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The (Im)possibility of Literary Translation



Of the books we read in the course of our lives, many come to us through translation – a fact that is all too often taken for granted. Unfamiliarity with the source language of a literary text may even induce us to look upon a translation as an independent artistic creation. Perhaps there is something to be said for this view. After all, the craft of literary translation, especially when it is expanded to include the ‘freer’ categories of imitation and adaptation, has yielded many texts worthy to be enjoyed for their own sake.

For many centuries the translator was indeed regarded as an author all by himself; a position that came under fire only towards the end of the eighteenth century. By that time, partly through the influence of philosophers such as Locke and Descartes, the insight had grown that our perception of reality is to a large extent shaped by language. Particularly Friedrich Schleiermacher advocated a new, defamiliarising approach towards translation whose goal was to preserve the linguistic and stylistic characteristics of the source text as much as possible. In the twentieth century, this view was reinforced first by Walter Benjamin and still later by the French poststructuralists. Especially the impact of poststructuralism, which shed new light on the role of translation in the politics and dynamics of culture, made it possible to question the relationship between a source text and its offspring on other than purely aesthetic grounds.
As Julia Kristeva and others have taught us, literary works never exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are part of a dynamic cultural network in which one text may evoke the presence of many others. It is up to the reader – and, I would add, the translator – to pick up these resonances and create her own text, thereby subverting the tradition that would posit the author as the source of all meaning. But how do literary translations actually contrive to translate meaning back into their sources? More generally: what are the cultural and ideological stakes involved in translation’s two-way process of meaning-making?

We start this course by tracing the history of western thought on literary translation. Next we discuss a number of problems concerning the politics of translation, making use of – among others – the work of Lawrence Venuti, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Maxine Hong Kingston, Umberto Eco, and Emily Apter. The programme includes three case studies focusing on translations of religious and literary texts.

Course Objectives

The aim of this course is twofold: to provide an overview of relevant theory regarding historical approaches to literary translation, and to make students aware of the ideological choices involved in the practice of translating literary texts.

Mode of instruction


Format & Assessment

Reading assignments; oral presentations (30%); paper (70%).

This course takes the form of a reading group in which everyone is expected to take an active part. The course is concluded by a symposium during which students present their research for their final paper. The paper itself focuses on the analysis of one or more translations of a literary text of the student´s own choice.