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  • Toward a Translation Criticism: John Donne by Antoine Berman
  • Nathaniel Davis
Antoine Berman , Toward a Translation Criticism: John Donne, ed. and trans. Françoise Massardier-Kennedy. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2009. 249 pp.

In his 1954 review of Lloyd Alexander's English translation of Sartre's La Nausée, Vladimir Nabokov makes the following statement: "It is hard to imagine (except in a farce) a dentist persistently pulling out the wrong tooth. Publishers and translators, however, seem to get away with something of that sort."1 Nabokov then proceeds with a numbered list of various blunders and mistranslations, before panning the original just as harshly. In the more recent world of French letters, Henri Meschonnic is known for similarly bellicose reviews of translations (for example, his essay-review "On appelle cela traduire Celan" in which he denounces a certain translator's renditions of Celan into French as "barbaric"2). For translation theorist Antoine Berman, Meschonnic's critiques should be seen as "engagé analyses," due to the fact that they rest upon a certain predetermined idea of the task of translation, and "are not satisfied with evaluating a translation from [End Page 170] the vantage point of this idea, but they attack translations that do not conform to it" (32). Meschonnic's critiques of translations thus consist largely of "a meticulous tracking of the incoherencies, poor systematicity, and biases of the translators" (33).

First published in 1995, Antoine Berman's Toward a Translation Criticism: John Donne aims to establish a set of ground rules for a translation criticism that would go beyond the vitriolic dissections of Meschonnic. Berman is respectful of Meschonnic's rigorous approach—his technique of "denouncing with precision" (33)—and is receptive to the ethical position of siding with the original and against the misappropriating translation. Yet Berman speaks of feeling an "uneasiness" with this critical orientation, hinting at his awareness of what Lawrence Venuti has referred to as the "third rail" of translation criticism: that when a critic's notion of equivalence differs from that of the translator—whether or not this clash of opinion is acknowledged—the assessment short-circuits, resulting in a dismissive and unhelpful critique. Opposed to this "militant" criticism, Berman advocates a "productive" criticism (referencing Friedrich Schlegel), which, when assessing a good translation, would "reflect" or "send back to the reader, this excellence or greatness" (6), and when faced with a bad translation, would "shed light on the reasons for the translation's failure [. . .] and prepare the space for a retranslation without acting as advice giver" (7).

For Berman, the so-called Tel Aviv school of translation theory, represented by such figures as Gideon Toury and Annie Brisset, functions as the antithesis to Meschonnic's caustic critiques. The Tel Aviv method presents itself as functionalist, sociological, and non-prescriptive, concerned with the definition of certain socio-historical norms that determine the process of translation. Though Berman considers this work to be useful and illuminating, he ultimately sees their "target oriented" critical approach as lacking "a general theory of literary transfer" (42). The Tel Aviv critics bind their own hands by asserting the "secondariness" of translation: if translation is always a secondary, socially-determined function, then no translation can be better than any other. As Berman summarily states, "neutrality is not the corrective to dogmatism" (48). Berman spends the remainder of the first part of his text delineating his own "third way" between these two extremes.

In describing his new method for translation criticism, Berman focuses on the very basic, practical concerns of the critical process, without sacrificing any degree of theoretical sophistication. Starting from a base of dense theoretical works—such as those by Benjamin, Schlegel, or Schleiermacher—Berman distills only those kernels which are useful to the [End Page 171] practicing critic. Criticism, like translation itself, is not something immanently determined by the work: rather, it results from a specific process, a praxis that demands careful attention. Berman thus defines a meticulous method for mediating the confrontation between the original and the translation which allows the critic to more easily distill the essence of the "translating work." Furthermore, the critic must consider issues of editing, framing, and presentation in...


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