Translation and Comparison

Ideas in the background of this seminar included:

  • Language skills are crucial to comparative literature; and translation can therefore seem an enemy of the discipline. If texts are read in translation then the particularity which comp lit should respect fades away. On the other hand, translation is a means by which languages are learnt, and it is an activity in which people with language skills engage. How secure, then is the distinction between having knowledge of a culture ‘in the original’ and having recourse to translations? 
  • Translation is a means by which texts circulate between cultures; and translations form part of the cultures in which they appear. Translation is worthy of investigation, not only for these reasons, but also because translations are themselves complex texts with their own aesthetic qualities.
  • The processes of translation are closely related to those of scholarship and criticism. All of these modes of rewriting interpret and rephrase. Perhaps thinking about the one can help refresh our understanding of the others.

Clive Scott expanded on an argument he developed in two books published last year: Literary Translation and the Rediscovery of Reading and Translating the Perception of Text (summary is available below). Translation should not aim to be an equivalent of the source text but should reveal the experience of reading. It should be directed most, not at the monoglot reader who needs a substitute for the source, but at polyglot readers who want to open up the signifiying potential of the source text and who can hazard their own translations in their turn. Translations release the forces inherent in a text, and project it into the future. This way of thinking about translation supplies new resources for comparative literature. A translation can reveal ‘the comparative literary currents’ that pass through a text, lines of continuity that might not otherwise appear. And a translation can make actual the potential that is in a text but which is not available to the usual practices of criticism and scholarship. Since ‘every readerly perception entails its own transformation’, a new ‘comparative literature of the reader’ would a way of ‘constantly redefining the scope and dynamic of literary forces’ so as ‘to maintain the artwork in a state of maximal immanence and contingency, to prevent its forces leaking away in various kinds of transcendental meta-discourse.’

The full text of Clive Scott's talk is available below.

Clive Holes described the politics of translation from Arabic, touching on the cases of the Arabian Nights and Naguib Mahfouz. He explained that a poem about Barack Obama by Abbas Chechan he had recently translated was in a dialect quite different from classical Arabic, one which very few people in the UK could understand. In this context, the sort of translation advocated by Clive Scott was not possible and the question was how best to represent the punch of the source text so that readers here can get a sense of it. This was a matter of rhythm, rhyme, idiom, and dynamic equivalence of reference.

Discussion was wide-ranging, energetic, and at times sharp. We wondered how it mattered that Clive Holes translated an oral poem into written form and that Clive Scott evoked qualities of voice in printed words without performing them. We questioned how important it was that the translator-reader advocated by Scott would always be historically and culturally situated: perhaps the phenomenological translations he presented were fostered by our own moment. However we also noted that multiple translations had been practised and read in a wide variety of places and times. We wondered whether a kind of translation that rendered a phenomenology of reading could in fact be held distinct from a kind of translation that offered an interpretation of a source: wouldn’t an experience always be readable as an interpretation so long as it was taken to be something that emerged from the source text? We worried about the vocabulary of potential that it seems impossible not to use when exploring these questions, and which blurs the distinction between what a text offers to its readers and what its readers bring to it. Several of us nevertheless asserted the imperative to try to understand what the source text meant, feeling that this was a different activity from releasing it into the future; we also noted that different translations can be used to bring interpretive cruxes into focus.  We asserted the value of linguistic skill, but we also noted the restriction of interpretive possibility that an ideal of linguistic competence can unwittingly impose: it is not only a knowledge of languages that should be fundamental to comparative literature but an openness to language’s multiplicity.

A recording of this event is available here.


[1] Summary of Clive Scott's argument.


[2] Full text of Clive Scott's talk.