What kind of literature is a literary translation?

Douglas Robinson

This paper is a kind of manifesto for a new conception of literary translation as a unique literary genre that is imitative but qualitatively different from, and not necessarily worse than, the model it imitates. It explores this possibility by first interrogating Gérard Genette’s model of literariness in Fiction and Diction – considering how literary translation as a unique genre might fit that model – and then considering what the literary translator imitates, and the relationship between translation and the novel as similar imitative genres. Key to this comparison is the novel’s early (and continuing) reliance on the “found-translation framing device,” which is effectively what Gideon Toury calls a pseudotranslation but is not (necessarily) designed to hide original creation – rather, to play with the illusion of reality. The paper ends with the suggestion that literature tout court might be reimagined in terms of its transformative energies – and that translation might come to be seen as one of literature’s most definitive genres.

Publication history
Table of contents

The standard answer to the question in my title, of course, is that a literary translation is exactly the same kind of literature as its source text: a translation of a novel is also a novel; a translation of an epic is also an epic; a translation of a play is also a play, and so on. Since a literary translation is an interlingual imitation of a literary text, and by definition the literary translator therefore endeavors to imitate everything about the source text in the target language, in the transition from source text to target text the kind of literature remains unchanged. The standard assumption is also, of course, that the translated literary text is by default a bit inferior to its original – as Platonic copy theory has taught us for nearly two and a half millennia, an imitation is inevitably worse than the thing it imitates – but a difference in degree does not necessarily create a difference in kind. Even when a literary translation is worse than its original, it is still the same kind of literature as the original.

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