Translation and/as Disconnection.

Joshua L. Miller and Gayle Rogers have produced a “Translation and/as Disconnection” issue (Volume 3, Cycle 3) of Modernism/modernity with fascinating-sounding articles: “Death Ships: the Cruel Translations of the Interwar Maritime Novel” by Harris Feinsod, “Translation in Noh Time” by Carrie Preston, “Disconnecting the Other: Translating China in Spain, Indirectly” by Carles Prado-Fonts, “Before Global Modernism: Comparing Renaissance, Reform, and Rewriting in the Global South” by Lital Levy, “Philology Contra Modernism: Translating Izibongo in Johannesburg” by Matthew Eatough, and several more. Miller and Rogers write:

We are scholars who, in our own work, have explored modes of interconnection across a number of sites, texts, and figures. But like many others before us, we also acknowledge the pitfalls of connectivity, and in a moment when the map of global modernisms seems increasingly networked, it seems timely to pause and consider the kinds of work connectivity does and doesn’t do—and about connection’s unintended effects. Furthermore, we want to consider how intertextual and linguistic disconnection formed both the modernisms that feel familiar (national, regional, and global) and those we have yet to recognize or have possibly misconstrued. If we set aside our predisposition to celebrate connection and to mourn disconnection, and instead view them as integral to one another’s functions, the field before us can look refreshingly unfamiliar.

Thanks, Jonathan!


  1. I’m sorry, it’s far too postmodern for me.

    From “Before Global Modernism: Comparing Renaissance, Reform, and Rewriting in the Global South” by Vital Levy:

    I advocate the theorization of “global modernism” as a translational process in which vastly diverse expressions of collective selfhood entailing language, national history, and literary genres are mediated through their authors’ engagements with other languages and cultures, all while grappling with questions of status in the coalescing world stage. By foregrounding transnational and cross-cultural comparison, by resituating cultural and literary modernity in broader contexts of social, political, and religious self-scrutiny and redefinition, and finally, by attending to the intermediate, translational genres and processes through which these transformations were negotiated, we can untether the history of global modernism from a narrowly focused narrative of reliance on European aesthetics.

    I found nothing new in this article except a mishmash of facts (many of them not particularly obscure) drawn together to try to convince us that a “new approach” is required. For instance, this:

    in the contexts of non-Western literary modernities, different literary constellations had their own pivot languages for translations and rewritings. In nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, Jewish language authors often translated French and English literature into Hebrew and Yiddish via prior German translations (as, for example, did Joseph Perl for his Hebrew and Yiddish translations of Tom Jones). In the Arabic sphere, as Marget Litvin has shown, the earliest (1901) Arabic translation of Hamlet was “cribbed from the French Hamlet by Alexandre Dumas’s père (1802–1870),” with later twentieth-century adaptations made via Russian. Well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, pivot languages continue to facilitate translation between nonmetropolitan languages; Latin American fiction reaches audiences in India via English translation and criticism while Russian novels are translated into Portuguese for Brazilian readers via French. In short, that the translation processes underscoring the production of non-Western literary modernities (and later, of non-Western modernisms) were so often mediated through a third language and culture should complicate regnant narratives of the rise or emergence of “national” literatures in the non-West, which have emphasized the bilateral negotiation of a given “peripheral” culture with the European “metropole.”

    Why should the mediation through third languages complicate “regnant narratives”? So translators didn’t go to the English (or French, or whatever metropolitan) original? So what? This was often a function of existing linguistic and cultural flows and existing knowledge of languages. In Mongolia, even now, a lot of foreign literature is still translated from the Russian (Sherlock Holmes is translated from the Russian, so is Lolita). That’s because there is a body of established translators who know Russian. About half of Chinese translations of Le petit prince are from English, because that’s the most familiar language for many people translating into Chinese. (The Inner Mongolian version of Le petit prince is from a Chinese translation that is possibly based on the English version.) What relevance at all has this got to the “regnant narrative”?

    I certainly don’t deny the need for a broad focus. Knowing only English and Japanese, for instance, will narrow your understanding of the dynamic between China, Japan, and the West. But there is nothing revolutionary about Levy’s contention, except the dramatic, unfathomable postmodernist lingo, and there is certainly nothing to justify this wishy-washy farrago that he proposes to “untether the history of global modernism from a narrowly focused narrative of reliance on European aesthetics”.

  2. I’m sorry, it’s far too postmodern for me.


    Anything written in this kind of lingo I automatically regard as mumbo-jumbo bullshit and don’t even bother deciphering.

    It may be unfair, there might be an useful thought or two there if I dig deep enough, but there are better uses of my time.

    If they really wanted their stuff read and appreciated, they should have written it in a language which people would actually enjoy reading.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m likewise a bit confused about what “regnant narrative” is undermined or contradicted by e.g. evidence that versions of Russian novels read in Brazil are often Portuguese translations of a French translation of the original. Which prior theorist(s) made what sort of empirical claim(s) at what level(s) of generality that is/are now embarrassingly unable to cope with that not-very-surprising datapoint?

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    Can a narrative be only half regnant ?

  5. January First-of-May says:

    You do sometimes get situations, especially in pre-modern periods, where a particular story had been significantly distorted through an overly long chain of translations. This, however, tends to take at least 2-3 intermediaries (preferably more), and/or very approximate translations (much more common in pre-modern times, as were, come to think of it, long chains of intermediaries).

    In fact, I wonder if there are any known modern translations that ended up with more than 2 intermediaries. (I can think of plausible language pairs that would result in 3 [Outer Mongolian to Inner Mongolian, or vice versa, might do it, ironically enough], but that still requires the existence of an actual work originally in language X famous enough to be eventually translated, if through intermediaries, to language Y, which is a lot less likely when both X and Y are fairly minor.)
    Even 2 intermediaries (as in the French/English/Chinese/Inner Mongolian example) can’t be that common either.

  6. Russian Bova Korolevich fairy tale I think underwent at least five translations – from original Anglo-Norman to Italian, then from Italian to Croatian and from Croatian to Polish and from Polish to Old Belarussian and finally into Russian.

    Along the way, the story switched the genre – from chivalric romance about Sir Bevis of Hampton to quite traditional Russian fairy tale.

  7. I had never heard of this tale!

    Bevis of Hampton.

  8. I’m sorry, it’s far too postmodern for me.

    I know what you mean — I’ve read so many theory-based academic books in recent years I’ve developed a greater tolerance (and ability to pluck out the nuggets from among the gobs of Derrida, Bourdieu, et al.), but I am still easily overloaded.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    Bevis of Hampton

    Beavis without Butthead… King Bradmond of Damascus… cool story, bro.

  10. Why should the mediation through third languages complicate “regnant narratives”?

    I would hazard a guess that the “regnant narrative” (which could of course be more clearly stated as “dominant narrative” or “standard model” or something like that) is that the rise of “national literature” in non-Western country X only involves direct translations from the literature of that country’s European colonial ruler (“the bilateral negotiation of a given ‘peripheral’ culture with the European ‘metropole.'”). Thus, the development of Indian “national literature” would involve only translations from English literature into Indian languages, and not more complicated things like translations from a third culture.

    Maybe the field of “national literature” studies really is dominated by this “bilateral negotiation” model, so that pointing out the more complicated reality is salutary (rather than just a statement of the obvious)?

    Of course, you can find multiple chains of translations within Europe itself (leaving aside the question of whether Yiddish literature really counts as “non-Western”): the introduction of the Arabian Nights to English readers started with translations from Galland’s (very liberal) translations from Arabic into French, and you can still buy the English translation of J.C. Mardrus’ early 20th C French translations of the original (which are themselves full of Mardrus’ inventions, additions, and mis-translations). Or, going back earlier, there’s the fact that a fair chunk of lost classical/Hellenistic Greek writings reached medieval Europe via Arabic translations into Latin. (or SFReader’s example…)

  11. The article itself seems to have been translated through at least one pivot language, on whose apex it is wobbling with increasing amplitude.

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