The Ethical in Literary Translation

Libby Meintjes

University of the Witivatersrand, Johannesburg


The premise of this contribution is that literary translation is intrinsically a praxis informed by our understanding, in the broadest sense of the word, and that it is also intrinsically a praxis of reading. This chapter first considers the notion of praxis before moving on to a discussion of literature and reading, ethical literary criticism, and ethics in translation for the purposes of elaborating an ethical trajectory for literary translation praxis.

Praxis is an Aristotelian term that refers to the action of doing, acting and practice. Aristotle referred to three basic human activities as theo-ria, praxis and poiesis, which correspond more or less to philosophical contemplation (knowledge), practice or praxis as action itself (Hanley 1998), and the bringing into being of something that did not exist before (production/ creation). The concept of praxis embraces the notion of practice in the sense that they both sit in dynamic relationship to thought and ideas (theories) and refer to the application of knowledge, which is constantly evolving and adapting to changing conditions and ways of thinking. Aristotelian praxis, like translation, is a teleological (goal-oriented) activity but also contains within it the notion of striving to achieve the highest good (Hanley 1998) and may be an end in itself. In the latter sense, praxis shares some of the features of literature as discussed below. Emmanuel Kant described praxis as “ethically significant thought, or practical reason, that is, reasoning about what there should be as opposed to what there is” (Blackburn 1994:360). According to this definition, the concept of praxis already contains the notion of ethics (or moral philosophy), broadly defined as that branch of philosophy which deals with principles of morality (concepts such as justice, right or wrong, good and evil) and recommending behaviours in the interests of the greater good of society. The teleological and ethical dimensions of practice and praxis guide the translator’s decision-making (agency) and rational and reasoned translation decisions and choices (actions). To manage this decision-making, the translator constantly subjects these

The Ethical in Literary Translation 37 decisions and choices to a process of reflection and reflexivity on their likely impact and their consequences (Baker and Maier 2011:3) for the translation and for other parties involved. This reflection and reflexivity mirror praxis and at the same time feed into it.

Two points need to be emphasised in relation to the above discussion. First, action and agency are enacted within social institutions, which are also premised on ethical principles. Working within this broader social framework, the literary translator is forced to consider whether the ethical framework within which s/he works is universally accepted in addition to other meta ethical questions around the role of reason in ethics, and what might be considered right or wrong decisions in the translation process (normative ethics). Second, because both practice and praxis are informed by theory, ideas and thoughts, they are also informed by epistemological paradigms. This means that we are not simply concerned with code-of-conduct translational issues but also with deeper questions related to the epistemological nature and expression of the text—with the relationship between the translator’s epistemological paradigms and those of the text, author, readers and other partners in the translation process.

The performance of the creative act of translation therefore calls for consideration of the translator’s ethical (moral) responsibility towards all the parties to the text. All the above processes are subsumed into the notion of literary translation praxis. The present discussion does not focus heavily on theories of literature, translation or ethics, but on the nature of literary translation praxis, which draws on the inextrcably linked strands of ethics, literature and translation.

Literature and the Reading of Literature

What is distinct about literature that we should treat literary translation differently from other types of translation? Jonathan Culler (1997) provides a useful discussion of the nature of literature, pointing to how certain features tend to be associated with it—such as the foregrounding of language, its fictional and aesthetic aspects, its relation to other literary works, its potential to disrupt established conventions and, related to the latter, its intertextuality and self-reflexivity. There is also, Culler (1997:33) argues, “purposiveness” in the way literary texts are constructed. They work to achieve a particular end, which may be the work of art itself. However, none of these features is unique to literary texts. What is unique to them is the “particular kind of attention” (Culler 1997:35) they receive (and therefore invite): “It is a writing that calls for a reading and engages readers in the problems of meanings” (Culler 1997:40). Roland Barthes (1974:4) refers to the kinds of texts that destabilise meaning as textes de jouissance (ecstasy or rapture) or writerly texts. The writerly text calls on the reader to become an active

producer of the text because its signifiance (the disruption, proliferation and production of meanings) is infinitely plural:

celui qui déconforte ... fait vaciller les assises historiques, culturelles, psychologiques, du lecteur, la consistance de ses goûts, de ses valeurs et de ses souvenirs, met en crise son rapport au langage.

[which creates discomfort ... which disrupts the historical, cultural and psychological assumptions of the reader, the coherence of his/her aesthetic sense, his/her values and memories, and confounds the reader’s relationship with the language. (My translation)]

(Barthes 1973:25-26)

These meanings are located in the overall affect of the text, in the detail of its organisation and individual, philosophical, social and psychological content. In writerly texts, language conveys “affect, a subjective reality, acquiring, in the process, subjective connotations which modulate the usual relationship of sign to sense within the language” (Le Blanc 2012:13 and cf. Hogan 2016). The proliferation and disruption of meaning is also what makes literature special and different. The appreciation of literature ultimately involves the reader opening up to the meanings of the text.

Language is the most fundamental semiotic system, but it also lends itself, through literature, to an aesthetic use which shifts the meaning of the sign away from its lexical value. It is in this sense that Barthes spoke of the writer’s duty to signify literature, warning against reducing a semiotic enterprise to a linguistic one ... Literature from the outset superimposes upon the semiotics of language an aesthetics; this makes it necessary, in language use, to consider the aesthetic as a component of meaning.

(Le Blanc 2012:10)

The ability and tendency of literature to disrupt conventions, towards difference, means that literature is not a static concept but one that is susceptible to change. As a social institution, literature is influenced by the social conditions within which it is created, which brings into play the possibility of our interpretations of the text being influenced by these social conditions and therefore possibly limited by them. It also forces us to acknowledge that literature and notions of literariness are neither ahistorical nor universal. This understanding of literature moves us in the direction of acknowledging the importance of the act of reading in relation to literature.

Every reading is unique, influenced by our acquired epistemological approaches, experiences, literary aesthetics and meaning making, but in

The Ethical in Literary Translation 39 the case of translation we have to be particularly careful to respect otherness and to be open to the potential plurality and diversity of understandings that the author brings, and that other readers might bring to the text. In her discussion of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La frontera: The new mestiza (1987), Judith Butler (2004:227) argues that Anzaldúa asks us “to stay at the edge of what we know, to put our own epistemological certainties into question, and through that risk and openness to another way of knowing and of living in the world to expand our capacity to imagine the human”. This is an ethics of reading, what Kelly Washbourne (2018:409) refers to as a “border-crossing project”. Respect for differing perspectives, for the potentially disruptive nature of literature and the otherness of the text/author/readers represents a nexus between ethics and the ethics of reading, from where we can make the connection with the paradigm of ethical literary criticism.

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