Venuti, Lawrence — Translation as a Social Practice: Or, the Violence of Translation

Venuti, Lawrence. “Translation as a Social Practice: Or, the Violence of Translation.” Translation Perspectives 9 (1996): 195-213.

Lawrence Venuti begins the article defining translation as an act of violence: “it is the forcible replacement of the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text with a text that will be intelligible to the target-language culture” which will therefore “assimilate into [the target-language culture’s] positions of intelligibility, its canons and taboos, its codes and ideologies” associated with the foreign language’s origin.  At the beginning, the aim of translation was to make the culture considered an “other” recognizable or familiar within the target culture, but as a result, he explains that translation serves as an “an imperialist appropriation of foreign cultures for domestic agendas.” As a result, the translation domesticates the foreign text rather than preserving its true meaning.

Venuti discusses the various kinds of power translation has. Translation has a lot of power in shaping the national identities of foreign cultures to the world; it has some power in alleviating racial or ethnic conflicts; and it also has power in the maintenance of “literary canons” by the target language that continues to facilitate its cultural dominance over the foreign language (196). Regardless of these powers, Venuti ultimately believes that the violence of translation is inherent in its processes, making such violence partially inevitable, and that this violence can emerge at any time during the production of a translated text, depending on the specific cultural or social movements that might be occurring.  Therefore, whether this potential is considered depends solely on the translator, who will always have “a choice concerning the degree and direction of the violence at work in his practice” (197).  Venuti references Schleirmacher, who describes the two choices which translators can make: “to leave the author in peace as much as possible and move the reader towards the author, or leave the author in peace and move the author towards [the translator].”

Venuti takes this idea, and separates these two notions into differing methods: domestication (the ethnocentric form of translation) and foreignization (which sends the reader abroad and points out the linguistic cultural differences of the foreign text).  By the turn of the 19th century, foreignization was the important staple of translators to promote linguistic and cultural difference, yet the “offside of foreignizing a text is an effort that makes the native target language country have an alien reading experience” (197). Furthermore, from the very beginning, English language translation has always pushed towards domestication. This is because they (those who fell under this method) do not think domestication is violent towards the foreign text or its country. In fact, the majority believed (and still believe) that domestication was the better way to get the real version of a reading in order to make the most impact on the target language and its culture (200).  Therefore, it was the “responsibility of the translator to understand and adequately translate the foreign text […] to such an extent that they can understand how the original receptors must have understood the original text” (204).  Venuti argues that foreignization does not mean doing away with a target language’s political agenda, for “such an advocacy is itself an agenda” (205). Instead, foreignization is meant to allow translators to “develop a theory and practice of translation that resists dominant target-language cultural values” which would ultimately “differentiate the cultural and linguistic differences of the foreign language” (205).

Ultimately, Venuti wants to argue that translation is a “locus of difference,” and that a translator’s job is not to preserve the foreignness of a text, but to gather resistance against ethnocentrism, racism, cultural narcissism, and imperialism while understanding the power of translation in the geopolitical world (211).

According to Venuti, translation is inevitably violent. This is an extremely provocative idea. Taking a foreign text and rearranging its words to fit into a different paradigm will never truly understand the meaning behind these words due to the differing cultural context in which they are created. Reworking a text for a new paradigm is definitely a violent action, for it seems to disregard the cultural differences of a text in order to make it more understandable (somewhat) in a place that technically would otherwise not understand it.

But in such cases, the “translation” would mean nothing; it would be a pseudo-translation, and the power within this translation is frightening. A translator could choose to translate the text in a way that could continue to support the perspective of the target language’s population towards that foreign language’s culture, which could be good or bad, depending on the opinion of the translator. The foreign language loses any chance of changing perspectives, and in return, will continue to hold the same image within that target language. Such a scenario fits well with Galtung’s definition of violence being anything that prevents a person from reaching his or her full human potential, because it allows no possibility for the foreign language to be considered important and imperative to human life in the target culture.

Translation does seem to create difference, which could be considered both good and bad, but it’s the choice of the translator that ultimately decides how violent those differences can be. The two methods that translators use also seem violent; domesticating or foreignizing a text seem to forget the importance of individualization and demoralizes personal interpretation, a concept we use on a daily basis. Are there other ways a translator can approach a reading that does not seem to create a hierarchy of power, but instead simply read and create understanding? Maybe simply learning the other language is a better option? This article makes me question whether translation could be considered a structural form of violence. This is something I would like to look into further, to determine to what degree translation is inevitably a form of institutionalized, structural violence.  Must translation be inevitably violent?

–Madiera Dennison



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