A linguistics–based analysis of the problem of foreignizing versus assimilation in literary translation

Miriam Margala, University of Rochester

In this paper I am presenting my analysis of the greatly debated issue of "foreignizing" versus "assimilation" as two opposing frameworks in translation. Approaching this issue from a linguistic perspective, I also address the on–going problem of resistance of some scholars to acknowledge that linguistics is capable of informing translation studies.

The debate between the two major scholars, Venuti as a foreignizer and Robinson as an assimilationist, tends most of the time to be very subjective, which limits its theoretical value. Venuti's strong ideological stand behind his arguments for foreignizing and the strong backlash by Robinson do not help much in informing theory and practice of translation, especially literary. Most of the time, the debate is purely ideological. Venuti's argumentation is ideologically based on his conviction of the global hegemony of English. To counter this hegemony, which is accentuated by the assimilationist approach since it perpetuates the values and attitudes of the major language and culture, a translator must choose the foreignizing approach which "resists the assimilationist ethic by signifying the linguistic and cultural differences of the text—within the major language [English]" (Venuti, 1998:12). Robinson attacks what he calls the strongest ethical goal of the foreignizing approach - by keeping the foreign in the translation, readers are shaken out of their complacency with the domestic, target culture values. He discusses a few examples which, rather than foreign, he finds awkward. Robinson claims that they sound "like pompous, insincere English" and concludes that radical and aggressive assimilation "remains the most effective way to unsettle the complacent reader" (Robinson, 1997: 96).

The underlying question is which approach results in the most effective translation. As neither Robinson nor Venuti offer a systematic analysis of their respective approach, translation studies can benefit from focused linguistic research of this issue. In this paper, based on my analysis of published English translations of Czech author Bohumil Hrabal (selected examples), I propose that rather than adhering to one particular translating method as the translator's modus operandi, a thorough understanding of the author's style in a linguistic context, not only in a literary/cultural/aesthetic one, should be the deciding factor in choosing a particular translating approach. Further, I suggest that there is, in fact, a continuum between the two opposing approaches; the existing dichotomy does not reflect the actual classificationof translation processes. Rather, it reflects the subjective positions of Venuti and Robinson.

Conducting the study of Hrabal's works within Berman's framework of 12 categories of analysis dealing with the process of translation (Translation and the Trials of the Foreign), I have avoided difficulties with vagueness of terms and definitions, an all–pervasive problem in translation studies. Berman's framework provides a useful tool of descriptive analysis; terms and notions are clearly defined based on his viewpoint as it is known in translation research. Further, Berman's 12 categories is, to date, the most precise and transparent work dealing with the issues of "deforming forces" arising during the process of translation (e.g. expansion, ennoblement, qualitative impoverishment, quantitative impoverishment, the destruction of rhythms, the destruction of linguistic patternings, etc.). Approaching every example from a linguistic standpoint—syntactic, semantic, thematic and information structure issues etc. — I demonstrate that disregarding linguistic frameworks and tools and overlooking the close connection between the author's expression and style, and his choice of particular words, idioms, sentence structures and his use of linguistic devices, lead very often to inadequate translations. Even though Berman advocates foreignizing in translation, I support my analysis with clear arguments even when the only option for translating a particular expression is not the foreignizing approach.

In conclusion, rather than perceiving foreignizing and assimilation as mutually exclusive ideologically charged approaches in translation, foreignizing and assimilation should be recognized as useful tools available to the translator within her/his overall strategy of translating which takes into account the original author's style. The overriding concern for the translator should always be creating an effective translation using all the available tools, whether s/he decides to follow what is presently labeled as the foreignizing or assimilationist approach.