Friday, 21 September 2012

Introduction: Comparative Literature and Translation by Andre Lefevere – An Overview

Comparative literature and translation have not had a very concrete foundation for they have each overlooked or disregarded the other. Lefevere tells the story of the coming together of these two disciplines from the point of view of translation that hasn’t always been given its say. As translation is considered to be generally inferior to the original. There is a gloss or halo around a work labeled ‘original’ whereas a translation is merely a copy of it so why should it win laurels over the original? However, Andre Lefevere believes that a different relationship is possible where both can help the other to grow and grow themselves as well.

It is easier to understand the negative feelings comparatist held towards translation by studying the historical context of its origin. When comparatist were first exposed to it during the shift from first generation of Romantic writers and thinkers to the second in Europe. The first generation were cosmopolitan in outlook unlike their successors with figures like Madame de Stael. The second generation were more constrained within the boundaries of national literature. When faced with the concept of national literature one must consider the fact that translation is not of such importance as there won’t be such a wide variety of languages presented. It is on doing away with boundaries that translation forms such an important part of.
The second generation of Romantics

Cosmopolitism was replaced by a sense of national identity. Affiliation to this identity was decided by birth and so the individual was not at liberty to choose which country he could serve. In Romantic lingo; ‘he’ is the most commonly used pronoun as ‘she’ did not exist unless it is in praise of the beauty of some lady for women did not write poetry. It is but natural that due to  this thrust on national identity, an individual always wanted to belong to the ‘superior’ culture and so, the national language was not the means in which to read world literature in translation; instead it was ‘the’ language of the culturally elite. It was a showcase of natural talent and works in it were the true classics while those by foreign authors were relegated to second place.
Due to the university needs of having world literature in curriculum, though translation was inessential in theory it flourished in practice. But this too had to contend with the age old study of the classics. How could the glory of the classics be demeaned by letting them be translated? And yet, students have been using glossaries and bilingual editions over the centuries but the fact is this was an unacknowledged use of them. No one could proudly say ‘Yes, I read so-and-so classic in translation’.

Comparative literature and translation
Considering the fact that comparative literature was a discipline that consisted more of methodology and was still not widely accepted, for it to embrace translation openly would cause it to be academically ostracized. Thus, as the others did so did they comparatist; they denounced the merits of translation in theory though later translation began to be indispensible.

As long as comparatist focused on Europe doing away with translation was plausible though difficult as one needed knowledge of several languages which was also a prerequisite of the comparative approach. Once, this Eurocentricity was challenged, a new problem occurred. How many languages can one person fluently know?
“As soon as comparative literature tried to go beyond Europe, however, translations became necessary… as soon as comparative literature tried to compare different kinds of poetics, and not just different variants of European poetics in its historical evolution, it could no longer avoid confronting translation.”

One must also be aware of the conservatist attitude towards literature that strives to maintain the ‘purity’ of a text which translation according to it may taint instead of enrich. This feeling is more dominant in the Western schools of thought were ‘originalism’ is seen as a sign of genius. To substitute a word or to leave out a word or in some way to refrain from ‘word-to-word’ translation is what these scholars feared.
The Platonic ‘logos’ where the truth cannot be changeable means that a word cannot be successfully substituted by another. A text like the Bible was ‘the word of God’ and thus, it would be sacrilegious if not translated word-for-word. The original in truth is an imaginary concept for indeed can be the original? The ‘real’ that Aristotelian logic speaks about exists in the mental plane and what is created in the physical plane is a mere ‘imitation’ or copy of that original. Translation does away with this hierarchy of the original and so was seen as a post-Babilian necessary evil.

Can translations be word-by-word?
For the translation not to replace the text in a ‘purist’ sense, one would have to resign oneself to agrammatical works and the translation would then serve the purpose of being read along with the text where they are both placed side-by-side in a sort of dictionary use. The translation thus, would be an interpretation of the text and not a work in its own right.

Accuracy was what was found most in fault in translated works. The phenomena of translation was never truly reflected on as the ‘word’ was of prime importance and not the culture from where the text was stemming from. The sacred argument that prevented Bible translations from being viewed as permissible was extended by the Romantics to canonized works of literature. How can one add, subtract or find another word to equal what was written in these texts? The critic was seen as a priest interpreting the text whereas the translator was massacring the sacredness by disfiguring a complete work of art.       
Conservatism led to a certain elitism as well as an amusing scenario where comparatist wrote about the symbolism in books of other languages without bothering to see whether these foreign works were present in the language they were written in. It makes no sense to talk of the beauty of Beowulf if one can never read it for oneself.

Genius cannot be translated
The Romantics bestowed a concept of genius. Only a genius could undertake the translation of the works of a genius much like saying only a poet ought to critique a poet. This concept of ‘genius’ was vague as there wasn’t any real checkpoint besides the work that ascribed it. If one looks at translation in this light it would indeed be difficult to assume the responsibility of being genius enough to translate a work written by a genius!

Amusingly when influences of one literature upon another were studied it was assumed that the author had read the original work as was the case in Byron’s influence of Faust. Bryon did not know German and so could not read the original version by Goethe and had to make do with Madame de Stael’s French version. This translation combined the main scenes of the play with a plot summary at times. But the more interesting aspect is the Madame de Stael omitted some part of the play which she felt did not suit her French audience. Translations were seen as a shameful branch of study for they were not the perfect substitutes for the original work which was haloed.
Shift in perceptions

It was with Walter Benjamin and Ezra Pound that translations were elevated to the status of giving a text a new lease of life or afterlife; and that occurred in the twentieth century. Benjamin’s work is more elitist as it focus on how agrammaticality can lead to ‘pure’ language while Pound on the other hand finds translation to be the ‘organon’ of literature in a sense that it contributes to the development of literatures. Translations that are more than just merely translations and are considered to be separate works of literature in their own right can influence other writers of that language to write original works on the same line.
The translator is now seen as a ‘giver of life’ as for texts to be more widely read and passed on they need to be available in more languages than one. Due to this, the translator did not turn traitor but instead turned mediator.

“…translators could not only bestow life on the originals they translated, they could also decide what kind of life they would bestow on those originals and how they would try to inject them into the receiving literature. In other words, they did, and do create an image of the original for their time and their readership.”
The new approach

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the study of literature began to focus more on the reception of texts than their mere production and deconstruction too followed this premise. Because of this an interest was created in the process of translation and the new reception theory focused on the reception of a text propagated by translators. Even if it was genius that created the work its propagation in another language is owed to the translator. Deconstruction also brought to the forefront that translations serve as the yardstick that demarcates the original from being merely a text and it is the translations that are more important in the culture they focus on than the original work example: Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat.

Fundamental distinctions in translation studies within the comparative perspective

·         Translating and Translation

Translating is the process while the translation is the product. In the process of translating we move from the source language (ST) to the target language (TT). In this it is how the translation is being done that is the prime focus whereas in the latter, the product is the translated work in itself and is the study of various translated works in their cultural, social, economic, historic and the like context. The product approach is more contemporary in nature.

·         Normative and Descriptive

The normative approach focuses on the norms or the best way one is to do or study a translation and demarcates it on the lines of good and bad through this. The descriptive method on the other hand eschews such evaluation and judgment and instead is more interested in the reception – why people consider a translated work good or bad rather than what are the norms that can make it good or bad. This is also called DTS and pseudotranslations too are studied in this context.

·         Analysis and Production

This is the main distinguishing feature that sets apart the contemporary approach where the activity of producing is seen to be very different from the theory. You may be a good critic but that does not make you a good poet. Study of a subject may not result in the proficiency that can make a translator practically engage with the work and do it well.

6 century AD to 1970s

After 1970s







Thus, considering the methodology of comparative literature it would be very interesting to study the intercultural exchange in translations through its context. The increasing acceptance and in-flow of translated works when studied through the comparative perspective may help boost the diminishing hold in the literary circuit that comparative literature features today.


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