Literary and Critical Theory Translation
Brian O'Keeffe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0120


Translatio, in Latin, suggests a crossing from one waterside to another. Imagine translation, therefore, as an exercise in ferrying texts from the home linguistic shore over to the farther shore of the target language. But the efforts of those responsible for that transportation, namely translators themselves, often go unnoticed. Frequently their contributions to the conveyance of cultural products are celebrated only insofar as those contributions are deemed unobtrusive. Discretion is demanded of translators, just as the best translation is praised only if it hardly registers as a translation at all. But contemporary translation studies seek to retrieve translators from the shadows and celebrate their work as cultural mediators. Indeed, instead of imagining translators as ferrymen and women reducing linguistic difference to naught (or reducing bodies of water to dry land), the current argument is that it is better to highlight that difference so that readers do notice that someone—a translator—invested time, expertise, craft, and creativity into facilitating the passage from one language to another. If one of the central aims of contemporary translation studies is to contest the under-appreciation of translators, another aim is to combat the pervasive tendency to damn translators with faint praise. Translatory felicities are acknowledged, but zealous notifications of what was lost in translation proliferate in commentaries on translations. That scanty praise disappears entirely with the declaration that, in Italian, trips so readily off the tongue: traduttore, traditore (“translator, betrayer”). But that betrayal is only inevitable if translations are enjoined to the impossible task of achieving perfect identification with original texts. One undertaking of translation studies is accordingly the sometimes wearied, sometimes sharply exasperated inspection of the repeated attempts to impose unworkable burdens upon translators. Those attempts have been repeated so often as to constitute a significant portion of the history of reflection on translation as such. By the same token, translation studies narrates its own history as a steady emancipation from the centuries-old shackles of dogma: the prescription that translations ought to be faithful to original texts and the edict that translations should replicate original texts exactly. Three emancipatory moments may be identified. First, certain intellectual and literary developments in Germany during the age of Romanticism lent unprecedented sophistication to debate and reflection concerning translation. Second, a number of 20th-century efforts to provide translation studies with viable methodologies and greater scientific or empirical rigor enhanced the study of translation as an academic discipline (or interdiscipline). Third, the acknowledgment that translation is hardly something to be studied exclusively from a Western or European perspective encouraged the deployment of critical and theoretical paradigms drawn from cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and feminist theory. This led to a greater awareness that translation can be a touchstone for current debates concerning diversity, intersectionality, and, indeed, the complexities of identity itself, given the fact that identity is necessarily informed by the languages one speaks, cannot speak, refuses to speak, or speaks imperfectly.

Approaches to Translation

Studies of Western approaches to translation nonetheless bulk large in translation studies scholarship. Historical investigations duly acknowledge the influence of Greek and Roman thought: the Oxford Bibliographies in Classics article Translation and Classical Reception is a helpful point of departure. Yet an engagement with the ancient Greek context, in particular, invites broader reflection on philosophical notions of presentation, representation, reality, and knowledge. At issue, in that case, is whether the matter of translation is folded into an inspection of Western metaphysics as such (see Derrida 2016 for instance), or at least becomes a touchstone for the philosophical contention over mimesis (or “imitation”) on the grounds that translations are—or should be—mimetic replications of original texts. The contention is only partly philosophical, however. It is literary as well. For, assuming translations are indeed imitative acts, the critical question is whether such acts produce merely derivative adaptations of other writers’ original creations. Burrow 2019, assessing English literature, responds to that question, invoking translation in the author’s argument for a notion of imitatio that affords latitude for writerly creativity. Another historical study of English attitudes to translation is supplied by Venuti 2018, while Zuber 1995 studies 17th-century French attitudes to translatory imitation and infidelity. A study that accounts for the shift away from mimetic doctrines that held sway during the classical age and the age of Belles Lettres is provided by Berman 1992, particularly in connection with German Romanticism. At issue, for the Romantics, is whether translation, partnered with literary and critical theory, helps in disclosing the ideal essence of literary texts. Similar concerns emerge in Walter Benjamin’s much-discussed “The Task of the Translator” (see Benjamin 1996). Derrida 2007, and Berman 2018 offer important engagements with Benjamin’s essay. Yet the theoretical sophistication of the German reflection on translation, in general, and of Benjamin’s essay, in particular, has not altogether dislodged more conventional arguments concerning translatory fidelity and mimetic exactitude. Indeed, current debates centered on the translator’s task frequently resemble the debates of old. But Ricoeur 2006 revisits these debates with a more nuanced sense of what is at stake for contemporary translation studies, while Venuti 2019 adopts a more polemical tone in its intervention.

  • Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Translated by Harry Zohn. In Selected Writings. Vol. 1, 1913–1926. Edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, 253–263. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

    Benjamin asserts that literary texts are unconcerned with the communication of messages and correspondingly uninterested in receiving audiences. The translator’s (or translation’s) task is therefore radically recast: at stake is enabling the source text’s entry into a prolonged afterlife and its attaining of a higher life. Moreover, Benjamin argues that translation assists us in coming to a vital intimation concerning all languages’ kinship with what he calls “the pure language.”

  • Berman, Antoine. The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany. Translated by S. Heyvaert. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

    Includes chapters on Luther, Goethe, and Hölderlin, among others. Particularly valuable is Berman’s discussion of Friedrich Schlegel’s speculative theory of translation as compared to the practical translatory efforts of his brother, August Schlegel.

  • Berman, Antoine. The Age of Translation: A Commentary on Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.” Translated by Chantal Wright. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315714936

    Provides a close reading of Benjamin’s essay along with a discussion of the broader context of his thought.

  • Burrow, Colin. Imitating Authors: Plato to Futurity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198838081.001.0001

    An excellent study of imitatio, Burrow investigates the creativity spurred by imitative literary practices, including the practice of translating other writers’ texts.

  • Derrida, Jacques. “Des tours de Babel.” In Psyche: Inventions of the Other. Vol. 1. Edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth G. Rottenberg, 191–225. Translated by Joseph E. Graham. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.

    Derrida blends his reflection on the tower of Babel story recounted in the Bible with a close reading of Benjamin’s essay. The English translation is notably forced to retain Derrida’s title in French: Derrida puns on towers (des tours) of Babel and translation’s multiple “detours” around original texts. The untranslated French title hints at Derrida’s resistance to, as well as support for, translation, particularly as regards the untranslatable, or un-transferable prerogatives and entitlements of authors themselves.

  • Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

    Translation is discreetly, but centrally at issue if one accepts Derrida’s characterization of Western philosophy as logocentric, i.e. deferential to the Greek logos or Word. Accordingly, whatever is expressed by the logos and the Greek monolanguage must not be lost in translation even if philosophers are writing in other languages, otherwise something essential to the definition of philosophy as such also risks being lost.

  • Ricoeur, Paul. 2006. On Translation. Translated by Eileen Brennan. New York: Routledge.

    Ricoeur makes a lucid, commonsensical plea for “equivalence without identity” where translations offer approximate renderings of source texts rather than strive for perfect matches. On this basis, Ricoeur rebuts defeatist invocations of untranslatability as well.

  • Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    Venuti criticizes the marginalization of translators in contemporary Anglo American culture and also provides an in-depth history of English-language translation. The second edition takes stock of the wide range of responses to his book since it first appeared in 1994.

  • Venuti, Lawrence. Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvgc62bf

    Venuti critiques instrumentalist approaches where translation is envisioned as the reproduction or transfer of invariant forms, meanings, or effects supposedly contained in source texts. Stop using moralistic terms concerning (in)fidelity, he argues, and stop invidiously comparing translations to source texts. Start celebrating translators’ creative dexterities instead. Stop claiming that texts are untranslatable and start to realize that texts are translatable insofar as they persistently solicit the interpretive skills of translators.

  • Zuber, Roger. Les “belles infidèles” et la formation du goût classique. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.

    Zuber studies how translators influenced literary developments in France during the seventeenth century. He shows how concerns over translatory fidelity and infidelity factored into broader attitudes to imitatio. Belles infidèles (“beautiful traitoresses”) refers to a 17th-century quip that likened translations to beautiful, but wayward mistresses—translations have their lovely allure, but they persistently betray original texts.

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