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

Germaine de Staël’s "On the Spirit of Translation(s),” written in 1816 and originally published in Italian translation, allows students to recognize some of the interesting possibilities that translated texts bring to the study of literature, while providing a brief overview of the history of translation in Europe. Staël questions the idea of a “national” literature independent of outside influence. Rather than focusing on what becomes “lost in translation,” Staël highlights many of the advantages to literature and culture that translation offers. Staël’s treatise suggests a variety of ways that Italians might benefit from an infusion of translation using the German importation of English literary works as a model. Wharram’s introductory materials to his translation offer some ideas for educators wishing to address questions of the literary value of translated texts in their classrooms. References to historical events and figures in Staël’s treatise are explained in hyperlinks that lead to webpages in foreign languages. Students can use online software (Google or Bing) to translate these materials, and learn about the pros and cons of Machine Translation. Wharram furthermore identifies how Staël repeatedly uses the French word genre in her treatise in order to highlight the way translation complicates our ideas about generic expectations. Finally, in making a “foreignizing translation” of Staël’s treatise, Wharram offers the possibility of comparing more fluent versions of her text to allow students to observe the kinds of choices translators can make when thinking about how to best accomplish the task of translation.