Literary translation is often seen as a privileged area of investigation within Translation Studies. It is therefore an interesting and bizarre paradox that translation has, on the whole, remained a much neglected area within Literary Studies. The effect of social prestige provides the obvious solution for the paradox. Literary translation has quite enough prestige to stand out strongly within Translation Studies but, being literary translation, it remains the poor relative within Literary Studies.
Translation has long existed in the periphery of the study of literature, though its importance has changed radically over the last four decades. In spite of its significant importance as an intercultural activity, fields such as literary criticism and theory, the different histories of national literatures, and indeed Comparative Literature, have often considered translation to be something completely subsidiary to their interests. The main reason for this oversight or, indifference is the traditional perception of translation as a necessary evil. Translation can be seen as a strategy that tries to alleviate the limitations that humankind encounters whilst trying to establish contact with people belonging to other linguistic communities and their cultural legacy, transmitted through the written word. At the same time, it also serves, so to speak, as a way of reminding us of the imperfection of human nature and the vanity of trying to overcome Babel’s curse.
This perception implies an important paradox. It gives literary works, particularly the great works constituting canonized literature that are supposedly presented as models deserving imitation, the dubious honour of being inimitable, let alone unrepeatable. This has resulted in iterative and indiscriminate comparisons between the originals and their translations to compare the differences and so reveal what had been lost in the unavoidable, but also painful, interlinguistic transformation. From this point of view, the custom of considering in a premature (and, therefore, unfounded) way that any work is superior to its translation is not surprising.
Although the study of translation is one of the most effective tools we have to analyse interliterary contacts, not even comparatists, until recently, have been able or willing to give translation the recognition it deserves as a major driving force in the development of literature. The fact that translations have a derivative or second character cannot be denied as they logically require the existence of a previously written text in another language, but there is no need to make the term “second” synonymous to “secondary”.
Translations are often applied the stigma of secondary works due to their limited life, since all cultural and linguistic changes that are to be expected in any literary system throughout its existence are detrimental to them. These changes determine the need to provide readers with revisions of previous versions that are both ideologically and aesthetically suited to the new times. Generally, the title of original, as the word suggests, is awarded to a particular and exclusive expression of a particular author, although it is also a copy of reality, or the reality imagined by him/her. Conversely, translation is seen as a copy of a copy, a simulacrum, an imitation or interpretation of something tangible and true.
That said, although translation is certainly a reproduction of an original, there is no need to discriminate it in favour of the latter, whose only merit is often that of being its predecessor in time. Indeed, as it has occasionally been noted, many arts involve reproduction in their execution (consider, for example, the acts of interpretation involved on the stage or in musical performances). In fact, translations provide a genuine interpretive function, as later versions of the same work reveal new facets and are often updated upon rereading.
It is probable that the assumption that every original text must be, by its nature, necessarily superior to its translation (both in ontological and qualitative terms) intensified in the Romanticism, with the sublimation of creation, individualism and originality. However, much earlier on, we can find numerous accounts which do not speak of a relationship of parity. This premature, evaluative and normative conception born from a tradition inevitably oriented towards the original pole, has been challenged systematically in recent years by various post-structuralist theorists who have devoted themselves to rethinking the notion of originality. This view posits that the foreign text is not self-sufficient, complete in itself and independent, but would be, from a metaphorical point of view, also a translation in itself, being the result of the writer’s processing of a meaning, a concept, an emotion. Moreover, the translation process, understood as an interlinguistic and cultural transfer, becomes an activity that enables a text to perpetuate its life in another context, and the translated text acquires the status of the original by virtue of its existence in the new context. This approach is suggestive, as the assumed original becomes subject to its translation or translations to achieve an effective activation of new readings and more meaningful interpretations, as well as to ensure its survival.
In fact, what is at stake here is nothing less than the question of intertextuality: that of the original text with other texts; that of the original text with its translations; that of the different translations of a text between them; that of those translations with other texts in the target language. There is no doubt that the various translations of the same text develop some important relationships that have fundamental consequences for translators and translation students. The existence of previous translations (mainly in their own language, since that way intertextuality is reinforced) allows the translator to perform a collation that can, in some cases, determine the decision-making process and even lead to a tangible influence on the result of his or her own translation activity. Obviously, depending on the degree of such influence, there is room for talk of plagiarism. Even when that is not the case, when there is no influence of any kind, it is beyond doubt that each era has its own translation norms which the translator internalizes, then accepts or rejects. Both options have a fundamental impact on the final product. From the point of view of the researcher, the comparison of successive translations allows for the performance of a research on the ways in which a given author, a particular work, has been translated through time, and then for the formulation of hypotheses about its reception in a given context. In fact, it is a path long practiced in Descriptive Translation Studies research.
This issue of retranslation is inseparable from the issue of canon, to the point that they are absolutely interdependent: retranslations contribute to provide the status of classical texts, and their own status of classic texts encourages new retranslations. Let us remember that there is nothing intrinsic to a text that makes it canonical, but instead the specific facts of the literary system it belongs to are what favour or not its potential canonicity. Translation can, in fact, help to promote the canonical status of a text. An example is the usual practice of referring to an author as “translated into X languages” in order to highlight his or her importance. If we understand that reading a classic somehow involves rereading it, as Italo Calvino has done in his famous work Why Read the Classics, we could understand and justify the need for retranslation, since at the end a classic proves to be endless in its potential for interpretation.