The following is an excerpt from the introduction of the recently published A Companion to Translation Studies (Wiley-Blackwell, April 2014), edited by Sandra Bermann and Catherine Porter.


Translation has played a major role in human history from the earliest times. Evidence of this singular activity, one deeply implicating our sense of language, identity, and intercultural communication, can be found in the clay tablets of the ancient Near East and continues powerfully in the information technology of the twenty-first century. It has accompanied the conquests of princes and movements of empires, the routes of trade, and human migration from ancient times to the present. Wherever people have brought new languages and cultures, translation has been there, variously transforming societies, texts, and traditions. Moreover, as psychoanalysts, poets, and theorists remind us, translation plays a crucial, if less often discussed, role in the development of individual subjectivity, agency, and identity.

Translation has most often done its work in the shadows of official history. But it has begun to grow in visibility with the globalizing culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Across the planet, translation inflects the arts and entertainment, daily conversations, news and information technologies, as well as business, trade, finance, law, government, education, military, and scientific research. Its effects and complexities have generated themes for novels, feature films, and countless Internet sites, while the word “translation” itself has become a metaphor for transformation or transposition of many kinds. Increasingly a site of theoretical reflection, translation’s role in representing self and other in complicated hierarchies of power, in staging the performance of sexualities, in posing ethical questions, and in constructing linguistic and cultural histories has been increasingly acknowledged. As Bella Brodzki starkly puts it, translation today is seen to “underwrite all cultural transactions, from the most benign to the most venal.”[1] (Brodzki 2007, 2) and scholars have begun to speak of a “translation turn” in the humanities and social sciences.[2] But though translation’s part in past and present history has become more visible, it is not yet very well understood and not always carefully studied. The purpose of this book is to explore this social and linguistic practice more fully through the lively discipline that has recently developed to study it. . . .

Translation Studies Today

Responding to multiple veins of inquiry, focusing them in innovative ways while developing theoretical insights specific to the field, translation studies rapidly gained intellectual visibility, and moved from a marginal to a central and often transformative discipline. As the essays collected in this Companion suggest, its recent scholarship offers new lenses for examining well-known issues in canon formation and literary history as well as innovative models for dealing with questions of language inequalities, hybridization, identity, and globalization. It also offers ways to consider more closely the many languages and cultures touched by translation – and the political and ethical issues they present.

Indeed, the fast-growing interest in translation studies has not been limited to the sphere of scholarship. It has directly affected university curricula. With innovative courses and programs on the university level, translation studies has, in fact, found new prominence in academic institutions throughout Europe, in South and East Asia, in Latin America, and elsewhere around the globe. Even in universities in the United States, where there was once little interest in the topic, individual courses and programs now frequently appear in undergraduate curricula, usually in Departments of English, Modern Languages, and Comparative Literature, while schools that already provided instruction in the field have increased their offerings. As the Modern Language Association advised in its 2007 Report on Foreign Languages and Higher Education:

Develop programs in translation and interpretation. There is a great unmet demand for educated translators and interpreters, and translation is an ideal context for developing translingual and transcultural abilities as an organizing principle of the language curriculum.[3] (2007, 9)

Indeed, translation studies is attracting students even when other fields in the humanities are not. Its courses help to “internationalize” the university curriculum and better prepare students for the world that awaits them.

Dominated by no single theory but informed by many, translation studies today finds common threads in its reflections on the complex phenomenon called translation and the network of theoretical insights surrounding it. It raises a number of fundamental questions for the theory and practice of translation, questions that inevitably reach to other fields as well. Many of them appear in the collected essays of this Companion:

  • How can we speak of a “single language” and how do we elicit and analyze the historical and cultural layerings within each text we read and translate?
  • How do we study oral as well as written translation and the linguistic and cultural roles these serve?
  • What part has translation played in specific political, ethical, and religious structures of the past, and what role does it play today?
  • More specifically, what role has translation played in colonial and postcolonial situations? How has it served the needs of dominating cultures? Equally important, how have suppressed cultures used it to subvert reigning power structures?
  • How has translation contributed to the representation of “other” cultures?
  • What part does translation take in the texts and lives of migrating peoples? What might self-translation mean in these contexts?
  • What part might translation play in the performance and performativity of gendered or “queer” identities?
  • What is the place of the translator – and what are the roles of the editor, the illustrator, the publisher and, very importantly, the reader?
  • What might we say today about the ethics of translation?

Though such questions motivate a good number of essays in this Companion, they do so not from some universal platform of knowledge, but from within specific and diverse linguistic and cultural contexts. Very much a thing of this world, translation has always been a very different thing in different parts of the world. Attempting a more planetary reach and a less Eurocentric perspective, translation theory is increasingly attentive to geo-linguistic diversity. In the process, it has also become increasingly aware that some of its own terms, assumptions, and inaugural steps – starting with the very meaning of the English term “translation” – can be challenged by different views from other places and times. Exploring diverse traditions of translation practice and theory has given new impetus to the field, opening it to new insights as well as to an awareness of its own, often unintentionally hegemonic role. Particularly conscious of the widening context of translation studies, this Companion attempts to situate the field in a broad geo-linguistic and historical space – and in the self-reflexive mode of its practitioners.

If translation studies today addresses a wide range of questions and opens up a broad planetary field, it also explores an array of interrelated yet distinct discursive practices: legal translation, medical translation, diplomatic translation, film subtitling and dubbing, simultaneous interpretation, business translation, and literary translation. Though a number of essays in the Companion speak to a variety of translation and interpreting practices, most focus on literary translation, largely because it has generated the widest range of theoretical reflection while remaining most accessible for general readers and for teaching non-specialized courses at the undergraduate level.

Organization of the Companion

Given the scope of this dynamic young discipline, and in order to make it fully accessible to our readers, we have organized a wide range of essays into three main parts: “Approaches to Translation,” “Translation in a Global Context,” and “Genres of Translation.” Each offers a number of complementary paths for exploring this rich and quickly changing field. Together, they reveal striking specific insights, as well as some general tendencies. . . .

Current Trends and New Directions

Throughout these forty-five essays, with their examples and case studies from across the globe, a number of threads reappear with some regularity – and help to limn the complex weave of translation studies today. Let us mention, in closing, six of them:

      1 Translation as a productive, rather than reproductive, practice. Rather than assuming that translation offers only an imperfect reproduction of an original, the essays in this volume typically emphasize translation’s quality as a productive linguistic and cultural act. A translation does indeed resemble its source and, when successful, can ensure its survival, as Walter Benjamin eloquently proposed. But in creating a new text that resembles its source, translation also transfigures it. Producing a text in a different language, it opens an “interlocutory space” in which a new text meets a new and different audience, prompting a further series of interpretations and, perhaps, translations.

      2 Translation, empire, and multilingualism. As numerous essays in this Companion suggest, translation has played an important role both in empire-building and in its resistance, as it also helps to negotiate the individual lives and texts of migrating and postcolonial individuals. Concerns with questions of local and global languages, “major” and “minor” languages, and the problem of “epistemicide” in an increasingly Anglophonic global sphere are particularly important issues in translation studies today. At the same time, the role of the local and the particular in individual acts of translation argue for modes of reading that remain keenly attuned to the specifics of language and culture. These ask us to consider who is translating and why, but also how the text and its eventual translation can cross borders through a palpable hybridity of language. Such hybrid or creolized texts allow us to read the multilingualism that is an increasingly prominent feature of literature – and translation – in the twenty-first century.

      3 Identity, migration, sexuality. New work on identity in translation studies suggests a growing interest in the interface between translation studies and migration studies on the one hand, and between translation studies and gender and sexuality studies on the other. Each questions how translations and translators perform different sorts of border-crossing, transfiguring texts as they outline new directions for understanding individual subjectivities and the cultural discourses they negotiate and sometimes transform.

      4 Translation as collaboration. The many agents involved in the translation and dissemination of a text – translator, editor, publisher, illustrator, lawyer, agent, and market analyst – already testify to the complexity of the translator’s position. As a number of essays in this volume suggest, they also underscore the important interpretive role of the reader. He or she must note not only the potential acts of these numerous agents, but also the intertexts haunting both source and translation, as she or he interprets the text as a distinct reader situated in a particular time and place. This collaborative perspective becomes yet more complex – and important to consider – in the new translational practices developing through Internet technologies, from fansubbing to the interpretation of hypertexts. These new technologies, areas of growing interest in translation studies, are already changing the work of translation across the planet. Rethinking the role of the reader along with that of the other agents of production and reception (human and technological) will also affect the way students are taught to read translations in pedagogies of the future.

      5 Rethinking literary and cultural history. The role of translation in the assessment of literary history has already changed dramatically. For one thing, we find a heightened awareness of periods in history when translation played a particularly vivid role in the generation of literary texts (for example, in the translation culture of sixth-century China, ninth-century Baghdad, or fifteenth-century Europe). We also find a keen awareness of the political interests that frame what we call our national traditions. Indeed, by looking to translation histories of particular texts, as well as to their intertexts, we soon find that what we call “national” literary histories are inevitably also “transnational” histories.

      6 Rethinking the ethics of translation. In the light of recent changes in the theory and practice of translation, the ethics of translation have also gained in complexity. No longer bound by the ideals of strict equivalence or “fidelity,” translation nonetheless seems to call for a practice that would remain respectful of the source language and culture, open to their differences, and alert to its own linguistic refigurations. It might, for instance, mark a text as “other” (perhaps by “foreignizing,” footnoting, or prefacing it, rather than appropriating it seamlessly). It might also highlight those areas where intelligibility is least available, leaving them for the reader in collaboration with the text (along with its intertexts and its past history of translations) to construe. Such modes – and others – heighten the relational and dialogical quality of translation. Indeed, in translation’s very act of welcoming some sense of otherness into the language and culture of reception, which it almost inevitably does, it can fruitfully disturb – or interrupt – not only the apparent singleness (or ontological purity) of the receiving language. It can also model similar salutary disruptions and transformations of individual and cultural identities. If we are to judge from the essays collected here, a new ethics of translation seems to be developing around such relational issues.

There are surely other trends in translation studies today. But our hope is that those articulated in this Companion will give readers a keen sense of some main currents and spur them to discover more. As the varied essays that follow suggest, translation studies today offers not only new areas for scholarly study, but also new pedagogical tools, perhaps even life skills that, if developed with care and knowledge, might make readers more capable and sensitive negotiators of the planetary network of languages, cultures, and meanings that is theirs.


[1] Bella Brodski, Can These Bones Live? Translation, Survival, and Cultural Memory (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), p. 2.

[2] See, for instance, Stefano Arduini and Siri Nergaard, “Translation: A New Paradigm,” Translation: A Transdisciplinary Journal, inaugural issue (2011): 8-16.

[3] MLA, Foreign Language and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World (MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages, 2007), p. 9.