affirms translation for its own sake as a kind of art.

In order to get us to see translation this way, Polizzotti covers familiar ground from his outsider’s point of view. In nine highly readable, almost breezy chapters, his book covers the theoretical debate about whether and to what extent translation is possible; the history of translation in the West from the Septuagint and Jerome to the 20th century; the idea of translation as an approximation of pure language; the question of “fidelity” to a source; the challenges of cross-cultural understanding; his own translation practice and that of some contemporaries; the translatability of poetry; translations of experimental and nonsense texts; and, finally, whether and how translation can matter, especially in an increasingly homogeneous linguistic world. Each of these topics could merit a book in itself. But, while the essays serve as useful introductions for the uninitiated, and are filled with variegated examples of the translator’s craft, the historical and theoretical material they cover is everywhere secondary to the polemical point. (For a less polemical, more far-ranging complement to Sympathy for the Traitor, readers might consider David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything [2011].) Regardless of the specific issue under discussion, Polizzotti deftly brings his discussion around to the merits of considering translation as a practical matter rather than an “unattainable ideal.” He does this in the service of clearing up misconceptions that he thinks have led translators and students of translation astray, chief among them the idea that a “theory or dogma can replace the translator’s work of grappling with the text on its own terms, [or] of devising an appropriate strategy.” He calls his position “an antitheory” or “common-sense approach.”

As it turns out, both of these labels are somewhat misleading. Taking a text “on its own terms” is a theoretical stance par excellence, and claiming that translators of literature are artists before they are interpreters is hardly common sense, especially to scholars. (Polizzotti is altogether more chastened about the artistic freedom of translators when it comes to instances where misunderstanding contributes to political, social, or religious conflict). But, so long as readers stay close to the surface, Sympathy for the Traitor offers an insightful glimpse into the mind of a working translator with, as the author puts it, “both feet planted on the side of praxis.” One highlight of the book is the disarming account Polizzotti gives of some of his own choices in translating novels by Maurice Roche, Linda Lê, and Jean Echenoz (among others). The discussions of Roche and Lê show how challenging it is to translate prose that depends heavily on puns, or “the plasticity” of an author’s idiom. To use one of the examples from Roche: “[V]euve poignante,” literally translated, means “poignant widow”; but it also puns on the phrase “veuve poignet” (“widow wrist”), which is slang for masturbation. So Polizzotti translates “veuve poignant” as “Miss Palmer” (with the italics flagging the pun). Here is another example, where Polizzotti explains how he handled a challenging phrase from Jean Echenoz’s Big Blondes:

I ran up against the graffito Ni dieu ni maître-nageur (literally, “Neither god nor swimming instructor”), a pun on the well-known French anarchist slogan meaning “No gods, no masters.” Unable to come up with a satisfactory solution in time for publication, I settled on Neither Lord nor Swimming-Master, playing off the phrase lord and master. The problem, of course, is that we don’t have swimming masters in English, but teachers. Years later, offered a chance to revise, I changed it to Those who can’t do, teach swimming. This is, admittedly, pure domestication, adapting Echenoz’s very French graffito into something more Anglo-friendly. But unlike my first version, it also sounds, as it should, like the kind of sarcastic gibe that might actually be scrawled on the wall of a public pool, thereby fitting more naturally into the novel’s fictional world.

Like “Miss Palmer,” “Those who can’t do, teach swimming,” is an ingenious solution. It shows, in part, how Polizzotti’s approach works best when, because of the “plasticity” of the language, prioritizing semantics will not really get you where you want to go. Artistic invention is directly called for in order to create a pragmatically effective translation. Moreover, Polizzotti's admission that he went back and revised his earlier efforts is a salutary reminder that the work of translation is never really finished, even within the careers of individual translators (perusing the memoirs of translators, Polizzotti finds an “endless temptation to keep revising, even after publication”).

However, as we can see, Polizzotti’s justification of what he calls, following Lawrence Venuti (whom he elsewhere abjures), a “domesticating” approach — one in which the source text is brought as close as possible to the target audience’s own language — sees him making theoretical claims that one might have expected an antitheoretical manifesto to avoid. Having just acknowledged the reach of linguistic and cultural difference (“we don’t have swimming masters in English, but teachers”), he justifies his choice by subsuming those differences in a larger cultural continuum: “[I]t also sounds […] like the kind of sarcastic gibe that might actually be scrawled on the wall of a public pool.” Perhaps. Both phrases are bathetic. But should we be so confident that sarcasm, let alone graffiti, is this legible across cultural and linguistic boundaries, even in cultures as geographically proximate (but also notoriously disparate in matters of culture) as Anglo-America and France? And surely the claim that the English phrase fits “more naturally” into the French novel’s fictional world is dubious, too. What Polizzotti means is that it fits into the fictional world of the novel’s translation; it is the more appropriate choice for his version of the text.

These may look like quibbles, but they reveal something important, namely, the degree to which no translation, not even that of a translator as practically minded as Polizzotti, is free of theoretical assumptions about what will work and why. Translation theory, like literary theory, can name an abstruse discourse seemingly removed from its object; but it also may just describe how people think about their objects. And there is a sense in which Polizzotti is just uninterested in thinking that gets in the way of what he believes translation should do, namely, make new art (whatever art is, exactly). There’s nothing wrong with this in principle, but there is something wrong with confusing your lack of interest in something with its lacking merit. Polizzotti, for his part, claims that he values theoretical scholarship that forces him to question his own assumptions, but the book as a whole, in its assured dismissal of recent theory, and its reliance on many traditional assumptions, belies this claim. Consider his comparison of an unorthodox translation of Apollinaire by the translator (and theorist) Clive Scott with a less wild, but still relatively free translation by Samuel Beckett of Paul Éluard. Polizzotti claims that the 

difference between […] the extra dimension that Beckett brings to Éluard and the demolition job Scott inflicts on Apollinaire is that one enriches our experience of the original by bringing out aspects we might not have suspected while the other merely grandstands, hopping up and down for the camera and drowning out the author’s voice.

Merely grandstands? Hopping up and down for the camera? I don’t particularly care for Scott’s translation myself, but Polizzotti’s remarks are far too smugly denunciatory, especially for a book that begins by boldly claiming that, in translation, “there are no ground rules.”

In fact, there are ground rules in Sympathy for the Traitor, and they have to do with Polizzotti’s particular sense of what “enriches our experience of the original.” He finds this enrichment in many of the great writers in his own language who were also translators — in Beckett, for example, and above all Pound. But since, as Polizzotti notes, the wonderful poems in Cathay are instances of “Pound translating into Pound,” and Polizzotti’s book as a whole extols the translator as artist, the original author’s voice would seem to be largely beside the point. To be fair, Polizzotti also claims that good translations need to show respect for and empathy with their sources, but a lot depends on what one means by these words; neither respect nor empathy would seem to describe a situation like Pound’s, in which he translated from a language that he did not really understand. Beyond the potentially nativist implications of translations that are meant to advance their target language at the expense of their sources, this standard is troubling because it is unevenly applied. If Pound be permitted to translate into Pound, Scott should be able to translate into Scott without being accused of grandstanding (a subject about which Pound knew a few things, too). It’s one thing to dislike a work of art, or a translation, but quite another to suggest that it is, basically, fraudulent. Who is to say that Scott’s or someone else’s experience of the original is not enriched by his translation of Apollinaire? Having encouraged translators to be artists, Polizzotti then polices their art, with little more than his own taste to guide him. That’s fine, so long as you share his taste. If not, not.

Skeptical as it may be of translation theory as a guide for practice, Sympathy for the Traitor nevertheless boldly if naïvely stakes its own theoretical claims throughout. That these claims are somewhat old school — Polizzotti at times sounds like a New Critic when he talks about translation capturing the “essence” of a text’s meaning — makes them no less theoretical. But a polemical book like this one will not be undone by contradictions or gaps; it will succeed or fail based on the responses it provokes. “[O]ne’s primary responsibility as a translator,” writes Polizzotti, “is to create a new literary text to the best of one’s abilities and by whatever means appropriate.” However we feel about this — and my own, resolutely unfashionable point of view is that the primary responsibility of the translator is to convey the meaning of a source text — it is provocative enough to force us to consider where we stand. There is no reason why literary translators should not promote their art as an art, as an exercise in making as well as understanding, nor any reason why they should not at least aim for artistic distinction within their own field — even if their art, and their distinction as artists, will always derive from someone else’s work.


V. Joshua Adams teaches literature and writing at the University of Louisville.

LARB Contributor

V. Joshua Adams is a poet, translator, and critic, as well as a former editor of Chicago Review. He teaches at the University of Louisville, where he is working on a book on impersonality and skepticism in modern writing. For more information, visit


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