Translation Studies and Its Turns

Translation Studies and Its Turns

Research, Ideas, Issues

In my blog, I am going to publish fragments of my current research, or share my ideas about what I come across in the publications I read or in the materials I study, or discuss issues in Translation Studies which, I think, call for a discussion. My posts do not claim to be anything more than work in progress and are inevitably of fragmentary nature. I count on my readers and their expertise to fill in the blanks and to contextualize discussions, whenever necessary. All borrowings must be acknowledged.
NB: The posts are published so that the newest one comes first and shown on the main page, therefore the older ones are to be found the section "Previous Posts." The New Testament principle is at work: the first will become the last.

I can be contacted at

The Splendeurs et Misères of Reviewing

TranslationPosted by Sergey Tyulenev Sat, June 08, 2013 12:07:26

In today's post, I am placing an excerpt of an article submitted by me to a special issue and rejected, with the issue's editor's comments which, in the words of the editor, are intended to be 'constructive' and are not meant to offend. Frankly, they do offend and the fact that the editor specifically addressed that issue only proves the fact that they can offend and he realises it himself. When one reads them, some of them do make sense, some, however, remind whimsical and irritated comments of someone who does not agree with you but considers it pointless even trying to understand what you want to say. He could have said that he did not find your contribution fitting his editorial concept of how the subject is to be treated, but he decides to provide his comments informed by his own idea of how the subject should be treated by all and how scholarship should be done. And of course there is only one way--his.

After such a feedback one wonders if the comments are to be taken as if you were a student and the editor were your professor or the other way round--perhaps you should have explained everything he personally might find or decide to find requiring explanation or justification (if only you could predict his scholarly preferences). After reading such comments I could not find anything better to say than just thank the person for the time spent (or wasted?) on reading and commenting on something that he should have just looked through and reject right away.

In what follows, the editor's comments are in square brackets with my replies:

History is to translation what the whole is to a part. Translation events, some more important, some less, are part of historical processes, history being always larger than translation. Translation is always historicized, and this primacy of the social-historical contextualisation of translation is a truth universally acknowledged in present-day translation studies. [Editor: As you say, it is so clear that to state it in this rather ponderous way is simply to state a truism. ST: This is a normal contextualising phrase. Virtually all academic publications with some comparable statements.]

The relationship between historiography and translation is much more complex. Historiography is never direct and unmediated, because it inevitably deals with representations of events, rather than events themselves. This makes historiography a scholarly pursuit handling transformations and proceeding by way of transformations. TS as the scholarly discipline that studies transformations (provided it drops its epistemologically ill-grounded preference of interlingual transfers) moves centre stage providing the social historian with the relevant conceptual apparatus. On the other hand, TS scholarship in its historiographic part may benefit from the theoretical richness of general historiography accumulated over millennia of deliberations of how history is to be handled. Some of the aspects of this mutually enriching relationship between historiography and TS are the focus of this paper.

I. Clio or Calliope?

Die Historie unterscheidet sich dadurch von den anderen Wissenschaften, dass sie zugleich Kunst ist.[1]

—Leopold von Ranke

Жизнь – сумма мелких движений […]

И злак, и плевел

в полдень отбрасывают на север

общую тень, ибо их посеял

тот же ветреный сеятель, кривотолки

о котором и по сей день не смолкли.

[…] болтает, точно на грани бреда,

примятая лебедою Леда

нежной мяты.

[…] пирамиды крапивы […]

Пагоды папоротника. Поодаль –

анис, как рухнувшая колонна,

минарет шалфея в момент наклона –

травяная копия Вавилона,

зеленая версия Третьеримска!

—Иосиф Бродский. Эклога 5-я (летняя)[2]

In modern historiography, a ‘linguistic turn’ took place in the second half of the twentieth century (Carr 1967; White 1987). To understand the main thrust of the turn, we should look back at the recent history of historiography.

One of the central questions of the nineteenth-century historicism concerned the place aesthetics should take in scholarly historical discourse. Maurer (2006) demonstrates that the style of the scholarly writings of Leopold von Ranke, Gustav Droysen and Heinrich Schliemann was closely related to the style of the contemporary German historical-realist Professorenroman. [Need to explain what this is. ST: Fair enough] The scholarly and non-scholarly historical discourses influenced each other through copying, borrowing, and imitating thematic and rhetorical elements, thereby problematizing the relationship between the representation and interpretation of history.

Literature and scholarship also interacted at the level of discourse texture. For instance, on the one hand, Ranke, while insisting that academic historiographic discourse be free from rhetorical techné (rhetorical figures), himself employed various rhetorical strategies and techniques, thereby purporting to enhance the impact of his ‘realist’ representation of history, while compromizing the scholarly side of the effort. Schliemann wrote a history of Troy presenting it as a kind of adventure and his own autobiographical narrative. On the other hand, in historical literature, stories were supplied with footnotes and references to historical sources—in the attempt to create a ‘realist’ illusion.

It is only natural that such tendencies in the development of historiography as an academic discipline, sooner or later, were bound to ignite a discussion about more fundamental issues than whether rhetoric was to be part of science. At the end of the nineteenth century, Wilhelm Dilthey questioned the very foundation of historiography—the essence of historical facts, their reliability as historical evidence. Writing history presupposes selection, arranging and interpreting of surviving documents and eye witness testimonies. If “oral expressions or statements in letters remain questionable,” doubted Dilthey, how can they be “the proper field of what experts on human nature and men of the world take to be true history” (1961:164). The meaning of historical events as understood by those involved in them may be viewed as a starting point, but by no means as a whole story. Indeed, the actors’ vision of the event in which they participated or which they witnessed is likely to be flawed because they may have partially or completely misinterpreted even their own actions or their consequences, let alone the events about which they only heard; therefore, the historian’s assessment with the benefit of hindsight is required (Dilthey 1961:48, 50).

Benedetto Croce uncovered historiography’s present-inspired interest in the past:

[History] is the act of comprehending and understanding induced by the requirements of practical life. […] The practical requirements which underlie every historical judgment give to all history the character of “contemporary history” because, however remote in time events there recounted may seem to be, the history in reality refers to present needs and present situations wherein those events vibrate (1941:17, 19).

For Croce, reality presents itself to consciousness exclusively in the form of history. History unfolds reality and this is how we perceive reality. We look into the depths of history for “the actual widening of our apprehension of the present” (Carr 1917:197). Croce speaks, therefore, of the “eternal present” having the ‘before’ and ‘after’ dimensions and comprising past, present and future; the eternal present is distinct from the abstract present which excludes past and future (Carr 1917:203).

The eternal present is the focus of the historian-philosopher’s interest. The role of the Crocean historian, therefore, grows exponentially: s/he is commissioned to answer the questions of the moderns about the meaning of life and its various aspects (Croce 1941:18–9; Moss 1987:96).[3] The historian is the interpreter of the past in terms of the present that is mutatis mutandis the target system for which the interpretation is made; the historian is the mediator between today and yesterday—in short, the Crocean historian is the translator bringing together parts of the eternal present.[4] Historiography does not only record the past, but rather, evaluates it. Croce criticized Ranke and Jacob Burckhardt, two giants of the nineteenth-century historiography, for not having valid criteria of historical significance which were prompted by contemporary concerns (Roberts 1987:267–8). How, Croce argued, could one know what was worth recording, if one did not evaluate it?

In the heart of all these doubts, which were further developed by Edward H. Carr and Robin George Collingwood, was the relationship between a historical fact and a historiographic account of it. Events happen and disappear; the time arrow is irreversible. Unlike the natural scientist who observes more or less stable phenomena which are accessible to experimentation and repeated observation, the historian deals with what took place once and is never going to be repeated. Whatthe historian should be content with, therefore, is a record of the historical event or a surviving artefact. Yet the problem is that both the record and the artefact are but representations of the historical event. Representation is an intermediary between the phenomenon and the historian. The representation is the result of somebody’s mediation—the artefact or record show the event to the historian as a witness saw the event, rather than the event itself. The historian is doomed to deal with only somebody else’s experience of the event. Hence, historiography is all about representations and should not to be confused with history as events. This is what Reinhart Koselleck means by distinguishing between Historie as events of the past and Geschichte as a narrative about events of the past (2004:9).

Representation is speaking or acting on behalf of someone or something; representation implies a creator. We see a tripartite sequence: EVENT—ITS CREATOR—REPRESENTATION. This sequence cannot fail to remind us of the sequence we deal with in interlingual translation: SOURCE—TRANSLATOR—TARGET. According to Dilthey, the historian should deal with his/her material, first, by considering the existing evidence (eye-witness accounts, remnants of the past, such as buildings, coins, letters, diaries, etc.); based on that, a general picture is created; yet new evidence may make it necessary to reconsider both the studied evidence and the general picture. Thus, the historian’s work can be compared to the shuttlecock movement: “The general picture of the past must be based on the collation of individual pieces of evidence yet the reliability and genuineness of each piece of evidence can only be established in the light of that general picture of the past” (Rickman in 1961:134). This hermeneutic circular movement of historiographic understanding (later universalized and fully developed by Gadamer), describes the basic movement of the translator’s thought when working on a translation, and further corroborates the closeness of the nature of translation and historiography (as well as other similar cognitive processes). Historical evidence as it comes down to the historian is the result of translating mediation. In terms of the actor-network theory of Callon/Latour, specifically dealing with extraverbal mediation situations which they term translation situations, historical evidence may be described as an event represented by a translator-spokesperson and the resulting translation (Callon 1989:15–22; Latour 1987:70–4).[ I think that this passing reference to this theory either needs to be developed in greater depth, so that readers who are not familiar with it can understand its significance, or it is best left out.

ST: those unfamiliar with this theory are supplied with references.]

The translation of the historical evidence, naturally, does not stop at the representation—otherwise it would not reach the stage of historiographic reflection. The historian, who receives the translation-representation from the record or artefact creator, is, in essence, the target receiver: EVENT—(ITS CREATOR)—REPRESENTATION—HISTORIAN. As was postulated by Croce: “The tales and judgments as they were originally become themselves facts, documents to be judged and interpreted” (cited in Carr 1917:198–9).

Yet the historian is not the end of the sequence: the historian tackles the representation in order to produce his/her own translation of the original event: “[…T]he genuine historians […] translate the concerns of society into historical questions” becoming “the ‘point [wo/]m[e]n’ of the culture” (Roberts 1987:267). [really not clear what this is supposed to mean... ST: Although the editor is an educated native speaker of English, he does not know the term ‘point man’. A dictionary definition would be enough, hopefully: “point man. Noun. the soldier at the head of a patrol. • (esp. in a political context) a person at the forefront of an activity or endeavor.”] We may compare this process with the phenomenon of retranslation, although this retranslation is never made from the source but always from a previous translation (unlike in interlingual translation where retranslation can be made from both the source and another translation, in the same language or in another language). Clear manifestations of the necessity to retranslate in historiography are found in works of Dilthey who emphasized that history has to be periodically rewritten since history as a chain of event acquires new meanings as new links are added to it (Dilthey 1961:49). For Croce, since writing history is a philosophical undertaking, ever evolving philosophy becomes the principal historiographic method:

There can be nothing fixed, nothing final in philosophy. The problems of philosophy are never solved in the sense that definite questions are finally and satisfactorily answered. The thought of one age is wholly inadequate to the thought of a succeeding age. Philosophy lives and, like the life it seeks to comprehend, new forms bring with them new problems. A new philosophy is not the re-thinking of an old problem but the emergence of a new problem. (Carr 1917:204)

Historiography-philosophy, therefore, is a constant retranslation process in which translated and retranslated texts compete with one another, question and deny or confirm former (re)translations depending on the needs of the time of a particular history writing project.

The historian’s retranslation of the original event prolongs the originally tripartite sequence: EVENT—(ITS CREATOR)—REPRESENTATION—HISTORIAN—READER. The historian does not write for her/himself; usually a readership is envisaged. Thus, the historian as a target receiver, him/herself becomes a translator. Yet another step is taken away from the original event which was translated and, now, retranslated in order to reach another audience—perhaps a ‘layman’ or a fellow historian who is interested in other historians’ interpretations of a particular historical event or period in order to write a historical survey. Such a historian, who relies on secondary sources, which are all retranslations of translations of original events, is yet another agent extending the initial tripartite chain.

In fact even a lay reader retranslates because s/he reinterprets the historian’s retranslation in her/his own terms, contingent on her/his rational and irrational convictions, level of education, capacity to grasp the complexity of the historian’s conceptual apparatus, etc. This may be intrapersonal retranslation, when retranslation occurs in the reader’s mind, or interpersonal retranslation, if the reader shares his/her impressions of the historian retranslation with others.

[Editor: Your idea is clear by now. But, in essence, all you have said so far is that historical interpretation is a form of translation. If this idea is to gain some weight beyond the mere intuitive sense of it appropriateness then I think you need to start relating it more specifically to our main concern: translation history. ST: Why ‘but’? Clear, so good. ‘In essence’ would be a better start of the second sentence. Apparently, the editor is not happy that I am dwelling too long on what he calls ‘the mere intuitive sense of it[s] appropriateness’. I need to step on it.]

To take a step further, no historian works with only one representation of a particular event or period. On the contrary, s/he deals with several or, more often, multiple representations. Her/his translation, thus, becomes a retranslation of a compilatory nature, combining in one target text several ‘original translations’. Very often, the original translations are retranslated not in their entirety—rather the historian retranslates only the most interesting (from her/his point of view) fragments. Essentially, the historian-translator sees the period s/he studies as a kind of text, individual representations constituting parts of this text. Importantly, the historian-translator draws the boundary of the text, depending on his/her vision of the studied phenomenon or period and the relevance of available representations; at that, there may be so many representations that the historian must select. The historian selects which original translations are to be retranslated and which parts of the original translations are to be retranslated. The retranslation is, as well as the original translation was (since the creator of a representation had to choose this or that part of the represented phenomenon—never the whole thing), always not only a transformation of the original (translation) but also a selection process—which original (translation) or which part of the original (translation) are to be (re)translated. Like any translation, writing history “entails ontological and epistemic choices” (White 1987:ix).

Thus, writing history is a complex chain of translations and retranslations translating Historie into Geschichte. This process is highly subjective. To demonstrate this was the main goal of the ‘linguistic turn’ in historiography. A considerable part of the history of historiography had passed under the motto famously expressed by Leopold von Ranke who wrote in the introduction to his History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, 1494–1535 (1824), that his book “seeks only to show what actually happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen) (Ranke 1981:58). Seeing historiography as reflecting historical evidence directly is as naïve as believing that a translated verbal text is equivalent to its original. In TS a similar problem is widely known as the ‘invisibility’ of translation/translator (e.g., in Venuti 1995). Curiously enough, in the realm of translation studies and praxis, both translators or translation scholars have never had illusions about the invisibility of translation; their efforts to make the translation/translator visible have been directed outwards—to the society, readers, editorial teams, etc. In historiography, however, historians themselves were oblivious to the fact that they dealt with translations and, ultimately, produced retranslations for further retranslations. [I find this analogy unconvincing. I feel that you are confusing the attitude of the practitioner with the perception of the reader/receiver. That a translator can "naively" believe in true equivalents, in an analogous way to historians that believe they are recounting what really happened, is not the same as readers who are lulled into forgetting that they are reading a translation because of the fluent/domesticating style of the translation (a strategy that can be used quite consciously by the translator). I think this idea needs to be presented more carefully for it to work. ST: the editor’s comments testify to the fact that he does not understand my argument!] Historiography, in its linguistic turn, came to face the problem of the in/visibility of the translator-historian. As a result, one of the principle questions asked by historiography today is: What is the role of the historian, his/her use of sociological stance and explanatory frameworks used for historical understanding and interpretation (Munslow 2006:4)? Historical narrative is no longer seen as “a passive linguistic mirror of past reality” (Ankersmit 2001:21).

[Again, you have made your point and established the analogy. But what are the implications of this metaphor of the historian as translator beyond its inutitive explanatory value? ST: first analogies are to be established, then their implications are to be revealed. But I’m urged to step on it again.]

Yet another way of translating history is its metaphorization. Metaphorization may be described in terms of an intralingual translation: A is explained as B by the creator/user, [Why create another label? Having established "historian-translator" surely it would be better to stick to it? ST: I am talking about how metaphors work in the terms metaphors are described. Read to the end of the sentence!] thereby A corresponds to the source, B to the target and the creator/user is the translator. B makes A understandable to the creator/user’s addressee (cf. target audience). Both translation and metaphor balance between difference and sameness. The historian qua translator establishes a coherence in observable past events usually with the help of an overarching metaphor. For example, Western European cultural return to the idea(l)s of the Greco-Roman Antiquity in the period from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries is metaphorically called Renaissance, ‘rebirth’. However, as is the case with any translator highlighting only certain aspect(s) of the source text and leaving out the rest, any metaphor represents only one or, at best, several aspects of the (past) reality. In the case of the metaphor ‘Renaissance (rebirth) of culture’, the indebtedness of Western European culture to the Antiquity is emphasized, while the continuity between that period in Western European history and the Middle Ages is disregarded. Yet such inadequate? metaphors stimulate historians to produce other or what may be seen as better (more encompassing) metaphors. Once again, we have another form of retranslation: existing translations prompt the appearance of retranslations, some of which may claim (or be interpreted as trying) to better the previous ones (Berman 1990).

[The problem here, in my opinion, is that you are treating potentially complex issues rather hastily/superficially without these added layers of analogy actually adding anything to the value of the original concept: that of historian as translator and history as a form of translation/interpretation. The question the reader will have in mind (already for some time) is: OK, I take your point, but where is this going to lead? ST: Here I am asked at the same time to stop and run. Perhaps the editor is just not following. Or we are moving at different speeds. Too bad.]

All translational procedures have their underlying rules and principles legitimized by the community within which these rules exist. This is true in interlingual translation (norms; see Toury 1995 and Schäffner 1998) [Quite apart from the fact that I contest the idea that we can consider norms a proven fact (is it really "true"?), rather than a potentially useful explanatory concept, I find this way of referring to them to be far too sketchy/hasty. ST: Voila. We disagree, as it turns out, in some quite basic ideas. What I take as established, the editor considers highly questionable and it is upon me to resolve his problems with Toury’s and Schaeffner’s ideas if I want to apply them.]; this also true in the case of historiography. Even one of the most radical proponents of the linguistic turn, Frank Ankersmit writes that “recognizing [the] autonomy of the historian’s language emphatically does not imply that no criteria can be given for the plausibility of historical representations [historiographic accounts]” (2001:21). He claims that the best historical representation is

the most original one, the least conventional one, the one that is least likely to be true—and yet cannot be refuted on the basis of existing historical evidence. Intellectual courage is the condition of all success in historical writing—as it is in the sciences. (2001:22)

Even such poetically ‘punctuated’ version of the world history as the one found in Josef Brodsky’s Eclogue 5 (Summer) (2003:396–397), taken as the epigraph for this section, may be interpreted as a historiographic translation. In a meadow, Brodsky finds symbols of the major historical civilizations. Christianity is represented by the words: “Both grain and chaff cast to the north their shared shadow, because they were sown by the same easy-going sower, rumours about whom have not abated to this very day.” This is a hint at Jesus presented as Sower in parables in Mark 4:3–9 and Matthew 13:24–30 as well as at the verse on the separation of wheat and chaff on the Judgment Day (Matthew 3:12). The classical Antiquity is represented by a hint at the myth of the rape of Leda by Zeus in the image of Swan: in Russian, there is a pun clearly referring us to the Greek myth—lebeda, orach, goosefoot, sounds similar to lebed’, swan: hence, the Leda-like mint is trampled by lebed’/lebeda, orach, goosefoot. Nettles are compared to pyramids (Egyptian? Mesoamerican, in turn, hinting at Mesopotamian ziggurats? or both?). Fern reminds the poet of East-Asian pagodas. Anise is likened to collapsed columns of Greco-Roman ruins. Sage is like an Islamic minaret and, at the moment of decline (bending, drooping), it is seen as an herbal copy of Babylon and a green version of the Third Rome (Moscow at the period of the Muscovy Rus’, 13th–17th centuries). This poetic-historiographic passage may be interpreted as a survey-translation of the history of the human kind. It is selective (there is no reference here to Australia and Africa), but it should be remembered that this historiographic essay is endorsed by poetic license and, therefore, enjoys more freedom than even the most radical historiographies. [You are in serious danger of sounding banal here. ST: I may sound banal in terms of poetic license having freedom but I am trying to consider a concrete poem as going beyond a poem, hence comparing it with historiography and explaining the difference between the two, having pointed out similarities. Too difficult to understand. The editor’s attention span is only a part of the phrase—that a poet has poetic license. This is banal. True. The editor has won.] If historiography is always partly Clio- and partly Calliope-inspired, which has been recognized by even such hard-liners [Is this really an appropriate label? ST: why not? This is the reputation of Ranke in historiography with all due respect.] among historiographers as Ranke (cf. his statement that history is different from other sciences in that it is at the same time is also art), than the difference between a scholarly history and Brodsky’s poetic history is a matter of degree between Clio- and Calliope-inspired historiography.

Historiography is akin to translation and, therefore, translation studies may enrich historians’ understanding of historiographic handling of representations. [To be perfectly honest, this is the only sentence in this article so far which is clearly related to the theme of this special issue. Harmony at long last.]

I won’t bore the reader with the rest. The post is very long (and this is only a small extract), yet I find it necessary to look at some samples of reviewing as it is practiced in today’s TS. Of course I am not in the position to evaluate my article, but I am in the position to evaluate comments about it, as we evaluate comments on our conference papers.

  • Comments(0)//