Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic by Lawrence Venuti

The cover to Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic by Lawrence VenutiLincoln. University of Nebraska Press. 2019. 216 pages. 

Lawrence Venuti is the lightning rod of translation studies. Among his most enduring contributions to the field is his claim that publishers “domesticate” translated works by expecting translators to strip them of their inherent otherness in order to make them more palatable to American audiences. What’s his remedy for the book industry that, among its many faults, renders translators invisible? “Foreignizing” translations, i.e., retaining of foreign names, diction, syntax, etc.—anything that made the foreign text appealing in the first place. Given the rise of so-called world literature, a bland mush of worn-out plots and stock characters, it’s hard not to agree with him. 

In his latest upending of entrenched thinking about translation as a practice whose final product is often judged as “faithful” or “unfaithful,” Venuti aims his polemic at instrumentalism, a mode of translation that conceives of it “as the reproduction or transfer of an invariant that is contained in or caused by the source text, an invariant form, meaning, or effect.” In its place, Venuti proposes an alternative model, which he calls hermeneutic. In arguing for translation to become an interpretive act that is both linguistic and cultural, Venuti reminds us that every translator applies, often “intuitively and without critical reflection,” formal and thematic “interpreters” to the source-text. “The application of interpretants,” according to the Temple University professor, “guarantees that a translation is relatively autonomous from its source text even while establishing a variety of interpretive relations to that text.” 

Tracing the origins of the instrumental mode to the Romans and providing examples from more than a half-dozen languages and cultures, including Arabic, German, Greek, and Spanish, Venuti argues that instrumentalism “grossly oversimplifies translation practice, fostering an illusion of immediate access to the source text.” Furthermore, by reminding us that most translators or reviewers, as well as tenure committees, interpret the text based on the target-language’s linguistic and cultural criteria, Venuti stresses, lest we forget, that all translation “entails ethical responsibilities and political commitments.” Significantly, Venuti posits that while translation is “fundamentally variable interpretation,” there are different degrees of difference and equivalence at play in any given translating process. This point would seem to preempt criticism from those who believe in honoring the original text—whatever it is that makes it tick and tock—while simultaneously downplaying, if not outright rejecting, any appeals to preserving the text’s mystical “essence.”

Venuti has written an excellent and far-reaching polemic indeed. It is erudite, extremely well-researched, and at times biting—he calls out individual and institutional agents alike—a direct effect of his desiring to move beyond theorizing to stimulate discussion and, hopefully, change. On the practical level, Venuti’s treatise lends support to all of us who’ve tried to translate so-called difficult texts and questioned the efficacy of the project itself. Venuti’s insistence on translation as an interpretive act—as well as a form of scholarship, where talk of losing something in the process isn’t applicable—is music to my ears. Poetry is in fact what’s gained in translation.

Piotr Florczyk
University of Southern California

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