Language politics, translation, and American literary history

Michael Boyden
Faculty of Arts, K.U.Leuven

The article deals with the problem of linguistic alterity in American literary histories. The debate over the ‘foreignness’ or the ‘domesticity’ of a text or translation is usually conducted in a rather polarizing fashion, as in the case of Venuti (1995). Venuti’s conceptual framework fails to provide adequate criteria for differentiating domesticating and foreignizing translation strategies, which easily results in inflated claims about the linguistic hegemony of the Anglo-American world. In reaction to this, the article reconceptualizes the two translation strategies as part of the paradoxical internal logic of culture in order to highlight how every culture is continually in the process of (re-)translating itself. Therefore, the analysis is broadened to include the domesticating aspects of the foreignizing strategy, and vice versa, the foreignizing potential of domesticating translations. The domestication of the foreign is evident in the ambiguous inclusion of non-English or bilingual texts in American literary histories. The foreignization of the domestic, by contrast, appears from a persistent tendency on the part of literary historians to describe their forerunners or competitors as excessively Anglo- or Eurocentric. Through this reflexive application of Venuti’s strategies, the article draws attention to the paradoxical togetherness of the foreign and the domestic inside American literary culture.

Table of contents

The issue of language in relation to the politics of identity is conventionally approached in terms of oppositions like assimilation and resistance, similarity and difference, or particularism and universalism. It has often been noted that such pairs simplify the debate by creating false polarities. Yet, their appeal seems to [ p. 122 ]be undiminished. Thus, in The translator’s invisibility Lawrence Venuti (following Schleiermacher) has introduced a distinction between domesticating and foreignizing translation methods, or between “bringing the author back home” on the one hand, and “sending the reader abroad” on the other hand (1995: 20). While Venuti’s preference clearly goes out to the latter option, his book is built on the thesis that since the Second World War the former strategy has predominated in the Anglo-American world. According to Venuti, most English translations of ‘foreign’ texts perpetuate a form of cultural manipulation by domesticating the original to the values of the dominant target culture. Such translations suggest an illusion of ‘transparency’ and ‘fluency’. The translator then becomes, as it were, invisible.

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