You are here

Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic by Lawrence Venuti

Reviewed by Byron Taylor, University College London

Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic, Lawrence Venuti. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. £20. ISBN: 9781496205131.


The energetic lucidity of Lawrence Venuti’s writing and its accompanying historical sweep owe much to Michel Foucault: yet if one looks at most English editions of Foucault’s Les Mots et les Choses – a book whose overriding structure has no doubt influenced Venuti considerably – one cannot find any sign of its translator. This is exactly what Venuti has spent a career addressing. Enjoying an unparalleled importance within his field, he has long argued for translation to be recognised as a process of hermeneutic agency, with creative responsibilities and broad political consequences.

            In the process, he has brought to bear on the translator’s invisibility to foreign audiences and uninitiated consumers. He has tirelessly contradicted the idea that translation is a simplistic, mechanical means to enable equivalences from one text to another. His latest book finds Venuti at his most seething. The time for ‘coolly detached reasoning’ on the topic is past, he claims; rather, ‘the provocation of polemic has become necessary to realise and redirect it’ (37).

            Consequently, in Contra Instrumentalism (2019), Venuti creates a binary to make his argument as simplistic (and persuasive) as possible. He claims there are two types of translation: the hermeneutic and the instrumentalist. The hermeneutic model encapsulates what Venuti has spent years putting into practice as well as theory: it requires the translator to reinvent the source-text creatively, while being mindful of the cultural and political contexts of both the source-culture and the translation’s audience. Hearkening back to Friedrich Schleiermacher and Antoine Berman, Venuti has long claimed that the translated text should be foreignised rather than domesticated, meaning that readers should be aware that what they experience has come from somewhere drastically different. Rather than reducing the text to the familiar tropes of one’s own culture, one should adopt its language without doing disservice to its source.

            Instrumentalism, on the other hand, is the attitude that translation is nothing more than the mechanical conveying of words from one language to another. It comes, Venuti argues, in many forms: ‘The instrumental model, in particular, has accumulated a battery of rhetorical moves,’ the variations of which structure this book (16). It comes in the form of proverbs and aphorisms: ‘word-for-word’ and ‘sense-for-sense’ (11), in terms like ‘faithful’ and ‘compromise’: ‘Whenever the notion of “compromise” is used to describe translation, instrumentalism is at work: it assumes the existence of a source-text invariant that a translation can approximate but never reproduce’ (67). This, Venuti claims, is as false in practice as it is misleading in theory. It renders the role of the translator marginal, replaceable or redundant, where translation is always a failure, somehow inferior to its original. It renders the text ahistorical, decontextualized and oddly unmoored. Instrumentalism ‘is conceptually impoverished,’ he writes, removing texts from the historical, political, linguistic and social contexts ‘that invest it with significance as an interpretative act’ (59).

            Yet it is a way of thinking that goes beyond transnational industries and technology to the realms of literature and academia, both of which are treated to scorching critiques: ‘academics harbour an anti-intellectualism, ironically, bred by the splintering of intellectual labour into so many institutional compartments’ (41). Nevertheless, Venuti claims that academia urgently needs to ‘recognise that translation lies at the core’ of ‘humanistic study and research’; that is, ‘provided that translation is conceived and practised as an ethically charged and politically engaged act of interpretation’ (40). While congruent with David Damrosch’s advancements, the comparative discipline does not escape Venuti’s wrath, and his attack is worth quoting at length:

When, one wonders, will comparatists realise that no necessary connection exists between teaching in translation and setting foreign language requirements? When will they admit that their research and teaching unavoidably depend on translations? And when will they therefore stop whining about an ineradicable state of affairs and instead apply their energy and expertise to learning how to read translations as texts in their own right? (46)

While Rebecca Walkowitz and Ursula Heise receive more detailed accusations of perpetuating the monolingual rubric of the Anglophone academy, no critics are more guilty of instrumentalism – for Venuti – than Barbara Cassin and Emily Apter. Venuti’s historical panorama – accommodating Jacques Derrida, Chinese-American poet Arthur Sze and Joachim du Bellay – demonstrates the solidity of his distinction: whether it be Italian proverbs colluding translators with traitors (“Traduttore, traditore”), 16th century satirist Nicolò Franco or American poet Robert Frost, Venuti’s proposed binary of hermeneutics and instrumentalism is pervasive, and persuasive, in his examples. The former offers creative dialogue and intercultural exchanges of ideas and concepts; the latter assumes the translator is an intellectually inanimate decoder, someone who is somehow outside the boundaries of space and time, dealing with a text without issue, intuition, complaint or reinvention. As his diatribe continues, the less plausible this latter stance appears.

            In relation to The Dictionary of Untranslatables, Venuti commends its breadth while pointing out that since ‘the terms are repeatedly mistranslated in Cassin’s view, calling them “untranslatable” doesn’t seem precise’ (68). Untying a handful of entries for their lack of historical rigour, Venuti concludes that ‘the translation analysis raises more questions than it answers’ (56). Transforming past thinkers through the lens of literary theory, Venuti claims this approach tends to ‘turn the past into a mirror’ of contemporary academic trends: ‘This form of cultural narcissism we can do without’ (59).

            By this verdict, it is Apter’s crime to have elevated untranslatability ‘to a methodological principle, unfortunately, and the results seem misguided’ (65). Claiming that Apter’s preoccupation with French theory renders her analyses retrograde, even risking ‘turning back the clock in comparative literature’ to its Eurocentric past (65), Venuti proceeds to explain that because ‘Apter’s notion of untranslatability is essentialist, it cannot enable an account of the contingencies of translation’ (67). He passionately argues that ‘Apter is interested in theory, not in translation’ (71), while ‘the materiality of translation is evaporated into abstraction’ (73).

            Why does he harbour such vitriol? Apter’s critical sophistication cannot disguise, for Venuti, instrumentalism’s latest instalment. His concern is that notions of translation as a straight-forward process have been ‘so deeply entrenched’ and ‘for so long as to be unconscious, knee-jerk, rote’ (37). It is this conviction to overturn prior assumptions that lends energy to his critique, leading it across a myriad of centuries and cultures to demonstrate the distinction. ‘Isn’t it time,’ he concludes, that ‘we acknowledged instrumentalism to be a hoax, born out of the fear that translation contaminates and falsifies when it ought to reproduce’ (172)? The visceral aggression and energy of the book makes his argument more accessible – but accessibility is also, perhaps, where one locates issue.

            This is not to reduce Venuti’s book to one of simplistic binaries, nor is his critique not tempered by a self-conscious humility. He acknowledges a desire to remain ‘mindful of the limitations of [his] own discourse,’ because it is borne from the very situation he attempts to disrupt: his claims ‘derive from, in order to intervene against, the contemporary situation of translation theory and commentary, where the instrumental model enjoys such dominance as to marginalize the hermeneutic approach’ (26). Nor does he go so far as to endorse hermeneutic translation in all its forms: when analysing the subtitles of the South Korean film Thirst, he admits that it can, in such instances, prove inopportune, and even detrimental.

            In many ways, he is correct; yet his derision towards publications considering ‘the untranslatable’ overlook the attention they have brought to the field. This may be indirect, its theoretical positions may indeed be problematic, but the fact that it has brought greater attention to translation is undeniable:

Of course any project that generates a conversation about translation might be welcomed in Anglophone cultures […] Yet if Cassin’s dictionary were to become the main source of the talking points, the marginal status of translation would persist, unaffected, and may actually worsen. (62)

As persuasive as his polemic is, I find it difficult to subscribe to this claim. I myself would never have been led toward translation studies were it not for Apter and Cassin’s publications, and have met many who have said the same. A conversation has, indeed, been generated – but it is not one that necessarily contradicts Venuti’s complaints about the academic field: one need only look to Matthew Reynolds opening the Comparative Literature and Critical Translation course at the University of Oxford, or the ‘translational turn’ that Apter and Cassin deserve credit for instigating (even if, as in Duncan Large’s recent Untranslatability collection, the criticisms are numerous). If Venuti was concerned that the topic of untranslatability could ‘worsen’ the conversation, that anxiety, after finishing Contra Instrumentalism, appears misplaced.

            After all, it was only a matter of time before Cassin’s dictionary gathered its opponents and critiques, the most persuasive of them within this text. While discovering the limitations of Apter and Cassin’s works, this may well become another ‘main source of talking points’: its readers will realise the extent to which translation needs a seismic reinterpretation, and that its practice deserves a vigorous reappraisal.