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The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Tinkering With Canons


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:

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: Tinkering With Canons

Figure 1: A canon of Ancient Greek philosophers

It does not take a degree in translation to say: translating Leaves of Grass, Les Miserables, and War and Peace is easier than trying to become the next Whitman, Hugo or Tolstoy. Professional literary translators, for their part, understand this truth all too well. And yet, as mentioned in previous articles, literary translators are artists nonetheless. And with artistic creation come artistic desires.

Where literary translators differ is the starting point of fame and prominence. While translation has its own process of initial trial and error just like any type of art, literary translators frequently have the opportunity to piggyback on established fame. For it is frequently the fame of a writer in their home country or among their fellow native speakers that often brings the name of an author to a translator’s attention. Translated literature in the Anglosphere is not as attractive to consumers as literature written in the local language, due in large part to what translation scholar Antoine Berman calls "the trial of the foreign." Berman details it as follows:

"Translation is the "trial of the foreign." But in a double sense. In the first place, it establishes a relationship between the Self-Same (Propre) and the Foreign by aiming to open up the foreign work to us in its utter foreignness...translation is a for the Foreign as well, since the foreign work is uprooted from its own language-ground (sol-de-langue). And this trial, often an exile, can also exhibit the most singular power of the translating act: to reveal the foreign work's most original kernel, its most deeply buried, most self-same, but equally the most "distant" from itself." (Berman, 2000, pp. 284)

For a translator, "revealing the kernel" is a trial in and of itself. But once the trial is passed and the translation is published, translated literature, unlike most original literature, benefits from pre-established fame and/or prominence in the source culture. The content of a translated work into literature, as discussed before, is frequently domesticated to fit the desires of the target audience (Venuti, 2000), sidelining the concept of a "trial of the foreign" altogether. But even for those translators who, ethically, choose to side with the source culture’s “otherness,” a book translated from, say Italian, will not only have numerous Italophiles as an automatic target audience; the Italian-American diaspora’s large demographic presence does not hurt its chances either. This is not the case for a native language author of original fiction, who must frequently start from the ground up with only his or her intuition and/or research to guide their literary works into the hands of their waiting audience.

Figure 2: A Pinocchio figurine; The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), by Carlo Collodi, is one of the few modern works of Italian literature to be accepted into the Anglo canon (with a bit of help from Walt Disney)

Episodes From The History of Canon Creation

La Dame Aux Camélias, by Alexandre Dumas’ son of the same name (the former is pére, the latter is fils), was successful in its time and is still read today. Few, however, regard the novel as being the brightest star in France’s literary canon: as French literature scholar David Coward wrote, "La Dame aux Camillas has never been a novel for which persons of taste and discernment have been able to confess outright enthusiasm" (Coward, 1986, pg. vii). This is in contrast to more legendary French authors such as Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola, and the very prolific Honore de Balzac to name a few, not to mention Eugene Sue and Alexandre Dumas pére himself.

If you went back in time, however, and asked a well-read Chinese scholar in the late 19th century which French novel they thought was the greatest, they would most probably say La Dame Aux Camélias before any of the aforementioned French titans. By being the first of pioneering translator Lin Shu's French novels translated into Chinese, La Dame Aux Camélias became immensely successful in Qing-era China (Hu, 2000, pp. 41). Though more of a transliterator than a translator – he knew no foreign languages and wrote down what others read to him, though he was very scholarly both officially and in practice – he was a pioneer when it came to “translating” foreign works into Chinese, making his importance to the Chinese language virtually inestimable. With no Hugo or Flaubert around to compare, it was perfectly natural to assume that La Dame Aux Camélias was indeed the best French novel. For it was the best French novel in existence in the Chinese language.

Figure 3: Lin Shu's "translation" of Western works into Chinese was a pioneering development

Equally telling was another truth the Dumas fils situation revealed: what gets left out of translation is just as important, if not more so, than what gets brought in. While the French remain a remarkable exception due to their place in the "translation triumvirate"(Cronin, 1995) – English, French and German – the constructed canon of great French writers in the Anglo world differs from that of France in several ways.

The most glaring example is the inability of Eugene Sue to be popularly placed among the greats in the Anglo world. His great novel, The Mysteries of Paris, played a fundamental role in French literature not only due to its own success: it deeply influenced both Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, contributed to the spreading of “socialist humanist” ideas throughout France and even gave birth to its own genre, the “city mystery.” (Brooks, 2015) Two famous authors who wrote their own novelistic contributions to the genre were Emile Zola (Marseilles) and, most recently, Michael Chabon (Pittsburgh). The Mysteries of Paris was translated anew in 2015 by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg after decades (if not a century) of obscurity. (Sue, 2015) While the novel's re-emergence in English is most fortuitous, its restoration into the Anglo canon of French literature is not guaranteed any more than Kuniczak’s translations of Sienkiewicz were guaranteed to re-awaken Anglo readers to that author's greatness. Constructing a literary canon is, suffice to say, a tricky thing.

Figure 4: Les Mysteres de Paris, by Eugene Sue, now in English translation once again.

Canon Construction Today

The examples given above relate to classics in particular. In the post-war era, canon construction is a trickier process due to its disdain towards metanarratives – science and other culturally dominant ways of legitimizing claims as “truths” and of the grand, sweeping explanations that supported them (Pluckrose & Lindsay, 2020, pp. 25) or, as post-modern thinker Jean-François Lyotard wrote, "[a] kind of knowledge" that accompanies and exists in tandem with science (Lyotard, 1979, pp. 7). But just as the deconstruction of metanarratives has been largely successful, so too has it given translators breathing room to redefine the literary canons of both their cultural sphere and the perspectives we have of the literature of other countries. More than ever before, and especially due to the translation surge of the last twenty years, Anglosphere readers and academics have access to more of the world's literature than ever before. And that access keeps expanding. Notable accomplishments include the first novel by an author from Madagascar translated into English (Beyond The Rice Fields, by Naivo, trans. 2017); the first novel by a North Korean author (Friend, by Paek Nam-Nyong, trans. 2020); the first novel translated into English from the national language of Senegal, Wolof (Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks, by Boubacar Boris Diop, trans. 2016); and, most recently, the first novel by a Uighur writer (The Backstreets: A Novel From Xinjiang, by Perhat Tursun, 2022). Alongside this pioneering translation output are re-releases of important classics in other languages. Some examples include: the aforementioned Mysteries of Paris; The Peasants, by Polish Nobel Laureate Władysław Reymont; Rusalka, by Jaroslav Kvapil (a Czech classic); Land, by Park Kyong-Ni (a Korean classic); Lucky Per, by Danish Nobel Laureate Henrik Pontoppidan; and Bloody Sonnets by the greatest Slovak poet, Pavol Orszagh Hviezdoslav. (Fun fact: a copy of this translation was personally presented to the late Queen Elizabeth II on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I (Minarechova, 2018).)

But as Lyotard wrote: "Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?" (Lyotard, 1979, xxiv-xxv). As long as this post-modern perspective is accepted across society and in academia, any attempt to create a new canon of literature will be illegitimate. Is there, then, any point to constructing a canon of great writers at all? Are translators, as a result, solely working for intellectual and popular gratification in the moment? That is for another article to discuss.

Figure 5: Backstreets, the first novel by a Uighur translated into English

While post-modern intellectual sources of deconstruction have been justifiably characterized as non-complimentarily cynical, its effect on deconstructing traditional canons is fascinating in that the great classics of old are relativized to the level of the rest of literature in what scholars Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay (2020) call "a mixing of 'high' and 'low' culture". While this equalization will be celebrated by some and decried by others, destroying a valuable part of any one culture's national identity is a risky endeavor not just because it bears the risk of cultural amnesia, a phenomenon journalist Louia Lim (2015) wrote about in her book on Tiananmen Square. As cultural anthropologist Engseng Ho (2002) wrote: "Nations are made, not born" (pp. 215). In the case of literature, a new canon will eventually be constructed irrespective of how long we hold "an incredulity towards metanarratives," (Lyotard, 1979, xxiv) as will our understanding of other nations' canons. With it will come new (or old and altered) perspectives on other countries and their cultures based on those experiences. And when that happens, translators will play a fundamental role where literature is concerned. Translators hold great power in this regard, and even a single translator can redefine the entire perspective towards a foreign culture and its literature as Constance Garnett did with the Russian greats (Moser, 1988).

Is this ethical? Right or wrong: it will, once again, be reliant upon the translators.

Figure 6: Deconstruction

Bibliographical References

Berman, A. (2000). Translation and the Trials of the Foreign. In L. Venuti (Ed.), The Translation Studies Reader (pp. 284–297). Routledge.

Brooks, P. (2015). Foreword. In The Mysteries of Paris (pp. xiii–xvi). Penguin Books.

Coward, D. (1986). Introduction. In D. Coward (Trans.), La Dame aux Camelias (pp. vii–xx). Oxford University Press.

Cronin, M. (1995). Altered States: Translation and Minority Languages. TTR : Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction, 8(1), 85.

Diop, B. B. (2016). Doomi Golo—The Hidden Notebooks. MSU Press.

Dumas, A. (2008). La Dame Aux Camelias/ The Lady of the Camellias. Oxford University Press.

Hacht, A. M., & Hayes, D. D. (2009). Gale contextual encyclopedia of world literature (Vol. 2). Gale, Cengage Learning.

Ho, E. (2002). Names beyond Nations. Études Rurales, 163/164, 215–231.

Hu, Y. (2000). Tales of translation : composing the new woman in China, 1899-1918. Stanford University Press.

Hviezdoslav, P. O. (2018). The Bloody Sonnets (J. Minahane, Trans.).

Kvapil, J. (2020). Rusalka. Charles University in Prague, Karolinum Press.

Kyong-Ni, P. (2014). Land (A. Tennant, Trans.). Routledge.

Lim, L. (2015). The people’s republic of amnesia : Tiananmen revisited. Oxford University Press.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1979). The postmodern condition : a report on knowledge (G. Bennington, Trans.). Univ. Of Minnesota Press.

Minarechová, R. (2018, November 21). How to translate famous anti-war sonnets into English? The Slovak Spectator.

Moser, C. A. (1988). TRANSLATION: The Achievement of Constance Garnett. The American Scholar, 57(3), 431–438.

Naivo. (2017). Beyond the Rice Fields. Restless Books.

Nam-Nyong, P. (2020). Friend : a novel from North Korea (I. Kim, Trans.). Columbia University Press.

Pluckrose, H., & Lindsay, J. (2020). Cynical theories : how activist scholarship made everything about race, gender, and identity-and why this harms everybody. Pitchstone Publishing.

Pontoppidan, H. (2019). Lucky Per (N. Lebowitz, Trans.). Everyman’s Library USA. (Original work published 1904)

Reymont, W. (2022). The Peasants. Penguin UK.

SueE. (2015). The Mysteries of Paris (C. Betensky & J. Loesberg, Trans.). Penguin Books.

Tursun, P. (2022). The Backstreets. Columbia University Press.

Venuti, L. (2000). Translation, Community, Utopia. In L. Venuti (Ed.), The Translation Studies Reader (pp. 468–488). Routledge.

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Felix Purat

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