Fictional Translators Review

Fictional Translators: Rethinking Translation through LiteratureRosemary Arrojo. 2018. London and New York: Routledge [New Perspectives in Translation and Interpreting Studies], ISBN 978-1-138-82714-1, pp. 183.

Review written by Paschalis Nikolaou


Fictional Translators: Rethinking Translation through Literature (Paperback) book cover

The subtitle of Rosemary Arrojo’s new book is one of those that really hold significance: consistent attempts to rethink literary writing and acts of reading persist throughout much of this worthy entry in Routledge’s ambitious ‘New Perspectives in Translation and Interpreting Studies’ (Michael Cronin and Moira Inghilleri are the series editors). In fact, Fictional Translators may be considered a contribution to literary studies, first and foremost– many angles in the eight chapters that comprise Arrojo’s investigations of novelistic discourse and the short story, do bear out a long-held conviction that fictional representations of translation shine a real light to the nature of literary translation; often
externalizing some unseen, ethical conflicts in the lives of its practitioners. But discussing key texts such as Poe’s ‘The Oval Portrait’ and Borges’s ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (in fact a trio of stories by Borges is discussed, with ‘Funes, His Memory’ and ‘Death and the Compass’ complimenting the ideas found in Menard’s fantastical engagement with Cervantes), as well as lesser-known works like Kosztolányi’s Kornél Esti and Babel’s ‘Guy de Maupassant’ key us into a more energetic and suggestive way of engaging with the projects and intentions of literature. At the same time, there is a timeliness, if not an inevitability to Arrojo’s research, and to other, similarly-themed collection of articles, for instance, Transfiction: Research into the Realities of Translation Fiction (2014; edited by Klaus Kaindl and Karlheinz Spitzl). Arrojo herself relays to us why, early in her Introduction: ‘[…] with the growth of translation studies as an interdiscipline and the proliferation of translation characters in world literature intensifying at the turn of the millennium, the scholarly interest in representations of translators and translator-related issues in fiction began to produce an abundance of critical material elsewhere as well’ (p. 2).

As she also notes there, Elsa Vierra’s ‘fictional turn’ prepared us for this discussion, as well as number of key essays in a 2005 special issue of Linguistica Antverpiensia, guest-edited by Dirk Delabastita and Rainier Grutman. The same goes for translation traditions like Brazil’s movimento antropofágico and those naturally inviting theoretical bends, such as post-structuralism, that reach with ease and enthusiasm to literary examples and doubles as encountered in Borges or Saramago. And Arrojo is quick to point out that positions like hers, on the reading of fiction as a space for theorization, are compatible with Derrida’s ‘defense of literature as a privileged site for the kind of reflection generally associated with philosophy or theory’ (p. 4).

Book-length, extended investigations have manifested relatively recently, however, and notably often on the heel of work done in conferences (Transfiction was indeed one such case). Arrojo proceeds to systematize a use of these fictional narratives, observing that often their plots will more readily defend or side with points of view, and will ‘play out’ some of the most impacting consequences of translation; on this she’s supported by views such as that fiction ‘is distinguished from other forms of discourse in its propensity to “play” with the given ideologemes of its cultural context’ (Beebee 1994: 72; p. 4 of Arrojo’s Introduction). This programmatic constancy of reading as a form of theory continues throughout, as Arrojo moves from the emblematic rewriter of Borges’s seminal story to Rodolfo Walsh’s poignant ‘Footnote’ that again supports notions of a ‘translation of philosophy into fiction’, to discussions of Wilde and Poe’s work as revealing explorations of translation akin to portrait painting (the argument goes that portrait painting reflects that ‘long established hierarchy separating fetishized conceptions of the original as a fully present, reliable bearer of its author’s acknowledged meanings and intentions, from the allegedly inadequate representations in other languages or media’ (p. 7)). Chapter 5 also finds the author exploring, via Freud’s ‘Creative Writers and Daydreaming’ and Nietzsche’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, similarities between Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’ and Kostolányi’s kleptomaniac Hungarian translator, Gallus, within the aforementioned Kornél Esti. These are characters and plot settings seen to resourcefully echo compulsions shared by authors and translators. In the second case, for instance: the Hungarian version is fluent, contains no mistranslations and yet at the same time, the jewels worn by a female character, alongside watches, silverware, even entire mansions existing in the original, are all gone in translation. What particularly appears to interest Arrojo here is an implicit criticism of essentialist conceptions of language and the subject: ‘From the perspective of those who share a general belief in the possibility of stable meanings safely stored in texts, such meanings are not only considered to be objectively traced to their authors’ conscious intentions, but also viewed as their property’ (p. 103). In this way, Kostolányi’s humorous narrative exposes prejudices and preconceptions as it proceeds to describe the theft of exactly those objects and textual traits that result in the translator asserting power, his daring ‘to transform what was viewed as a trashy piece of English fiction into an elegant Hungarian narrative’ (ibid.)

Preceding the satisfying last chapter on ‘translation as transference’ and Borges’s multilevel appropriations of Cervantes and Whitman, we find two chapters that attempt to update thought on the sexualization of translation, most prominently seen through various aphorisms and notions (‘les belles infidèles’ being the most obvious example), through discussions of Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989; Eng. trans. 1997), Babel’s ‘Guy de Maupassant’, Scliar’s ‘Notas ao pé da página’ (1995) and Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979; Eng. trans. 1981). Certain characters and roles ascribed to them also suggest oppositions between masculine and feminine qualities: in the Saramago novel for instance, an opposition is detected between the author and the proofreader, the first is associated with ‘the novel’s enthusiastic celebration of literary power as a direct, almost immediate manifestation of enhanced masculinity‘ whilst the proofreader protagonist represents a task that is stereotypically feminine or feminizing, and ‘entails the repression or the absence of creativity and a selfless dedication to someone else’s writings’ p. 108-109). Argumentation in these two chapters is a bit more tenuous; one suspects these works do certainly support an illustration of such dynamics in class, but it seems harder to arrive at analysis that is as convincing as it should be, within the intentions of the academic monograph.

Arrojo’s interest in these matters is clear however, and insistently pursued. She has had time to hone several of these arguments (some of these chapters were previously published as individual essays) and her joining of these multifarious stories, literary traditions and characters in the service of a didactics of literature, and of literary translation, achieves a recognition of realities and constants within – and hopefully also leads to furthering of – literary creativity. One of the key tasks here, that of undoing some basic clichés and prejudices, is easier; students and researchers of translation will perhaps have already shed some initial preconceptions on translating by the time they come to a book like Arrojo’s. The deployment of several post-structuralist tenets is at points unconvincing, or feels less than necessary, running often contrary to the psychological reality of translators and/as fictional characters. Yet despite these occasional difficulties or weaknesses, this book’s excitement in delving into some of the most literary of narratives, and the implications behind them, remains contagious.


Beebee, T. O. (1994) ‘The Fiction of Translation: Abdelkebir Khatibi’s Love in Two
Languages’, SubStance 23(1), issue 73: 63-78.

Paschalis Nikolaou (2018)

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