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The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Challenges To Originality


Translating between languages tends to be a highly ethical practice, or at the least one that stimulates frequent conversation about ethics. This is especially true in the present day, when international discourse places high value on respecting other cultures. An ethical breach can take many forms, from misguided translation choices to intentional efforts to redefine a work of literature in a different and distortional manner. This series explores some of the ethical challenges translators face, either due to the challenge of the translation itself or willingly, while reflecting on the continuing debates between translators, translation scholars and others about what constitutes an ethical breach.

The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

1. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Challenges To Originality

2. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: A Translator’s Boundaries

3. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Tinkering With Canons

4. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Cross-Language Plagiarism

5. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Shortcuts Between Distances

6. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Translating Geography

7. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: From Language To Motion Picture

8. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Ideology

The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Challenges To Originality

It was back in 1995 that comparative literature and translation scholar Maria Tymoczko wrote the following: “It is a curious fact of contemporary literary studies that very different branches of literary theory have converged on the same insight: every telling is a retelling” (pp.11). The discussion of how original the artistically inclined truly are – and in particular the idea that artists and other innovators are not all that original, if at all – has become common currency in recent years. This discussion is especially pertinent to the art of translation: the entire process is, after all, about taking something and making a replica of it. But how is it pertinent? And are translators truly unoriginal simply because they reproduce a text? While originality may appear at first glance to be a neutral concept ethically speaking, it is the exact opposite for a translator; if there is no such thing as originality, why bother making any more translations after the first translation is published?

As any translator and translation scholar can clarify, a literary translation is never simple. But first, it is necessary to shed light on what Tymoczko means by calling everything a “retelling”. In the same article, while citing folklore studies, Tymoczko quotes Albert Lord to explain that, “The picture that emerges is not really one of conflict between preserver of tradition and creative artist; it is rather one of the preservation of tradition by the constant re-creation of it…Every creation is a re-creation” (1995, pp. 11). In Tymoczko’s article (1995) she mentions Irish folk tellers who as a rule tend to mention the personal source of their stories and how, “If ‘tis a lie, it wasn’t I made it up" (pp. 11). A similar example is the Armenian tradition of ending folk tales with an exclamation along the lines of “and three apples fell from Heaven…” a tradition that not only recognizes the folk tales’ tradition as inspired by Heaven but deepens the relationship between storyteller and community. (Kudian, 1969, pp. 9) But however differently cultures choose to end and/or justify their stories, in both cases these disclaimers are the embellishments of “retellings” and “recreations”.

Figure 1: Three Apples (Media from Wix).

The discussion on an overall lack of originality does not, however, originate from folklore studies, but from the school of postmodern deconstruction. In its relentless quest to deconstruct everything that anyone can have a critical opinion about, deconstructionists, as Tymoczko (1995) explains, insist on pointing out the dependence writers have on other writers as evidence that writers simply do not create original works of literature (pp. 12). This idea, too, will be revisited later. Suffice to say the critics of originality, as well as the traditions from which they derive their arguments, are as numerous as they are vocal. But are they right?

Too Much Art To Handle?

In this author’s view, arguing about the existence of originality in all its individual manifestations would be a project better suited for a lifelong pursuit than an article. Rather than make the case for originality in and of itself, it would be more productive and contemporary to cite developments addressed in Kenneth Goldsmith's curious book Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (Goldsmith, 2011). In his book, Goldsmith recognizes a middle ground in the debate of originality versus unoriginality and begins by referencing the term unoriginal genius, coined by literary critic Marjorie Perloff (Goldsmith, 2011, pp. 10). In citing Perloff and others, Goldsmith recognizes a truth many involved in literary translation spheres have come to realize: there is so much to read that has already been translated. If it was possible to add anything more, should we even when there is so much to deal with already? For translators, it is not a bad thing in the professional sense. After all, the more there is to translate, the better job security a translator is likely to have. But the sheer volume of art out there is only one element of what Goldsmith talks about. As the author himself writes:

Figure 2: Full of Text (Media from Wix).

’The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information – how I manage it, how I parse it, how I organize and distribute it – is what distinguishes my writing from yours. (Goldsmith, 2011, pg. 10)

This management of and manoeuvring through a world of endless information due to the digital world is what Goldsmith calls “uncreative writing". While Goldsmith (2011) admits that “these writers function more like programmers than traditional writers…” the author also calls uncreative writing “a writing imbued with celebration” among other proclamations of positivity (pp. 12-13). Goldsmith likewise denies in the same breath that “uncreative writing” is anything close to a nihilistic act.

Several observations can be made from “uncreative writing” as concerns translation and the art of “retelling”, for while Goldsmith is referring to authors directly he is also referring to translators by default. First, the role of computers is comparable between both "uncreative artists" and translators. As explained by a professor of translation studies during this authors' period of study, the internet has united the fragmented translation community in a way it has never been united before. Translation software has also increased the speed with which translators complete their projects. In contrast, "uncreative writers" have erupted into the world of cyberspace "with the computer encouraging writers to mimic its workings" (Goldsmith, 2011, pp. 13). Where the two differ is that "uncreative writers", at least those whom Goldsmith describes as being connected to the digital world, function on behalf of that world even if their activities are not all digital. The fundamental task of translators, however, has not changed despite the possibilities it has afforded "uncreative writers"; not only are translations of contemporary authors being published in the Anglosphere with greater speed, so too are older classics that at first glance have nothing to do with the digital era in terms of plot.

Figure 3: Repetition (Media from Wix).

Second, translators are among the most important negotiators of this vast quantity of information. The term unoriginal genius would indeed be applicable to the job of the translator in this sense, especially if said translator had a natural, artistic talent. Even then, however, could the talent itself be called unoriginal if this traditional notion of genius, as Goldsmith recollects, has nothing to do with the information-navigating genius Perloff describes? Suffice to say a translator is just as much an artist in the classical sense as he or she is an information navigator. (Which, to briefly digress, might explain the unprecedented popularity of translation in the Anglo-American world since the turn of the millennium.) It was Walter Benjamin (1992) who once said: "It is the task for the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through in his re-creation of that work" (pp. 80-81). As translation scholar Susan Bassnett (2014) clarified, "The translator has to bear the responsibility for the continued existence of the original but in another context" (pp. 13). Benjamin lucidly recognizes the importance of translation as not only an art, but one where the original is maintained in the other language with artistry in mind.

And third, the personal ambitions of translators are so varied; their goals rarely, if ever, align with the "uncreative" artistic concept of Perloff's/Goldsmith's unoriginal genius. In fact, there are many instances where the opposite is the real goal of the translator. In many cases the translator seeks to leave their own mark on the work, consciously or subconsciously, while in other cases the translator seeks to create a totally new work of literature that may be inspired by the previous one, but that is in fact not a faithful translation despite its unique artistry. Examples of the latter include Flann O’Briens Rhapsody in Stephens Green (though arguably it is a re-working of Karel Čapek’s Insect Play, not a translation per se) and Jan Novak’s intentionally unfaithful translation of Vaclav Havel’s play The Garden Party into Office Party. In Rhapsody, O'Brien took the premise of the original Czech play (or of its translation) and created a play for Irish audiences. Novak, meanwhile, created an Iraq-War-ear translation of Havel's play, altering the translation to fit the political mood of the 2000's. While these plays have the default intertextuality translators take for granted, it is not possible to call them “uncreative writing” as the translations are defined by an extra creative spurt needed to transmogrify the translated work into something with a distinctive personal mark (in the case of the former) or a special translation for the times (in the case of the latter).

Figure 4: Negotiation (Media from Wix).


Translation is just as much a negotiation between individual – and thereby original – creativity and Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” as it is a negotiation between two different languages or modes of language. But while “unoriginality” has become a popular norm and the system of copyright is currently being challenged in unprecedented ways, translation, to put it colloquially, is “there for the ride” more than anything else. Commonalities exist between translation and “uncreative writing”, such as an intertextual relationship to another text and the aforementioned negotiation between pre-existing information which, due to the internet, is necessary for both individuals and society to negotiate. For lovers of literature who read translations, the present is an exciting time of new discoveries as a seemingly-unending amount of literature, including classics in other cultures, are brought into English for the first time or re-translated after decades of being forgotten. (This author in particular looks forward to the long-awaited return this November of the Polish classic Chłopi, or The Peasants, by Władysław Reymont, into English for the first time since the 1920’s.) In the Anglosphere at least, it is one of the most important epochs in the history of translation, if not the most important.

But while translation may not be capable of winning the “most original artform” award, translation, paradoxically, is as original of an art form as it is unoriginal. Even when it is subconscious and the translator eschews ideology or personal motives, translators almost always leave their mark on the translated work. Even mediocre translators create “poor translations”, which says nothing about the previous quality of the original. Translations can be culturally alien or culturally familiar based on the personal artistry of the translator. Differences in artistry abound between translations by somebody into their native language versus translators who translate into a non-native language. Translators can take a piece of literature that is considered less than masterful in its own language and turn it into a classic in another language, as eclectic French writer Boris Vian (1992) did with the works of science fiction writer A.E. van Vogt (pp.xvii-xviii). Acclaimed translator Robert Fagles, in turn, talked about how the greatest translations are their own original versions (Storace & Fagles, 1999, para. 9) There are numerous other transcendental achievements related to unoriginality, but the fact remains: translation may be unoriginal, but it is not “uncreative”.

Bibliographical References

Bassnett, S., & Routledge. (2014). Translation. Routledge.

Benjamin, W. (1992). Theories of translation : an anthology of essays from Dryden to Derrida (R. Schulte & J. Biguenet, Eds.; pp. 80–81). The University Of Chicago Press. The Task of the Translator

Goldsmith, K. (2011). Uncreative writing : managing language in the digital age. Columbia University Press.

Havel, V. (2010). Office Party: A Play in Four Acts (J. Novak, Trans.). Jiří Krechler-bookman.

Kudian, M. (1969). Three Apples Fell From Heaven: A collection of Armenian folk and fairy tales (pp. 9–11, Foreword). Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd.

O’Brien, F. (1994). Rhapsody in Stephens Green. The Lilliput Press.

Storace, I. by P., & Fagles, R. (1999). The Art of Translation No. 2.; The Paris Review.

Tymoczko, M. (1995). The Metonymics of Translating Marginalized Texts. Comparative Literature, 47(1), 11.

Tymoczko, M. (2006). Translation: Ethics, Ideology, Action. The Massachusetts Review, 47(Fall 2006), 442–461.

Venuti, L. (2012). The translation studies reader (L. Venuti, Ed.; p. Translation, Community, Utopia 468-488). Routledge.

Vian, B. (1992). Blues For A Black Cat & Other Stories (J. Older, Trans.; pp. xvii–xviii). University of Nebraska Press.

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Felix Purat

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