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Literary Criticism and Literary Translation

By Oisin Harris and Toby Smollett

This column has often discussed the growing appreciation of translation in academics and popular literature, but we have not yet examined the relationship between translation and literary criticism. The idea of “translation studies” was first given a name by James S. Holmes in 1972, but the academic world was somewhat slow to react. The eruption of arguably the

most influential invention of all time in the 1990s, the internet, propelled translation studies to greater importance.

It is now possible for someone in Chile to tweet in Spanish, and I can just click a button to instantly translate their message. This is, of course, unprecedented. In a world of constant translations, it becomes more and more necessary to explore these translations. At the same time as the internet exploded into life, critical theorists were starting to spend their time thinking about these “translation studies” in their interpretations of translated novels. This was hardly the same as the rise of semiology in 1916 with Ferdinand le Saussure’s Cours de linguistique Générale (Course in General Linguistics), but it did mark a shift in the relationship between translation (and translators) and literary criticism. As part of this, the translators were seen less as mechanical repeaters of fixed messages, but instead as creators of new stories with their own messages, aligned with the original work.

So many touchstones of various literary theories have now come to play a key part in translation studies and in how each literary translator may choose or not choose to interpret their translations. As Rainer Schulte notes in their article on Translation and Literary Criticism, 1982:

“Translation and literary criticism have one thing in common: they can only exist if there is an original text that needs to be translated or interpreted.”

Although there is definitively this sense the two share an interdependence on an original text, there is also the sense that both translations and literary criticism age in a way that the original texts do not. It is, however, hard not to wonder how the reception of any given literary text and the critical responses it elicits influence the way translators might approach that text in translation. Indeed, as Mohammad Ali Kharmandar notes in The Interrelationship between Literary Translation and Literary Criticism: “The translator’s subjective decisions situate the translation in a matrix of relations with critical readings.” In this way, a translator is like any reader whether they read a translated or source language text, except that the translator will then refer to this matrix of relations more overtly than a lay reader. In many ways this process is unavoidable, as Kharmandar states: “It is axiomatic that a literary work, no matter how outlandish it may be, arises from a socio-historical milieu, and that it is ultimately recontextualized in a receiving foreign culture as a result of translation.”

The tools deployed by literary criticism often involve a welding of the text under interpretation and its intertextuality with fellow texts and compatible or incompatible philosophies and fields of study. Much can be observed to operate likewise in translation, where translators will often reflect on their forebears' translations of a text before deciding how to translate theirs. Where literary criticism and translation really come together is in trying to understand cross-cultural receptions by various audiences for a given text. At this crucial stage, literary critics, in whichever language, make recourse to the schools of thought and reading methodologies most prevalent at the time in their language(s). Translators and critics in translation studies would themselves also utilise some of these critical apparatuses to compare how one text’s translations have evolved or even how texts of a similar genre have been translated differently based on a range of factors.

But does this mean that a translation of a text reveals a new set of codices permeated with the various literary criticism traditions that any translator brings with them to that text – i.e., just another literary criticism layer, or is a translation a separate yet symbiotic new form of literary criticism in its own right? Perhaps where translation studies best answers this is in its ability to deploy literary theories ranging from feminist criticism (to create feminist translations that subvert the culture of patriarchal hegemony of translation), to postcolonial criticism (to dissect translations of the nation, language and its subalterns and colonial hegemony), and queer theory (to utilize gender performativity in translation) just to mention a few that all break new ground. Also, another area where translation and literary theory flow in and out of one another is that translators and literary critics alike must usually approach the text on more than just its textual level, but also the context within which that text was created. As Cheng Zhang denotes in The Role of Literary Theory in Literary Translation (2020): “for a literary translator, it is important not to stay on the linguistic level of the original text and, to go beyond the restraints of the outer textual form; he/she needs literary theory. The theory a translator adopts colours his/her interpretation, regardless of the way and level of interpretation.”