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Genealogies of Translation Theory: Schleiermacher

Venutia Max Weber Occasional Talk

Lawrence Venuti (Temple University)

17 May 2017, 17:00-18:30



  picture courtesy of Karen Van Dick
The Max Weber Occasional Talks are informal seminars by distinguished scholars invited by members of the Programme as the academic year develops.


This lecture first provides an account of the structure of translation commentary: one or more theoretical concepts concerning a translation (concepts that define its relative autonomy from the source text, the relation of correspondence that it establishes to that text, and the function that it performs) are usually linked to one or more discursive strategies, so that a strategy is seen as a practical realization of a concept.

This account is illustrated by concepts drawn from two influential twentieth-century theorists, Eugene Nida (“dynamic equivalence”) and Gideon Toury (“translation norms”), whose incomplete and somewhat inconsistent formulations point to underlying models of language and translation, either instrumental or hermeneutic. On the empiricist assumption that language is direct expression or reference, the instrumental model treats translation as the reproduction or transfer of an invariant which the source text contains or causes, typically described as its form, its meaning or its effect. On the materialist assumption that language is creation thickly mediated by linguistic and cultural determinants, the hermeneutic model treats translation as an interpretation of the source text whose form, meaning, and effect are seen as variable, subject to inevitable transformation during the translating process.

The lecture then deploys the account of translation commentary in a detailed analysis of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s lecture, “On the Different Methods of Translating” (1813), in which omissions and inconsistencies expose the limitations of his theoretical concepts and discursive strategies. Schleiermacher sets forth a hermeneutic understanding of translation, but it is preempted by a residual empiricism that detaches the interpretive act from its cultural and social context while privileging the values of a cultural elite in the service of Prussian nationalism.

The aim of the lecture is to argue that translation research and practice cannot advance until empiricist-based instrumentalism is replaced by an understanding of translation that is based on a more sophisticated version of the hermeneutic model. The version of that model presented here conceives of translation as an interpretive act that potentially initiates a mutual interrogation--of the source text and culture and of the translation and its cultural situation. This hermeneutic approach is illustrated through an analysis of Susan Bernofsky’s 2004 English translation of Schleiermacher’s lecture, in which she employs various Gallicisms in diction that point to the French genealogy of the German thinker’s concepts and put into question their nationalistic force.

About the speaker

Lawrence Venuti, professor of English at Temple University, is a translation theorist and historian as well as a translator from Italian, French, and Catalan. He is, most recently, the author of Translation Changes Everything: Theory and Practice (2013) as well as the editor of Teaching Translation: Programs, Courses, Pedagogies (2017). His latest translation is J. Rodolfo Wilcock’s collection of real and imaginary biographies, The Temple of Iconoclasts (2014).

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