Translator-writers and European literary culture: comparative approaches to canon, practices and interferences

Research group leader: Francesco Laurenti

The study of any literature, in any language, cannot be separated from a comparative approach and from the discussion of the role played by translations in a given literary system.
The purpose of this Research Project is to study the translations made by the significant writers of the modern and contemporary European literary culture (19th-20th Cent.) and their role in the genesis of a common European canon.

For centuries the most important writers of Europe (Baudelaire, Celan, Collodi, Chateaubriand, Fenoglio, George, Gide, Goethe, Guillén, Lawrence, Leopardi, Mallarmé, Montale, Nerval, Pavese, Proust, Rilke, Unamuno, Ungaretti, Yourcenar, to name a few) have themselves translated authors from other languages and have used translation as a fundamental practice for personal stylistic enrichment and for creative purposes

Although very widespread, this practice has been underestimated perhaps as a consequence of the nationalistic approaches that characterized literary criticism until just a few decades ago. Even then, despite the importance attached to this phenomenon by numerous scholars, only a few isolated studies exist on this subject. For this reason the present project proposes a comprehensive investigation which has often been advocated, but never really started.

The project proposes to outline the European community of writers who have translated and who have used the foreign works as a vehicle for their own literary and poetic ends (leading to shared tones, structures, symbols and images toward the construction of a common European literary canon). It mainly aims to investigate the influence that the act of translating had on these writers' personal works, drawing attention to the intense network of echoes and interferences that influenced their own subsequent creations and, as a consequence, their national literary traditions.
In this sense, the translations made by these significant writers also revealed themselves as a useful way to enrich the target language and were often motivated also by the need of national literary innovation.

Moreover, in Europe translation has contributed greatly to the renewal of formulas and schemes, and this peculiar kind of encounter with the stranger has allowed for the link between poetic voices and has become a phenomenon of great importance over the last centuries, involving relevant interactions between different literary canons, toward the generation of a common European canon.

The project will analyse the act of translation as an essential moment for the creative activity of some of the most significant European writers, and will draw attention to how it influenced an idealist communication among writers, creating and strengthening a European canon. 

The interdisciplinary approach of the project will be provided by the involvement of and researchers from different academic disciplines (Comparative Studies, Translation Studies, Italian Studies, German Studies, French Studies, English Studies, Spanish Studies, Semiotics) in order to produce an integrated investigation of this essential dynamics. 

 Through the use of a text-based approach and comparative analysis as well as employing language analysis software, this project wishes to put in a new light the relations between writers and to focus on the creative act, showing interferences and connections, previously never fully explored, from different perspectives.

 The Research findings will be disseminated in seminars and lectures in Italy and in several European countries, in the final International Conference, and through peer-reviewed articles, volumes and monographs. The creation of an Internet page dedicated to the project with the Research output will provide international visibility.

Methods and articulation of the project

One of the main characteristics of this research is its interdisciplinary approach. All members of the research team are academics in different fields but they share a common interest in the study of translation. With this mixed approach the group intends to reach conclusions which are the result of an investigation carried out from several perspectives.

The methodology will also reflect the heterogeneous nature of the team and their distinct identities will represent an added value.

Here are some of the areas under scrutiny, indicated with the awareness that, as for the articulation of the project indicated below, they are potentially open to modification:

Poet-translators: Poetic translated works will be analysed, looking at the ways in which form, style, signs and meanings in a national literature have influenced, through these translations, other national poetic traditions. The investigation might focus on Baudelaire, Chateaubriand, George, Leopardi, Mallarmé, Montale, Nerval and Ungaretti, among others.

Novelist-translators: Some of the dynamics of interference whichthe practice of translation has had on the typical forms and structures of the European novel will be studied. Particular attention will be paid to the work of M. Yourcenar (reread in the light of her translations of V. Woolf and H. James), and to the echoes that Gide's translations (from Goethe and Conrad) had on Gide's personal work.

The study of the translations by English novelist-translators and their influence on these novelists' personal work will be carried out by the English studies experts collaborating with the project, who will conduct a comparative investigation, between past and present, regarding the practice of translation by writer-translators.

Avantgarde writer-translators: The European Avant-garde writers used the practice of translation to resolve technical impasses and found resources with which to renew their own literary traditions in foreign works. The role of translation for authors of some important avantgarde movements will be studied: Italian writer-translators at the beginning of the 20th Century; the Spanish “Generación del 27” and the translations by J. Guillen, P. Salinas, and D. Alonso, and the practice of translation among the French avant-garde writers of the 20th Century.

Writer-translators and minority languages: It is expected an investigation of the role that the practice of translation of works originally written in minority languages had for some authors of European literature, as a resource for the enrichment of national literary languages.

Migrant writer-translators: This investigation, focusing on contemporaneity, will refer to migrant authors who now represent an essential reality in European literary culture. The term migrant refers not only to non-EU citizens living in Europe who have turned to translation as a means of approaching diverse literatures in Europe, but also writers who migrated inside Europe and who have translated foreign works.

Writer-translators and circulation of symbols and images. The way in which some literary images travel from one nation to another through translation by writer-translators will be analysed, also from the perspective of reception and of the effects of “fusion of horizons” on the receiving culture. An in-depth study of the genealogy of some literary images and symbols will be carried out, using the methodological tools of imagology.

Writer-translators and interferences between literary languages: Another objective is to investigate how strongly Italian translations are influenced by the originals and how this influence is also reflected on the language of the Italian writers who translated them.

Writer-translators' critical works: In some cases the theoretical reflections of such writer-translators has been quite substantial and has gone on side-by-side with their translations and works “of their own”. The theoretical work of these writer-translators will be analysed, placing a greater attention on contemporaneity.  The works of French poet Yves Bonnefoy, famous translator of Shakespeare, Petrarch and Leopardi, will be studied. A similar approach will be taken to another French writer-translator, Jacqueline Risset, who produced a French version of Dante. The theoretical writings of the French poet regarding translation will be studied, and an investigation into the influence of Dante on the poetry of J. Risset and, through her, on the contemporary French poetry of (A. Jouffroy, M. Deguy and P. Beck) will be conducted. 

Writer-translators and publishing industry: Some dynamics of the market linked to the translations by writer-translators will be explored. One facet to be looked at concerns the reasons underpinning the birth of collections like «Poeti stranieri tradotti da poeti italiani», edited by Scheiwiller (with translations by Luzi, Montale, Quasimodo, Ungaretti and other famous Italian writers).

Objectives and expected results

The research is expected to provide articulate interpretation, characterized by in-depth analysis of the following aspects with reference to writer-translators in European literary translation and to the fundamental influence which the practice of translation has had on their works. These are the research areas which may potentially be integrated with other investigative fields over the course of the research.

  • Poet-translators;
  • Novelist-translators;
  • Avant-garde writer-translators;
  • Writer-translators and minority languages;
  • Migrant writer-translators;
  • Writer-translators and circulation of symbols and images;
  • Interferences between literary languages;
  • Writer-translators' critical works;
  • Writer-translators and publishing industry.

Co-financing:  INSTITUT DE RECHERCHE EN LANGUES ET LITTERATURES EUROPEENNES, Université de Haute-Alsace – UHA, Mulhouse.