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…
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