Ethical Literary Criticism and the Ethics of Reading
Acknowledgement that reading is practised from the vantage point of different epistemologies and traditions, calling on us to respect that otherness in texts, points to potential limitations in our reading and understanding of the text, and inevitably raises the question of how we ensure that we do justice to the text in translation (Dunne 2010; Hillis Miller 2009). Aspects of ethical literary criticism are useful in understanding what it means to undertake an ethical reading that does justice to the text.
In his 2018 interview with Charles Ross, Nie Zhenzhao (in Ross 2018:n.p.) defines ethical literary criticism as:
a theory and methodology for reading, interpreting, understanding, analyzing and evaluating literature from an ethical standpoint. It argues that literature is a historically contingent presentation of ethics and morality and that reading literature helps human beings to reap moral enlightenment and thus make better ethical choices. The mission of ethical literary criticism is to uncover the ethical value of literature.
While we may not agree that the overriding purpose of literary criticism is to “to uncover the ethical value of literature”, few would argue that literature does not represent ethical values and ethical perspectives of the world, and that these constitute important aspects of the meaning(s) of the text. Useful to the present discussion is the distinction that Nie and other ethical literary critics draw between ethical and moral criticism. Moral criticism is conceptualised as the evaluation of “a given literary workas good or bad on the basis of today’s moral principles” (Nie 2015:84) or of the “moral principles held by critics themselves” (Nie and Shang 2015:6) whereas “ethical literary criticism is founded in the specific historical context or ethical environment of literature [with the latter being seen as a] unique expression of morality in a given historical period” (Nie in Ross 2018:n.p.), and an expression of “ethical values” (Nie and Shang 2015:85). From a translation perspective, the reader/critic/translator needs to distinguish their own ethical frameworks and perspectives from those of the text, avoiding moral judgements on the literary work or the events, characters and their actions, and to be cognisant of the ethical values and perspectives at play in the text. Although as individual readers, we do inevitably and ceaselessly enter into a (personal) dialogue with the values embodied in the text, the role of the reader/translator is to understand and decide on how best to reflect the perspectives of the author/text.
It is in the distinction between moral and ethical criticism that ethical literary criticism converges with Emmanuel Levinas’s respect for the Other (Levinas 1969; Ricoeur 1997; Poetzsch 2009). The reader/ translator is invited to explore and respond to the multiple play of meanings and perspectives in the text, not to assimilate these to those of the target reader or the translator. Although the reflection of perspective is important in all text types, it is never stronger than in a literary text, and any decision to overwrite and exclude the target reader from the ethical perspectives of a literary work must be intellectually and ethically well considered. We can see, therefore, that an ethics of reading lies at the heart of ethical literary criticism. Gregory (1998:194) provides a useful preliminary description of the act of reading.
Telling and consuming stories is a fundamental and universal human activity. From the time we are born the sound of story accompanies us like the collective heartbeat of humanity, and none of us rejects the opportunity to enlarge ourselves by ‘trying on’ the lives and feelings of fictional characters in stories can exert a powerful influence on the quality and content of our own lives.
Reading provides us with an opportunity to experience vicariously other lives, feelings and human experiences, even if at times our allegiances are tested. Our curiosity is aroused, and we are challenged to extend our knowledge of the world (even through fiction) and to understand the different choices and values to which our reading potentially exposes us. We are drawn into an ethical reading of the text.
Daniel Schwarz (1998:221-222) differentiates between two types of ethical reading: the ethics of reading, which is reading from multiple perspectives or “at least empathetically entering into the readings of those who are situated differently”, and ethics while reading, which is trying “to understand what the author was saying to her original imagined audience and both why and how the actual polyauditory audience might
The Ethical in Literary Translation 41 have responded and for what reasons”. His description of the activity of reading is similar to that of the translator reading for translation, which involves consideration not only of the meanings the text has for the individual translator, but also of the meanings that may speak to the many, the target audience. It points to the contribution ethical literary criticism can make to our understanding of translation as an act of reading ethically and with understanding. It also brings us to the discussion below of translation ethics, now understood through the lens of ethical literary criticism, as the application of ethical reading. At the same time, it provides us with the nexus between literary translation and an ethics of reading for translation.