Refraction and recognition: Literary multilingualism in translation

Rainier Grutman

Texts foregrounding different languages pose unusual challenges for translators and translation scholars alike. This article seeks to provide some insights into what happens to multilingual literature in translation. First, Antoine Berman’s writings on translation are used to reframe questions of semantic loss in terms of the ideological underpinnings of translation as a cultural practice. This leads to a wider consideration of contextual aspects involved in the “refraction” of foreign languages, such as the translating literature’s relative position in the “World Republic of Letters” (Casanova). Drawing on a Canadian case-study (Marie-Claire Blais in English translation), it is suggested that asymmetrical relations between dominating and dominated literatures need not be negative per se, but can lead to the recognition of minority writers.

Table of contents

The widely held view that translation ‘normally’ involves no less and no more than two languages (often called ‘source’ and ‘target’ languages) admittedly does justice to a majority of translational transfers between literatures. Yet a theory of translation cannot limit itself to the most common or plausible scenarios (that is, if it pretends to ‘observe’, according to the original meaning of the Greek verb theôrein). It should also include exceptional, marginally significant, even ‘abnormal’ ways in which literature has in fact been translated. After all, exceptions have been known to lead to the revision of previously universally [ p. 18 ]accepted rules, and the most scientific of laws only last as long as they remain unchallenged by new facts.

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