'Why translate? A response' - An essay by Clive Scott

‘Why translate? A response’
– An essay by Clive Scott

Clive Scott is Professor Emeritus of European Literature at the University of East Anglia and, since 1994, a Fellow of the British Academy. He was President of the MHRA in 2014. His principal research interests lie in French and comparative poetics (Channel Crossings: French and English Poetry in Dialogue 1550-2000, Legenda, 2002 (R.H. Gapper Book Prize, 2004)); in literary translation, and in particular the experimental translation of poetry (Literary Translation and the Rediscovery of Reading, Cambridge University Press, 2012; Translating the Perception of Text: Literary Translation and Phenomenology, Legenda, 2012); and in photography’s relationship with language (The Spoken Image: Photography and Language, Reaktion Books, 1999; Street Photography: From Atget to Cartier-Bresson, I.B. Tauris, 2007); translation and photography were woven together in his Translating Apollinaire (University of Exeter Press, 2014). His most recent book is The Work of Literary Translation (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He is at present working on the application of the concepts of dialogue, movement and ecology to literary translation.

This essay is part of the 2020 Inside Writing showcase.


I’ve been fascinated by high-jumpers trying to communicate to their bodies their projective imagining of the jump they’re about to take; as with so much else, it’s not so much the jump itself that matters as the run-up; if the run-up’s right the jump will look after itself. Preparation for a translation has some similarities: in its own way it’s about the part the body will play, must play, in language, if language is to make its existential leap; and, as you say, translation, without projective imagining, would not allow us to give shape to the unknown multitudes we carry within. Unfortunately those unknown multitudes are much in excess of what one supposes to be the high-jumper’s concern to create only one overriding coherence, between measured impetus and explosive spring. The translator’s projective imagination looks more like a self-distributing narrative, a proliferating inner autobiography, which can only keep itself steady by vigilantly listening to the source, which itself may be juggling with crisis.  I wouldn’t have thought of thinking this, without the trigger of your thinking, which is also clear about the risks, about translation’s being a peculiar form of brinkmanship, where all can be so easily lost. Unfortunately Translation Studies has never begun to think what translation might deliver, in terms of the source’s interactions with different readerly metabolisms, how wonderfully incorporative it can be, how receptive it might be for the personal garments we hang on it. I begin to think that your illuminating piece explains to me why I tend to argue for translations that court the heteroclite and the unsettled, that don’t make a virtue of consistency, that positively nurture a transience, a mutational ongoingness. Because underlying the threats of contradiction, of things turning into their opposite, is the converse and invigorating sense that translation allows peculiar re-makings of the world, where what we thought were givens suddenly act out unexpected versatilities and inventions. If only we had more declarations like yours we could begin to understand what the real stakes of translation are, what spiritual adventures it begets and makes us privy to, what deep funds of creative restlessness it releases. I’m so glad you thought to send this to me, perhaps half believing it would be a great help, and so it has turned out to be. Translation is so without any real sense of itself, despite its recent expansions, and a ‘testimony’ like this is a lasting pleasure.


Clive Scott
June 2020
Norwich, UK