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Sociologies of Poetry Translation: Emerging Perspectives, edited by Jacob Blakesley

Reviewed by Anna Saroldi, University of Oxford

Sociologies of Poetry Translation: Emerging Perspectives, edited by Jacob Blakesley. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2019. £28.99. ISBN: 9781350163829.



In recent years, Jacob Blakesley’s scholarship has had the clear goal of working towards the legitimation, methodological assessment, and expansion of the sociology of literature. In particular, as he started his academic career with a monograph on Italian poet-translators, he is interested in applying sociological methods to research on poetry translation, and furthering its study as a social act.

            As editor of this collected volume, Blakesley stresses how the sociology of translation is a field still fighting for its legitimacy. The introduction asserts in the first place its existence as independent from descriptive translation studies – ‘even if they do often overlap’ (2) – and claims that a ‘sociological turn’ in translation studies has indeed happened, despite the hesitance expressed by scholars such as Mary Snell-Hornby. Legitimacy needs ancestors: thus, the main device used by Blakesley to reach this goal is reclaiming a history for the field, which by now is twenty years old. The genealogy is traced back to scholars such as Jean-Marc Gouvanic and Theo Hermans, and their preliminary works in the late 1990s, followed by Daniel Simeoni, Johan Heilbron, Gisèle Sapiro, and Michaela Wolf in the early 2000s, and 2009 is highlighted as the year in which the sociology of translation finally started to appear in manuals of translation studies. However, as Blakesley laments, ‘the sociology of translation has still not achieved canonical status’ (5). For this reason, this volume comes as a desired contribution, as it offers to those who want to approach the field a suitable and interesting key, with a wide range of topics and approaches (hence ‘sociologies’), while at the same time remaining aware of its own limitations (for instance, its predominantly European focus).

            Of particular importance is the fact that sociological methods have yet to be applied consistently to studies on poetry translation, which occupies a marginal position in the literary field: as pointed out by Sergey Tyulenev in the book, ‘the poetry that makes it into translation is a veritable minimum minimorum’ (105). As clearly highlighted in Sapiro’s contribution, poetry publishing is a disinterested act from an economic perspective, but driven by symbolic capital. As such, the limited subfield of poetry translation becomes the stage for more innovative dynamics, offering ‘clearer results’ (7) of what the sociological approach can offer. The approaches chosen by the contributors to the book rely mainly on the paradigms established by sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu, Bruno Latour, and Niklas Luhmann, as well as on distant-reading and paratextual analysis.

            The book is openly self-aware of the sociological strategies that it adopts. Overall, it recurs to the symbolic capital of established voices that have contributed to the very creation of the field, such as that of Susan Bassnett, Gisèle Sapiro, and Lawrence Venuti. The contributions by these three scholars are also put first, with lesser known authors following. It feels right to start with Bassnett and Venuti, considering the role of their scholarship, but, apart from the fact that they can be criticised for certain recurring tendencies (such as Venuti’s love for binary oppositions), the true potential of the book is revealed from the central part onwards.

            The contributions by Michèle Milan, Sergey Tyulenev, Serena Talento, and Eva Spišiaková, despite being divided into different sections, form an overarching reflection on politics, social change, and poetry translation, with far-reaching implications that extend beyond poetry research. Both Tyulenev and Talento recur to paratextual analysis to examine, respectively, the reception and framing of Soviet and post-Soviet Russian poetry in the UK and the US, and translations of Shakespeare and Sophocles in Tanzania. Their articles are notable as they interrogate some of the main existing assumptions of the sociology of literature. Adopting Luhmann’s concept of Collective Action (CA), Tyulenev contradicts Toury’s theorisation that translators prevailingly work in the context and influence of their target field. Examining translations of Russian poetry into English published in the USSR, he explores how translation can serve primarily the purposes of the source culture, to project (or manipulate) a precise image of itself – with potential backlashes on the target culture audience. Talento, on the other hand, challenges Bourdieu’s heterodoxy/orthodoxy dichotomy: in her case study, Julius Kambarage Nyerere and Samuel M. Mushi frame their  potentially heterodoxic translation of Shakespeare into blank verse within the history of Swahili in order to stress its continuity with pre-existing local poetical forms – ‘a strategy to mitigate heterodoxy by inscribing it into orthodoxy’ (140). These contributions show how the field is ripe to engage more critically with its founders and predecessors, not just relying on Bourdieu’s symbolic capital to be legitimated, but questioning its originary theories and assumptions.

            In the chapters by Milan and Spišiaková, translation is examined as a tool against gender-, sexuality- or politics-based oppression. Milan shows how translating for the radical press gave women access to the male-dominated world of politics in nineteenth-century Ireland, and was as such a tool of liberation, while Spišiaková proves how the forewords and afterwords to the translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets published in Czechoslovakia during the Communist regime gave visibility and legitimation to  queer readings of the poems, rather than denying them as was intended. The following contributions on quantitative methods, by Cecilia Schwartz and Blakesley, who write respectively about the translation of Italian poetry in contemporary Sweden and about English, French, and Italian-language poet-translators of the 20th century (Blakesley’s most recent monograph, a wider study of the same topic, is highly recommended), are precise and accurate, and work towards establishing contexts for future research. The fact that they do not deal with more specific case studies, or with methods like close-reading, is intentional, and necessary in the eyes of the editor:

Ideally speaking, the goal for research into literary translation is for the combined ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ analysis, which Bourdieu himself recommended many years ago. However, we still have a long way to go before this is possible, since new methodological innovation requires time to carry out the preliminary work that would allow such a combined analysis to take place. (17-18)

            Schwarz’s piece also engages with the issue of gender, which, she claims, is too often neglected in world literature studies. As she remarks, building on Toril Moi, Isabelle Kalinowski, and Wolf’s work, an increase of women translators of Italian poetry corresponded with its loss of status in the Swedish literary field. On the other hand, like Spišiaková, Schwartz shows us the necessity of going beyond the first impressions gathered from data: while Italian poetry has today more publishers and translators in Sweden, its reception is actually more fragmented and dispersed. On a final note, Tom Boll’s contribution on Octavio Paz and Charles Tomlinson’s friendship and translation, the only chapter included in the final section on ‘Microsocial Approaches to Poetry Translation’, would have benefited from a companion. His arguments on the pivotal role of friendship in literary exchanges and on the hybridity of public and private spheres are insightful, and yet dialogue with another article would have helped to enlighten the potentiality of this perspective, as otherwise the volume has a drifting coda.

            The fact that the contributions by emerging and lesser known scholars are the most substantial of the volume indeed constitutes a promising sign, as it shows that the field is in good health, ready for a change in voice and leadership, and for a new generation of researchers to lead the discourse. Since the publication of the book, in a subfield like Italian Studies, its impact has already been profound: from Leeds to Buenos Aires, various international conferences are taking into account the sociological perspective it puts forward, so that, also thanks to this volume, in a few years there will be no doubt about its canonical status.