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Translation as Material Practice: Case Studies in Production, Circulation, and Reception

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Organizer: Matthew Harrington

Co-Organizer: Whitney DeVos

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Lawrence Venuti’s work has long been concerned with ending instrumentalism: a model of translation which essentializes form, meaning, or effects as unchanging qualities contained in source texts that can be lost in translation. His latest, Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic, crystallizes the “hermeneutic model” with which he proposes to replace this “instrumentalist” one, arguing we conceive of “translation as an interpretive act that inevitably varies source-text form, meaning, and effect according to intelligibilities in the receiving culture.” Newly illuminating are the case studies, ranging from scholarship to political movements, proverbs, and subtitles, which Venuti employs to demonstrate how such an approach provides a more comprehensive and insightful account of translation.

This seminar applies hermeneutic methodologies to read instances of translation and the effects they produce within receiving cultures. As opposed to considerations of how the assumption of this model impacts academic fields, we seek case studies that apply it to specific textual practices and their impacts on social life.

Vicente L. Rafael, for example, examines Noah Webster’s “Americanization” of English in his 1828 dictionary, revealing a double process of intralingual translation: Webster both transformed British English, perceived as old and tired, and suppressed regional and vernacular linguistic differences. Once this nationalization of English was secure, American English could be thought of as exceptional in the process of imperial expansion—as a universal, hegemonic lingua franca through which an assimilationist strategy of interlingual translation was practiced. Similarly, Susan Gillman’s reading of Alexander Von Humboldt’s Relation historique, part of a thirty-volume travel narrative recording observations of the Gulf-Caribbean basin, including its peoples and languages, provides evidence of the “translational link between language and worldview”: Humboldt at once inscribes native terminology with European notions of race and place and embeds moments when his worldview is brought into crisis.

 How do such examinations of historical practices open up uses of the past for study of the present? What insights are generated when we analyze the creative aspects of translators negotiating social and cultural differences? How does translation drive the current geopolitical economy?

We welcome investigations of how translators transform the meaning of a text by applying, consciously or unconsciously, what Venuti calls interpretants: interpretive filters, such as genre (formal) or ideology (thematic), mediating source language and culture, and receiving language and culture. Papers might consider: film subtitling/dubbing; translation supporting or expanding a political movement; court or war interpreting; speeches or social media posts rendered in a foreign press; cookbooks or travel narratives; literary translations and their cultural work.

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