Discussion Questions

What does Translation Studies produce?

“Why study these theories? There is no empirical evidence (that a translator who knows about different theories will work better) and good reasons to doubt (that claim). Untrained translators may work faster and more efficiently because they know less about complex theories” – Pym, Chapter 1

Given the ambivalence Pym himself seems to feel about the relative utility of Translation Studies to translators and the difficulties involved in getting various schools of theory to come to consensus on issues springing from the infinite number of possible interpretations and the strategies that go into their production it seems worthwhile to ask the most immediate and obvious questions: What is this conversation about? What is the goal here? To whom do the tangible benefits of this debate go?

Pym questions

Pym makes the claim that we are always theorizing when we translate: we make subconscious choices on what word is a better fit; whether to foreignize or domesticate; whether to create a dynamic equivalent when there isn’t a natural one; whether to privilege the source text or the target text; how to navigate between the conceptual/cultural grids of the ST and TT.; are we thinking of the movement of meaning in spatial and maybe also temporal terms?

He also claims that all this theorizing doesn’t necessarily mean that we are using a “theory” of translation, but that we are talking within one or another “paradigm”.  The paradigm set forth in this class is one that is firmly rooted in hermeneutics.  Of primary importance are terms like “understanding”, “meaning”, and “equivalence”.


  • a relation of equal value between ST and TT and can be linguistic, stylistic, formal
    • natural equivalence is a priori to the act of translation
    • natural equivalence is non-directional
    • equivalence is an impossibility to those who see language as deeply embedded within the structure of society and culture
    • equivalence paradigm functions at many levels–it can overcome this structural problem by positing that all language systems can point to a referent that is a tertium comparationis; in the same way as metaphor works
  • We can illustrate some of the concepts of equivalence by using online translation machines.  Use Google Translate etc to see what is lost.  How can we break this up into components to see how the translation has occurred?



Why Translation Studies?

Students in the Comparative Humanities Program read a large percentage of their primary texts in translation. One of the goals of the Program is raise students’ critical awareness of the cultural location of the texts they are reading. That text, if translated, is obviously situated culturally both in its original language and also in its translated language. This course provides majors and non-majors alike with theoretical and conceptual tools that can be used in the analysis of, for example, the constitution of the Western “canon”—one of the recurring questions throughout the Program’s courses.

However, the last ten years has witnessed an explosion  of the phenomenon of  “World Literature” in the global sense of Marx’s “International” and Goethe’s “Weltliteratur.” As human interconnectivity has grown with the expansion of access to the internet and also availability of travel, the publishing program of World Literature has sought to “deliver surprising cognitive landscapes” from those places that might not previously have been accessible to the English speaker.

Behind the concept of World Literature lies the  assumption that all language is translatable.  Within the CH program, courses draw on the world literatures of both the present and past, many times looking to find translations of  texts from Turkish, German, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Greek and Latin.  This tendency towards the globalization of our curriculum tends to avoid the question of universal translatability.

Is everything translatable?  Why (not)?  Why could the assumption of universal translatability actually undermine the very core of comparativism?  Drawing on the recent work of Emily Apter in her English translation and edition of “Dictionary of Untranslatables” (Princeton, 2014) this seminar will also explore the problematics of World Literature and translation.  The seminar will foreground assumptions about a) English as a universal language and the implicit problematics associated with such an assumption and b) explore ways in which both the concept of World Literature and its critique can be incorporated into our concepts of translation.  In all this talk of a “globalized” world, whether this refers to finance or literature, how do we avoid the reduction of culture to a MacDonalds of thought, and the flattening of language to “translatese”?