Anthony Pym

Venuti's scandals (review note)

The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference. By Lawrence Venuti (London and New York: Routledge, 1998) £15.99 paper.  

The same but different.... The phrase is not only a reasonable description of translation (repressive tradition emphasizes sameness; Venuti values difference) but also of what international publishers demand of sequels: this book extends only slightly the arguments already developed in Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility (1995). 
Those arguments might be summarized as follows: Translation has been marginalized in literary studies because it is supposed not to exist as a legitimate mode of textual transformation; this marginalizing is institutionalized in copyright law, which does little but obscure the activity of translators and encourage the current imbalance in translation flows (huge numbers of texts are translated from English; relatively few are rendered into English); the repressive linguistic study of translation adds insult to injury by mechanizing equivalence, thus suppressing the active role that translations play in the constitution of cultures; and worse--and this is the relatively new bit--linguistic approaches only look at relations between standard languages, encouraging translators to conform to those standards rather than help develop minor cultural identities. Venuti also proposes ‘remedies’ to this apparently scandalous situation: translations should be studied in literature courses as translations, dealing with the historical choices made by translators; cultural studies may then logically replace linguistics as the discipline most appropriate to the study of translation; this more liberating approach should not only value the way translations can help minoritize hegemonic cultures but should also encourage translators to use minority discourses; and remedied copyright law should allow texts to be free of translation rights from five years after first publication (thus encouraging more translations into English). In short, it’s all good revolutionary stuff, explicitly designed to upset readers who thought translations themselves should be the cause of scandal because they change originals. The result is a book that effectively prolongs the debates begun in Venuti’s earlier efforts; it can be expected to help set the agenda in non-linguistic translation studies. If only it were as coherent as it is well-intentioned. 
Here’s a shortlist of shortcomings, to add to the few I’ve mentioned elsewhere (1996): 
Venuti’s arguments rely on fundamentally binary oppositions that allow him to talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ translations in terms of hegemonic vs. minority culture, standard vs. non-standard language, critical studies vs. linguistics, and so on. This means his most powerful arguments do not really concern translation but are simply ideas about what cultures should be and how language should be used. In fact, the one pair that did concern translation in pre-scandal Venuti--the Schleiermacherian distinction between ‘foreignizing’ and ‘domesticating’ translation--doesn’t seem to apply anymore, since domestication into a minority language is now okay. So we have somehow floated above translation studies and entered opinions about the world’s cultures. 
Within this strange world, Venuti assumes that translation ‘threatens’ just about everything and everyone, including traditional linguistics, Gricean cooperation, religious institutions, philosophy, and all knowledge of other cultures. This may be so. But in arguing the point Venuti demonstrates a pretty poor grasp of what has been going on in linguistics for the past twenty years (and thus the limits to his understanding of cooperation) and he comes close to the trap of automatic self-justification: because translation is a threat, it was not talked about; although one could just as easily argue that translation has been ignored precisely because it has been efficient enough or perhaps too benign to pose any threats. Further, Venuti’s anecdotal observation is considered so general in application that, were it true, there would surely be no need to change the way translators translate. And yet that’s what Venuti wants: somehow the ‘always threatening’ has to be made the ‘now more threatening than ever’. How might this come about? Well, when a reviewer did not like a translation by Venuti, it was the fault of the reader, not the translator: “she refused to understand it according to the explanation presented in my introduction” (19). That sounds like a threat: read me the way I tell you, or I’ll name you in my book. If only all translators had that option. 
As for Venuti’s proposed copyright solution, it is hard to see how a moratorium on translation rights would really benefit the needy: since the profit motive is considered absolute (162), Western publishers would simply wait five years so as to avoid paying non-Western authors anything. 
And then, consider the fact that this prolonged argument in favor of minoritizing cultures and non-standard languages is all presented in perfectly standard academic English, by a major international publisher that is not particularly interested in carrying translations. This sequel did not set out to practice what it preaches. In giving more of the same, it creates rather less difference than one might have hoped for. 


Pym, Anthony. “Venuti’s Visibility”. Target 8/2 (1996): 165-177. 

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

        © Anthony Pym 1999
Last update 20 February 1999  

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