Review: “Translation” by Susan Bassnett

Translation by Susan Bassnett, published by Routledge in 2014 as part of the series “The New Critical Idiom”.

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In a time when millions travel around the planet, some by choice, some driven by economic or political exile, translation of the written and spoken word is of ever increasing importance. This guide presents readers with an accessible and engaging introduction to the valuable position translation holds within literature and society. 

Leading translation theorist Susan Bassnett traces the history of translation, examining the ways translation is currently utilised as a burgeoning interdisciplinary activity and considers more recent research into developing technologies and new media forms. 

Translation displays the importance of translation across disciplines, and is essential reading for students and scholars of translation, literary studies, globalisation studies, and ancient and modern languages. 

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My rating: 4/5

This book is exactly what it claims to be: a guide to translation theory. It offers a wonderfully thorough overview of modern translation practices and theories and, most importantly for me, spends quite some time on feminist and postcolonial translation.

What it doesn’t do is develop any new theories, so it’s really more of a school book, albeit a very comprehensive one. It’s a great starting point and gives just enough of an insight into each theory that it’s easy to decide what to look up next.

The main idea of the book is to show that “the problem around negative attitudes towards translation lies not with translators, but with commentators and critics who fail to understand that no text can be exactly reproduced in another language” (p. 152), which essentially means that all the debates raging in the translation community about the faithfulness or betrayal of translation are irrelevant.

Most importantly, Bassnett states that “what can be said in one language can never be reproduced in an identical form in another, not only because languages are different, but also because cultures are different” (p. 170), which is something that I believe all (newbie) translators struggle with and something that greatly baffles everyone else in the field of literature. If we all just agreed on this point, our lives would, I think, be immesurably easier.

As a translator, I also appreciated some of Bassnett’s more assertive claims about the importance and meaning of translation in the modern world: “Far from being a marginal activity, translation is, and always has been, fundamental to literary and cultural renewal and change” (p. 178), she concludes. Yes.

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Susan Bassnett is a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, UK. She has published extensively on translation, and her best known books include Translation Studies (4th ed., 2013); Reflections on Translation (2011); Constructing Cultures, written with Andre Lefevere (1996) and Post-Colonial Translation, co-edited with Harish Trivedi (1999). She translates from several languages and lectures on aspects of translation all over the world.