Language focus | 23.06.2009

Literary Translation

Literary translation, unlike the translation of commercial or technical material, is a rarely requested service yet it is perhaps one of the most challenging where the translator’s role as a cultural mediator is even more pertinent.

Within any particular genre there are innumerable ways to approach the task of translation depending upon the translation brief, the text itself as well as prevalent norms and preferences. Influenced by age-old traditions, the practice of literary translation is a complex decision making process.

One of the main factors influencing the translator’s decision making process and dominating translation theory is what components of the source text should be preserved and represented in translation.

Before the second half of the 20th century literary translation theory and the translator’s strategies that ensued were dominated by the word-for-word (literal translation) versus sense-for-sense (free translation) debate. During the 1950’s and 60’s the concept of equivalence or correspondence between the source and target text came to the fore with theorists discussing the different types of equivalence and the extent to which it is considered a necessary condition of translation. Broadly speaking if you are striving towards equivalence above word level then a free target-oriented translation strategy would be applied, whereas if equivalence at word or textual level is required then a literal source oriented translation may be more appropriate.

Towards the end of the 20th century, translation theory and practice has focussed more on whether to preserve the foreign essence of the original text or whether to adapt the translation so to conform with the reader’s cultural and linguistic experiences. Schleiermacher was among the first to acknowledge the translator’s unique position and described how either ‘the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader towards the writer or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer towards the reader’1 (1813/1992: 41-2). More recently Lawrence Venuti (1995)2 has been instrumental in researching and promoting the valorisation versus the eradication of the foreign and has introduced the terms foreignization and domestication to describe these opposing strategies. Domestication is characterised by a fluent style where the foreign elements of the source text (such as cultural references) are suppressed and the translator is invisible to the target audience. In contrast foreignization refers to a non-fluent, estranged style that emphasises the foreignness of the source text, for example through the preservation of linguistic elements in the translation that do not conform with the expectations of its readers (such as word order, borrowing of easily understandable source text words or phrases such as ‘Bonjour’ or c’est la vie). Although the idea of foreignization is theoretically grounded, in practice it can be problematic if the translation is to be read, understood, and appreciated by a broad cross-section of society as it can be alienating.

Achieving equivalence above word level has gradually become the primary concern for many practicing literary translators, as well as the measure of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ translation. One could argue that it has become the norm of literary translation to produce a target text that has been preened beyond perfection to try and arouse the same emotions among the target audience, as the original would have summoned among its readers. In doing so, any traces of the translations foreign roots are rubbed away along with the translator’s presence, which in turn serves to marginalise their skill. Translator invisibility is a common trend, and literary translations are often disguised as originals with no clue to the fact that they were originally written in another language. Although today’s literary translators have more freedom to experiment and exert their individuality, the fact remains that if they wish to earn a living then they are at the mercy of authors and the publishing industry.

To conclude, literary translation is a complex process with many possible approaches which not only demands flawless linguistic skills in both the source and target language, but also an understanding of the effect the author or publishing house wish to achieve. In contrast to other genres of translations a more literal literary translation that retains features of the source text could be a sign of the translator’s deep understanding and appreciation of the source rather than evidence of their linguistic incompetence.

If you have a literary translation requirement then contact The Translation People to discover how we can help you to broaden your readership.


1. Shleiermacher, F. (1813) ‘On the different methods of translating’, in R. Shulte and J. Biguenet (eds) 1992/1992pp.36-52.
2. Venuti, L. (1995) The Translator’s Invisibility, London and NewYork: Routledge.

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