[PhD Dissertation Synopsis] The Translator’s Visibility: Scenes of Translation in Contemporary Latin American Fiction

In her 1999 article “Translation and Interlingual Creation in the Contact Zone,” Sherry Simon declared that the place of the translator “is no longer an exclusive site. It overlaps with that of the writer and, in fact, of the contemporary Western citizen.” This observation has been borne out in recent years across the international critical and creative landscape: translation has emerged as a means of thinking through not only the mechanics behind the global circulation of goods and information but also the ideological agendas that determine which works come to be considered World Literature. Translation, in other words, has become a central part of the way we reflect on the world around us, and this heightened attention has echoed through the literary sphere: the past quarter century has seen the publication of scores of novels in dozens of languages that feature translators as protagonists.

My dissertation, “The Translator’s Visibility: Scenes of Translation in Contemporary Latin American Fiction,” analyzes the recent proliferation of translation narratives in Latin America to demonstrate that the mobilization of the figure of the translator in fiction creates a dynamic, non-expository space in which contemporary writers are able to reflect on the place and shape of literature in the context of shifting paradigms of cultural production and address the uneven distribution of cultural capital still prevalent in discussions of World Literature, while at the same time presenting ludic, reciprocal notions of creativity over and against hierarchical models of intellectual influence.

The title of my study is a nod both to Lawrence Venuti’s seminal work The Translator’s Invisibility (1995)—which argues that concealing the translator’s intervention does cultural violence by naturalizing the ideologically inflected processes of textual transfer into the target language system—and to a dual understanding of the word “scene”—not only in the theatrical and spatial sense of the phrase mise-en-scène, but also in light of the subjective situatedness of the translator described by Tejaswini Niranjana in Siting Translation (1992). The narrative foregrounding of translation, I argue, performs the opposite function as Venuti’s maligned cult of fluency, calling attention to the hierarchies and vested interests that subtend this process and, through this denaturalization, opening up a space for alternative intercultural dynamics and models of validation.

With regard to organization and methodology, I grounded each chapter in a single trope of translation theory and the novels that engage it. Following an introduction that situates the project within the broader discussion of World Literature and contextualizes the narrative practices it analyses as part of what I call the region’s tradition of translation, the second chapter explores the metaphor of translation as reproduction in both a biological sense, as seen in Luis Fernando Verissimo’s Borges e os orangotangos eternos (2000), and a biogenetic one, in the form of the conflation of cloning and translation in César Aira’s El congreso de literatura (1999), to argue that these works go beyond the simple inversion of the discursive hierarchy inherent to the notion of influence to posit a non-linear model of cultural exchange. The third chapter defends what I call translation’s right to untranslatability—a mode of translational reading grounded in the recognition of cultural specificity—as it appears in narratives centered on translation failure at the level of the cognate, those terms in which two languages would appear to offer the least resistance to linguistic transfer. In this analysis, I focus on Salvador Benesdra’s El traductor (1998) and Alan Pauls’s El Pasado (2003). The fourth chapter looks at the mobilization of the textual space of the translator’s footnote in Mario Bellatin’s El jardín de la señora Murakami (2000), in relation to precursors such as the writings of Rodolfo Walsh and Moacyr Scliar, to argue that Bellatin adopts the persona of the translator as a means of destabilizing traditional notions of authorship and originality. Finally, a coda proposes two avenues for future research: one, on the topographical space occupied by the translator in these narratives, and another on the alignment of translation with new models of authorship and creativity that have emerged in the digital age.

In this way, the project both establishes a connection between Latin American cultural studies and translation theory, and expands the recently emerged “fictional turn” within the field of translation studies—which has tended to analyze the narrative representation of translators in terms of the accuracy with which it conveys the concrete realities of the practice—to include the symbolic mobilization of translation as an explicit engagement of the broader dynamics behind the distribution of discursive authority. In the months following my defense, I converted the chapter on the reproductive metaphors of translation into an article for Hispanic Review, and have begun working on revising the manuscript for publication. I’ve also been developing my second line of research, which builds on questions explored in the coda to the study to examine the continuities between the work of writers known for their theorization and mobilization of textual borrowing and play, such as Jorge Luis Borges and the brothers de Campos, and contemporary aesthetic practices including net art, literary remixes, and interactive poetry.

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Heather Cleary, « [PhD Dissertation Synopsis] The Translator’s Visibility: Scenes of Translation in Contemporary Latin American Fiction », Hispanic Institute Bulletin, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on March 30, 2015. Full URL for this article
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