Janie Airey

Han Kang (right), author of The Vegetarian, and her translator, Deborah Smith, joint winners of the Man Booker International Prize, London, May 2016

In 2016 the Man Booker International Prize was awarded for the first time to a single novel, The Vegetarian, which was translated from the Korean. The award was shared by its author, Han Kang, and its translator, Deborah Smith. Kang and Smith are friendly collaborators, and Smith has translated Kang’s subsequent work. But the translation aroused controversy late last year when Korean readers accused Smith of not knowing the language well enough and translating irresponsibly, producing an English version that is not really a “translation” at all. Smith’s English version was considered by some to be a betrayal of the original, despite the fact that the author seems to have been perfectly happy with it, and despite the acclaim it received. The literary storm revealed how fraught the entire topic of translation can be, and how little agreement there is about what exactly counts as a good translation.

There were scholars working on the history and theory of translation throughout the twentieth century, but the discipline took off as a distinct academic subject in the 1970s, after James Holmes, a translator of Dutch poetry into English, called for a new classification of the field in his article “The Name and Nature of Translation Studies” (1972). Many academics who are not themselves practicing translators have built careers out of “translation theory,” while some translators promote theories that seem significantly at odds with their practice. As Mark Polizzotti points out in his new polemic, Sympathy for the Traitor, contemporary Translation Studies tend to involve “increasingly abstract discourse,” which is useless for helping people understand what translation is, and does nothing to enable the production of better translations—or even (as Polizzotti does not add) to help us define what “better” or “worse” might mean in this case.

The rise of translation theory is partly a response to the increase in courses in colleges and universities on literature read in translation. One of the earliest Great Books courses was developed at Columbia in 1917–1919, as an explicit response to World War I, and many more courses on Great Books or Western civilization sprang up around the US. In later decades, the focus on Western literature came to seem limited and ideologically dubious. More and more institutions began to offer courses in world literature or global literary studies. Translation is the bedrock of all these courses. Students and their teachers cannot be expected to learn all the languages in which the most canonical literary works of the world are written. Inevitably, all the non-Anglophone books on the syllabus—the Koran, Homer, Tolstoy, Sundiata Keita, Balzac, The Tale of Genji—are read in translation.

The centrality of translation to the study of world literature and comparative literature, at least at the undergraduate level or for the general reader, creates a particular set of mixed feelings. On the one hand, without translation, most of us would have little or no access to most of the literary wealth of the world. Translation allows us to cross linguistic boundaries and opens our eyes to entirely different cultural experiences and forms of literature. I personally feel deep gratitude to the translators who have enabled me to read Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Swedish literature, among others, given that I will not have time to learn any of these languages in the limited number of years I am likely to remain alive.

On the other hand, reading this diverse body of texts in English translation risks creating a false kind of homogeneity. Moreover, English is a language of colonialism and empire, and translation can be seen as yet another tool by which English-speakers impose their hegemony on the world and silence subaltern voices. Emily Apter, in the provocatively titled Against World Literature (2013) and the earlier The Translation Zone (2005), has pointed to the dangers of the “liberal inclusiveness” implied by the study of world literature in translation, and argued for a greater recognition of what might be untranslatable across literary and linguistic traditions.

Apter’s qualms about the value and ideology of translation are in many ways characteristic of Translation Studies as a whole, which is, as Polizzotti suggests, “one of the few disciplines in which the study of a subject seems bent on demonstrating that very subject’s futility.” Two thinkers are revered by many contemporary translation theorists with something like spiritual devotion. The first is Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), a German theologian often dubbed the father of modern hermeneutics, who argued for a “foreignizing” style of translation in order to educate and enrich the target language—in his case, German.

The second is the great German-Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin, whose essay “The Task of the Translator” (1923) drew on his mystical notion of “pure language,” the sum of all languages, which can supposedly be accessed when a foreign text is translated with such syntactical literalness as to convey not its meaning, but its “mode of signification.” He suggested that the translator ought to allow his or her own language to be powerfully affected by the language of the original text. Both Schleiermacher and Benjamin, from somewhat different theological perspectives, insisted that there is a metaphysical imperative to create unreadable, unidiomatic, clunky translations, the kind condemned by nontheorists as “translationese.”


In recent decades, the two most influential voices in US Translation Studies, both proponents of “foreignizing” translation styles, have been Antoine Berman and Lawrence Venuti. Both build on the work of Benjamin and Schleiermacher. Berman, whose Polish-Jewish-Yugoslav family spent World War II in hiding in France, was highly conscious of the ways that dominant cultures can mistreat immigrants. He claims that translators have an ethical obligation to recognize the alterity of their source text, rather than forcing these foreign voices to speak in exactly the same way as their hosts.

Berman died in 1991 at the age of only forty-nine, but some of his legacy is perpetuated in the work of Lawrence Venuti, an American translator of Italian novels and a professor at Temple University, who is the best-known name in contemporary translation theory. Venuti has written passionately (most influentially in The Translator’s Invisibility, 1995) against the prevailing Anglophone idea that translations of non-Anglophone literature should mask their own status as translations. He associates fluent, readable, domesticizing translation with political conservatism—a highly debatable move. He also argues, somewhat more plausibly, that translators, and their publishers, need to make themselves more visible to combat the stranglehold of English on the global literary marketplace.

Mark Polizzotti is something of an outsider to this field. He is a prolific translator of French experimental fiction into English who holds no academic appointment and who claims that his book is an “‘antitheory,’ or perhaps just a common-sense approach.” His style in this book is more anecdotal than philosophical, and his mode of attack is piecemeal, suggestive rather than fully developed. But in a lively, readable, and often funny 151 pages, Polizzotti succeeds in providing a persuasive partial sketch of what might be wrong with the current state of Translation Studies. At the same time, he offers readers a glimpse into the working life of a practicing translator, and hints at the complexity and importance of the translator’s task.

Polizzotti covers an enormous amount of ground in a short space. He includes a quick sprint through the history of translation in the West, from debates about how best to translate the Bible to controversies about the proper ways to be “faithful” to classical Greek and Roman literature in vernacular translation. The discussion is, inevitably, selective, but Polizzotti provides vivid details and quotations that give, if not a full map of this vast subject, at least a flamboyant set of waves in its direction. Particularly enjoyable is the brief discussion of the Bible, a text that is, as Polizzotti points out, unusual because it is so often read in translation, because so many people are passionately attached to incompatible opinions about “correct” biblical translation, and because so many have died for getting it “wrong.” The Bible is, therefore, a good test case to chart multiple ways that translations might respond to the original: for instance, the missionary Eugene A. Nida’s “dynamic” equivalence model of biblical translation, in which a phrase such as “white as snow” should be rendered, for a culture without snow, as “white as egret feathers.”

Polizzotti here, as elsewhere, is highly attuned to the ways that translation practices may differ, depending on cultural and literary imperatives. His sympathies throughout the book are with translators and theorists who, like Jerome against Augustine, or Ezra Pound against Vladimir Nabokov, spoke for the need to translate “sense for sense,” not “word for word.” He quotes approvingly the maxim of Dante Gabriel Rossetti that “a good poem [must] not be turned into a bad one.” This principle helps explain why Alexander Pope’s Iliad endures, despite being dismissed by the scholar Richard Bentley as merely “a very pretty poem.”

Polizzotti’s central point is that “the single most crucial requirement in producing a viable target version is to be a talented writer in one’s own language.” It is never enough to ask if a translator knows the source language well enough to translate from it; we must also ask, always, whether she is a good enough writer of English to create something that will live on its own. In his blithe assumption that there is such a thing as literary value and that you know it when you read it, Polizzotti stands outside the fashions of the contemporary academy: he is quite willing to claim that some pieces of writing are simply better than others.


By this light, what matters most about The Vegetarian is not whether Smith preserved Han’s syntax (she certainly did not), but whether she managed to turn an important work of Korean literature into a novel that was equally powerful in English translation. Similarly, Polizzotti defends Pound’s even more controversial imitation (not quite “translation”) of Li Po’s “The River Merchant’s Wife.” Pound played fast and loose with the original Chinese poem, which he could not read, but his version is a moving English poem in its own right, and Polizzotti insists that it is “more expressive” as a translation than those that hew more closely to the Chinese poem’s structure.

Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound; drawing by David Levine

Polizzotti meanders around the crucial question of whether a translator can go too far from the original and slip from translation into imitation, or betrayal. It depends on whether the result is any good, and we are given no general parameters by which to make this judgment. The implicit criterion is not whether this or that phrasing or syntax is preserved, but whether the overall result allows the text to speak as best it can “across nebulous cultural boundaries, and not lie mute and moribund on the page.”

But Polizzotti also insists that the translator must have both “respect” and “empathy” for the original author or text. He has, again, no general theory about what counts as disrespecting or failing to empathize with the original (accusations that could, of course, be leveled at Pound). Instead Polizzotti insists, repeatedly, that the issue of how to bring any individual author’s style into English is a delicate matter, for which there can be no general answer. For this reason, too, he claims that machine translation, by Google Translate and the like, is not likely to threaten human translators anytime soon, because machines will always fail to grasp nuance and connotation.

From the point of view of Berman or Venuti, Polizzotti’s sympathy for the peculiar style of Pound would seem highly troubling in both political and ethical ways. As Polizzotti himself acknowledges, Pound was catering to “our Western conception of what Chinese poetry is,” rather than trying to correct these prejudices. But Polizzotti argues that difficult, unreadable translations are not necessarily more ethical or ideologically superior to more fluent or domesticizing ones. As he points out, Schleiermacher was originally interested in “foreignizing” for reasons of German nationalism: by bringing in more foreign voices, translators could extend the “boundaries of the German language.” Foreignizing, like domesticizing, can be seen as a gesture of colonialism.

Even more importantly, the injunction to foreignize implies a snobbish refusal to consider the needs and desires of nonspecialist readers. Polizzotti scores some excellent hits against Venuti’s claim that a translator of an Italian novel has no right to translate tagliatelle as “noodles.” Tagliatelle is not a markedly Italian or markedly foreign word, in its original context, so there is no a priori reason why the English translator should make the food sound stranger than it does in the original. Nowadays, as Polizzotti also acknowledges, many readers will know what tagliatelle are; but twenty years ago, “noodles” was a perfectly defensible choice for an American readership. Polizzotti, far more than Venuti, is willing to meet the reader where she already is.

Polizzotti acknowledges that there can be some value in a small dash of foreignization, the occasional use of the slightly odd term, to fight back against the “illusion of transparency” in a work of translated literature; but he argues that “a little foreignization can go a very long way”: “In a culture already dismissive of foreign outlooks and literatures, intentionally making them even harder to access seems a classic case of shooting oneself in the foot with a howitzer.” He quotes with approval the maxim of Susan Sontag that translation has the ethical task of reminding us that “other people, people different from us, really do exist,” and insists that this task can be performed more effectively if the translator thinks hard about the needs and expectations of her Anglophone readers and about the specific capacities of the English language, rather than imposing foreign “otherness” in a way that is unusable and inaccessible. He makes the persuasive and important point that unreadable, unidiomatic translations will do nothing but “help ruin yet another foreign author’s chances of reaching a wider audience,” in a world where only 2 or 3 percent of books published in the US and UK are literary translations.

Polizzotti is at his most interesting in his discussion of how translations can fail as well as succeed. He brings this out in discussing the nitty-gritty of his own work, acknowledging inadequacies as well as joys and successes. He analyzes a passage of the experimental French novel CodeX, by Maurice Roche, which he was commissioned to translate as a teenager, and points to all the ways that his English failed to replicate the puns and wordplay of the French. For instance, “prenant son pied suggests “to orgasm” as well as “to enjoy greatly”; but Polizzotti could manage only the too-literal, unambiguous “steady on his feet,” because it was the only way to preserve another element in the wordplay of the sentence; several layers of double entendre were lost in translation.

Much of Polizzotti’s work has involved translating stylistically experimental writers, which perhaps helps explain his awareness that there is often no single way to translate. But he also reminds us that even for much more mundane kinds of translation, there may be no obvious right answer. A famous Menier chocolate advertisement reads: Évitez les Contrefaçons. Is it more “faithful,” more “responsible,” to reflect the original phrasing: “Avoid substitutes”? Or would it be better to use the normal English equivalent, “Accept no substitutes”?

Polizzotti suggests that what makes for a “good” or “responsible” translation will depend on the other texts alongside which the translation is to be read. This is an excellent point that is all too often neglected. In my own field, for example, reviewers of translations of Greek and Roman literature generally discuss whether they succeed or fail in replicating this or that aspect of the original; they very rarely comment on how any new translation might enrich contemporary English literature, or on whether the translator is a thoughtful, well-read, or original writer of her own language.

Inevitably, in a short, polemical, and deliberately personal treatment of a very large subject, some topics get short shrift and others are neglected entirely. Characterization and emotional effect are largely neglected, perhaps because they are relatively unimportant in the texts Polizzotti has translated. There is a chapter on verse, but it is mostly a discussion of Pound and Nabokov; almost nothing is said about the specific challenges of verse form. As a nonteacher whose translations are not primarily designed for the classroom, Polizzotti has nothing to say about whether students and instructors might have different needs from general readers. He also has nothing to say about whether different disciplines might require a different approach: whether, for example, the philosophical reader might need a different Plato from one used by the literary reader, whose Plato might sit next to Philip Sidney rather than Bertrand Russell.

There are occasional brief nods to the fact that translations might need updating, and that language and translation practices might change over time. But there is no deep consideration of whether translating a text that has already been translated multiple times is different from translating it for the first time, and no discussion of the distinctive challenges of translating a work of ancient as opposed to contemporary literature. There is also nothing here about the particular ways that translations might be able not only to confirm cultural prejudices (like Pound with Chinese), but also challenge them, shifting the reader’s perception about what a particular language or text “should” sound like—a topic that is of particular interest to me, since I have recently published a translation of the Odyssey that is stylistically and interpretatively quite different from previous versions in English.*

More broadly, Polizzotti has little interest in the philosophy of language or meaning, or in semantics. He is not particularly concerned at all with ontological questions about what a translation is, and what exactly it can and cannot convey of an original text. He implies that translation is usually an interaction between two creative individuals: the author and the translator. The book gives relatively little consideration to all the many intermediaries involved in the process, including the editors who commission translators to do their work, the publishers who pay for it and market it, the media people who decide whether and how it will be covered, the reviewers who assess how it is to be judged, and the readers who buy it, or refuse to buy it.

Collaborative translation work is also not discussed; the image of the translator is as a lone creative artist. But some of the most successful modern translations have been the result of collaborations between scholars and poets (such as Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Seamus Heaney, and W.S. Merwin), or between teams of translators (like the one that created the King James Bible, or the Russian classics rendered by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear). These cases might complicate the question of where the creative energy of a translation comes from.

Polizzotti acknowledges that the translator may be female, but says nothing about whether gender, class, educational and intellectual history, or political perspectives do, or should, have any impact on the translator’s work. For him, this work seems to happen in a purely aesthetic, writerly world, a bubble of interaction between two writers. He rightly emphasizes the need for a translator to have “respect” and “empathy” for her source material. But he does not discuss how that respect and empathy might be achieved.

Nor, again disappointingly, do we hear anything about the possibility that more fraught, critical relationships between translator and original text can result in equally successful renditions. I personally am particularly conscious of these questions: I hope and believe that my translation of the Odyssey is empathetic with and respectful of the original poem, and also less prone to the euphemisms and simplifications that emerge when translators cater too willingly to cultural prejudices about the aesthetics of the original, in the service of what I believe to be false models of respect or empathy for Homer.

All caveats aside, Polizzotti has written a lively, likably idiosyncratic sequence of essays on a topic that is of more importance than ever in our globalized world. The book is in some ways a negative polemic, against the excesses and abstractions of contemporary translation theory. But it is also a positive celebration of the value and difficulty of the translator’s art, and its ability to bring enriching foreign viewpoints into monoglot minds and lives. From the deep and intimate interaction between original text and translator, if all goes well, something new and beautiful can come into being.

Polizzotti is particularly good on the importance of making sure that literature is enjoyable, so that people actually want to read it. This emphasis is one of the most important benefits of his position outside the academy: Polizzotti’s perspective is informed by a career creating translations for which grown-ups voluntarily pay hard-earned money, rather than translations designed to be forced down the throats of helpless college or high school students. The academic theorists often imply that clunky, unidiomatic, foreignized translations are good for us, no matter how stodgy they may be. By contrast, Polizzotti makes one feel that creating and reading translated literature can be a genuinely pleasurable experience. He invites us to celebrate the joy that can come from meeting, “somewhere beyond our…borders, a thought…[that] will have the power to move the world, or at least our world.”