A Materialist Approach to Translation

By Sophie Drukman-Feldstein

The translator’s sin is that of breaching the mythology which surrounds the individual authorial voice. The literary world erases the translator in order to preserve the liberal ideal of individual genius. And yet this erasure is not a distinctive problem of translation, but rather an expression of the worker’s alienation from the product of their labor. It is in fact the narrative of authorship which is unusual, in that literature is one of the few commodities which, rather than being conceptually distanced from the workers who produce it, is viewed as an extension of that worker’s self. By arguing that translation is art, translation theory abandons the possibility of fighting alienation writ large, and instead pursues for translators the unusual forms of acknowledgement which writers receive.

When it comes to the struggles of interlingual communication, a go-to parable is the Tower of Babel. As the story goes, all people once spoke the same language, and by working together they attempted to build “a city, and a tower with its top in the sky” (Genesis 11.4). Concerned by this display of hubris, G-d introduced linguistic variation to humanity, and in so doing threw them into confusion and thwarted their plans.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (1563)

What is arguably most striking about this story is not its commentary on the challenges of multilingualism, but rather its underlying belief that collective human genius verges on the divine. The express purpose of building the tower is to avoid being “scattered all over the world” (Genesis 11.4)—that is, to preserve the power that comes from existing as a unified collective. Upon seeing the city and tower, G-d observes that “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach” (Genesis 11.6). In other words, collectivism—existence “as one people”—creates a power so great that it threatens the divine. The sin in Babel is hubris, but it is specifically a hubris founded in the communal, and the danger of the translinguistic is that it allows such convergence.

In a modern context, the translinguistic remains sinful—but today the sin is against the glorified individual authorial voice. As Mary Ann Newman puts it in “Migrations of Meaning,” “Each text to be translated is seen as perfect and pristine, and the translator must pour it into a new language vessel without variation or macula. To do otherwise is to sin, and to fall” (112). And what is the nature of this perfect or pristine state? In The Translators Invisibility, Venuti describes an “individualistic conception of authorship that continues to prevail in Anglo-American culture,” arguing that “According to this conception, the author freely expresses his thoughts and feelings in writing, which is thus viewed as an original and transparent self-representation, unmediated by transindividual determinants (linguistic, cultural, social) that might complicate authorial originality” (6-7). The authorial voice, constructed as an unmediated expression of the author’s essence, is elevated to the point that transgressions against it are seen as sin. This reverence for the individual author reflects liberal, capitalist values.

Although the object of worship has been secularized, the sin remains a sin of collectivism. In Julio Cortázar’s story “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” the translator protagonist observes, “It hurts me to come into an ambience where someone who lives beautifully has arranged everything like a visible affirmation of her soul” (39). The home, the ultimate expression of the private sphere and thus the unmediated self, represents the text. If the home is the text, then writing is neither a social act nor a form of labor—it is, rather, the purest extension of the individual author’s personhood—the “visible affirmation of [the] soul.” Translation threatens the ideal of words coming from a single source. It replaces the concept of individual genius with an understanding of language as fluid and transmissible. The translator thus endangers a liberal mythology of the nature of cultural production.

The only way to preserve this mythology is to erase the translator. From the need to secure individualism comes the translator’s invisibility or “self-annihilation” (Venuti 8). We see this annihilation in the failure to acknowledge translated texts as translated, and in the expectation that translators translate in a way that obscures their own impact on the text (Venuti). In “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” annihilation takes a literal form. At the end of the letter, our translator tells the titular young lady that he does not “think it will be difficult to pick up eleven small rabbits splattered over the pavement, perhaps they won’t even be noticed, people will be too occupied with the other body” (49-50). The “other body,” of course, is the translator’s own; he presumably jumps to his death, erasing himself and his transgressions from the apartment-as-text. But is annihilation actually a unique problem of translation?

The translator’s invisibility is, in fact, a specific iteration of the Marxian concept of alienated labor. In his “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” Karl Marx writes that “The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object” (72). So it is with translators, who in translating convert their labor-power into use-value from which they are estranged. Venuti himself observed this material dimension, writing that “Work-for-hire contracts alienate the translator from the product of his or her labor with remarkable finality” (10). A writer’s relationship to their work is in fact the exception and not the rule: because of the liberal ideal of individual genius, the writer’s work is seen not as a commodity but as an extension of the writer’s self, a construction which obscures the writer’s position as a worker.

By framing art as a pure extension of the artist’s self, the individualist narrative of artistic genius dodges an understanding of cultural production as labor. With the exception of a few revered forms of cultural production such as writing and visual art, most commodities are conceptually severed from the workers who produced them. Self-annihilation is a standard element of work under capitalism. Marx writes, “Self-denial, the denial of life and of all human needs, is [political economy’s] cardinal doctrine…The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated  life—the greater is the store of your estranged being” (96). The invisibility and annihilation of the translator stand out as distinct phenomena only because of translation’s proximity to a form of cultural production which we put on a pedestal. If one brings translation into the light, it takes on an uncanny role because it is evidently work, and yet it engages with literature, a form of work we’d rather pretend is not work but something else—that amorphous, exalted category of “art.”

By arguing that translation is art, translation theory seeks to make room for translators on this pedestal. If translation were, in fact, “a trade, like cabinet-making or baking or masonry” (Weinberger 27), then one would have to fight the translator’s invisibility by fighting the alienating working conditions of capitalism—one would have to challenge the broader de-valuing of labor. Translation theory understandably takes an easier ideological tack, harnessing the translator’s role as a cultural worker to argue that translation is art. According to this framing, the translator’s alienation from the product of their labor is harmful not because alienated labor is harmful across the board, but because translation occupies a particular expressive role which deserves to be acknowledged.

This tactic is evident in the history of translation theory; the field emerged at the same time that translators were organizing to make “demands, as a group, for thoroughly justified material concessions: the translator’s name prominently featured on the book and in all notices of the book, a share in the author’s royalties and subsidiary rights (rather than a flat fee—degradingly known as ‘work for hire’—with no subsequent rights or income), and some sort of ‘industry standard’ for translation fees” (Weinberger 26). And notably, the “proliferation of conferences and lectures on translation as an art” (Weinberger 26) coincided with the acceptance of some of these demands. Should it surprise us, then, that a degree of mystification surrounds the theory of the translator’s invisibility? That we wax poetic about the translator as “a ghost who haunts languages, cultures, and nations, existing in two worlds at once but belonging fully to neither” (Emmerich 50), or narrativize the act of translation as an “erotic transgression” (Newman 113)? If one asserts one’s rights not as an alienated worker but as an unacknowledged artist, then it makes sense to try to explain one’s estrangement in terms of some intrinsic quality of one’s field, rather than the particular labor relations under capital.

All workers put themselves into their work, converting the hours of their lives into commodities. And yet certain forms of cultural work are framed as an articulation of the worker’s self, while most other forms of labor are not. Translators have often responded to this false dichotomy by trying to present themselves as artists in order to escape their present alienation from the commodities they produce. The real solution, however, is not to frame translators as artists, but to value work and empower workers. The author’s ownership of their words should be extended to all workers—not in terms of individual praise, but in terms of material, collective power.

Sophie Drukman-Feldstein studies creative writing and literary translation at Oberlin College. Their work has previously been published in In These Times and The Oberlin Review. They are the poetry coordinator for Two Groves Review.

Works Cited:

Cortázar, Julio. “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris.” End of the Game and Other Stories. Tran. Paul Blackburn. Harper & Row, 1978.

Emmerich, Michael. “Beyond, between: Translations, Ghosts, Metaphors.” In Translation: Translators on their Work and what it Means. Eds. Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky. Columbia University Press, 2013.

Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. Second Edition ed.W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.

Newman, Mary Ann. “Migrations of Meaning: Women, Translation, Visibility, Invisibility”. AE-BKH Women’s Week of 2016. Mar 3, 2016, Contributions to Science.

The Jewish Study Bible. Ed. Jewish Publication Society. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Weinberger, Eliot. “Anonymous Sources (on Translators and Translation).” In Translation: Translators on their Work and what it Means. Eds. Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky. Columbia University Press, 2013.

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