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Filipina Filipova
Assistant Professor - University of Sofia

The Death of the Translator

In his influential essay entitled The Death of the Author (included in Music-Image-Text, 1977) Roland Barthes reminds his readers that the author is a modern figure, a product emerging from the Middle Ages under the influence of English empiricism, French rationalism and the Reformation-inspired faith in the individual. The sway of the Author may have remained powerful, continues Barthes, but '[a]s soon as a fact is narrated the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.' (1988: 147). The Author who had been thought to be the ultimate source of the book has made way for the modern 'scriptor' who is born simultaneously with the text while operating in a field which has no other origin than language itself, 'language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins' (149). It cannot be otherwise, given that the text is but a mosaic of other activated texts, a tissue of quotations, a variety of writings from all ages that form together that immense 'dictionary' from which the writer draws.

        The removal of the Author, however, removes the claim that it is justified to impose limits on the attempts to interpret the text. In the absence of the secure path of commenting on the text by deciphering the author's society, history and psyche, the text cannot be 'explained' once and for all and the critic's role is equally undermined. It is in this way, proclaims Barthes, that literature or writing refuses to assign an ultimate meaning to the text and to the world as a text, thus liberating 'what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases - reason, science, law' (150). If there is a point where the multiplicity of writings entering into a text focuses, this place is the reader and not the author - a reader without history, biography, or psychology but 'simply someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted' (150). Hence, concludes Barthes famously, 'the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author' (150).

        The translator, on the other hand, is a reader and co-author at the same time. Lefevere places the translator within the vast group of performers of activities such as translation, editing, anthologisation, compilation and criticism or what he calls rewriting by professional readers that reaches to the non-professional ones. Thus when non-professional readers say that they have 'read' a book, 'what they mean is that they have a certain image, a certain construct of that book in their heads', the construct being vastly based on the work of rewriters, translators included. (1992: 6).

        Unlike critics who have traditionally enjoyed a fairly high status amongst the legislators of literary taste, however, translators have often been subjected to a number of limitations springing mostly from the ideological straight-jacket of their times. The principle promoted most often in judgements pronounced on translated texts has been the principle of fidelity. There have been long arguments over the difference between 'word-for-word' and 'sense-for-sense' translations; there have been numerous questions asked about the justification of 'literal' versus 'free' renditions, the criteria applied often being purely subjective while at the same time drawing on disparate elements of linguistic and cultural variation. The present-day equivalent of qualifiers like 'literal', 'loyal', 'faithful' etc. seems to be 'accurate'. Jeremy Munday stresses the fact that the word 'accuracy' appears twice in the assessment criteria of the Institute of Linguistics' Diploma in Translation (the most widely known initial qualification for translators in the UK) as presented in the Institute's Notes for Candidates from 1990. The Institute of Linguistics examiners expect:

       1. accuracy: the correct transfer of information and evidence of complex            comprehension;

       2. the appropriate choice of vocabulary, idiom, terminology and register;

       3. cohesion, coherence and organisation;

       4. accuracy in technical aspects of punctuation, etc.

       (quoted from Munday 2001: 30)

       Munday finds the examiners' reports on the candidates' performances sprinkled with the controversial vocabulary of early translation theory: too much stress on fluency in the target language, praise for what sounds 'more natural' in English and an interesting way of using the term 'literal' as it turns out that 'literal' may be used as a relative term; this has been indicated by examiners' expressions such as 'totally literal translation' or 'too literal style of translating'.

        The preference for fluency, on the other hand, is what makes the translator 'invisible', to use Venuti's term. In his work, Venuti discusses the illusion of appearance, the expectation that translation should read as the original, the requirement to produce idiomatic and 'readable' translations that all combine to make translation be seen as derivative. The translator becomes invisible and translation assumes secondary importance because of 'the prevailing concept of authorship', (Venuti 1998: 31). A text is judged acceptable 'when the absence of any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities [gives] the appearance that it reflects the foreign writer's personality or intention or the essential meaning of the foreign text' (Venuti quoted from Munday 2001: 146).

        Yet again, it seems, the translator is caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of fluency and accuracy: the need to produce a text that sounds 'natural' but at the same time remains 'loyal' to authorial intention. In the world of translation, therefore, the Author is very much alive and kicking, and stubbornly refuses to enter his own death in the process of writing. A glaring example of this situation may be found in Czech-born writer Milan Kundera's preface to the fifth English-language version of his debut novel The Joke (1992). The Preface bears the indicative title of 'Author's Note' and it does not let the reader forget for a single moment that this is indeed the ultimate truth about the novel heard from, to paraphrase a saying, the Author's mouth.

        The novel revolves around the fate of a man who, in the late 1940s, is expelled from the Czech Communist Party, forced to leave University and join a special army unit for enemies of the state because of a postcard he sent to a girl he wanted to impress. The name of the man is Ludvik while the postcard he sent is meant to be an innocent joke with his girlfriend's enthusiasm for the party training course she was attending at the time. Irritated by her constant praise of the 'healthy atmosphere' at the camp and not being able to accept that she should be happy while he is missing her so much, Ludvik, in order to 'hurt, shock, and confuse her', sends a postcard which reads: 'Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!' As it happens, however, this misfired joke is to ruin his life and brand him forever as enemy of the people, with all undesirable consequences of such a title.

        In an odd way, the English translations of Kundera's Joke seem to have been equally unfortunate, their creative powers often having been nipped in the bud by no other but the Author himself. The preface to the fifth translated version provides a brief outline of the destiny of this translation's ill-starred older 'sisters'. As Kundera specifies, the first English version of The Joke was published in London in 1969 (Macdonald) in a translation by David Hamblyn and Oliver Stallybrass. This edition, claims the Author, has been 'entirely reconstructed, divided into a different number of parts, with chapters shortened or simply omitted' (1992: vii). Following Kundera's letter of protest published in the Times Literary Supplement, a revised, complete edition, with the chapters in their original sequences came out in London (Penguin Books, 1970). However, this translation turned out to be 'still very free' in the eyes of the Author. He found it appropriate to provide an illustration of the ill-fated translators' policy by referring to the 'obviously important matter of punctuation' (1992: vii) that breaks Helena's monologue in Part Two into many very short sentences instead of sticking to the original which is made up of infinitely long sentences strewn with commas. In between these two versions, there was another edition published by Coward-McCann in New York in 1969 based on the Hamblyn-Stallybrass translation. In it, the original sequence of parts was respected but the entire text was systematically curtailed. 'The American publisher was ready to show his sympathy for censored authors in Communist countries, but only on the condition that they submit to his own commercial censorship,' comments the embittered Author (1992: viii).

        When a specialised journal published a translation of two of the passages that had been deleted from The Joke by Michael Henry Heim, an American professor of Slavic Studies, Kundera felt, in his own words, 'deeply touched by this noble gesture of solidarity'. As a result, no other but Heim was approached by Harper & Row when it was decided that The Joke should be published again, this time appearing in a 'faithful as well as unabridged English-language version' (1992: viii). Having confidence in Heim, Kundera barely read the manuscript of the new translation; or at least this is what he claimed. In addition, he found it necessary to write a preface to the 1982 edition defining it as 'the first valid and authentic version of a book that tells of rape and has itself so often been violated'(1992: ix). It was only in the autumn of 1990 when Kundera's editor Aaron Asher proposed the republication of the novel that Kundera decided to read the translation, 'this time with care' as he puts it (1992: ix). To his horror, however, it turned out that following the fairly good rendition of the first two parts, from part three onwards the text started to differ considerably from the authorial intention: ' often the words were remote from what I had written,' states Kundera, 'the syntax differed too; there was inaccuracy in all reflective passages; irony had been transformed into satire; unusual turns of phrase had been obliterated; the distinctive voices of characters-narrators had been altered to the extent of altering their personalities (thus Ludvik, that thoughtful, melancholy intellectual, became vulgar and cynical). I was all the more unhappy because I did not believe that it was a matter of incompetence on the translator's part, or of carelessness or ill will: no; in good conscience he produced the kind of translation that one might call translation-adaptation (adaptation to the taste of the time and of the country for which it is intended, to the taste, in the final analysis, of the translator). Is this the current, normal practice? It's possible. But unacceptable. Unacceptable to me' (1992: x).

        The solution? The Author and his editor immediately set to work. On enlarged photocopies of the fourth version, Kundera started entering his word-for-word translations of his own original, while at the same time retaining the 'great many faithful renderings and good formulations' (x) of Heim's version and the 'many fine solutions' (x) from the Hamblyn-Stallybrass translations. The result? The fifth translation of The Joke in English defined by its compiler as 'the definitive translation', as reads the subtitle on the very cover page. What the reader may notice is that this definitive version has no author. The name of the translator has been omitted altogether without any acknowledgement apart from the disaffected references in the Author's Note. In other words, the Author has finally killed the Translator for the latter's inability to produce a copy in the Author's image and likeness. The justification for this? On Kundera's terms 'the novelist (any novelist worthy of the name) endows every word of his prose with the uniqueness of the word in a poem' (1992: ix). Hence the intolerance for any minute change that may deviate from authorial intention thus amounting to the anti-theological act referred to by Barthes.

        A review of Kundera's Art of the Novel published in The Guardian in 1988 was entitled The Unbearable Knowingness of Kundera. Kundera's answer to accusations of this kind may be found in the quotation from Stravinsky that he used in his Testaments Betrayed to chastise the interpreters of the works of other authors: 'But you're not in your own house, my dear fellow'. This paper is therefore going to end on a question. Is co-habitation between Author and Translator possible and who is it who is empowered to define the rules of one such coexistence? Apparently, being the reader most close to the Author, the Translator occupies the most vulnerable position of the translated work's first reader, critic and rewriter at the same time. However, going back to Barthes' postulates, we may ask ourselves whose house is it that translators inhabit? I sincerely hope this is not the house of our Author.



       Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author". Translated by Stephen Heath. - In: Lodge, David (ed.) (2000) Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader. Revised by Nigel Wood. London: Longman. (Orig. copyright 1988).

       Kundera, Milan (1992) Author's Note. - In: Kundera, Milan. The Joke. London: Faber and Faber.

       Kundera, Milan (1995) Testaments Betrayed. An Essay in Nine Parts. Harper Collins.

       Lefevere, André. (1992) Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London and New York: Routledge.

       Lodge, David (ed.) (2000) Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader. Revised by Nigel Wood. London: Longman. (Orig. copyright 1988).

       Munday, Jeremy (2001) Introducing Translation Studies. London and New York: Routledge.

       Venuti, Lawrence. (1998) The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethic of Difference. London and New York: Routledge.

       Webb, W.L. The Unbearable Knowingness of Kundera. The Guardian, June 10, 1988.


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