Antoine Berman’s ‘Twelve Deforming Tendencies of Translation’

Antoine Berman, in his essay Translation and Trials of the Foreign, shows the ‘deforming tendencies’ inherent in the act of translation. These tendencies are, to a greater or lesser extent inevitable but, Berman argues, should be mitigated against by the conscientious translator.

The twelve deforming tendencies:
  • Rationalisation
  • Clarification
  • Expansion
  • Ennoblement or popularisation
  • Qualitative impoverishment
  • Quantitative impoverishment
  • The destruction of rhythms
  • The destruction of underlying networks of signification
  • The destruction of linguistic patternings
  • The destruction of vernacular network or their exoticisation
  • The destruction of expressions and idioms
  • The effacement of the superimposition of languages

These terms may be offered as a series of warnings to those carrying out conventional linguistic translation, but are also a formal manifestation – a map, if you like – of the gap that exists between ‘source’ and ‘copy’. When applied to understanding reiteration, or even when thought of while making works of art, the list is revealed as a more generally applicable regulator of voice.

Lawrence Venuti, an American translation theorist, has used Berman’s concepts to write a genealogy of translation in an Anglo-American context to introduce the ‘foreignizing’ strategy that is ignored in translation. Berman wants the translator to retain an element of the exotic (the ‘foreign’ in the title of his essay) as it signifies that a translation has taken place and can enrich the target language. Culture is congealed in language and carrying across s much of the exotic into a translation allows access to this. When, for example, an element of French culture, reflected in language, is retained in a book translated into English the new reader learns something.

I am currently using this list – Berman calls it an ‘analytic’ to help understand the results of my own practice and trying to adapt it for teaching purposes. I believe it can be used to help artists better understand their own work while providing a vocabulary or ‘terms of reference’ for talking about work in teaching environments.

‘Expansion’ for example, is concerned with the way that translated texts tend to be longer than their sources which has the inevitable effect of spreading out the language used. Words placed in close proximity by the author become separated and a sensual aspect (though perhaps not the meaning of comprehensibility of the text) can be lost or compromised. In the realm of visual art we are familiar with scaling works up from sketches or maquettes. This is an act of expansion that risks changing the work. In contemporary art practice it is not unusual to propose a work in writing before executing it under the auspices of an institution. This, too, is an act of expansion. It is not my intention to insist that whatever is in the source (sketch, maquette, proposal) should be perfectly rendered in the finished, larger, work but rather that makers must manage that process and be aware of the process’s difficulties.

Berman intends for his analytic to be used to regulate the voice of the translator to be quiet and respectful, but an artist may intervene in the reiterative process using a more familiar authorial voice. Artists like Elaine Sturtevant remake works by others but interpose themselves between source and viewer, forcing the viewer to consider the status of her reiteration in relation to the original. Bermans’ list can help the viewer explore this difficulty by identifying elements that are at play in the act of reiteration.


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