I am asked by the Pray Tell moderator if academic translation theory has changed in recent decades. Without any doubt, it has.
I am asked if the changes support greater literalism, as has been claimed in the debate over 2001 Vatican document Liturgiam authenticam. My answer is a resounding “Huh??”
I am not a Catholic scholar, and I would not dare tell the Catholic Church how to do anything, let alone translate. I am a translation scholar; I have published a survey of contemporary Western translation theories in book called Exploring Translation Theories (Routledge 2010); I am currently President of the European Society for Translation Studies; I train translators at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California; I am director of a doctoral program in Translation and Intercultural Studies in Spain; my name is on some 18 books and about 150 articles, most of them dealing with translation and intercultural studies. So I feel inclined to risk giving an opinion or two.
The one big advance in Translation Studies since about the 1970s is that we academics know that we can’t tell you what to do.
This is the result of at least three schools of thought:
- From the mid 1980s, theorists writing in German have claimed that how you translate depends on the purpose (what they call the Skopos) of the translation. The one text can be translated in different ways for different purposes (different audiences, but perhaps also different clients).
- Parallel to this, a broad movement called Descriptive Translation Studies has been gathering data on the many ways in which translators have worked throughout history and across different cultures, we now know that the range of possible strategies and social positions is so vast that few actual guidelines can be proposed.
- In parallel to all of this, the general mode of thought known as deconstruction consistently demonstrates that texts allow for many different readings and interpretations, so each translation is necessarily based on the translator’s own interpretation of the source text. In other words, again, you’re on your own.
All this academic work is perhaps not as useless as it sounds. The Skopos theorists, for example, are genuinely useful when they tell translators to consider the needs of clients and the particularities of target readerships. What Liturgiam authenticam means for translation into English will not be the same thing as it means for work into minor developing languages.
The descriptive scholars might also be of interest when they propose, for example, that the more historical prestige the source culture has, the more literalism will tend to be tolerated. So, if you can assume that your readership accords great prestige to Catholic culture prior to the translation process, then you might want to risk literalism. Of course, this does not help you if Catholic culture is unknown prior to the translation. As Goethe said, three translations are needed: an initial adaptation, to explain the foreign; a middling rendition, to normalize the text (hopefully to create prestige); and a literalist translation, to bring the reader into the foreign textual world.
As for deconstruction, its one useful message might be a plea for tolerance. If there are different translations, it is because the source text is itself multiple.
Does this mean that we are all reacting against Eugene Nida and his concept of dynamic equivalence, supposedly embodied in the prior doctrine of Comme le prevoit in 1969? Not at all. I think it is quite plausible to read Nida in terms of a spectrum of possible translation solutions, ranging from “dynamic equivalence” at one end (“Lamb of God” becomes “Seal of God” for Inuits) to “formal correspondence” at the other (it becomes Agnus Dei, teaching us Latin). Nida recognized that there is a time and place for everything along that range, and his great historical virtue was to open up that plurality.
That said, the concepts operative in Liturgiam authenticam might appear to find three supporters among contemporary theorists:
- The German theorist Ernst-August Gutt has applied relevance theory to translation. This theory posits that language just gives us “communicative clues” about intentions, and the receiver decodes those clues according to the various contexts present. When he talks about New Testament translation, Gutt does indeed argue that readers should interpret clues in terms of first-century Palestine, and not any other context. In the same way, Liturgiam authenticam insists that the only proper interpretative context is the existing Catholic liturgical culture. In both cases, the opinion is legitimate, but it in no way derives from the linguistic theory or the scholarship involved. The same theory can support the most adaptive of dynamic equivalences.
- The American theorist Lawrence Venuti has argued that the translator works to create a “domestic community of interest around the translated text.” This creation and extension of community sounds strangely reminiscent of what Liturgiam authenticam says about Catholic inculturation as being the aim of translation, and Venuti might be the theorist that the religious conservatives are looking for. Venuti’s politics, however, mean that he is actually talking about the heterogeneous marginalism of gay, feminist, poetic, academic, and scientific communities, huddling around cadences from abroad. There are many kinds of enculturation, and only perverse paradox could misconstrue Venuti as an ideologue in the mould of Liturgiam authenticam.
- The Indian theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak speaks about “enculturation” not just as the work of translation, but as a process of translation itself. This sounds quite similar to the term “inculturation” as it appears in Liturgiam authenticam, where it represents that aim and justification of translation. In both cases, the movement is not reciprocal exchange between two equal cultures, but a becoming, a transition from one culture into the other. So is Spivak your girl? Hardly. Spivak’s whole point is that all cultures are formed by translation and are constantly in a process of becoming. From infancy to adulthood, we move through a succession of cultures, always through translation, and none is permanent – not even the Catholic Church.
So, have translation theorists moved beyond prescriptions of dynamic equivalence? Most definitely. Have they moved back to prescriptions of literalism? In some cases yes, but in most cases no, since there is little evidence of any kind of historical pendulum involved. And can contemporary academic theorists give support to the conservatism of Liturgiam authenticam? – Huh?
Gutt, Erst-August. 1991/2000. Translation and Relevance. Cognition and Context, 2nd ed. Manchester: St Jerome.
Pym, Anthony. 2009. “All things to all people. On Nida and involvement,” in Rodica Dimitriu and Miriam Shlesinger (eds) Translators and Their Readers. In Homage to Eugene A. Nida. Brussels: Les Editions du Hazard.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorti. 2007. “Translation as culture,” in P. St-Pierre and P. C. Kar (eds.) In Translation – Reflections, Refractions, Transformations, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins, 263–276.
Venuti, Lawrence. 2004. “Translation, community, utopia,” in The Translation Studies Reader, second edition, London and New York: Routledge, 468-488.