Translation as "Genre in its own Excess": Germaine de Staël's "On the Spirit of Translation(s)"

C.C. Wharram
Eastern Illinois University, USA

Note on the Translation

1.        Readers will almost invariably respond to this translation of Germaine de Staël's "On the Spirit of Translation(s)" by noting just how terrible it is. I am not rehearsing a form of the translator's modesty in stating this claim. It is, really, quite bad by the standards with which we have come to judge translations: elegance, fluency, readability, and so on. There is, however, a pedagogical reason for the feeling of alienation from Standard English that this particular translation produces. The attempt is to create, in the spirit of Lawrence Venuti and, before him, Friedrich Schleiermacher, a "foreignizing" translation, one that makes the reading process difficult, to the point of it being almost unpleasurably so. [1]  By following certain features of French syntax, by retaining certain French cognates of English that might be better served with alternative English words, and by leaving some terms and phrases un-translated (genre, generalité, parole, nationale, and jouissance), I hope that readers will be continually reminded—because of these recurring moments of friction—that the medium of transmission is translation, and specifically translation from the French. As noted in the preface to this volume (n.26), two very good, very readable versions of "De l'Esprit des Traductions" are available: Doris Kadish's in her collection Translating Slavery, and Joseph Luzzi's in the journal Romanic Review. I offer mine in the spirit of comparative translations that other contributors to this volume have advocated, and also for the convenience of online access—in no way as a corrective.

2.        There is a further pedagogical aim in this version of Stael's treatise: to acquaint students with the vagaries of "machine translation." The hyperlinks in the text, including this introduction, lead to Wikipedia pages in the languages appropriate to the references (e.g., "Monti" links to the Italian Wikipedia page). [2]  Students and their instructors are encouraged, especially if they are unfamiliar with the languages in question, to put the web addresses into Google Translate or Bing Translator and observe the advantages and drawbacks of machine translation. Certain languages, such as French and Italian, enjoy greater success with machine translation than do others, such as German and Latin. Students and their instructors are encouraged to discuss what causes these discrepancies. What makes French and Italian more suitable for machine translation than German and Latin? Furthermore, English references link to Kurdish Wikipedia pages—also for pedagogical purposes, as readers will discover when they attempt to translate Kurdish into English using currently available translation software.

3.        Finally, if you would like to step into the labyrinth of Google Translate's rendering of Giordani's Italian translation of Stael's French treatise into English, click on the hyperlink for "Sulla maniera e la utilità della traduzioni," which will open your computer's browser to an Italian Wikisource webpage transcription of the article. Enter the web address for this page into Google Translate or Bing Translator, and you will experience an interesting hybrid of human and machine translation from French into Italian into English.

4.        The translation is based on the article "De l'Esprit des Traductions" as it appears in Oeuvres Completes de Madame la Baronne De Staël-Holstein: Tome II. I would like to thank Bastiaan Vanacker for his valuable assistance in my translation. Any errors and "foreignizations" are, of course, my own.

Note on the Text

5.        Germaine de Staël's "De l'Esprit des Traductions" was translated by Pietro Giordani as "Sulla maniera e la utilità della traduzioni" in the Italian literary journal Biblioteca Italiana in 1816. Critics generally consider Staël's treatise to have launched the Italian Romantic Movement—it was "the spark that touched off the romantic controversy in Italy" (Avitabile 13). [3]  "On the Spirit of Translation(s)" argues that the Italian literary scene found itself in acute need of regeneration through an influx of the foreign. Translation, Staël argued, was the means by which this regeneration should be actualized.

6.        Staël situates Italian literary arts within contemporary European literatures and the history of translation itself in order to provide a structure for Italian artistic revitalization. She draws attention to the untapped resources afforded by the flexibility of Italian for importing linguistic goods. From the outset of the piece, Staël figures translation as a capital investment capable of enriching the nation. Her opening paragraph moves with remarkable velocity from the abstract, ethereal resonances of her title (the "spirit" of translation) and her opening volley ("the transport of the human spirit from one language to another") to the material signs of exchange in its closing sentence: "the circulation of ideas is, of all the genres of commerce, the one from which the advantages are most certain." Spirit rapidly moves into "circulation" as it becomes concretized in a profitable economy.

7.        Staël refuses either to privilege original writing over translation, or to equate them. Instead she identifies translation as essentially different from original writing, making translation a carrier of "unique" forms of expression into the target language. Serving to inoculate the nation against literary stultification, Staël's concept of translation—that it delivers the "more original"—underscores its paradoxical nature: "Translations of foreign poets can, more effectively than any other medium, protect the literature of a [host] country from those banal turns of phrase, which are the surest signs of its decline." Her language here evokes a positive immunology of literature: the national literary body "protects" itself through the introduction of foreign elements, preventing its "decline." The purpose of translating, Staël argues, is neither "to borrow" nor "to imitate." Translation serves "to emancipate oneself from certain conventional forms that maintain themselves in literature like officious phrases in society, and that exile from themselves all natural truth." To refuse to import foreign expressions is to ignore the emancipatory aspect of translation, leading inexorably to Staël's concluding image of Italians enclosed within their own linguistic parameters should they fail to embark on a program of revitalization through translation: "their country will fall into a sort of apathy from which the sun itself will scarcely be able to awaken it."

8.        "On the Spirit of Translation(s)" figures translation as a genre, a term that carries both taxonomic and gender implications. Staël draws attention to the complex way genre can blur the lines of literary categories. She sees translation as a complex genre, one trumping all others: any genre can, after all, be superceded through its translation into another language. The French word genre has a malleability that English fails to encompass. Genre engenders a myriad of English translations: "form," "type," "kind," "mode," "genus," "species" (as in "the human genre"), and "gender" (as in the grammatical genres of masculine, feminine, and neutral). Genre declares a formal boundary, a classification, a taxonomy—a cordoning off of a larger geography into smaller enclosures. The seven instances of genre in "On the Spirit of Translations" range across this connotative vista.

9.        By leaving genre untranslated (while offering in square parentheses a possible English word suitable for the context) in my rendering of the treatise, I wish to stress the significance of genre in the progress of Staël's argument. As the treatise progresses, Staël gradually blurs the lines of generic demarcation. When readers reach the last iteration of genre in the treatise, they will note that the word refers at once to drama and to translation. In discussing the translations of Shakespeare by her long-time companion A.W. Schlegel, Staël notes that these plays have become "altogether nationale in Germany," and that "English works—almost like inheritances—are played on the German stage." Through the Italian translation of French drama, Staël argues, "it will be possible in Italy to obtain a result of the same genre." Staël thereby proposes a genetic hybrid for Italy, based on a German model of English translation. Staël's formulation—"a result of the same genre"—stresses the reproductive capacities of genre, the genetics, of such an undertaking. The desire of the translator, so conceived, demands a genetic hybridization towards the improvement of the nation, towards a breaking free from the strict limitations imposed by "conventional forms." The role of the genre of translation on this literary stage is to intercede in the "executive power" of the genre of theatre: translation, as genre, interrupts the genetic homogeneity of Italian theatre by encoding the foreign into the linguistic parameters of Italian speech, parole.

10.        It should be noted that Staël's linking of translation to generic proliferation also connects translation to concerns specific to the writing of women during the period. As mentioned in the preface to this volume, shifting the focus away from poetry as the privileged genre of Romantic literature prompted an expansion of generic considerations that changed the shape of Romantic studies. [4]  One might say that by shifting the ground of genre from strict demarcation to reproductive abundance, Staël ironically points to translation as a form of anti-genre. A translation always produces an excess of genre, since it functions both as a member of the set of translation and a surplus genre. A translation is always an example of the genre of translation itself and the genre of a poem, a novel, or a play, and so on. Translation is genre in excess, or, in Staël's words, "the jouissance of the same genre." As a body of literature, translation could be said to create a literary antibody, an immunizing agent introduced into the parole of the nation. Not simply then a genre, translation is the beyond of genre, genre in its own excess. [5] 

Germaine de Staël, "On the Spirit of Translation(s)" (1816)

11.        There is no greater service to render literature than the transport of the human spirit from one language to another. There are so few first-rate productions, and genius—in whatever genre [form] it may present itself—is a phenomenon so rare, that each modern nation limiting itself to its own treasures will always be poor. Furthermore, the circulation of ideas is, of all the genres [forms] of commerce, the one from which advantages are most certain.

12.        The scholars and even the poets decided, at the time of the renaissance in letters, to write all texts in the same language, Latin, so that they had no need to be translated in order to be heard. This could be advantageous to the sciences, when the argument has no need of stylistic charms. But it nevertheless had the result, that several of the riches of Italians, in this genre [form], were unknown even to themselves, because the generalité of readers understood nothing but the idiom of the country. It was necessary, moreover, in writing in Latin about the sciences and philosophy, to create words that did not exist for the authors of antiquity. Therefore, the scholars were at the service of a language both dead and factitious; meanwhile, poets bound themselves to purely classical expressions; and Italy, where Latin resounded again on the banks of the Tiber, has been master of the writings of Fracastoro, Politian, and Sannazaro, who approximated themselves, they say, to the style of Virgil and Horace; but, though their reputation endures, their works are no longer read outside of the Scholarly Age; and it is a woeful literary glory, one for which imitation must be the base. These Latin poets of the Middle Ages were translated into Italian in their own homeland, since it is natural to prefer the language that recalls to you the emotions of your own life, which one can (not) but retrace by study!

13.        The better manner, I am convinced, for dispensing with translations, would be to know all the languages in which the works of great poets have been composed: Greek, Latin, Italian, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German. But such an endeavor demands much time, much help, and never can one pretend that knowledge so difficult to acquire could ever be universal. But it is toward the universal that one must strive, when one wants to serve mankind. I would say more: even when one understands foreign languages well, one could taste again through a well-done translation in one's own language, a pleasure more familiar and more intimate. These naturalized beauties furnish the national style with new turns of phrase and more original expressions. Translations of foreign poets can, more effectively than any other medium, protect the literature of a country from those banal turns of phrase, which are the surest signs of its decline.

14.        But, in order to derive from this labor a true advantage, it is not necessary, like the French do, to give one's own color to everything one translates. If one is bound to change everything one touches into gold, the result is no less than that one will not be able to nourish oneself. One would find no new sustenance for thought, and one will encounter again and again the same countenance with scarcely different adornment. This reproach, precisely that merited by the French, holds to, in the face of imposed hindrances of all kinds in their language to the art of writing in verse. The rarity of rhyme, the uniformity of verse, and the difficulty of inversions confine the poet within a certain circumscription that necessarily restricts itself to a kind of monotony in poetic language—if not exactly the same thoughts, than at least similar hemistichs—from which fugitive genius, even when it raises itself to a great height, cannot emancipate itself in all the transitions, in the arguments, and finally, in all of that which lays the groundwork for uniting the great [poetic] effects.

15.        One would with great difficulty find, in French literature, a good translation in verse, with the exception of the Georgics by the Abbé Delille. [6]  There are beautiful imitations, conquests never confused with the national riches. I do not know if one could name a work in verse that in no manner whatsoever portrays its foreign character, and I don't even believe that such an attempt could ever succeed. If the Georgics of Abbé Delille are justly admired, it is because the French language can assimilate itself more easily to the Latin language than any other; it is derived from it, and it retains of it its pomp and majesty; but modern languages have so much diversity that French poesy will never know to yield to them with gracefulness.

16.         The English, whose language admits inversions and whose versification is subject to rules much less severe than that of the French, have been able to enrich their literature with translations both exact and natural at the same time. Their great authors, however, have as a rule not undertaken this work. Pope, the sole one who has consecrated himself in this way, produced two beautiful poems of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but there conserved was none of that ancient simplicity that makes us sense the secret of Homer's superiority. [7] 

17.        In effect, it is not plausible that the genius of a singular man not be surpassed in the three thousand years of work of all subsequent poets, yet there was something primitive in the traditions, in the customs, in the opinions, in the air of this epoch, the charm of which is indisputable. And it is in this beginning of the human genre [species], this youthfulness of the epoch that renews in our age by reading Homer, that we experience a sort of equivalent emotion through the remembrance of our own childhood. This emotion confounds itself with its dreams of the Golden Age, and causes us to give to the most ancient of poets preference above all his successors. If you subtract from his compositions the simplicity of those early days of the world, everything unique in it disappears.

18.        In Germany, many scholars have maintained that the works of Homer were not composed by a single man, and that one should consider The Iliad, and even The Odyssey, as a composite of heroic songs to celebrate in Greece the conquest of Troy and the return of the vanquishers. It seems to me that it is easy to combat this opinion and that, above all else, the unity of The Iliad invalidates such a belief. Why would one be held to the recitation of Achilles' wrath? The subsequent events, the capture of Troy concluding them, must have been naturally done apart from the collection of rhapsodies that one supposes belong to diverse authors. The conception of unity of an event, the wrath of Achilles, cannot be but a plan formed by a single man. Without, however, wanting to discuss here a system, for and against which one must be armed with a frightening amount of scholarship, at least we must acknowledge that the principal grandeur of Homer belongs to his century, since it is believed that the poets of that time, or at least a very large number amongst them, had worked on The Iliad. It is more the proof that this poem is the image of a humane society, at such a degree of civilization, and it again bears the stamp more of the epoch than that of a single man.

19.        The Germans have not limited themselves to their research on the existence of Homer; they have attempted to revivify him there, and the translation of Voss is known as the most exact that exists in any language. [8]  It commits itself to the rhythm of the ancients, and one affirms that these German hexameters follow precisely, word for word, the Greek hexameter. Such a translation effectively contributes to a precise knowledge of the Attic poem. Yet is it certain that the charm, for which neither rules nor studies suffice, is entirely transported into the German language? Syllabic qualities are preserved, but the harmony of sound is not the same. German poesy loses its natural sound in following the Greek footprints step for step, without being able to acquire the beauty of musical language sung to the lyre.

20.        Italian is, of all modern languages, the most ready to provide for us the sensation produced by Homeric Greek. It has not, it is true, the same rhythm as the original; the hexameter can scarcely introduce itself into our modern idiom; the long and short vowels are not enough demarcation so that one might equate Attic poets in this regard. But Italian parole [speech] has a harmony which can approximate the symmetry of dactyls and spondees, and the grammatical construction of Italian lends itself to a perfect imitation of Greek inversions: the versi sciolti, unconstrained by rhyme, does not constrict thought like prose does, preserving all the grace and measure of the verse.

21.         The translation of Homer by Monti is surely, of all existent in Europe, that which approaches the same pleasure brought about by the original. [9]  It has both pomp and simplicity at the same time; the use of that most common in life, the clothing, the banquets are enhanced through the natural dignity of expressions; and the grandest circumstances are brought within our compass through the truth of portraiture and the ease of style. No one, in Italy, will translate The Iliad hereafter. Homer has forever taken the costume of Monti, and it seems to me, even in the other nations of Europe, nothing whatsoever—not even reading Homer in the original—can surpass the idea of pleasure that Homer can excite through the Italian translation. Translating a poet: it is not to take a compass and copy the dimensions of the building. It is to animate with the same breath of life a different instrument. One wants more jouissance of the same genre [kind] than perfect fidelity.

22.         It will be strongly desired, it strikes me, that the Italians occupy themselves with diverse attentions to the new poesies of the English and the Germans. They will thus make their compatriots acquainted with a new genre [form]—compatriots who cling onto, for the most part, derivative images of Antic mythology. They now begin to exhaust themselves, and the paganism of poesy exists almost no more in the rest of Europe. It is of consequence to the progress of thought that la bella Italia should look often beyond the Alps, not to borrow, but to learn—not to imitate, but to emancipate oneself from certain conventional forms that maintain themselves in literature like officious phrases in society, and that exile from themselves all natural truth.

23.         If translations of poems enrich the world of letters, dramatic works will be again able to exercise an even greater influence, since the theatre is truly the executive power of literature. A.W. Schlegel made a translation of Shakespeare that, succeeding in exactitude and inspiration, is altogether nationale in Germany. English works—almost like inheritances—are played on the German stage, and Shakespeare and Schiller have there become compatriots. [10]  It will be possible in Italy to obtain a result of the same genre [type]; French dramatic authors so much approximate the taste of Italians, like Shakespeare that of the Germans, that perhaps one will be able to represent Athalie with success on the lovely stage of Milan, in providing the Chorus the accompaniment of the admirable music of Italy. [11]  It is certainly true that one does not go to the theatre in Italy to listen, but rather to chat and rendezvous in the loges with intimate society. It is no less certain that listening the whole day—for more or less five hours to that which one deigns to call the parole [speech] of the most part of Italian opera—is, in the long run, a sure manner of diminishing the intellectual faculties of a nation. When Casti produced comic operas and when Metastasio wrote such fine musical adaptations full of charm and elevation, there was no lack of amusement, and reason still won out. [12]  In the milieu of the habitual frivolity of today's society, where each looks to rid himself of himself through the help of others, you could form the spirit of something serious that in the end might provide for true merit, if you made certain ideas and certain sentiments arise through pleasure.

24.        Italian literature is now divided between the scholars who sift and resift the ashes of the past, attempting to rediscover there some flakes of gold, and the writers who rely on the harmony of their language for creating accord without ideas, for the juxtaposition of exclamations, declamations, and invocations wherein there is not one word that comes from the heart, nor one that arrives there. Will it then not be possible that an active emulation of those theatrical successes could restore by degrees the originality of spirit and the truth of style, without which there is no literature whatsoever [il n'y a point de littérature], nor are there any of the qualities that are necessary for having one?

25.        The taste of sentimental drama has taken possession of the Italian scene and in lieu of this piquant gaiety that one saw reign in another time, in lieu of these great names of comedy who are classic throughout all Europe, one sees represented, from these dramas, the most insipid of murders—if one may so express oneself—from which one can only stage a miserable spectacle. Is it not a poor education for a very considerable number of persons, repeatedly subject to such pleasures? The taste of Italians, in the beaux-arts, is both simple and noble, but parole [speech] is also one of the beaux-arts and it would be necessary to conceive of it as having the same nature [caractère]; it [parole] most centrally constitutes humanity, yet we allow ourselves to be satisfied with paintings and monuments, rather than the sentiments to which it should be dedicated.

26.        The Italians are great enthusiasts of their language. Great men have capitalized well on this investment, and the distinctions of spirit have been the sole jouissance, and often also the only consolations of the Italian nation. In order that each capable man of thinking perceives for himself a motif for his own development, it is necessary that all nations take an active principle of interest: some are military; others are political. The Italians must distinguish themselves by their literature and beaux-arts. If not, their country will fall into a sort of apathy from which the sun itself will scarcely be able to awaken it.

Works Cited

Avitabile, Grazia. The Controversy on Romanticism in Italy: First Phase 1816-1823. New York: S.F. Vanni, 1959. Print.

Chesney, Thomas. "An Empirical Examination of Wikipedia's Credibility." First Monday 11 (Nov 2006): 17 paragraphs. Web.

Derrida, Jacques. "The Law of Genre." Trans. Avital Ronell. Critical Enquiry 7 (Autumn 1980): 55-81. Print.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. "Übersetzungen." Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens. West-östlicher Divan. Ed. Karl Richter. Vol. 11.1.2. Munich: Carl Hanser, 1998. 262-65. Print.

Kadish, Doris Y. and Francoise Massardier-Kenney, eds. Translating Slavery, Volume I: Gender and Race in French Abolitionist Writing, 1780-1830. Kent, OH: The Kent State UP, 2009. Print.

Luzzi, Joseph. "Italy in Translation: Germaine de Staël's The Spirit of Translation." Romanic Review 97 (2006): 275-84. Print.

Mellor, Anne K. Romanticism & Gender. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Mueller-Vollmer, Kurt. "On Germany: Germaine de Staël and the Internationalization of Romanticism." The Spirit of Poetry. Ed. Richard Block and Peter Ferves. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2000. 150-166. Print.

Rajan, Tilottama, and Julia M Wright. "Introduction." Romanticism, History, and the Possibilities of Genre: Re-forming Literature 1789-1837. Ed. Tilottama Rajan and Julia M. Wright. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 1-18. Print.

Spera, Gianni. Significati e Poetiche della Narrativa Italiana: Fra Romanticismo e Idealismo. Firenze: Casa Editrice le Lettere, 1989. Print.

Staël, Germaine de. "De l'Esprit des Traductions." Oeuvres Completes de Madame la Baronne De Staël-Holstein: Tome II. Paris: Firmin Didot Frères, 1844. 294-97. Print.

Wharram, C.C. "Aeolian Translation: The Aesthetics of Mediation and the Jouissance of Genre." Staël's Philosophy of the Passions: Sensibility, Society and the Sister Arts. Ed. Tilli Boon Cuillé and Karyna Szmurlo. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2013. 151-170. Print.

Zamboni, Giuseppe. Die italiensche Romantik: Ihre Ausenandersetzung mit der Tradition. Krefeld: Sherpe-Verlag, 1953. Print.


[1] For a more detailed articulation of Venuti's sense of the "foreignizing translation," see the preface to this volume. BACK

[2] In linking to Wikipedia webpages, I recognize that I run the risk of validating this resource as a research tool. While it is not my intention to suggest that students should use Wikipedia as a source for research papers, I do note that, as a reference source for consulting factual information, Wikipedia has proven to be as reliable as other, non-electronic sources (see Chesney, 2006). BACK

[3] Almost every prolegomena to a discussion of the Italian Romantic begins with reference to Staël's article. See Spera (11); Mueller-Vollmer (151); Zamboni (7). BACK

[4] See Anne Mellor's Romanticism & Gender. For a sustained discussion of the "privileged locus" (1) of genre during the Romantic period, see Rajan and Wright's "Introduction" to their collection Romanticism, History and the Possibilities of Genre. BACK

[5] For a more sustained discussion of the ways that Staël challenged the conventional taxonomic impulses of Enlightenment while anticipating Derrida's "principle of contamination" as articulated in "The Law of Genre" (57), please see my "Aeolian Translation: The Aesthetics of Mediation and the Jouissance of Genre" (especially 155-9) in Staël's Philosophy of the Passions. BACK

[6] Jacques Delille's popular translations of Virgil's Georgics were first published in 1769, but had gone through numerous editions before 1817. BACK

[7] Alexander Pope's translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey appeared between 1715 and 1720, and in 1726, respectively. BACK

[8] Goethe commented in his "Notes" to the West-Eastern Divan (1819) that he considered the translations of Voss (The Odyssey of 1781, and The Iliad of 1793) to have inaugurated a new epoch in German translation (264). BACK

[9] Vicento Monti had only recently, in 1810, published his rendering of The Iliad. BACK

[10] After splitting with his wife Caroline in 1803, August Wilhelm Schlegel became the long-time companion of Staël until her death in 1817. His translations of fourteen of Shakespeare's plays (1797-1814) coincided with the first theatrical productions of Friedrich Schiller's later works Wallenstein (1799, translated into English by S.T. Coleridge in 1800), Mary Stuart (1800), The Maid of Orleans (1803), The Bride of Messina (1801), and William Tell (1804). BACK

[11] Athalie was Jean Racine's final tragedy (1691). BACK

[12] Giovanni Battista Casti (d. 1803) wrote primarily comic libretti for the Italian opera during the 1780s and 90s, while Pietro Metastasio (d. 1782) was known as the best writer of libretti for the "serious" and "elevated" style of opera called opera seria popular during the middle decades of the 1700s. BACK


Published @ RC

July 2014