Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

7.2. Translation and Culture
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Gertrude Durusoy (Izmir) / Katja Sturm-Schnabl (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Supplementary versus Complementary: The Diverse Roles of Literary Translation

Paola Gaudio (Bari, Italy)


It would not be too far-fetched to hold that, in all likelihood, the vast majority of studies on translation stems from the assumption that the target text is necessarily an approximate reproduction of the source text in another language. This reproduction tends to be either inadequate or unacceptable to varying degrees and at different levels. As can be traced through a general history of literary texts in translation, the perfect and definitive translation seems to be out of the reach of human endeavours. The logical premise is that the source text constitutes the model after which the translation is to be shaped. Up to a certain point this is certainly true: translation can be defined as the reproduction in the target culture of a source text. The reproduction entails a process of transference and consequently some degree of modification. Quoting Gideon Toury's definition of 'assumed translation', it can be held that a translation is

any target-culture text for which there are reasons to tentatively posit the existence of another text, in another culture and language, from which it was presumably derived by transfer operations and to which it is now tied by certain relationships, some of which may be regarded - within that culture - as necessary and/or sufficient.(1)

That Toury felt in need of mitigating his definition by using terms such as 'presumably', 'tentatively', 'to posit', or 'may be regarded', is explainable in terms of the inner complexity of the notion of translation itself. Nevertheless, Toury's definition is of interest in the specific field of literary translation because of the three postulates he explicits: the existence of a source text, a process of transfer, and the relationship between source text and target text. Given these preliminary assumptions, the question to be addressed is: does literary translation play any role in the literary polysystem and, if so, how can it be defined?

The answer to the first question was given already in 1978, with Itamar Even-Zohar's essay "The Position of Translated Literature Within the Literary Polysystem"(2). In polysystemic terms, translated literature tends to hold a peripheral position in the literary system. This is so because strong literary traditions generally perceive the translated text as a cultural intruder, a carrier of values foreign to that particular cultural system and with a dangerously subversive potential. The exception is when the foreign text contributes to reinforce aesthetic or ideological values already present within the system. This is in fact one of the three cases in which, according to Even-Zohar, translated literature holds a more central position - i.e. when a system is weak and in need of forces from other cultures in order to fill in cultural gaps or in order to legitimate the existing structures of power. The other two cases occur when the system is young or in crisis. In each case, translated literature becomes instrumental to the establishment and/or reinforcement of cultural values.

Seen in these terms, translation appears to have a secondary function, and only to come to the foreground in moments of crisis. This is due to the conception of translation as a supplementary activity, a secondary or second-rate product which serves to integrate the exigencies of a cultural system. The consideration of the value of the original within its source culture similarly remains in the background, because what matters in the polysystem of translated literature is the function the translated text has or can have in relation to the exigencies of the target culture.

The analysis of the position of translated literature within the literary polysystem corroborates what seems to be a commonplace in translation studies: the ancillary position of the translated text in relation to the original (in this regard see Toury's essay on 'assumed translation' already quoted above). Translation, and specifically literary translation, can be viewed as a means by which a culture influences another culture, introducing new and foreign impulses in the receiving one. More, translation involves and calls into question a comparison with the Other. However, if from the point of view of the receiving culture the original text is paramount - being its authoritative and 'real' version - from the point of view of the source culture the fact that a text is translated seems to be regarded as a less relevant issue - as if translation were an addition, something in excess of the original.

The existence of a source text posited by Toury as one of the elements characterizing and defining translation (even with the partial exception of 'fictitious' translations(3)) leads to the consequence that the status of the source text is not generally affected by its translation or translations, because the source text seems to live a life of its own, and whether it be translated or not does not affect its position in its original system. In this sense, a translation can be considered as having a supplementary function with regard to the source text: it is something which is meant to replace the original, but in fact it comes out as something more, something in excess, an addition to supply a linguistic deficiency in the foreign culture.

The question of the role of literary translation can therefore be addressed by means of a dichotomy which is here suggested in so far as it enables the critic to overcome it and to blur - as it were - its boundaries: the opposition between the notions of supplementarity and complementarity.

These two terms share in fact a similar meaning. Both a supplement and a complement are something added in order to supply a deficiency, they are an addition. However, this addition is also in some sense a completion. In fact a complement is that which completes and, in the broadest sense of 'filling up something', supplementary and complementary are hardly distinguishable. But tracing their etymological origins, it is possible to see precisely how and why they mean differently.

'Supplement' comes from Latin supplementum 'that which fills up', and has the same origin as the verb 'to supply', from old French soupleer, which literally means 'to fill from below'. This also comes from Latin supplere, made of the two morphemes sub 'below' and plere 'to fill' (as in plenum, which means 'full'). A supplement then is something added in order to supply a deficiency, it is 'an addition to anything by which its defects are supplied; it is an auxiliary means, an aid'(4). In a similar fashion, 'complement' comes from Latin complementum 'that which fills up or completes' from the verb complere 'to fill up'. Just as supplere, complere is made up of two morphemes cum and plere. A complement then is that which completes or makes up a whole. The difference though is in the prefix. Whereas in 'supplement' the prefix is sub 'below', in complere the prefix is cum, which indicates 'togetherness', and works as an intensifier of the verbal stem. In supplere it is this sense of deficiency which is stressed. Instead in complere, the prefix intensifies the stem plere, 'to fill'. In this latter case what is added by the prefix is a sense of 'global fulfilment' rather than the indication that there is some deficiency to be supplied. In fact, it can be held that whereas 'to supply' primarily means 'to add something so as to fill up a deficiency', a complement is a means of perfection: it is the filling up of a whole to the utmost degree. It conveys the idea of 'togetherness' and of 'totality'.

There are, according to Benjamin, some texts which have a quality or rather a potential within themselves: this quality is what he calls translatability. Some texts are translatable, others are not. This does not depend on the level of difficulty of the text or on the higher or lower compatibility of the two languages at stake. Translatability is an inner quality of the (literary) text and goes beyond the translator's ability to reproduce the text in another language. Translatability is the law governing translation: whether a work is translatable or not depends on its nature. If it is, then it calls for it. It does not matter whether it be translated or not, when or how or whether there actually exists a translator capable of translating it. Benjamin compares translatability to the idea of an unforgettable life: a life can be unforgettable even if no one remembers about it. A text is translatable even if it is not translated. Translatability means that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself only in translation. This is possible because of the interrelation of languages and of their purposiveness. Languages differ in their mode of expression, but they are interrelated as to the intention of what they want to express. In other words, languages complement each other in their modes of expressing the intention underlying each language as a whole.(5)

This is a key point in Benjamin's essay because he asserts the complementarity of languages in relation to each other and acknowledges translation as the only means by which this linguistic complementation can be achieved. Translation then does not mean reproduction but expression of the intention of the text in languages other than the original.

Benjamin's views on language and on translation as complementation can be traced in Derrida's work. In particular in his essay "Des Tours de Babel"(6), Derrida implicitly refers to Benjamin's notion of translatability when he speaks of translation as necessity. What is of interest in this framework of reference is the implicit reference Derrida makes to the role of translation as a complement to the original. The myth of Babel, which is the main focus of his essay, accounts for the reasons of both the impossibility and the necessity of translation. In other words the Babel myth defines language as an open system. God forbids the achievement of a closed system of reference. Language must be a system of difference. This is the curse and at the same time the power of the Babelian myth. There is a strong ethical stance in this Derridian view of language as system of difference. By imposing the multiplicity of languages, God forbids the hegemony of one language. When Derrida defines in one brief, if dense, sentence, what deconstruction is, he says: plus d'une langue(7): no more than one language, no more of one language. It is only because of the differance - of the continuous deferring and differing of human language - that there is no hegemony of one language, of one syntax, of one Weltanschauung over the others. In this sense, the multiplicity of languages can be seen as a tangible representation of the complementary function of translation. It is in translation that the deferment takes place. It is in translation that languages achieve their meaning. Or, said differently, it is in translation that meaning (whatever that may be) comes into being.

So, in his distinctively deconstructive terms, Derrida reformulates (or maybe it would be more adequate to say 'translates in a kind of intralingual translation') a point of view which is also expressed by Benjamin's essay - i.e. the complementary function of translation.

It seems that this might be an important point in the theoretical discussion on the standing of translation and on the deep-rooted cliché of its ancillary position. Translation can be considered supplementary only when the original does not have that quality of translatability as defined by Benjamin. For texts which do not call for translation, translation is a supplement. It supplies the need for content transference in other languages, and it aims at replacing the original in the new cultural context. The level is all empirical, pragmatic. Translatability, instead, concerns aesthetic objects which are bigger than the texts and need to reach higher linguistic dimensions.

In this theoretical perspective, Barthes' essay 'From Work to Text'(8) can shed some light on these issues at stake. His essay is relevant here because the distinction he makes between text and work can be paralleled to that between supplementary and complementary translation. First of all it ought to be stressed that translatability (i.e. the need for complementary translation) relates to texts - not works. Barthes' remarks in relation to the text seem to back up Derrida's and Benjamin's considerations on translation. What Barthes defines as text calls for translation, the Barthesian text possesses translatability and is a deferring text. In Barthes' words, "the text is experienced only in an activity of production. The text cannot stop; its constitutive movement is that of cutting across"(9). What is of interest is the consequence that can be drawn from Barthes' definition of text. If - according to Barthes - the deferring movement is constitutive of the text, it is possible to infer that its production and its movement can be fully realized only in translation - and it means both interlingual and intralingual translation, and specifically in a translation which is not supplementary (it does not supply any deficiency), but complementary (it fulfils the need for translatability). Barthes points out that the text cannot stop, and that it always involves a certain experience of limits - it does not close on a signified. The text practices the infinite deferment of the signified, it is dilatory - just as translation is. And its logic is metonymic: the activity of associations, contiguities, and carryings-over, coincides with a liberation of symbolic energy. In such metonymic dimension it is possible to see multiple translations as metonymic repetitions of the original: only the whole of these metonymic parts returns the meaning of the source text. In other words, each translation is a metonymic complement to the original which only finds perfection in the multiplicity of its metonymical complements.

One last remark about the relevance of Barthes' essay to the complementarity of translation. At the end of his essay Barthes explicitly mentions the question of languages. He says that any text is "a space where no language has a hold over any other, where languages circulate"(10). And again, "the text is that social space which leaves no language safe"(11). It really seems that these last words are complementary to Benjamin's and Derrida's comments on translation. It really seems that Barthes' essay completes or complements the notion of translation I have tried to explain and which was also partly expressed by Benjamin and Derrida, as shown above.

In light of these considerations it seems possible to say that the view of translation as supplementary in respect to the original - which polysystem theory has implicitly shown to be the current dominant conception - becomes limited - and limiting - if considered in the broadest perspective of what Walter Benjamin means by translation, die Übersetzung of languages: according to Benjamin, translation implies the survival of the text, it allows its afterlife, and it is only in this multi-lingual dimension that the literary text can fulfil its potentialities at their most. In a Benjaminian framework of reference, interlingual translation cannot be regarded as simply supplementary, because it calls into question a relationship of complement: translation is a completing factor in relation to the original text. This, though, is only true for literary translations, i.e. for the translation of works of art which last in time and can be endlessly re-read and re-interpreted.

The relationship between source text and target text is two-faceted. In the relationship of supplement the translation is something in excess of the original, a text in which shifts and losses occur in addition to the original meaning of the text. As a consequence, every translation poses problems of word-to-word fidelity, and everything which exceeds the paradigm of faithfulness becomes a problem for the translator to solve. In the relationship of complement, however, every shift of meaning or of style, every loss, and every unintended effect of the target text is potentially a complement to the original, i.e. it can complete the source text by enhancing its linguistic potentialities.

In an essay on translation as enhancement, Eugene Eoyang quotes an anecdote about the admirer of a novelist, who tells him that his stories are much better in translation. The writer replies: "I know, I tend to lose something in the original"(12). Apart from the author's irony, this anecdote expresses how a text finds its perfection in its linguistic dissemination, rather than in the original, which is little more that the starting point of such dissemination.

Supplementarity and complementarity then are two facets of the same relationship between target text and source text. If translation is considered as being a complement to the source text, any prescriptivism in the practice of translation loses its meaning. Every translation, even if ideologically or culturally biased, contributes to enhancing the potentialities of the original. Each translation, like a piece in a puzzle, contributes to creating the global image of the text, which goes beyond linguistic, cultural, and historical borders. In the analysis or evaluation of a translation, the question is not: how faithful is it? but: in what ways does it enhance the multiplicity of meanings and of echoes inherent in the work of art? Consequently the why and the how of the translator's choices become more relevant than the evaluation of the final effect.

This view allows for a re-evaluation of old translations which become pieces of a literary puzzle spreading diachronically and synchronically. The need for new translations is justified by the inner richness of the original, and by the text's translatability. Retranslating a text is not necessary because translations grow old, but because the text itself changes in time and the more it is translated the more its afterlife is guaranteed.

There is no way to objectively and permanently assess a translation. What at a certain time can seem to be a good translation, a few decades later can become quaint because the linguistic, cultural and historical context have changed. Also the notion of untranslatability is historical and changes in time. What is untranslatable today can easily be translated tomorrow. However it is possible to recognize a successful translation. The implication, though, is not that - in the name of complementarity - anything is acceptable and can be accepted. It is a matter of degrees and of inner consistency. The criterion for understanding the value of a translation resides in the aesthetic density of the translated text. The translator's poetics makes the difference. When the translation follows a poetic encounter between poetics, the translation is a 'good' translation. It has an aesthetic value of its own and in as much as it is an aesthetic object, it is no less enduring than the original. It complements the original.

© Paola Gaudio (Bari, Italy)


(1) Gideon Toury, "The Notion of 'Assumed Translation' - An Invitation to a New Discussion", in "H. Bloemen, E. Hertog, and W. Segers (eds.), Letterlijkheid, Woordekijheid / Literality, Verbality, Antwerp/Harmelen, Fantom, 1995, pp. 135-147.

(2) In Literature and Translation: New Perspectives in Literary Studies, ed. by James S. Holmes, José Lambert, and R. van den Broek, Leuven, Acco, 1978, pp. 117-127.

(3) See Gideon Toury, ibid., p. 137.

(4) Oxford English Dictionary, 2th edition, ed. by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989.

(5) Walter Benjamin, "The Task of The Translator", trans. by Harry Zohn, in Lawrence Venuti (ed.), The Translation Studies Reader, Routledge, London, 2000, pp. 15-23.

(6) Jacques Derrida, "Des Tours de Babel", 1985, trans. by Joseph F. Graham, in Peggy Kamuf (ed.), A Derrida Reader: Between The Blinds, Hemel Hempstead, Harvester, 1991.

(7) Quoted in Peggy Kamuf (ed.), A Derrida Reader: Between The Blinds, Hemel Hempstead, Harvester, 1991, p. 241.

(8) Roland Barthes, "From Work to Text", in Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath, Fontana Press, 1987, pp. 155 - 164.

(9) Ibid., p. 157.

(10) Ibid., p.164.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Eugene Eoyang, "'I Lose Something in the Original'. Translation as 'Enhancement'", in Sture Allén (ed.), Translation of Poetry and Poetic Prose. Proceedings of Nobel Symposium 110, World Scientific, Singapore, 1999, pp. 296-313.


Eoyang, Eugene "'I Lose Something in the Original'. Translation as 'Enhancement'", in Sture Allén (ed.), Translation of Poetry and Poetic Prose. Proceedings of Nobel Symposium 110, World Scientific, Singapore, 1999, pp. 296-313.

Barthes, Roland, "From Work to Text", in Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath, Fontana Press, 1987, pp. 155-164.

Benjamin, Walter, "The Task of The Translator", trans. by Harry Zohn, in Lawrence Venuti (ed.), The Translation Studies Reader, Routledge, London, 2000, pp. 15- 23.

Derrida, Jacques, "Des Tours de Babel", 1985, trans. by Joseph F. Graham, in Peggy Kamuf (ed.), A Derrida Reader: Between The Blinds, Hemel Hempstead, Harvester, 1991.

Toury, Gideon, "The Notion of 'Assumed Translation' - An Invitation to a New Discussion", in "H. Bloemen, E. Hertog, and W. Segers (eds.), Letterlijkheid, Woordekijheid / Literality, Verbality, Antwerp/Harmelen, Fantom, 1995, pp. 135-147.

Even-Zohar, Itamar, "The Position of Translated Literature Within the Literary Polysystem", in Literature and Translation: New Perspectives in Literary Studies, ed. by James S. Holmes, José Lambert, and R. van den Broek, Leuven, Acco, 1978, pp. 117 - 127.

Oxford English Dictionary, 2th edition, ed. by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989.

7.2. Translation and Culture

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Paola Gaudio (Bari, Italy): Supplementary versus Complementary: The Diverse Roles of Literary Translation. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 10.9.2004     INST