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Leo Tak-hung Chan a
Lingnan University, Hong Kong

Online Publication Date: 20 June 2006

To cite this Article Chan, Leo Tak-hung(2006)'TRANSLATED FICTION',Perspectives,14:1,66 — 72

To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/09076760608669018


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Leo Tak-hung Chan, Lingnan University, Hong Kong
This article discusses translated fiction in terms of ontology and epistemology. Translated nov-
els should be considered distinct from untranslated fiction, notably the original from which they
derived. They offer a distinctive alternative model of reality; after the brief moment of bifurcation
which occurs in the translation process, they exist in another languages, culture, and literary
system than the source text. There has been increasing recognition of the uniqueness of translated
fiction, but there has been little research on it. The author suggests that insights of translation
theorists, textual semioticians and literary scholars can unravel the nature of translated novels,
including their culturally hybrid elements, their reshaping of the narrative voice, their use of an
interlanguage, and so on.

Key words: Literary translation; translating fiction; different realities; markets and audi-
ences for literary translations.

Introductory comments
The textual characteristics of translated fiction, notably full-length novels,
have received little attention. There is little discussion of what it is (its ontology)
and what we know about it (its epistemology). Prose narratives usually differ
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from poetry in form, lay-out, length, sequencing, and the element of temporal-
ity; literary narratives, on the other hand, differ from non-literary ones (such as
newspaper reports) in that the narrator dictates the outcome. Translated fiction
is a special kind of literary prose narrative, which is often considered only as
a secondary, derivative version of a masterpiece. It should in fact be set apart
from native (untranslated) fiction. It should also be held as something distinct
from the version from which it derives. In the target language translated fiction
usually offers distinctive, foreign models of reality; as texts that are naively said
to be the ‘same’ in sources as disparate as common parlance, library catalogues,
and comparative literary studies, translated fiction is one of two texts that exist
independent of one another in two different cultures and accidentally co-exist
(as long as both have a readership in their respective languages), namely the
source and the target texts.
Translation Studies has recognised the uniqueness of the translated text, but
apart from many MA and PhD theses that deal with comparisons of source and
(sometimes many) target versions, there is little serious scholarship with regard
to translated fiction, the most translated literary genre worldwide. It is true that
literary translation accounts for less than 1% of all translations in the world,
but given the fact that much theoretical thinking in Translation Studies is still
largely inspired by literary translation, this disregard for translated fiction is
remarkable. The present article is meant as a first consideration of whether we
can make use of insights recently developed in textual studies, narratology, and
Translation Studies to unravel the nature of translated fiction, in particular to
understand how readers respond to it. Epithets popularly to describe postmod-
ern texts apply well to translated fiction; its unusual nature can be captured in
terms like “border-crossing,” “hybridity,” and “intertextuality.” Here, I would
like to propose that the nature of translated fiction can be understood from the

0907-676X/06/01/066-7 $20.00 © år Leo Tak-hung Chan

Perspectives: Studies in Translatology Vol. 14, No. 1, 2006
Chan. Translated Fiction. 67

following perspectives:
In the translated text, there may, at the linguistic level, be

1) an interlanguage that incorporates elements of both the source and target

2) a textual fragmentation because literary and cultural systems clash or are
interwoven at two or more discourse levels; and
3) textual noise that is caused by the translator’s voice.

At the ‘cultural level’ (however this is defined), there may be

4) hybrid cultural elements; and

5) features of cross-cultural intertextuality;

Provided the above is the case, readers of translated fiction cross borders and
move between known and unknown worlds.
The power of translated fiction cannot be denied. It facilitates cultural con-
tacts. New knowledge is produced through making sense of, as well as relating
to, translated fictional texts; and individuals, in some cases entire communities,
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are affected by their encounter with it.

Textual characteristics of translated narratives

Can a translated narrative be seen in terms of ‘text’? We may check it against
the definition put forward by Basil Hatim and Ian Mason. They list four main
standards of textuality according to which texts can be differentiated from non-
texts: cohesion, coherence, intertextuality, and situationality (Hatim and Mason
1997: Chapter 2). One might expect that a translated narrative would easily
satisfy the standards of cohesion (since it reads fluently when the translation
is successful) and coherence (since it observes rules of grammar and logic). But
this is questioned by some postmodern literary texts as writers of our time play
havoc with the rules for writing cohesively and coherently, when they strive
to free themselves from the shackles of a common, ordinary language. Unlike
postmodern texts, however, translated narratives are sometimes forced to depart
from such standards by nature.
As far as intertextuality is concerned, all texts are unavoidably intertextual
in postmodern terms (Still and Worton 1990), yet a translated narrative is in-
tertextual in two cultures. It is part of its very existence that a translated text
has an umbilical cord to one other identifiable text. Since the source text is al-
ready embroiled in a network of intertextual relationships, it is inevitable that
the translation will carry over those intertextual allusions. Yet in the process of
replacement of signs of one language by those of another that happens in trans-
lation, new webs of associations may emerge and new links will be formed in
the target linguistic context. Those latter intertextual allusions may conflict with
those stemming from the original. And if we take the definition of intertextual-
ity to include iconic and semantic associations to real objects rather than textual
ones as Hatim and Mason put it (Hatim and Mason 1997), then it is evident that
a translated text will constantly invite readers to make intertextual references to
two cultures instead of one.
68 2006. Perspectives: Studies in Translatology. Volume 14: 1

Finally, translated narratives may play havoc with situationality, too. Un-
like readers of the original novel, those of a translated novel will be listening
to two voices simultaneously, namely those of the narrator and of the transla-
tor. The discussion between Theo Hermans (1996), Guiliana Schiavi (1996), and
Charlotte Bosseaux (2001) shows that there are two different perspectives on
this issue: one that the translator usurps the place of the narrator, who disap-
pears when the translator is “over-assertive”; the other is that, in a translation,
a new narrator emerges who is quite distinct from the narrator of the original.
Whichever view is adopted, it is clear that a translated narrative may be dou-
ble-voiced. If so, insightful readers notice that the narrative is reconfigured as
well as disfigured when it is translated, so that it relates in different ways to the
author, the narrator, the translator, and the reader.
In other words, a translated narrative constitutes a text that is unlike the orig-
inal. It could be characterized as a hybrid text, a discourse which was in one
brief moment bifurcated from the source text and subsequently became a text in
its own right situated in the target culture but with an undeniable relationship
to the text with which it co-existed in the moment of its creation but which now
has an independent and unaffected life in the source culture.
In some cases, namely when a translation calls attention to its nature as a
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non-native text, it may be considered as a text comprising two sets of signs

referring to two different textual realms which defy a smooth integration. The
relatively few readers who will be willing to read such texts will experience an
interminable string of incongruities. Successful translations would, in my view,
be those transparent translations that seek to reduce incongruous elements to a
minimum, “deceiving” the reader with the illusion of a meaningful, interpret-
able text.

Views of Textualists and Translation Scholars

Comparative literature scholars know a plethora of textual studies touching
upon reading, e.g. Roland Barthes’s “the text that gives pleasure,” Jacques
Derrida’s “unlimited textual semiosis,” Hans Georg Gadamer’s “the fusion of
horizons,” and J. Hillis Miller’s “deconstructive readings.” Translated fiction is
rarely discussed. In a study of how readers construct meaning in a literary text,
Horst Ruthrof (1981) has a perceptive discussion of translated fiction. Molly
A. Travis (1999) adds concrete references on how readers “received” specific
literary works through the twentieth century, concluding with a chapter on
the reception of new textual categories like the hypertext. Translations are not
In The Empire Writes Back (1989), Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen
Tiffin discuss hybridized interlanguage as a strategy of resistance adopted by
writers in postcolonial Africa and the Caribbean. It can be argued that this is a
type of language of translation as seen in colonial and postcolonial texts. Gabriele
Schwab (1996) discusses border-crossing in the reading of fiction and how it is
achieved by the language used, while Emily Hicks (1991) participates in the
current debate about how literary texts transgress boundaries and engages in
ideological struggles. It can be claimed that in reading translated fiction, readers
also find themselves at borders, boundaries, and margins.
Since the 1980s translated texts have been identified as an area for research.
Chan. Translated Fiction. 69

The outcome is represented by Hatim and Mason’s The Translator as Communica-

tor (1997), although their examples are mainly from non-literary texts whereas
Albrecht Neubert and Gregory M. Shreve take a more philosophical approach
in their Translation and Text (1992), in which they examine a variety of genres,
both literary and non-literary.
There have been studies on specific aspects of translated texts with examples
from fiction. Tim Parks analyzes translated modernist fiction to see how trans-
lation problems can call attention to the originals in Translating Style (1992) but
makes no attempt at a comprehensive theory. A special issue of Across Languages
and Cultures (2002) edited by Christina Schäffner focuses specifically on hybrid-
ity in translated texts. It thus complements the works of the above-mentioned
literary critics and opens up research on the interlanguage in translated novels
as “mixed breeds.”
There is some promising work in China although it is still in its infancy. Jiang
Qiuxia and Quan Xiaohui (2000) suggest that holistic interpretations of transla-
tions of fiction are impossible, a claim they underpin with copious exemplifi-
cation from English novels translated into Chinese. Shen Dan has repeatedly
approached translated fiction from a stylistics point of view. She explores trans-
lated Chinese fiction by examining aspects of lexis, syntax, speech, and thought
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presentation. Her Narratology and the Stylistics of Fiction (1998) is a broad study
of the interface between narratology and stylistics, with a glance at their appli-
cation to translations.

Six facets of translated fiction
In my view, the myth of a translation as a unitary, interpretable textual object
needs to be exploded, since translated fiction must be torn between cultures,
discourses, and languages. It will here suffice that I sketch elements that can
form the basis for studies of translated fiction.
My point of departure is that a translated piece of fiction can be character-
ized along three axes - the cultural, the literary-narratological, and the linguistic
ones. This yields six facets that can be further probed into from a Translation
Studies perspective.

1. Since the eighties, translation scholars have increasingly focused on “dif-

ferences” rather than similarities between the original and the translation
as worthy of critical attention. In my view it is important how these dif-
ferences are experienced by readers. Reading translated fiction can be char-
acterized as a “border-crossing experience” in that readers move between
two semiotic realms, one familiar, the other one strange. Readers can either
assimilate the outside system into their own ones, or succumb to the power
of the foreign. In the reading of a translated narrative, the Self comes face
to face with the Other; the familiar meets the strange. The frequent com-
parison between translated fiction and travel literature is not altogether
misdirected. For translations represent alien cultures no matter how much
effort translators expended on domesticating texts.
2. Hybridity in translated texts is caused, first, by non-correspondence be-
tween languages which means that at the word-level, there are terms in
the original that do not have ready target-language lexical equivalents. It is
70 2006. Perspectives: Studies in Translatology. Volume 14: 1

also caused by cultural incommensurability since the original has cultural

references that are non-existent in the target culture. Given the obvious in-
compatibility of languages and cultures, hybridity is thus a central issue in
Translation Studies. On the other hand, it is thought-provoking that read-
ers continue to enjoy translated fiction without taking note of discordances
between textual elements. For instance, D.H. Lawrence’s novels which are
coloured by a highly idiosyncratic religious terms and images, are enjoyed
by readers accepting Buddhist and Taoist belief systems in Chinese trans-
lations (Chan 2001).
3. ‘Intertextuality’ is a term that has had a pervasive influence in our time,
but it is ‘cross-cultural intertextualities’ that is central to the understand-
ing of translated fiction. It is inevitable that the original text is an intertext
for the product of a translation in another language. And both the source
and target texts comprise other intertexts in a web of correspondences,
associations, and linkages. This situation becomes even more complex in
adaptive translations: Wang Dahong’s Chinese translation of Oscar Wilde’s
The Picture of Dorian Gray deliberately invokes intertexts from the target
culture, namely classical Chinese novels (Chan 2004). If all translations
are inscribed within constellations of cross-cultural intertexts, this is even
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more so with translated fiction.

4. In translated fiction, it can be argued that the narrator is reconfigured, in
that translators – despite all efforts not to do so - tamper with the relation-
ship between the narrator, the narrated subjects, and the readers. The po-
sitioning of the narrator vis-a-vis the characters and the readers is crucial
to the interpretation of fiction. Yet in translated fiction, these relationships
may be disrupted by the intervention of translators who do not withdraw
behind the narrating voice. Narratology studies has paid little attention to
this difference between original and translated fiction.
5. It is worth exploring ‘textual noise’ with regard to translated fiction. For
anthropologists, close translation is one of the best methods for narrating
‘native’ material. It also involves an abundance of annotations to situate a
text in a broad and rich cultural environment, as in ethnographical rendi-
tions of oral African texts for English readers. This method has also been
used by translators: in Chinese there are notable examples such as Li Wen-
jun’s translation of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1992) and
Jin Di’s translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1994-96), both with hundreds
of footnotes explaining the text proper. How do readers react to such para-
textual matters as footnotes, endnotes, and parenthetical notes in a story?
Can we understand these as creating “a voice splitting itself,” “a form of
discourse about discourse,” or “a multi-layered narrative”? What if there
are already plenty of footnotes in the source text (like Spike Milligan’s par-
odies of literary works)?
6. Linguistically, it may be argued that some translations use an interlan-
guage, ‘translationese’, which incorporates features from both the source
and target languages. A well-known example is Europeanized Chinese
which was born out of the contact between Chinese and English. It has
borrowed extensively from English and thus become ‘colonized’ since the
early twentieth century. In Europeanized Chinese, lexis, structures, and
Chan. Translated Fiction. 71

syntax are an Other from the outside, superimposed upon the indigenous
Chinese tongue. To many, such hybridized Chinese was the language of
colonialism; for others, it is the language of postcoloniality. It calls for a
close examination of surface textures (as opposed to the structures) of
well-known translated novels.

An integrated approach to the study of translated fiction can thus be dia-

grammatically represented in terms of my three parameters as follows:


1. Self vs. Other 1. Disappearance of the 1. Use of an
narrator interlanguage
2. Cross-cultural 2. Multi-layered 2. Incompatibility of
intertextualities narrative languages

Moving beyond the peculiarities of a text, one needs to consider the issue of
interpretation of translated fiction. According to Heidegger and Gadamer, the
hermeneutic circle has it that the object of knowledge is either a part or a whole,
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but that “knowledge of the part requires knowledge of the whole and knowl-
edge of the whole requires knowledge of the part.” It will be difficult to reach a
holistic interpretation of characters and situations in translations because most
translators are constrained by the source text at the micro-level of the sentence.
It seems that readers of translated fiction may sometimes fail to “get the whole
picture,” as the parts may conflict with the whole. In interpretations of trans-
lated fiction, critics must accept that attempts at construction of meaning may
fail. At best, interpretations of translated fictional texts can only be local, not
global: “translation undoes the tropes and rhetorical operations of the original,”
as pointed out by the deconstructionist Paul de Man (as quoted by McQuillan
2001: 63).

The possibilities for exploring the character of translated fiction are infinite,
and it is surprising that so little has been done so far. There is, in my view, no
doubt that it will be fruitful to conduct research into the impact of translations
on particular societies at specific points in time, investigating such fiction in
relation to the four areas of:
a) publishing (e.g. are the publishing houses local or national?);
b) education (e.g. does translated fiction occupy an institutional space in
c) journals publishing translations (e. g. are these academic or popular?);
d) translation prizes and awards (e. g. what recognition is given to the works
in question?).
Following the models of literary fields and symbolic capital by Pierre
Bourdieu, or that of centres and peripheries by Immanuel Wallerstein, such re-
search can contribute to our understanding of translated fiction, or better still,
to our knowledge of the sociology of fiction in translation. But we should also
take care that individual readers who deserve as much attention as publish-
72 2006. Perspectives: Studies in Translatology. Volume 14: 1

ers, academics, and critics of translation, are not overlooked in the process. The
theories of reading, propounded by a generation of deconstructionists, have
made research into the reading of translated fiction more manageable. After
all, the in-depth study of individual readers’ response to translated fiction may
provide a chance for a fruitful dialogue between translation theorists, semioti-
cians, and literary scholars.
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