[Interview] Theorising Translation with Susan Bassnett

Theorising Translation with Susan Bassnett

Nazry Bahrawi

 With over twenty titles under her belt, Susan Bassnett can be aptly described as the reigning queen of translation studies. Out of her oeuvre, books like Translation Studies (2002) have become indispensable texts for translation courses all over the world. She is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Warwick, and also a fellow at the Royal Society of Literature—the United Kingdom’s premium literary association.

More than a translation academic, Bassnett also wears the hats of a poet and of a cultural critic. In 2002, she released the milestone book, Exchanging Lives: Poems and Translations, where she entered into a “conversation” with Alejandra Pizarnik by setting her own poems next to her translations of the late Argentine poet. By this, Bassnett signals to the world that she is not just a translator, but in fact a co-author.

Exchanging Lives is the result of only one of the many successful scholarly partnerships that characterize Susan Bassnett’s career. She co-edited Post-colonial Translation: Theory and Practice (1998) with Indian critic Harish Trivedi and later The Translator as Writer (2006) with award-winning British translator Peter Bush. Bassnett also worked on two books with the late translation theorist André Lefevere, one of the field’s legends. A tract running through her discourse is the idea that translation is a powerful act that can manipulate as much as liberate. With Trivedi, she speaks of the ‘cannibalisation’ theory to postcolonial translation where the original text is ‘consumed’ by the translator and reproduced as his or her own. This was an extension of a point she made earlier with Lefevere (in Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation (1998)): that translators are increasingly gaining greater attention from readers as a visible agent in the production of texts.

Despite her fame within the field, the Bassnett I know as my academic supervisor at the University of Warwick is someone who is never too far from the concerns of the common man. In the spring of 2010 when I first interviewed her for a podcast entitled Faiths as Narratives, Bassnett refers to the case of a mourning father whose daughter was murdered some years back. She cites this case to illustrate how literature and religion can come together to alleviate the pain of an ordinary person. “What poetry does, and I suppose good prose too, is about shaping”, observes Bassnett. “Prayer too is about shaping; you are shaping whatever these feelings are, and you are shaping them into something”.

To the uninitiated, translation is a technical act. This, I gather, from numerous conversations with friends and acquaintances over coffee, during dinner, and even in academic gatherings. Accordingly, it is an act that—when manifested as an academic discipline—must be figured as an applied science. Lending credence to this view is the fact that we live in a capitalistic world where the act of translating is viewed as a means to profit-making. One learns a skill, not a philosophy.  As a noted scholar of translation studies, how would you respond to this somewhat widespread view?

You are absolutely right when you say that for people not engaged in translating, translation appears to be something technical.  There is a widely held view that anything said or written in one language can easily be transferred into another.  People who do not engage with movement between languages can, I suppose very logically, see no reason why there should be any difficulty in transposing thoughts, ideas, and facts into other languages.  I have always held to the view posed by Edward Sapir that different languages represent different world views, that it is not simply a question of rephrasing when one moves into another language but reformulating that is rethinking.  The simplest example I can give of this is the very obvious one of the totally different accepted forms of political rhetoric that prevails in different cultures.  If we look at the kind of rhetoric coming from Libya at the moment during the conflict we will see that the norm is to use what in English is so hyperbolic as to appear absurd.  The British English norm for political speechifying is understatement.  So when you have one system that uses hyperbole or overstatement and one system that uses understatement it is obvious that direct translation of speeches made by different political figures across those cultures is going to present problems.  I have written elsewhere about the difficulty of rendering hyperbolic speeches into an acceptable form in English and similarly English understatement goes down very badly in cultures that do not value understatement at all.

What is very clear to me, after years working on different aspects of translation, is that it is a highly complex activity but requires different skills according to different text types.  If one is translating a technical document, a legal document, an instruction manual then accuracy is essential and it is essential also that that text should be reformulated according to the norms of the target culture.  A lot of what has been written about translation though concerns not technical but literary text and it is here where most of the theorising has taken place and where most of the difficulties reside.  So I would say that yes, translation is a skill and the translation of many text types can be taught and indeed is taught and carried out effectively.  But when we come to the translation of literary texts this is not a skill.  Here translation is effectively rewriting.

There is a rich tradition of theorising about translation that exists in most cultures. Some in Europe might cite the likes of Walter Benjamin while the Japanese could refer to Nogami Toyoichiro. If translation can at all be fashioned as a philosophical venture, what can it offer to the wider world?

The rich tradition of translation theorising concerns primarily literary and philosophical texts.  Texts that are viewed as valuable, not for any commercial purpose but for aesthetic or ethical purposes, require great care in the translation process.  Again and again around the world and across the millennia we find translation theorists stressing the need for translators to be aware of the multi-facetedness or multi-layeredness of what it is that they are trying to translate.  The Western notion of word for word versus sense for sense has been around for over 2,000 years and exists in many other cultural systems also.  You ask the question about what translation as a philosophical venture can offer to the wider world.  My view is that it can offer the following:

i) A recognition that ideas about beauty can be transferred across time and space but also that such ideas change.

ii) Translation enables us to have access to work that we would otherwise never be able to encounter.

iii) Translation enables the writing of great figures from the past to survive and to continue to be read by subsequent generations.

Above all, what I think theorising about translation does is it makes us all more aware of secret dimensions to what we are reading.  This is particularly apparent in the case of the translation of sacred texts and to give you just one example: the other night I read two versions of a psalm by two different translators at different points in time (the one being 16th century, the other 20th century) and I found myself astonished by the differences not only of perspective but also of doctrine that were opened up by those translators’ choice of words.

As a translation scholar, you have made some provocative statements. The one that struck me as a student of comparative literature was when you signalled that the field of comparative literature “has had its day” (161) in your book Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction back in 1993. You wrote: “We should now look upon translation studies as the principal discipline from now on, with comparative literature as a valued subsidiary subject area” (ibid.). More than a decade later, in an essay titled Reflections on Comparative Literature in the Twenty-First Century (2006), you said that this initial observation was “fundamentally flawed”. In that essay, you argued instead that comparative literature and translation studies should be seen as methods of approaching literature. I have two questions related to this. First, could you describe to us what has led to this change in your views? Second, would you say now that your views on comparative literature and translation studies might have been refined further given the advent of world literature as an academic discipline?

I welcome these questions because it is important to look back over one’s career and reflect that ideas can change.  When I wrote my Comparative Literature book that came out in 1993 I saw myself very much as still arguing the case for translation studies which was the poor relation of comparative literature.  I also saw comparative literature as deeply troubled and indeed Gayatri Spivak later took up the same issue in her essays collated as Death of a Discipline (2003).  What I wanted to do in that book was first of all to bring postcolonial studies together with comparative literature because the two seemed to be going off in different directions absurdly, and I also wanted to highlight the importance of translation studies which previously had been relegated to the margins in comparative literature.  My model was the suggestion made a good decade or so earlier that rather than semiotics being seen as a branch of linguistics, linguistics should rather be viewed as a branch of semiotics.  So I suggested that the overarching discipline should be translation studies with comparative literature as one of the lines of enquiry within it. 

I came to change my mind because I felt that translation studies did not move forward intellectually in terms of its theorising as fast as comparative literature started to do once it had engaged with the postcolonial and with questions of globalisation. I think today that comparative literature is remaking itself and the development of world literature is obviously something that I welcome.  I also think that there has been a lot of quite sophisticated thinking about translation by literary theorists that ironically it is taking new directions that some people who define themselves as translation studies scholars have been too timid to explore.  It could be argued that the very success of translation studies as a subject in universities around the world (a success that may well have to do with students hoping that they can acquire technical skills in translation that will get them better jobs) has led to a paucity of new ideas about translation.  That new thinking, it seems to me, is coming from within world literature in particular at the present time.

A common thread running through your writings is the idea that translation is seldom an invisible act; rather, it is one embroiled in power and politics. If I can cite a line from another of your book The Translator as Writer (2006), which you have co-edited with Peter Bush, you purport that readers of translated works should “recognise translation as an art to be celebrated, not concealed” (2). Some translators might interpret this as an encouragement for them to disregard the original, perhaps even ‘cannibalise’ it to make it their own—an idea that you have addressed in Post-Colonial Translation: Theory and Practice (1999). Would they be right in assuming so?

This is a very difficult question.  It is one that has preoccupied translation theorists since the beginning of translating and will continue to preoccupy because it is a question that involves the responsibility of the translator.  Basically a translator has a dual responsibility: to the original text that he or she is seeking to translate and hence to that author, and to the readership.  My view is that the primary duty of the translator is to create a text in the target language that can be appreciated by readers and at the same time demonstrates respect for the source.  But how to interpret respect is the interesting question.  I do not see that a translator has to follow an original slavishly.  Indeed I believe that it is the duty of the translator to rewrite and to recontextualise whatever it is that he or she is rendering.  I have just written an essay in which I argue that a sonnet by the Irish poet Michael Longley and a novel by the Australian writer David Malouf can be seen as “translations” of book 24 of Homer’s Iliad.  Clearly neither are literal translations nor indeed do either of them attempt to follow the structure of the original but I view both these works, both the poem and the novel, as translations because neither could have been written without Homer in the first instance.  They may diverge from the original considerably, may be considered, if you like, cannibalisations but if we think of translation as rewriting with the intention to create something beautiful and something worthy of the original then both Longley and Malouf do just that.

The Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o believes that speaking in the language of the coloniser makes one think like a white man. This belief has seen him switching from writing novels in English to writing them in his native tongue Gikuyu. Do you believe that languages carry within them values specific to a civilisation and that some experiences are untranslatable?

I fully understand the issues here about the problem of the unequal power of different languages.  Part of the difficulty that African writers have been wrestling with is not just the question of the dominance of the colonisers’ languages in terms of usage but the dominance in terms of publishing houses, marketing of books and economics in general.  Many African writers have written in illuminating ways about this dilemma.  As to whether languages carry within them values specific to a civilisation then yes I believe they do.  Languages develop over time.  Words accrue significance.  Writers and storytellers bring phrases and new ways of seeing into a language and into the minds of people who use that language.  It therefore follows that there will be some texts relating to particular experiences that are untranslatable in that they would have little or no significance outside their original context.

When it comes to religion, translation could be a perilous act. We know for instance that the Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses—a book that had riled Muslims—was murdered. The book’s Italian translator was also attacked. Yet if one compares the translations of holy texts such as the Qu’ran and the Bible, one can certainly find nuances between different versions. Should the pursuit of translating religion (in all its manifestations) follow a set of rules that differs from any other acts of translation?

I don’t believe that the pursuit of translating religion should follow a different set of rules from other acts of literary translation but there has to be awareness of what has gone before.  This is possibly the principal difference from other kinds of translation.  If you are translating a Shakespeare sonnet, for example, you may find it interesting to look at earlier versions by other translators but you might not deem it necessary.  If translating a sacred text however, I think it would be essential to look at the work of previous translators and so that conscious rereading is, I believe, a crucial part of translating holy texts.  You point out quite rightly that translation can be perilous and we know that the history of bible translation, for example, is full of stories of persecution and indeed execution of translators.  The translator of any sacred text needs to be very aware of what he or she is doing and that awareness can only come from a full understanding of what has been done by predecessors.

You are not just an academic of translation studies. You are also a poet and a translator. How do the interplay between these roles help you philosophise the idea of translation?

My own writing has always fed into my theorising.  When you translate you deal with the practical tasks of rendering something written by someone else into an acceptable shape for a new readership.  You therefore engage with the text in a completely different way than if you were simply reading it in one language.  Translating has made me enormously aware of the responsibility that I have to both readers and original writer.  It has also made me see very clearly what can and cannot be done as texts are transferred across languages.  I have translated a large variety of texts including technical manuals, legal and medical papers, philosophical papers, novels, short stories, poetry from and into Italian, poetry from Spanish, Polish and Latin, so I believe I have a good idea of what translation entails.  I have also learned an enormous amount from writing my own poetry, above all the importance of shaping.  I find myself falling back again and again on what might seem to be rather old fashioned language and thinking of the writer and the translator as a wordsmith, as a craftsman, as a storyteller, as a pattern shaper.  There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my creative writing has been enormously valuable in enabling me to produce scholarly work that is not desiccated and cut off from the real world.  It is also the case that my journalism enabled me to engage directly with the problems of translating news reports for newspapers and the media, which fed into my recent publication Translation and Global News (2008).

We have been increasingly told that the twenty first century will be the golden age for Asia. Yet the field of translation studies in this part of the world—as compared to Europe—has not been particularly homogeneous. The universities in Singapore, for instance, offer courses that position translation as an applied science whereas institutions in Hong Kong are more open to incorporating translation theory as part of their curriculum. If I could indulge you now to gaze into the crystal ball, how do you see the future of translation studies, and translation itself?

You ask me now to gaze into a crystal ball.  That is always very difficult but I think I see the future of translation studies as going in different directions.  There is no question that translation is now hugely important as a global enterprise, probably more so than it has ever been at any point in the past.  This is due to the movement of peoples in greater numbers than every before around the globe, to increased global interdependence economically and to the proliferation of electronic media.  We will therefore need to train more translators and there will need to be an emphasis on that training being seen as an applied science.  However, this is only one part of the story.  I believe that the other development of translation studies will take place as programmes in world literature expand and the vital role of translation in the propagation of world literature will continue to be highlighted.  What I would hope will not happen is that translation as an applied science will be completely cut off from the aesthetic because having to engage with the philosophical questions raised by the translation of literary or sacred texts, for example, would be of enormous assistance to anyone attempting to take on the task of translating any kind of text.  But whatever happens in the future I see translation as growing not diminishing in importance.



Nazry Bahrawi is a doctoral researcher at the University of Warwick’s Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies. He is supervised by Professor Susan Bassnett. His thesis investigates utopian desire and secular philosophy in Graham Greene and Naguib Mahfouz. More generally, his research interest centres on utopianism, philosophy and theology, comparative literature and translation theory. With about a decade of experience in the editorial field, he was formerly a journalist with Today (Singapore) and The Brunei Times (Brunei). His socio-cultural commentaries have appeared in The Guardian, The Khaleej Times and Bangkok Post. Between mid 2011 and early 2012, Nazry is engaged as a research associate at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.