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Translation’s Sway
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Translation’s Sway
Translation and the Problem of Sway. Douglas Robinson. John Benjamins Publishing Company. http://benjamins.com/#home. xiv + 227 pages; cloth, $135.00, eBook, $135.00.

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Translation is not a “simple” pattern of behavior of a multilingual translator naively creating the “same” text in a new language. Translation has the ideal of recreating the art or skill of what happens in the one-way replacement of the source text in one language by the “equivalent” target text in another language. The working definition of translation from one language into another seems clear but becomes unclear when imagining some examples: the translation of technical instructions from Swedish into Spanish, a legal marriage contract translated from Arabic to English, a love letter in English intended for a Chinese lover, Shakespeare’s sonnets translated into French, the libretto of an old Italian opera translated into singable modern English, and so forth. All of these translations aim at producing good writing for a new audience, some of them even approaching something like literature, but do they provide a similar response for source and target readers? The practical fusion of translation is never “equivalent” to the original. The recreation in a different language is made by the translator to adapt (or better: re-adapt, reimagine, refashion, reconstruct) the thematic, spatio-temporal, and conceptual fabric of the source text in the different language of the target text.

Beginning with “Translation and Sway” (chapter 1), Translation and the Problem of Sway provides translation all kinds of formal and informal shifts and figures to affect the social, commercial, legal, cultural, and other qualifications of the task of translation. The relation between the production and the producer, or the producing activity and reproductive activity, can lose its primary importance. So does the ideal of equivalence produced in the target language standing for the “same” place of the source language. Is the translator limited or free?

The translation theoretician Robinson has revolutionized the “old” model of the logical equivalence of translation as a skill of hazardous art. Translation is considered as a complex act of semiosis (sign-action). In a narrow sense, Robinson focuses on literary translation. In a wider sense, translation concerns a sign standing for an referent (object) to give rise to a functioning interpretation (interpretant) by an interpreter (translator). Robinson’s main theme is the rhetorical question, “Why do translators make mistakes?”, and he offers answers about the good and evil qualities of the semiotic interpretant, advocating the unconscious movement of translational techniques, embodied inside the effect, the translation.

Continuing his earlier book, The Translator’s Turn (1991), Robinson argues that his paradigm is the somatic paradigm, not guided by a rational or logical translator in complete control over his/her translation. The relation between sign and object stands for fixed logics, but translation stands for a relatively free interpretant. The interpretant is the translator’s bodily turn or emotional response to turn on as mediator through identification, division, and classification of the connected and disconnected forms of language, belonging to (or associated with) the related and disrelated cultures. In the examples, the cultural concepts of modern French, Chinese, English, and other languages are taken for granted within the languages themselves. But the awareness of the communication between two or more individual or collective writers or speakers could be troubled in different time and space, starting from the translator’s guesses of the ground zero of understanding languages and cultures, or perhaps not understanding, but mistakenly assuming and understanding the “old” source text, or even the “new” target text.

In the essays of Translation and the Problem of Sway, the translative spins and torques are not verbal gymnastics of pure mind but rather the athletics of mind and heart. Robinson follows the semiotics of Peirce, arguing that translation inspires translators with courage to give them (in Robinson’s swaying terminology) “a magical sway over other men” (and women). This book suggests that translation moves away from the logical approach of the fixed sign and object relation, but from this “dead thing” or “dead matter,” translation approaches the unconscious and instinctual approach of Peirce’s pregnant interpretant. The interpretant stands for...