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Translation – Critic’s corner

Poetry Translation

Poetry, Publishing and Translation Studies

by Mila Milani (University of Reading)

It is no doubt that poetry in translation is generally conceived as an elite genre, closed into some sort of ivory tower which isolates it from the flow of best-selling novels that monopolizes the publishing industry worldwide. In publishing terms, its readership is notoriously more select than other literary genres, and the print runs are generally much more modest. Italy is not an exception to the rule, and whereas the percentage of poetry in translation is higher than in the Anglophone countries, it is currently only slightly above 10% of the domestic production.[1] However, this does not imply that the study of poetry translation is not relevant to the study of publishing and, more broadly, of culture and society. Actually, the opposite.

In 2011, Lawrence Venuti made a similar point with regard to the study of translation, as he suggested moving poetry ‘closer to the center of translation studies’.[2] According to the well-known translation scholar, the reason for this desirable centrality of poetry is precisely the ‘marginality’ outlined above. To be ‘marginal’ makes poetry a less economic-driven publishing sector, in which prestige and recognition – or, in the sociological term theorized by Pierre Bourdieu, ‘symbolic capital’ – actually represent the most significant assets.  As a consequence, Venuti claims that ‘released from the constraint to turn a profit, poetry translation is more likely to encourage experimental strategies that can reveal what is unique about translation as a linguistic and cultural practice’.[3] The choice of focusing on poetry would thus be strategic in analysing translation practices and in exploring the hermeneutic acts of intercultural exchange, which are determined by the receiving language and culture.

If we are to insert translation into the field of cultural production, the choice of poetry translation as a stage of investigation will also prove profitable for a fuller understanding of the dynamics at stake in publishing and, more broadly, in culture. In this respect, a change in our methodological perspective should be undertaken, as a solely text-based analysis risks being too narrow to explore the outer conditions which influence translation. Specifically, the conception of translation as a social phenomenon, which has developed in translation studies in the last few years,[4] allows translation studies to carry out a more careful and comprehensive examination of the several and diverse social agents involved in translation, thus illuminating the role of publishing organizations and their practices of translation.

However, within this horizon, critics appear to have less consistently paid attention to poetry translation[5]. If this may have been due, paradoxically, to the character of poetry as the elite genre par excellence, a reappraisal of the poetic genre is instead needed, in order to elucidate the strategic function of translation with regard to publishing. As recalled by Venuti, poetry translation is a cultural product relatively more autonomous from publishers’ economic agenda: in sociological, specifically Bourdieusian, terms, this means that the negotiation between poets, translators and publishers over the appropriation of capital – which is not exclusively economic (although this is undeniably present, as intrinsic to the management of a publishing venture), but especially symbolic – not only involves social and power relations, but makes their analysis culturally more significant as compared to other, better-selling publishing sectors. In other terms, to focus on the poetic sector of publishing can help to critically unveil the cultural assets at stake and to define more precisely the publishers’ strategies and cultural projects undertaken in connection with the literary field.

This appears evident, if we very briefly summarize the evolutions of the 1950-1960s Italian publishing sector of poetry, in which translation was crucial for accumulating the symbolic capital that publishers need to modify power relationships within their own field of activity. Specifically, from a sociological viewpoint, the introduction of contemporary foreign poetry into the Italian publishing field was the result of the interaction between the cultural agents’ perception of the stagnant state of Italian poetry, and the publishers’ need to exploit new editorial patterns, which they sought in order to redefine their roles within the publishing field. By opting for innovative and refined editorial choices, small publishers like Scheiwiller and Guanda are at first able to exploit the prestige value of contemporary foreign poetry. Precisely, this move allows small publishers both to gain a significant role within the national field and to challenge the strategies of the medium-sized and largest publishing houses. Later in the Sixties, this structural and symbolic change prompts the latter to turn more consistently towards the publication of foreign poetry, in order to (re)assume a prominent position within the national field of publishing. In the case of larger firms too, despite the more pressing economic and structural constraints they face if compared to the small, elitist publishers, translation turns out to be a profitable device to gain substantial funds of symbolic capital. Crucially, translation helps Mondadori to reshape its traditional conservative policies; while, through the publication of foreign rather than domestic poetry, Einaudi fosters its cultural project of political engagement. Moreover, in this way, the publisher is also able to reconfigure transnationally the role of its editors as intellectuals, and thus reasserts its position within the field.

Ultimately, a sociological approach to poetry translation illuminates not only the history of Italian publishing in 1950s-1960s, but also the wider cultural field of the day, thereby contributing to current research in Italian Studies. Therefore, by strategically using the ‘elite’ character of poetry translation, sociology of translation reformulates the same concept of the ‘ivory tower’, making it more relevant to the study of culture.

[1] For an in-depht analysis see Giovanni Peresson and Cristina Mussinelli, ‘The sale and purchase of translation rights in the Italian market’, Publishing Research Quarterly 25 (2009): 254-63.

[2] Lawrence Venuti, ‘Introduction’, Translation Studies, 4 (2011): 2, 127.

[3] Ibid.

[4] In particular, ‘Bourdieu and the Sociology of Translating and Interpreting’, ed. Moira Inghilleri, special issue of The Traslator (2005); and Constructing a Sociology of Translation, eds. Michaela Wolf and Alexandra Fukari (Amsterdam and Philadeplphia: John Benjamins, 2007).

[5] One of the exceptions being Francis R Jones’ book, Poetry Translating as Expert Action. Processes, priorities and networks (Amsterdam and Philadeplphia: John Benjamins), published in 2011.

Mila Milani is currently research assistant on the AHRC project ‘Mapping Literary Space: Literary Journals, Publishing Firms and Intellectuals in Italy, 1940-1960’ at the University of Reading. In 2013  she completed her PhD at the University of Manchester, researching the role of poetry translation in the field of publishing in post-WWII Italy. Her publications include essays on the strategies of translation by the Italian publishers Scheiwiller, Mondadori and Einaudi, and on some Italian poets and their relationship with other European authors (Ardengo Soffici and Guillaume Apollinaire; Cesare Pavese and James Joyce). Her research interests focus on the sociology of translation, history of publishing and history of culture.


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This entry was posted on January 28, 2014 by in Critic's corner.
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