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The Yale Journal of Criticism 16.2 (2003) 233-236

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Translation Unveiled

Jessica Brantley and Joseph Luzzi

Translation, the Romantic theorist Friedrich Schlegel declared, always loses one aspect of the original: its best part. Ever more visceral, his contemporary Goethe remarked that the translator was like a zealous intermediary who sings the praises of a beautiful, veiled body: his words increase our desire for the hidden original. These remarks suggest the rhetoric of loss, desire, and mediation that has attended translation since antiquity. Whether in Socratic philosophy, Romance philology, or lyric poetry, a cult of the original has conditioned readers to regard translation with, at best, grudging respect; at worst, outright suspicion. Most often, translators have remained "invisible," as Lawrence Venuti has put it, read but not seen or heard.

Times have changed. In their various ways, postmodern theory, interdisciplinary scholarship, world literature, and the Internet have all challenged the dominion of the original. The reason is partly necessity. The ascendancy of English as the lingua franca of the global village has made translation the foundation of international communication. If the book wishes to be sold or the poem to be understood, it must anglicize its dress. The new attention to translation also reflects changed ideologies and philosophies, albeit inflected by economic concerns. In the last half-century, one usually spoke of Western comparative literature as the product of the traditional cultural centers, embodied by their languages and their canons, however treasured or despised. But world literature, as a new paradigm for describing the collective literary endeavors of the globe, is by nature geographically and linguistically unspecific. As a "mode" (David Damrosch), world literature suggests a writer's understanding that he intends his work not for, say, his native African village or Parisian intellectual elite but rather for a multicultural, international marketplace that will consume his work in translation (i.e., in English). Translation, whose Latin root implies a carrying over from one space to another, now works to collapse the physical and figurative cultural spaces that differences in language might be seen to generate.

The essays in this volume approach the question of translation in light of some of these new developments. Reflecting upon the personal [End Page 233] and practical challenges in translating Derrida, Lawrence Venuti offers a polemical review of the "double marginality" of translation in the academy. On the one hand, over-theorization in cultural studies has distracted attention from the literary and linguistic nuances crucial to the practice of translation. On the other hand, the linguistic focus of translation studies has left its practitioners blind to such extra-textual issues as the political aims of translators, their intended audience, and the marketing of their work. Venuti calls for a reversal of this state of affairs: cultural studies should become more textual and translation studies more cultural. Most important, he proposes that the translated text itself should become the subject of academic study, a notion that recalls Benjamin's influential analysis of translation as a particular kind of intellectual activity, a "mode" in its own right.

Whereas Benjamin seeks to redefine the dialectical tension between original and translation in linguistic terms, N. Katherine Hayles and Rita Raley describe a world in which verbal transformation is but one of many forms of medial reconfiguration the source text undergoes. As part of her call for a new understanding of textuality, Hayles studies the transition from print document to electronic text as a form of translation. She describes our previous understanding of textuality as beholden to the era of print (c. 1500-2000) and proposes that in "the dynamic media ecology of the twenty-first century" the challenge is to consider the text as a complex relationship between its physical and signifying structures. Benjamin's image of the Ursprache, the mystical universal language that each translation implies, finds its practical equivalent in the dreams of machine translation and global English that Raley investigates. She argues that the academic humanities need to address the politically and economically motivated attempts to produce a computer-generated anti-Babel, since everything from Dante to the weather reports can...


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