Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

Towards a New and More Constructive Partnership: The Changing Role of Translation in Comparative Literature

Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

Towards a New and More Constructive Partnership: The Changing Role of Translation in Comparative Literature

Article excerpt

I. Changing Paradigms

The relationship between comparative literature and translation has always been an uneasy one. If we are to look back at the brief history of comparative literature as a formal field of study, we would see that the development of this discipline, relatively young as it is, is marked by lack of confidence and insecurity as comparatists attempted to find a proper bearing for it down the decades. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the direction of comparative literature has changed considerably with the times, and translation, as its poor relation, has been assigned various uneasy roles while the discipline developed, expanded, wavered and gasped for breath.

Throughout the centuries doubts have been raised, again and again, about the feasibility of translating literature. As early as the time of Cicero, people believed that expressing the ideas, styles, emotions and forms of literary works in their entirety is impossible. Despite this uncertainty, however, innumerable pieces of literature, the classic and the less canonical, have been rendered from one language into another, enriching and influencing the recipient community's literary, artistic and cultural spheres. Yet translation has continued to play second fiddle to comparative literature, even to this day.

In the early stages of the development of comparative literature, translation served as an imperfect yet handy tool in the context of influence studies, i.e., in tracing and establishing genetic relations among national literatures and writers. The emphasis of such studies of course is on the original text. Even as comparatists observed and tried to determine the course of transfer of themes and motifs, translations were merely regarded as convenient messengers. The much-flouted positioning of translation as a separate class of literature per se, as proposed by the Descriptive School, never did occur in the minds of comparatists until the 80s and the 90s, a time when translations studies was on the rise and interdisciplinarity and multiculturalism increasingly became the bywords in comparative literature.

In her provocative work, Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction, published in 1993, Susan Bassnett proposes a redefinition of the role of translation and translation studies. In her last chapter, she writes:

   In an age when Borges has suggested that the concept of definitive
   text belongs only to religion and fatigue, and post-Structuralist
   critics have shown the fallacy of believing in a single, definitive
   reading, discourse on translation went on talking about 'originals'
   and 'accuracy' and continued to make use of a terminology of
   negativity. Translation, it is suggested, 'betrays', 'traduces',
   'diminishes', 'reduces', 'loses' parts of the original, translation
   is 'derivative', 'mechanical', 'secondary', poetry is lost in the
   translation, certain writers are 'untranslatable.' (140)

These words somehow summarize the indignant mutterings of a motley group of comparative literature academics from around the world who lament the sorry status of translated works in the contemporary literary system.

Yet it is rather peculiar and idiosyncratic that such a statement should come from one of the relatively new works introducing comparative literature published as late as the eve of the twenty-first century. In fact, Bassnett wraps up the said chapter by issuing a bold and outright call for the adoption of translation studies as the principal discipline, to which comparative literature must be subordinated as "a subsidiary subject area" (Comparative Literature 161). (1) Somehow, Bassnett's intervention reflects collective unease in fin-de-siecle comparative literature following a succession of frantic pronouncements of crises in the years leading up to the publication of Bassnett's book.

Thus, the much-debated issue of the role of translation in contemporary literary studies remains timely and relevant. …

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