Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Literature. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 27 October 2021

Literary Translationlocked

Literary Translationlocked

  • Anthony PymAnthony PymSchool of Languages and Linguistics, University of Melbourne


Literary translation has progressively been dominated by a Western translation form that imposes basic binarisms, assuming separate (national) languages, a foundational opposition between domesticating and foreignizing translation strategies, and separate voices for author and translator, with the latter in a subordinate position. This binary, individualist, and nationalist conceptualization furnishes a way of talking about translations that often has little to do with the vitality and pragmatism of the literary translator’s craft, where there are mostly more than two options in play. When coupled to notions of literariness that privilege means of expression, the form also produces strong concepts of untranslatability, usually based on the banal observation that different languages offer different means of expression. A strong answer to the alleged impossibility of translation is the idea, found in Walter Benjamin and Andrey Fedorov, that literary translations do not replace their “source” or “start texts” but are instead an interpretative extension of them, and should be read as such. The Western translation form also overlooks the variety of translative activities that existed prior to its rise in the early modern period. With its emphasis on separation and accuracy, it traveled out with the railway lines and steam printing presses of modernity, supplanting most of the non-Western translation forms as literary practices. Western translation studies, as an academic discipline, has followed the same paths several generations later, imposing its binary metalanguage in the process. In this, it has become part and parcel of a world configuration of networks where a few central languages, with English as a super-central language, have enormous numbers of translations being done from them, while they themselves appear to have relatively few translations in them. This has been called the “three-percent problem,” so named because only 3 to 4 percent of texts in English are translations. The low percentage is nevertheless a function of the huge number of titles published in English, which means that English regularly has more translations than do French or Italian, for example. There are nevertheless hegemonic relations in the way that international literary events are created in central languages and then translated outward, such that a disproportionate degree of fame tends to accrue to those who write in the central languages. Can this configuration be changed? If the foundational binarisms of the Western translation form were based on the fixity of the printing press, which separated languages and objectified stable texts, then new translation forms should be sought in the global accessibility and fluidity of digital technologies, which offer translators unexplored possibilities.


  • Literary Theory

You do not currently have access to this article


Please login to access the full content.


Access to the full content requires a subscription