QUARTERLY ESSAY 52 Found in Translation



Brian Nelson

Linda Jaivin, in her rich and wide-ranging essay, makes a compelling case for the importance of translation as the “invisible skein” that binds today’s “plural world”; and she makes her case in a splendidly entertaining manner. 

Despite the obvious benefits of speaking and reading more than one language in a globalised world, and the fact that translation, by its very nature, is transnational, translation still elicits widespread distrust or simple disregard; and English remains resistant to translations: a mere 3 per cent of books published in English are translations. Recognition of translation as a cultural necessity cannot be separated from appreciation of the skills associated with the practice of translation, especially literary translation. People sometimes think of translation as an essentially mechanical activity, as a kind of degraded substitute for the work translated, or as a kind of subservience, in which translators subjugate their own creativity to the demands of the original text. They wouldn’t think that way about an actor or a musician, so if they can appreciate the dimension of performance in relation to music or theatre, why not in relation to translation? The answer lies partly in the translator’s investment, so to speak, in his invisibility. As Simon Leys has written:

The paradox which the translator encounters while obstinately pursuing his harrowing task inheres in the fact that he is not setting about erecting a monument to commemorate his talent, but on the contrary is endeavouring to efface all trace of his own existence. The translator is spotted only when he has failed; his success lies in ensuring he be forgotten. The search for the natural and proper expression is the search for that which no longer feels like a translation. What is required is to give to the reader the illusion that he has direct access to the original. The ideal translator is an invisible man.

Nevertheless, translators need to be protected from this paradox. The nature of literary translation as an intrinsically creative activity needs to be recognised. Translation is a peculiarly intense form of reading; and it is a form of creative writing, involving a multiplicity of exact choices about voice, register, rhythm, syntax, sounds, connotations, denotations, the colour and texture of words – all those factors that make up “style” and reflect the marriage between style and semantic content. Style is vision. If you don’t get the style, you miss the vision. The activity of the writer and that of the translator are indivisible. 

The more translators are treated as creative writers, or rewriters, the more translations, better translators and a richer literary culture we’ll have. Susan Sontag was right to remind us, in a 2003 essay, that translation is “the circulatory system of the world’s literatures.” Space needs to be created in the global language that is English for multiple voices, for voices from all over the world. Government can help to create that space by providing the type of support translation enjoys in Europe, where many countries have extensive programs run by government agencies and government-sponsored foundations to facilitate the global dissemination of domestic literature and to ensure that works written in other languages are brought into their language. An Australian Centre for Literary Translation would be a great thing.

The central theme of Jaivin’s essay is the nexus between language and culture. Her essay, taken as a whole, offers a fine rebuttal of the remarkably crass suggestion by Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and a key economic adviser to President Obama during his first term, that, given the emergence of English as a global language and the rapid progress in machine translation, investment in foreign-language learning has diminishing returns. Even if we consider this proposition purely in terms of economic advantage, it is not convincing. 

But the main objection to Summers’ statement (leaving aside the red herring about machine translation) notes the cultural parochialism it appears to embody. Jaivin rightly stresses the importance of foreign-language learning as “the breeding ground of translators and translation”; more broadly, she stresses the cultural richness derived from diversity: “civilisation is … that process by which cultures open themselves up to others, confront the challenges they offer, and develop.” This is a (somewhat familiar) historical fact as well as a feature of the contemporary world. The great texts of Western civilisation were transmitted through translation. As Milan Kundera has written: “Common European thought is the fruit of the immense toil of translators. Without translators, Europe would not exist …” Culture is embedded in language. Really knowing a culture – a particular vision of life, particular ways of thinking and behaving – means knowing it from the inside, through its language. Access to other cultures, and the rich variety of the world’s cultures, will slowly be lost if the learning of foreign languages is downgraded. As Lydia Davis has commented, “if we know no other languages but our own we are terribly isolated and impoverished.” Jaivin notes that only 12 per cent of Year 12 students in Australia today study a foreign language. That figure is dismayingly, desperately and unnecessarily low. 


Brian Nelson is emeritus professor at Monash University and editor of the Australian Journal of French Studies. His well-known translations of the novels of Emile Zola include The Fortune of the Rougons and The Ladies’ Paradise. Most recently, he is the co-editor (with Brigid Maher) of Perspectives on Literature and Translation: Creation, Circulation, Reception.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 52, Found in Translation. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 53, That Sinking Feeling.


Laura Tingle
What Australia Can Learn from New Zealand
Katharine Murphy
Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics
Judith Brett
Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future
Margaret Simons
The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin
Peter Hartcher
Waking Up to China’s Challenge
Annabel Crabb
Australia’s Parenthood Trap