The Behavioral Economics of Translating World Literature: Translators as Econs, Humans, and Queers

Date: 03/06/2020

Time: 6:00-8:00PM

Location: Online via Zoom

Speaker: Professor Douglas Robinson

Translation Seminar Series


Behavioral economics is an academic newcomer: it was born in the 1980s out of experiments conducted by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, based on their empirical findings of predictable irrationality in human economic decision-making. Neoclassical economists had posited rational economic agents that behavioral economists call “Econs”; behavioral economists, studying “Humans” empirically, found that even the neoclassical economists themselves not only made astonishingly irrational decisions but clung to their irrationality even when it was explained to them.

This paper applies that model to the translational decision-making that converts national literatures into world literature—but in expanded form, with “Humans” split into Masculine Humans, Feminine Humans, and Queers. Starting with David Damrosch’s suggestion that world literature is national literature that gains in translation, the paper explores different ideas about what a “gain in translation” (GIT) is or should be, and how different translation strategies seek to achieve this or that GIT. Should the translator’s goal always be to emphasize what Deleuze and Guattari call the writer’s “majority”—standard “greatness,” as imagined by Masculine Humans? What if the writer’s goal is to undermine that kind of “majoritarian” respect and status by playing an activist role as imagined by Feminine Humans, appealing to readers’ emotions to bring about change in society, or in the Human attitude toward the planet? And what if the writer adopts a “queering” or “minoritarian” stance that “sends the major language racing”? Must the translator always follow the source author’s lead, humbly, slavishly? Does the Standard Inferiorizing Definition of Literary Translation always serve the source author well? Examples are taken from Russian and Finnish literature (Fyodor Dostoevsky and Aleksis Kivi).

About the Speaker:

Douglas Robinson is Chair Professor of English at HKBU and author of eighteen monographs on translation as well as the world’s leading translation textbook, Becoming a Translator—now in its fourth edition, with assistance from HKBU translation students—and editor of Western Translation Theory from Herodotus to Nietzsche. He has been translating from Finnish to English since 1975, and has also translated from Russian, German, and Spanish.

The Behavioral Economics of Translating World Literature: Translators as Econs, Humans, and Queers
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