Fictions of Retranslations: Retranslating Language and Style in Prose Fiction

The Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation (OCCT) Research Centre hosted a virtual conference on language and style in prose fiction retranslation. The event was hosted online, via Microsoft Teams, on 11–12 March 2021.


Scholars such as Brisset, Deane-Cox and Susam-Sarajeva have each highlighted the lack of critical writing on retranslation, particularly of prose retranslation. This lacuna stands in stark contrast with the critical focus on retranslation of poetry, partly because the practical limitations of publishing constraints mean that fewer prose translations are produced, and partly because of the idea that only poetry contains ‘poetic language’ and is therefore open to a wider degree of interpretation and variance in translation. However, research in literary translation has in recent years moved beyond the idea that poetry is the only form of literature that can be defined as ‘poetic’, and the tentative critical shift towards a focus on retranslation points to the fact that poetic language within prose can lead to a myriad of interpretations and versions of an original text. More recently, Matthew Reynolds has proposed that all translation should be seen as ‘paradigmatically generating multiple texts' (Prismatic Translation, 2020), and the Prismatic Jane Eyre project has asserted the interest of studying hundreds of retranslations in tens of languages. In this context, as graduate students and early career researchers, we wish to explore the consequences of this shift for our understanding of prose (re-)translation more broadly, in order to explore the issues of how poetic language generates retranslations, and how this might affect our analysis of other contexts for studying retranslation, such as censorship, multilingualism, and biographical studies of translators. We therefore welcomed researchers from a rich variety of backgrounds, including literary studies, cultural studies, and translation studies. We were delighted to be able to bring researchers together from across these disciplines in order to start a stimulating and productive discussion.

Our panels explored some of the following topics:

  • How do we locate poetic language within prose? What theoretical framework can we use for classifying language as poetic?
  • How does one define ‘taking liberty’ in retranslating prose, in the light of arguments such as Karen Emmerich’s Literary Translation and the Making of Originals, which calls into question the fixity of the original text? 
  • Publishing: the question of the ‘celebrity’ retranslator who ‘becomes’ the author, i.e., Simon Armitage, Lydia Davis.
  • Multilingual prose: how might questions about retranslation apply to texts written in several languages, or for languages not considered standardised, i.e., Scots, Patois?
  • How might retranslation be affected by changing approaches to censorship, whether that be tacit or legal?
  • Metaphors of (re)translation: what are common metaphors that translators use for discussing their work, such as love, jealousy, art, and how might this influence our critical approach?
  • How does retranslation influence the process of critical renewal, re-readings, and new interpretations?
  • How does retranslation influence the canon? Does retranslating alter the canon, or ‘canonise’ marginalised authors?

For a summary of the event, refer to the Summary tab below.

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Thursday, 11 March 2021

14:00–14:40 | Welcome Session for Speakers Only

14:40–15:00 | Welcome Session for All Registered Participants

15:00–16:30 | New Methodologies in (Re)Translation Studies 

15:00–15:20 | ‘James Joyce’s music performed: the “Sirens” fugue in experimental re-translation-s’, Arianna Autieri

15:20–15:40 | ‘The dialogue of the Finnish and Swedish (re)translations of James Joyce’s Ulysses: The Polyphonic Translation Model as a critical model for the study of retranslations of prose fiction’, Lauri A. Niskanen

15:40–16:00 | ‘Back-translation, retranslation, and the prosody in-between’, Byron Taylor

15:40–16:00 | Questions and Discussion

16:30–17:00 | Break

17:00 | Talk‘Translation and Retranslation: Priorities, discoveries, pleasures’ (Organised by TORCH)

Oliver Ready (St Antony’s College) and Sasha Dugdale (Writer in Residence, St John’s College, Cambridge), two leading translators from the Russian, discuss their work.


Friday, 12 March 2021

13:00–13:15 | Welcome to Second Day

13:15–14:45 | Politics and Censorship in Retranslation

13:15–13:35 | ‘Rewriting in the shared script: Retranslation, non-translation and the politics of Taiwan’s Japanese language fiction’, Aoife Cantrill

13:15–13:35 | ‘Retranslation as the craft of grafting: French retranslations of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1795–2004)’, Amélie Derome

13:55–14:15 | ‘Mother, artist, woman: (Re)reading To the Lighthouse in Nadia Fusini’s Italian retranslation’, Elisa Bolchi

14:15–14:45 | Questions and Discussion

14:45–15:10 | Break

15:15–16:45 | Agents and Agency in the Retranslated Text

15:15–15:35 | ‘Acts, agents, and attitudes: (Re)translations of Alexandre Dumas Père’s Les Trois Mousquetaires/The Three Musketeers’, Nadia Georgiou

15:35–15:55 | ‘Punctuation in Prose Retranslation’, Višnja Krstić

15:55–16:15 | ‘Prismatic Proust: Searches for Lost Time in German’, Ian Ellison

16:15–16:45 | Questions and Discussion

16:45–17:15 | Break

17:15–17:45 | Discussion with Oliver Ready (St Antony’s College)

17:45 | Teams Happy Hour (for Speakers Only)

On the last week of a strange and socially-distanced Hilary Term, we welcomed over 80 participants from 20+ countries for an online conference titled ‘Fictions of Retranslations: Retranslating Language and Style in Prose Fiction’, seeking to bring together researchers in our field and address the lack of critical focus on prose retranslation. Much discussion in this area has centred around the retranslation hypothesis, the famous theory first posited by Antoine Berman that first translations generally adhere closely to the target language’s context, while retranslations tend to move closer to the original text. (Berman, 1990) Interesting though this question is, part of our impetus for organising the conference was to move beyond this to find out what unpublished research was currently happening in translation studies. For this reason, we pitched our conference towards PhD students and early career researchers, in order to spotlight the perspectives of a new generation of translation studies scholars working across different continents and languages.

          It was apposite, therefore, that our first panel was titled ‘New methodologies in (re)translation studies’, as the questions posed by these panelists tackled the issue of how we approach retranslated texts and which critical methodologies we use. Excitingly, this panel opened with a paper by Arianna Autieri on experimental translation: Autieri translated a passage of James Joyce’s Sirens in a way that emphasised its resemblance to a musical score, thus illustrating her thesis that translation is an act of interpretation and creative response to the source text. This thought-provoking presentation demonstrated that experimental translation is a compelling and under-utilised tool for those working in translation studies. Another innovative method was proposed by Lauri Niskanen, who presented an analysis of Swedish and Finnish translations of Joyce using his Polyphonic Translation Model, which he describes as ‘an intertextual model for the comparative literary study of retranslation’. As you can see, his work is a useful reminder of how Digital Humanities tools can be used to represent comparative translation studies in a way that is reader-friendly and engaging. Lastly, Byron Taylor introduced the concept of ‘back-translation’, a process in which the translated text is translated back into its source language. Taylor explained that such a methodology sheds light on the achievements of the translator, thus reflecting Lawrence Venuti’s call to make the translator visible. Each of these methodologies drew us closer to a definition of translation as a process, as a verb rather than a noun, while also being fully immersed in textual practice. Importantly, this focus on methodology also brought into relief the idea expressed by Sharon Deane-Cox that ‘all literary translation is an act of interpretation which crystallizes a series of (un)conscious (mis)readings of a given source text.’ (Deane-Cox, 2014) In short, bringing retranslation studies back to the question of methodology reminds us that retranslation, at its heart, results from the act of (re)reading.

          After this first panel, it was time for the event organised in collaboration with TORCH: the live-streamed ‘Translation and Retranslation: priorities, discoveries, pleasures’, a conversation between two leading translators from the Russian, Sasha Dugdale and Oliver Ready (the talk can be re-watched here). This event was of special importance to us as we wanted to give our conference a practical side, building a bridge between academic research and translation practice. Among the many topics of the conversation, it was particularly interesting to hear the two translators discuss their relationship with contemporary authors, such as Maria Stepanova and the late Vladimir Sharov. Dugdale said she undertook the translation of the newly released ‘The Memory of Memory’ in the spirit of friendship, and that she had Stepanova’s voice in her head while translating. Remembering his relationship with Sharov, Ready stressed the importance of the trust between them, and how Sharov gave him complete liberty while translating. Both Dugdale and Ready highlighted how important it is to them to read their translations out loud while working, praising ‘the vividness of the spoken voice’. Finally, they highlighted their aim to enrich English with their translations, with Dugdale (former editor of Modern Poetry in Translation) stressing how her poetry is influenced by the translations she reads. Their conversation is thus particularly relevant for those interested in collaborative practices between authors and translators, and reminded us that, despite being treated as different academic subjects, there is a continuity between translated literature and creative writing, as the two influence each other and overlap in our experience as readers.

          This insight into the day-to-day practice of translators provided an excellent background to the second day’s panels, as we moved to consider the impact of contextual factors on retranslation—both of individual agents and larger historical phenomena. The first panel of the afternoon, titled ‘Politics and Censorship in Retranslation’, spanned in its analysis five languages (English, French, Italian, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese) and four centuries (from the 18th to the 21st). The papers selected for this panel all engaged with Chesterman’s reworking of the re-translation hypothesis, affirming it (Bolchi) or challenging its teleological view (Cantrill and Derome).

          In the first paper, Aoife Cantrill discussed the Mandarin Chinese retranslations of Taiwanese women authors who were writing under Japanese imperialism. By analysing the retranslations of novels by Zhang Bihua and Yang Qianhe between 1979 and 2000, she highlighted the treatment of colonial-era fiction in translation, and how details of class conflict and associations with Japanese identity had been removed in the first translations, in order to align with an anti-Japanese political reframing. Through her analysis, Cantrill argued that re-translations of these texts also exhibited ‘non-translations’, maintaining that the two should be studied and considered as parallel, rather than opposite, practices. Our second speaker was Amélie Derome, who focused on the French retranslations of Fielding, Swift and Sterne, dismantling the notion that footnotes and parerga added by contemporary translators can ever be neutral. Adopting vivid bodily metaphors, she showed that while earlier translators at times removed passages from the texts, thus maiming them, later ones also modified them, this time by adding ‘protheses’, a practice usually not considered as equally invasive. While footnotes and endnotes are usually considered harmless, Derome concluded, or even helpful to access the source text, they in fact undermine the primary reading and key aspects of the text (irony being one of them), thus challenging the notion that additions and paraphrases are not as impactful as removing material. Finally, Elisa Bolchi investigated the Italian reception of To the Lighthouse, asking how it could have been that Woolf’s novel was not appreciated by the Italian feminist group of the Libreria delle Donne. The reason, she argues, is the 1934 translation they were reading, by Celenza. Bolchi showed, through rigorous comparison with Fusini’s 1992 retranslation, how Celenza’s version constantly undermines the novelty and feminism of Woolf’s work, simplifying it and misreading it. While not directly obliged to do so by the censorship office, Bolchi argued that it was the very climate of Fascism that made it impossible for Celenza to fully grasp the issues at stake in To The Lighthouse. One of the most compelling aspects that emerged from this panel was the relevance of copyright history for retranslations studies: Bolchi highlighted how To The Lighthouse had not been retranslated into Italian during the upsurge of second-wave feminist movements in the 1970s because its copyright only expired in the 1990s. The novel had to wait until the end of the century to be rediscovered, but at that point it paved the way for the ‘Italian Woolf Renaissance’ of the early 2000s.

          The influence of often overlooked factors such as copyright law continued in our final panel, ‘Acts and Agency in the Retranslated Text’, which shed light on figures such as editors, publishers, copywriters, and reviewers. Rather than viewing paratextual material and publishing decisions as neutral and anonymous elements in the creation of a text, these presentations brought our focus to the question of agency at every stage of the publishing process. Višnja Krstić drew attention to the issue of punctuation in translation: instead of seeing this as incidental to the text, Kristić reminded us that small elements of punctuation, such as the choice of a comma rather than a semi-colon, can be crucial to a text’s meaning, and are often unique to a language’s grammar structure. In Krstić’s words, punctuation is both ‘grammatical and stylistic’, and should therefore not be disregarded in translation studies. 

          Nadia Georgiou and Ian Ellison’s presentations drew us further into the world of editing and publishing, with Georgiou’s presentation focusing on the many-storied publication history of Alexandre Dumas Père’s Les Trois Mousquetaires. As Georgiou noted, this crystallises Karen Emmerich’s problematisation of the concept of an ‘original text’, and serves as a further reminder for us to keep this term within quotation marks. Crucially, Georgiou outlined how Dumas’s ‘original text’ was the work of a team of writers over whom he presided as a kind of ‘project manager’, thus mirroring the editorial process used in publishing houses today and the multitude of adaptations, revisions, and retranslations that the English version of the text has undergone. Ian Ellison’s paper neatly picked up the threads of this argument by detailing the complex history of A la recherche du temps perdu’s German translations, which only appeared in complete form in the late 1950s. Ellison’s research focuses on what he calls the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work of translation, looking at archival material from publishers, editors and critics to discover why a full translation of the Recherche took so long to come to fruition, and what impact the text had on German literature. Again, this recalls Emmerich’s claim that 'The textual condition is one of variance, not stability. The process of translation both grapples with and extends that variance, defining the content and form of an “original” in the very act of creating yet another textual manifestation of a literary work in a new language.’ (2017, 2) Rather than seeing the publication of the original text as the close of one chapter in the story of textual variance, it might be helpful to think of initial publication and subsequent translation as one continuing, prismatic process, in which versions continually multiply and interact anew with other texts.

          The last event of our conference was a Q&A session with Oliver Ready, inspired by his conversation with Sasha Dugdale of the day before and focusing in particular on his work as re-translator of Dostoevsky and Gogol. Ready talked about his initial reluctance to accept Penguin’s commission for Crime and Punishment, as the novel had already been translated into English a dozen times and he felt that there was instead a need to carry more contemporary Russian literature into English. He eventually changed his mind, as he saw how he could bring new perspectives to the novel—and subsequently began a hand-written translation that took five years! Ready also stressed the important role of reviewers in legitimising a new translation, and talked about the lasting impact that these books have for readers, many of whom contacted him after reading his Dostoevsky translation. One of the most crucial aspects brought forward by Ready was the difficulty in being both translator and academic, as the two practices have long been considered separate. Even today, translations are not counted as academic publications according to REF—which clearly creates an obstacle for translator-academics. We concluded by reflecting on the need to bring together academic research and translation practice, and the great benefits this could offer to both disciplines.

          The conference gave us a chance to engage with students, researchers, and translators from all over the world and at different stages of their careers. It was defined by a collaborative and friendly atmosphere, which created a fantastic opportunity to meet and discuss with colleagues in a virtual setting. The high number of attendees, stellar level of engagement in the Q&A sessions, and outstanding quality of the papers is further indication that Retranslation Studies is a flourishing and exciting field of study. We are glad that we could provide this community with an opportunity to gather together and we look forward to seeing how their research projects develop.

Fictions of Retranslations: Retranslating Language and Style in Prose Fiction took place online on March 11 and 12, 2021. It was organised and chaired by Anna Saroldi and Rowan Anderson.