Translation, interpretation, fan fiction: A continuum of meaning production

Shannon K. Farley

University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts, United States

[0.1] Abstract—By using the arguments of Maria Tymoczko to enlarge the definition of translation and of Rosemary Arrojo to draw a parallel between the struggle between author and translator and creator and fic writer, I argue that translation studies is a fruitful way to theorize fan fiction and other transformative fan works.

[0.2] Keywords—Rosemary Arrojo; Maria Tymoczko

Farley, Shannon K. 2013. "Translation, Interpretation, Fan Fiction: A Continuum of Meaning Production." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 14.

1. Redefining translation

[1.1] Translation is a word that is regularly used in ways other than what translation scholars refer to as interlingual translation, or translation between two different verbal sign systems. We talk about translating concepts to simpler diction, or about studying translating into good grades; we even have "Obama's Anger Translator," a skit on the Key & Peele show on Comedy Central ( Translation is already accepted as being more than just interlingual, even among those who have never heard of translation theory. In translation studies, many of us are working on enlarging the field to not only include conceptualizations of translation that go beyond traditional, Eurocentric variations on literal meaning transfer. Maria Tymoczko challenges these Western modes of defining translation, highlighting the "cultural equivalents of translation" such as rupantar (to change in form) and anuvad (speaking after) in India, or tarjama (definition) in Arabic, or tapia and kowa in Igbo, both of which mean a variation of "break apart and tell again" (2007, 68–71). Even if one doesn't think of writing fan fiction as a form of translating, it's hard not to agree that it constitutes a deconstruction and a retelling.

[1.2] Further, both translators and fan fiction writers have been subject to cries of "thief" and "traitor" as they practice their art. Rosemary Arrojo (2002) theorizes the struggle between the author of a work and its translator in terms that are very familiar to writers of fan fiction who have been served with DMCA notices by the authors of their beloved source texts. She spends some time with Kafka's "Der Bau" (The Burrow; 1931), in which an unnamed animal constructs an underground burrow but is filled with "recurring doubts regarding the actual composition of his work and his painful obsession to create a totally flawless structure, an object that could be absolutely protected from invasion and deconstruction" (2002, 66). The conclusion of Arrojo's reading of Kafka's story is meant to be an argument for translation as a legitimate act of interpretation, but it is just as easily (if not more easily) read as an argument for fan fiction as the same:

[1.3] If the construction of a text/labyrinth is inevitably related to revision and reinterpretation, forever resisting any possibility of completion or perfect closure, we find the creating animal painfully divided between his human condition, which binds him to the provisional and the finite, and his desire to be divine, that is, to be the totalitarian, sole master of truth and fate. As a dazzling illustration of such a division, Kafka's character reflects the pathos of every author and of every interpreter, inevitably torn between the desire to control and to forever imprison meaning, and the human condition, which subjects both writers and interpreters to an endless exercise of meaning production. (69)

[1.4] Who controls meaning? Authors or readers? Creators or translators? Show runners or fandom?

[1.5] Arrojo goes on to discuss Dezső Kosztolányi's "The Kleptomaniac Translator." Kosztolányi, a translator himself (from English into Hungarian), writes about the struggle between the creator of a mediocre original text and a talented translator who improves upon it with his translation. Gallus, the kleptomaniac translator of the title, "steals" objects from the text he is translating by leaving them out of his translation. Arrojo highlights the way in which this story "epitomizes … the widespread disregard for translation as both a theoretical issue and a legitimate profession" (2002, 77). One is again reminded of the ways in which fandom is frequently denigrated as an illegitimate and even illegal hobby. While Kosztolányi's intent was clearly ironic—by demonstrating how ridiculous it was to call a writer a thief on account of their leaving objects out of a translation, he highlights the ridiculousness of fighting over the interpretation of any given text—it is actually beyond feasible and into the realm of likely that a writer of fan fiction will at some point be accused of thievery. Arrojo concludes that texts as objects are "the inevitable result of a comprehensive, incessant process of rewriting that is forever reconstituting them in difference and in change" (65). Arrojo wants to apply this notion to translation specifically, but she does not rule out other forms of interpretation. Just as there is no true or definite interpretation of a text, there is no true or definite form of interpretation.

2. Fic writer as translator

[2.1] Translation is, of course, not the only way to theorize fic writing. But it is a way that works for me, and a way that I think is fruitful and that has rich potential for discussing the intent, strategy, and reception of interpretive fan work. I've been translating for longer than I've been writing fan fiction. As a classics major, and later as a master's student in comparative literature who was translating Euripides' Bakkhai as my thesis, I would get into a groove where I knew just what the source text was trying to express, and I knew exactly how I wanted to express it in my translation. Further, I had a specific feminist and postcolonial argument to make about the reactionary translations I had seen historically fear and denigrate Dionysos and his choros of Bakkhai. My translation was more than a word-for-word expression of the text; it was an interpretive argument.

[2.2] When I began to think about dissertation topics, my head was full of translation studies and the ways in which scholars such as Maria Tymoczko had been enlarging the definition of translation in their own work. A seminal essay that I use when teaching translation theory, Roman Jakobson's "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation" (1959), posits that there are three different kinds of translation: interlingual, intralingual, and intersemiotic. Interlingual translation is what most of us think of as just translation: transferring words from one distinct language into another. Intralingual translation is a transfer of source text from one sign system to another, but within the same language. For example, updating the language and setting of one of Shakespeare's plays (West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You) would be an example of intralingual translation. Finally, intersemiotic translation is when a text is transferred from one distinct sign system to another. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (LBD), in which the story of Pride and Prejudice is told through the medium of Lizzie's vlogs on YouTube (, is a great example of intersemiotic translation.

Video 1. Episode 6 is an especially good introduction to the intersemiotic translation that The Lizzie Bennet Diaries engages in, with Lizzie literally giving us her personal interpretation of Darcy and their first impressions of each other.

[2.3] Anyone who's found herself pointing out that LBD basically amounts to Pride and Prejudice fan fic might be able to predict the next step in this argument. Translation theorist André Lefevere (1992) argues that most people know most of what they know about canonical literature because of rewrites, not because they're intimately familiar with the source texts. Lefevere includes anthologies, criticism, adaptations, and of course translation as rewritings. To this I would add fan fiction. I theorize fan fiction as a form of translation, and I use aspects of translation theory to analyze fan fiction.

3. Translator as fic writer

[3.1] But not every writer of fan fiction considers what she is doing to be a form of translation, even if she does consider it a rewriting. Each writer has her own process and her own metacognition about what she is doing. When I began to finally stick my toe into the writing side of fandom 3 years ago, I found myself using the same mode of writing that I use when I translate: I read a fair amount of the existing fic to make sure that I actually have something new to say, I rewatch/reread the source material, I frequently rewrite scenes that already exist in canon in order to graft on my own additions seamlessly, and I make explicit my own interpretation of certain scenes in the versions I write.

[3.2] Let me discuss one specific example to further demonstrate the parallel between writing fic and translating. My first piece of fan fiction was written for the Yuletide fic exchange ( and was a crossover between Homer and fairy-tale fandoms. I chose to offer these particular fandoms not because I knew them well (there were plenty of other fandoms that could have fit that bill), but because I had already translated within them. I explicitly translated Homer as part of my undergraduate degree in classics, and I have translated fairy tales and folklore for classrooms full of students for over 15 years. It's an oral translation, but as a rerendering of the text, it's still valid. As a first-time Yuletider and a first-time fic writer, I felt that this familiarity with the voice and language of the source texts was essential to my success.

[3.3] I had a particular interpretation in mind: a feminist retelling of the life of Helen of Troy, following the frame of Sleeping Beauty. I felt strongly that my retelling of Homer needed to keep its Greek flavor, just as I made sure to foreignize my translation of the Bakkhai enough to remind modern Anglophone readers that it's not really theirs, even as we consider all of the literature and culture of ancient Greece to comprise the Western canon. So I chose to leave particular potent concepts in the untransliterated Greek language, including the title of the fic. I quoted a line from Euripides—again in untransliterated Greek—as the epigraph of the fic. I included the Greek words τιμή, κάλλιστη, and ἔρος within the fic. And while I did not write the names of Greek epic characters in untransliterated Greek, I made a point to spell their names in exact transliterations, not in the Latin tradition: Hektor, not Hector; Akhaians, not Achaeans. These are choices I make when I translate Greek texts as well, for the purposes of retaining their Greekness and resisting the romanizing influence. When I wrote in Helen's voice, I found myself structuring my syntax in much the same way I do when I am translating Greek, even though there was not a specific source text that I was translating word for word. It was Homeric, but not Homer's text rerendered. It was Homeric fan fiction, but to me it felt like a translation.

4. Conclusion

[4.1] From the point of view of reader-centered literary theory, there is little difference between the interpretive activity of translating and the interpretive activity of writing fan fiction. Lefevere argues that rewriters are "responsible for the general reception and survival of works of literature among non-professional readers, who constitute the great majority of readers in our global culture" (1992, 1). I would argue that by this he means that it is the rewritings of literature that ensure its afterlife, just as Walter Benjamin argues in "Task of the Translator" ([1923] 1969). Using translation theory as the discursive model when discussing rewritings such as criticism, anthologizing, abridging, translating, and creating fan works can offer a rich field of intertextual study and provide many useful tools for ultimately arguing for the literary merits of fan fiction.

5. Works cited

Arrojo, Rosemary. 2002. "Writing, Interpreting, and the Power Struggle for the Control of Meaning: Scenes from Kafka, Borges, and Kosztolányi." In Translation and Power, edited by Maria Tymoczko and Edwin Gentzler, 63–79. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Benjamin, Walter. (1923) 1969. "Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux parisiens." In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, 69–82. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.

Jakobson, Roman. 1959. "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation." In On Translation, edited by Reuben A. Brower, 232–39. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lefevere, André. 1992. Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London: Routledge.

Tymoczko, Maria. 2007. Enlarging Translation, Empowering Translators. Manchester, UK: St. Jerome Publications.

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