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diacritics 34.3 (2006) 3-29

Literary Into Cultural Translation
José María
Rodríguez García

1 The Copy as Fragment: Origins under Suspicion

This introduction will survey some of the main trends in the theoretical study of literary translation developed in the past few decades. It does not aim to compose a complete picture of the field, if only because the scope of this special issue of Diacritics is relatively specialized. I do not, for example, say much about feminist approaches to translation beyond pointing out the manifestly masculinist imagery of sexual conquest that underwrites many descriptions of the translation process, vividly (and often disturbingly) conveying the translator's struggle with the original work. The work of the translator-poet often involves a turn away from conventional practices of translation based on such categories as equivalence, fidelity, and literalism, and toward the activities of aggressively rectifying and rewriting preexisting texts. Indeed, a poet's translation into his own language of a foreign poet's work provides a very interesting case of translation as a form of intrusion of one code upon another. The degree of hostility that such clashes may entail, and the strategies that translators may implement for their contextualization and interpretation, have been approached very differently by methodologies with varying commitments to political and textual brands of criticism. Historians of literature and theorists of cultural exchange tend to be particularly interested in recording and analyzing the additions and subtractions taking place during the semiotic transfer. They are also (or at least should be) interested in the arguments employed by cultural transmitters to justify those changes, and in the mechanisms that render them invisible to many readers of literature and consumers of culture generally.

In the wake of the poststructuralist critique of both representation and referentiality, the impossibility of translating one culture into another is taken for granted. To argue that literary works are translatable, it has become necessary to explain how the alternately foreignizing and nationalizing maneuvers of the translator point toward the asymmetries in the exchanges. This enterprise involves investigating the various ways in which the appropriation, and even expropriation, of the other's image is carried out. As Walter Benjamin famously put it in "Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers" (1923), if the status of the translated text as a fragment is a consequence of its having undergone an extreme process of decoding and recoding, then the original text (particularly in the highly intertextualized paradigm of modernism) is best theorized as just another [End Page 3] fragment severed from a distant origin and an unreconstructible wholeness. Using the metaphor of the shattered amphora, which the artist laboriously reconstructs by gathering the broken fragments, Benjamin states that the fragmentary words of the translated text do not compose an object identical to the original vessel/"sense" (Sinn). He writes, in a complex, paragraph-length sentence:

As the fragments of a vessel, in order to be glued together, must match one another in the smallest details—although they do not have to become identical to one another—so the translation, instead of making itself similar to the sense of the original, must lovingly and to the smallest detail, in its own language, shape itself according to the mode of signification of the original, to make the two recognizable as the broken parts of a larger language, just as fragments are the broken parts of a vessel.1

[Wie nämlich Scherben eines GefäBes, um sich zusammenfügen zu lassen, in den kleinsten Einzelheiten einander zu folgen, doch nicht so zu gleichen haben, so muB, anstatt dem Sinn des Originals sich ähnlich zu machen, die Übersetzung liebend vielmehr und bis ins Einzelne hinein dessen Art des Meinens in der eigenen Sprache sich anbilden, um so beide wie Scherben als Bruchstück eines GefäBes, als Bruchstück einer gröBeren Sprache erkennbar zu machen.]


The main insight contained in this paragraph is that the original that had been previously held as a complete and self-contained masterpiece is itself a fragment of a...


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