In The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova highlights the inequality that exists on the world literary stage, arguing that there are forces at play in this distinct realm that have previously been ignored. For her, Paris is (or was, until recently) the dominant ‘center’ that has the almost uncontested power to assign value to literary works. Casanova argues that through this process, which she calls ‘consecration,’ works undergo a change in their very nature: they move from “literary inexistence to existence, from invisibility to the condition of literature” by force of a “magical transmutation” (127). The fact that she points to translation—a process often conceived of as a neutral transfer of meaning from one language to another—as one of the primary means of consecration raises important questions about translation. In this essay, I will use Casanova’s theory as a framework through which to probe some of the still highly contested questions surrounding translation: namely, what is at stake in translation, and what kinds of translations are the most just?
In the first section of the paper, I will outline and analyze some of the conversation surrounding translation and how it is used in various contexts in order to argue in the second and third sections—with and through Canadian poet Erín Moure—that active ‘mistranslation’ actually serves as a more just way of encountering the Other.
As the rest of this paper will demonstrate, theorists, practitioners, and thinkers of translation often use the term ‘translation’ in different ways that are informed by various explicitly and implicitly held assumptions. Fundamental to my argument then will be an attempt to map out these different uses to determine what the seemingly most apparent aspect of this essay, the definition of translation, can reveal about what is at stake in any and every translation project.
Perhaps the most obvious symptom of the polysemous nature of this term is the array of neologisms developed to describe the activities that comprise it: Although above we see Casanova sticking with ‘translation,’ Erín Moure herself refers to her translations as ‘translate-writing’ or ‘write-translating’ and ‘translucination,’ while those involved in the Brazilian cannibal movement resort to other terms such as ‘transcreation’ and even ‘mistranslation.’ If all of these activities involve the transfer of a text from one language to another, how can we determine what translation is?
Despite the various terms named above, there arguably remains a largely unexamined and widespread belief that translation is a simple rendering or transfer of meaning from one language to another. In fact, in The Translator’s Invisibility, Lawrence Venuti refers to this view of translation as a ‘regime,’ arguing that “[u]nder the regime of fluent translating, the translator works to make his or her work ‘invisible,’ producing the illusory effect of transparency that simultaneously masks its status as an illusion: the translated text seems ‘natural,’ i.e., not translated” (5). If my agreement with Venuti that this particular type of translation seems to stand in as the definition for all ‘translation’ is not convincing enough, it may help to emphasize that each of the other terms mentioned above seem to want to define themselves through and against this seemingly unified notion of translation by maintaining some aspect of the word itself and changing others: ‘translate-writing,’ ‘translucination,’ and ‘mistranslation’ all maintain the notion of ‘trans’ while adding to or altering what we may call the ‘basic’ definition in some way. What stands to be challenged, then, is the implicit belief in the shaky equation ‘translation = fluent translation.’
According to Venuti’s argument, the philosophy undergirding fluent translation is instrumentalism, which does not acknowledge that
the linguistic and cultural differences that make up a source text are inevitably diminished and altered, even when the translator maintains a fairly strict semantic correspondence, because that text is much more than any such correspondence: its distinctive linguistic features are the support of meanings, values, and functions specific to its originary culture, and these features do not survive intact, without variation, the move to a different language and culture. (Translation Changes Everything 3)
Rather than treating translation as always an interpretive act, fluent translation implicitly maintains that there exists “an unchanging essence inherent in or produced by the source text and freely accessible to the translator” (3). Instrumentalism as a foundation, although often ‘invisible,’ yields several tangible consequences. First, and perhaps most apparently, it gives the false impression that any one culture can have unmediated access to another. Venuti demonstrates the detrimental effects of this assumption through his analysis of William Weaver’s 1968 translation of Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino: by replacing culturally specific terms like ‘ricotta’ and ‘anchovies’ with ‘cream cheese’ and ‘sardines,’ respectively, Weaver greatly enhances the readability of the text for English-language readers. While this may seem to be a benign strategy, Venuti argues that such easy readability allows the target-language audience to imagine that they are in fact reading the source text. In this case specifically, Venuti demonstrates how this façade of unmediated access, when English-language readers recognize the most widely used forms of English in what is presented as a foreign text, serves to reinforce “Anglocentric norm[s] of acceptability” and “national cultural discourse” (122). On one hand, then, fluent translation can produce ethnocentric and monolingual target-language cultures; on the other hand, translations are also capable of constructing images of and stereotypes for foreign cultures both through the selection of texts and of discursive strategies for translating. In both cases, reliance on and belief in instrumentalism can yield cultural and intercultural injustices that, as Venuti argues, have the power to figure in “ethnic discrimination, geopolitical confrontations, colonialism, terrorism, war” (19).
The second potential consequence of instrumentalism, and by extension, fluent translation, is a violence arguably even less visible: the violence done to the translator. Venuti explains how translators are made ‘invisible’:
The translator’s invisibility is also partly determined by the individualistic conception of authorship that continues to prevail in Anglo-American culture. According to this conception, the author freely expresses his thoughts and feelings in writing, which is thus viewed as an original and transparent self-representation, unmediated by transindividual determinants (linguistic, cultural, social) that might complicate authorial originality. (The Translator’s Invisibility 7)
This view is extremely detrimental to the translator as it causes translation to be defined as a ‘second-order representation,’ leaving only the foreign text with the possibility of originality and painting the translation to be a ‘derivative’ or ‘fake’ (7). What a close look at fluent translation reveals, then, is not only an inherent and potentially dangerous ethnocentrism, but also an implicit cultivation of the idea of artistic genius—a notion that renders powerless any mediator or translator.
If ‘translation’ is most often equated with ‘fluent translation,’ and if fluent translation is not the innocent, simple rendering it may appear to be, then it is my contention that the term ‘mistranslation,’ which often connotes error and inaccuracy, should be reexamined, redefined, revalued. According to the standards of fluent translation, the method of ‘foreignizing’ translation, advocated and used by both Lawrence Venuti and Erín Moure, among others, would be considered mistranslation as it explicitly aims to disrupt the ‘target-language cultural codes’ by choosing discursive strategies for translating that do not allow fluency, but which maintain and highlight difference. In the remainder of this paper, I will use ‘mistranslation’ synonymously with terms such as ‘translucination’ and ‘translate-writing,’ simultaneously lending it a positive connotation and underscoring its definition against ‘fluent’ translation. Of course, in doing this I am taking the risk of simplifying all translational activity to a fluent translation/all-other-translations binary; however, I hope through my discussion of specific examples to demonstrate that on the fluent-foreignizing spectrum, ‘mis’translations potentially do the least amount of violence to both cultural others and the translator.
DEFINITIONS AT WORK: CIRCULATING CULTURAL IMPERIALISM
A close look at Casanova’s understanding of the role of translation will reveal the fact that her theory rests on the assumption that ‘translation = fluent translation.’ According to her, “Translation is the major prize and weapon in international literary competition, an instrument whose use and purpose differ depending on the position of the translator with respect to the text translated—that is, on the relation between what are commonly called ‘source’ and ‘target’ languages” (133, emphasis mine). In this formulation, translation becomes a ‘prize’ for peripheral writers who are granted existence; it does not, however, come without a price. In Casanova’s view, each translation by the ‘central authorities’ ultimately amounts to a misinterpretation when they attempt to fit these foreign works into their own, consecrated framework. It is such that the idea of universality ultimately functions as a means of justifying the ethnocentrism of the center, allowing the consecrators to monopolize what is “acceptable and accessible to all” while imagining—and indeed believing—that there is true equality (154). On one hand, then, although translation is assumed to mean fluent translation, its negative effects are recognized. On the other hand though, the type of translation that Casanova calls a ‘weapon’ seems to have largely the same effect as the translation that is a ‘prize.’ When writers from the periphery reach in and translate works which are already consecrated (take up their ‘weapon’), she says it is as a means of “diverting literary assets” to the periphery: refusing to conform to the norms of their home country, they seek to “modernize” it through the importation of the norms of the center (134). However, as she points out, this act also ultimately serves to perpetuate their own domination by propagating the values of the center and further adding to this false sense of universality (135). If this assertion is true, and if in their attempt to enhance their own literatures peripheral writers actually only undermine their own autonomy or difference, then this ‘weapon’ would not seem to be a very effective one. It should be apparent that from this perspective, the results of the translations differ depending on the context: While fluent translation reduces and alters peripheral texts in the center, texts that flow from the center to the periphery seem to remain intact, unaltered by the peripheral translator who acts as a conduit. What this contradiction should demonstrate is not that fluent translating actually functions differently in different contexts, but rather that conceiving of translation only as fluent translation effectively denies the translator any agency or power. In contrast to this embedded sense of powerlessness is Erín Moure’s conception of translation, which imbues it with much more power and possibility.
MOURE’S (MIS) TRANSLATION OF THE OTHER
Erín Moure, as a poet and translator, is extremely aware of the political and ethical stakes of translation and of her own position as a ‘central’ figure in relation, specifically, to Latin American writers. Like Casanova, Moure recognizes and laments the fact that it is standard practice for central figures to ‘misinterpret’ (as Casanova says), ‘domesticate,’ or even ‘exterminate’ (as Moure says) peripheral figures when they attempt through (what I am referring to as) ‘fluent’ translations to adapt marginal cultures to their own dominant one, saying:
To escape the shackles of the North (the North as thinking), we must invite the South, and to invite it, more often than not, we must invite in translation. Translation is vital, but only insofar as it can oblige us to listen, not to absorb or appropriate, but to ensure we don’t mistranslate…Only insofar as we don’t perpetuate exterminations and construct our poetics on the exhumation and impropriation, on the genocides on which our ideal America rests (Moure and Gander xvi, emphasis mine).
In the context of Venuti’s description of fluent translation, it becomes possible to interpret Moure as equating fluent translation with mistranslation: As we saw, fluent translation often does not listen, and it does absorb and appropriate. Ironically, what is often assumed to be the most faithful form of translation—fluent translation—becomes violent mistranslation, and what is more commonly called ‘mistranslation,’ as the alternative to fluent or ‘correct’ translation, becomes more faithful. Therefore, even though Moure does not deconstruct the term ‘translation’ as I have tried to do, implicit in her analysis is the reversal of what is most often signified by the terms ‘translation’ and ‘mistranslation.’ It is for this reason that I argue that the term ‘mistranslation’ better characterizes Moure’s translational practices—‘mistranslation’ that, unlike fluent translation, actively ‘mistranslates’ in the spirit of justice and faithfulness.
As previously mentioned, Moure, like Venuti, advocates the use of ‘foreignizing’ translation, claiming that “translation brings such surprises to those open to listening to what the work itself demands. To those open to seeing all the possible things that can happen in one’s own language in the clamour of ‘foreign’ voices. In letting yourself be foreigned by language as you work: this is the key (“Co-Translating ‘Nicole Brossard’” 41). Of course, this type of ‘mistranslation’ also results in what could be thought of as a type of ‘destruction’ of the ‘original,’ as the people who label her translations ‘bad’ translations will point out. However, rigidly defined concepts such as these should now be recognizable as the effects of instrumentalism: if any given translation were to be recognized as an interpretation, as “the inscription of one interpretive possibility among others,” then I suggest that the questions surrounding that translation would not be about faithfulness/violence, justice/injustice, or destruction/maintenance, but would rather be about greater or lesser justice, greater or lesser violence (Translation Changes Everything 4). Because no translation will ever be able to transport, contain, or communicate a source text without altering it, because translation always involves both loss and gain, the translator must always make difficult choices, must always do some violence. Of course, this is not to say that because any source text will be “radically variable in form, meaning, and effect” translators should give in to a relativistic apathy or to opportunism; on the contrary, the fact that faithfulness or justice is not guaranteed by fluent translation means that translators have even more reason to be vigilant and mindful in their choices (4). In Moure’s view, the undecidability that comes with letting yourself be ‘foreigned’ is the way to be the most faithful to the source text; indeed, turning to her translations of Chilean poet Andrés Ajens will demonstrate that allowing herself and her language to become ‘foreigned’ in translation amounts to an ‘active,’ yet faithful and just, mistranslation.
The first line of Ajens’ poem “Calibra” reads “carísimo lector, lectora cara” which literally translated would read something like ‘dearest reader, reader face.’ However, Moure’s translation reads “gentle reader, readher most dear, to face” (np). While it is obvious that my word for word translation probably does not get the full meaning of the line, looking closely at Moure’s will show how her ‘mistranslation’ actually achieves faithfulness to the original by becoming foreigned. As the translated line demonstrates, Moure is able to bring to the fore the gender issues that can often be lost when a gendered word in Spanish gets translated into English. Rather than simply stating ‘reader’ for both the male and female ‘reader’ in Spanish, Moure allows her English words to become foreigned when she writes “gentle reader” and “readher.” Due to the fact that gendered words in Spanish are very common, it may seem that placing extra emphasis on gender actually risks ‘othering’ Ajens even more than necessary: Spanish speakers saying ‘la mesa’ (‘the table’), for example, are not making claims about the gender of the table, and so to highlight gender differences in such a case would be to risk making the ‘foreign’ word even more foreign or strange than it actually is. However, in this case, Ajens himself draws attention to gender by juxtaposing the female and male versions of the same word (‘lector, lectora’). Therefore, this ‘translucination,’ through listening carefully to the poem’s nuances, succeeds in avoiding the annihilating ‘passive’ mistranslation so often enacted by central figures (such as William Weaver) in order to do a greater justice through a more active, aware, and just mistranslation.
Her translucination of Ajens’ poem “estelar o beijo, des—” offers an even more potent example of this. A section of the Ajens’ poem side by side with Moure’s translucination appears as such:
palabragua, clara en
infinito verzino, véspero (prevespucio)
Aguayo entretejido en tres fronteras
umbrellwordwater, clear ice in
infinite versioneighbor, vespertine (pre-vespuccio)
water-thread enmeshed endure three frontiers.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of this translation is the physical presence of Ajens’ words in Moure’s poem. Rather than beginning the section with “umbrellwordwater,” which is her translation of “palabragua,” Moure begins with the Spanish word. In addition to foreignizing the English of the translation, the presence of this word suggests a listening. Unlike traditional, fluent translations, which do not indicate that there has been any space, pause, or transfer between languages or cultures when they domesticate foreign texts, Moure forces both herself and the reader to stop and listen to the Other’s words before attempting to translate them. Even if we do not read Ajens’ poem on the left side of the page, we are still forced to face this strange word in what ‘should’ be, or in what we are expecting to be, a poem in our own language. Although perhaps uncomfortable for the English-language reader, this pause that wedges itself in and forces us to listen constitutes the most important shift in Moure’s practice of mistranslation; it creates an opening for an encounter by making it more difficult for us to pretend we are engaging with the Other while we ignore their very presence. Arriving to the end of that stanza, we find a word, águaviva, which remains untranslated (np). This seems to be Moure letting herself, and thus her readers, be foreignized in the most radical way as we are forced to attempt to make sense of this word or to skip over it and make sense of the poem knowing only its sound and rhythm.
The fact that Ajens’ poetry is present on the page next to Moure’s translations, and is present in this essay, is important for another reason: it makes apparent the fact that Erín Moure is choosing to translate experimental poetry which in some ways asks the same questions that Moure does. Even without knowing Spanish, looking at Ajens’ poems cited above likely gives the indication that he is also at pains to disrupt fluent, ‘transparent’ language use. Because Moure is an avant-garde poet translating avant-garde poetry that brings language as medium to the forefront, it may seem that the issues raised here may not be as relevant in other contexts. However, I would argue that it is this very aspect of experimental poetry that makes it a valuable example: Both Ajens’ and Moure’s poetry force these issues, often ‘invisible,’ into the reader’s field of view, preventing us from ignoring them and inviting us to consider them on a larger scale. As we will see, while avoiding ‘exterminations’ of the Other (and remaining as faithful as possible to their words) is certainly a primary goal of Moure’s translation practice, an even closer look at the lines cited above suggests still another form of justice being delivered.
In order to be able to see the other ways that Moure does justice through mistranslation we must look past the level of the line, past the level of the word even, down to the letter. Throughout her (mis)translation of “estelar o beijo, des—” Moure italicizes a number of times the letter ‘e.’ Upon first glance, this small gesture is barely noticeable among all of the other foreigned words that the reader has to deal with. However, when we arrive to the last quoted line, the bolded ‘me’ embedded (or enmeshed) within the word ‘enmeshed’ more forcefully asks us to notice something extremely important: erín moure’s presence in this poem.
In doing this, Moure is reacting against an ideology both rooted and perpetuated in the discourse surrounding art and artists: that of the “uncreated creator,” the artist who is given (and may imagine him/herself as having) ‘quasi-godlike powers’ (Bourdieu 148). In his book Sociology in Question, Bourdieu claims that the belief in the creative genius of the artist remains unquestioned because of ideas that many artists have of themselves, but also because of the bad practices of sociologists, who take as their object of study only the field of cultural consumption, and completely ignore the “universe of cultural production” (140). This, he says, will only be remedied when the sociology of art takes into account both the field of cultural consumption and the field of cultural production, and all relations between the two. Among other things previously discussed, Moure’s practice of mistranslation strives to bring the reader’s attention to both the fields of cultural production and consumption in order to push back against this long-standing and deeply embedded conception of the artist, which as we will see has implications for both the translator and the reader.
As previously mentioned, this widely held conception of the artist as ‘godlike’ renders translators invisible, a process extremely detrimental to them as it causes translation to be defined as a “derivative” or “fake” (7). Moure’s repeatedly italicized ‘e’ and bolded ‘me’ fight against this notion of translation as second-order representation by drawing our attention directly to the field of production. By making her presence visible in the poem, Moure forces the reader to acknowledge the translator is (if not the creator) at least a co-creator of the poem. All of the evidence used in the previous section to prove that Moure let her language become foreigned to do justice to the Other can also be used as evidence here; her foreignizing tactic does not only serve one purpose. While the presence of words in Spanish indicates a listening to the Other, they also refuse to allow language to be seen as transparent, thus forcing the translator into the reader’s field of vision. There is absolutely nothing fluent about Moure’s translations, which works to prove her point that “this Author, in fact, enacts nothing in the translation. The ghost does it all. There are similarities, of course, between the work of the first writer and the work of the spectre, but these similarities are only visible to us if we speak both languages” (“Co-Translating ‘Nicole Brossard’” 35).
The fact that Moure believes that the nature of language is such that the translators actually create the authors through the movement of their translation on some level seems contradictory to her impulse to be more faithful to their otherness. How can a translator be faithful to or do justice to something that never existed as such in the first place? The answer lies in the fact that the translator’s creation of the author does not actually imply their inexistence, but rather suggests the inability for their existence to be simply communicated and not re-created. Therefore, Moure’s enactment of poetry that ‘creates’ the author simultaneously does justice to the otherness of the Other as well as to the translator as creator in the field of production. This becomes apparent through looking at another strategy of what we might think of as ‘enmeshment’ that Moure uses in her translucination of Ajens. Following each (mis)translated/translucinated poem, Moure inserts notes at the bottom of the page which as she says, “intend to create counter-narratives to run in, through and against the translated texts, troubling them” (quasi flanders, quasi extremadura, np). Upon examination though, it becomes clear that these notes serve multiple purposes: while on one hand Moure attempts to communicate the ingressions and transgressions present in Ajens’ text without turning them into a distant explanation, she is also inserting very clearly her own voice in a traitorous manner that grants her autonomy while allowing her to remain faithful to Ajens.
While Moure’s ‘me’ stands out on the page in bold, the way she draws our attention to the field of consumption is slightly less apparent. There is no doubt that for many, the selection of Moure’s translation quoted in this paper does the exact opposite of what I will claim: its initial appearance on the page as foreign, intimidating, and esoteric menacingly surrounds it, simultaneously lending it (and Moure) an air of brilliance and impenetrability. The common hesitancy to engage directly with avant-garde poetry paired with the widespread belief in its value serve as evidence for viewing it as a sacred creation and Moure (and other poets) as quasi-godlike creators, which Bourdieu claims is a phenomenon produced by the literary field itself. However, a closer examination will reveal that again through (mis)translation—although in a very different way than we saw in the field of production—Moure’s poem(s) actually seek to negate this very status conferred upon it by the field and therein do a kind of ‘justice’ to the reader.
To demonstrate this, I will turn to a later stanza in the translated poem quoted earlier, “estelar o beijo, des—,” that reads
a dor, to dolor-
mancy, such eyes, to dor-
As a Spanish speaker, I am able to pick up on the fact that ‘dolor’ means pain and ‘dormir’ means to sleep, and thus that Moure is playing around with those sounds and meanings in this section. However, even knowing Spanish does not make this stanza or this poem by any means ‘transparent’—I am still forced to reckon with the opening ‘a dor’ that sounds and looks like ‘adore’ and ‘a door’ but also sounds like the beginning of ‘a dormir’ in Spanish. ‘Dor-mition,’ and ‘unrivenrivermouth’ could also each have several meanings. Undoubtedly, other readers from other backgrounds or with other languages would see or hear still more in these words. It is in this manner that the reader is allowed, encouraged, made to remake this text with every encounter. Just as Moure is reading and re-writing other languages to create the poem, so the reader must read and re-write (translate) Moure’s text based largely on the knowledge and experiences that he or she brings with them to it. The very multiplicity of languages, the radical nature of the mistranslation Moure performs, functions, then, as a kind of open-door policy: the text begs, needs, to be translated, and anyone who encounters it is forced into the position of translator—a term that, as we have already seen by examining Moure’s field of production, is synonymous with creator.
According to Bourdieu, “sociology or social history cannot understand anything about a work of art, least of all what makes its singularity, when it takes as its object an author or a work in isolation” (142). Based on her use of mistranslation, Moure, it would seem, does not desire to be considered in isolation—at every turn, she invites us to consider her work not as arising from some magical artistic genius (either her own or the ‘original’ artist’s), but rather from the complex interweaving of materials that make up her fields of production and consumption. Included in—and indeed essential to—the production of the work are a few things that Moure’s work suggests cannot be separated: the otherness of the Other that must foreignize the work, and the translator and reader as co-creators. At stake in this translation project, then, are not only questions of literary equality, but also of the very nature of creation and what it means to be an artist—and it is only through mistranslation that Moure is able to do justice to the Other, to herself as translator-creator, and to the reader as reader-translator-creator.
Nicole Sweeney Allen
State University of New York at Buffalo
Ajens, Andrés. quasi flanders, quasi extremadura. Trans. Erín Moure. Cambridge: Cambridge Conference OF Contemporary Poetry, 2001. Print.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Sociology in Question. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Sage, 1993. Print.
Casanova, Pascale. The World Republic of Letters. Trans. M.B. DeBevoise. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.
de Campos, Horaldo. Novas: Selected Writings. Ed. Antonio Sergio Bessa, Odile Cisneros. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007. Print.
Moure, Erín. “Co-Translating ‘Nicole Brossard’: Three-Way Spectacle or Spectre de Trois?” Translating Translating Montreal: words on translation/works through translation. Ed. Oana Avasilichioaei, Angela Carr, Robert Majzels, and Erín Moure. Montreal: Pressdust, 2007. 35-41. Print.
—. Introduction. By Andrés Ajens. quasi flanders, quasi extremadura. Trans. Erín Moure. Cambridge: Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry, 2001. Print.
Moure, Erín and Gander, Forrest. Introduction. Poetry After the Invention of America: Don’t Light the Flower. By Andrés Ajens. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. Print.
Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. London: Routledge, 1995. Print.
—. Translation Changes Everything. Routledge, 2013. Web.
This interview with Ajens, where his thoughts on translation also appear, may interest readers of this article:
I want to thank you for this wonderful read!! I certainly loved every bit of it. I’ve got you book-marked to check out new stuff you post
Thanks for your thoughts!