Whose voice? Translation Theory

‘Foreignizing translation’ vs ‘abusive fidelity’?

Venuti (!!full ref)

How does one write about or represent another culture in one’s own language and terms without those very terms and conceptions altering that which is being represented? How do one’s conceptual notions color what one see and reports?

Niranjan (!!full ref)

The Western scholar/translator can partially access the subaltern condition, not through what is specifically said…but by reading that which is not said – reading the gaps, the silences, and the contradictions symptomatically…it is necessary to ‘unlearn’ in order to allow the mute [sic] to speak

Spivak (!!full ref)
Translation Theory Overview Diagram
Translation theory overview

Translation theory is concerned with the processes of ‘carrying over’ meanings from one ‘text’ in one form or language to another ‘text’ in another form or language. (my definition). It borrows concepts and approaches from a range of disciplines including: comparative literature, computer science, history,  linguistics,  philology,  philosophy,  semiotics, and terminology.

Texts may take many forms: spoken, written, visual, digital, musical and the ‘carrying over’ may be within or between these forms, or even ‘updating’ within the same form. Translation theory is concerned with issues such as:

  • analysis of source texts and meanings eg is there only one or many meanings in a text? how can meaning be derived?
  • analysis of target text and audience understandings of meaning eg how far does the purpose and audience require adaptation and change in the final form?
  • the nature of ‘equivalence’ and role of the translator in transforming source texts into target texts eg are translators ‘faithful messengers’ or also creative authors of the target text?

Of particular relevance for empowerment and participatory approaches are linkages that have been made between translation theory and post-colonial and subaltern theory by authors such as Tejaswini Niranjan and Gayatri Spivak. They are concerned particularly with:

  • power relations between translators, those producing the source texts and those consuming the target texts: which voices and texts are chosen for translation? can the translator (Western or post-colonial academics in the global South) really understand and translate the voices of ‘oppressed’ and ‘subaltern’ marginalised from dominant cultures? is the role of the translator to replace one ‘word’ in the source text with another ‘formally equivalent’ word in the target text as the risk of either ‘abusive fidelity’ or ‘exotic stereotypical foreignization’? or is the role to be creative in producing texts that ‘free, transform and multiply meaning’ (Quebec feminists ref?!?)
Translation theory questions
Translation Theory : visual research questions


  • Mahasweta Devi (Author), & Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Translator) (1995) Imaginary Maps, London, New York: Routledge.
  • Gentzler, E., (2001) Contemporary Translation Theories, Clevedon, Buffalo, Toronto, Sydney: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
  • Morton, S., (2003) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, London, New York: Routledge.
  • Munday, J., (2012) Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Application, London, New York: Routledge.
  • Niranjana, T., (1992) Siting Translation: History, post-structuralism and the colonial context, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press.
  • Schulte, R. & Biguenet, J. (eds.) (1992) Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.
  • Spivak, G. C., (1990) The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, New York, London: Routledge.
  • Spivak, G. C., (1998) In Other Worlds, London, New York: Routledge.