Friedrich Schleiermacher

I sometimes get asked what I consider the most important theoretical text ever written about translation, and I invariably reply: Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “On The Different Methods of Translating.” This treatise, composed in German (“Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens”), was first presented as a series of lectures at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1813 and then published in 1815. In it, Schleiermacher says all sorts of brilliant things about translation that are pretty much as relevant now and here as they were there and then. Here is the main choice that, in his view, every translator is faced with: “Either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.” This spatial relationship he is describing has to do with cultural and linguistic context and the fact that most translations into German during most of the 18th century tended to be what we would now call domesticating paraphrases, texts that communicated plot line and story but paid little attention to the stylistic characteristics of the original text and tended to erase all sense of cultural difference. Schleiermacher sees the translator not merely as a conduit for works of foreign literature but as a sort of cultural ambassador who will help educate his readership in not only the customs of those who live in a particular foreign country but also their particular way of expressing themselves, their sensibility, even their humanity; to translate in this mode is to promote xenophilia.

Schleiermacher envisions a utopian project in which so many translators will be translating into German in this way that they will eventually expand the language itself. What’s more, along with the language they will be expanding the hearts and minds of their readers since, as Schleiermacher believes, “Every human being is, on the one hand, in the power of the language he speaks; he and all his thought are its products. He cannot think with complete certainty anything that lies outside its boundaries; the form of his ideas, the manner in which he combines them, and the limits of these combinations are all preordained by the language in which he was born and raised: both his intellect and his imagination are bound by it. On the other hand, every free-thinking, intellectually independent individual shapes the language in his turn.” These are radical thoughts on the subject of the interrelation between language and personal identity.

Schleiermacher’s essay is a crucial building block in the work of leading translation theorist Lawrence Venuti, whose seminal study The Translator’s Invisibility (1995) deals at length, both theoretically and in facts and figures, with the resistance to Schleiermachian “foreignizing” translation traditionally found above all in the English- and French-language publishing worlds. I was honored when Venuti asked me to do a new translation of Schleiermacher’s essay for The Translation Studies Reader, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2004). A third edition of the Reader is currently in the works, apropos of which I just did a bit of minor tweaking of certain parts of the translation, nothing major. Looking back over the translation reminded me of the importance of Schleiermacher’s thought. There’s quite a bit to be said about the translation as well, but I’ll save that for another post.

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