“One does what one can (on fait ce qu’on peut)”: Joseph Conrad as Translator

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Abstract

Joseph Conrad’s fiction – Lord Jim especially – contains several instances of characters struggling with translation, or with foreign languages more generally, or transferring speech or syntactic patterns from one language to another. These features have much to suggest about Conrad’s own multilingual early life and his eventual adoption of English for his writing. They also have wider implications concerning his vision and tactics as a novelist – including his reliance on French fiction, and his regular emphases on cultural difference and on the cognitive and epistemological challenges of communicating experience. These challenges, in turn, initiate or anticipate concerns widely apparent in modernist fiction, indicating stresses in an advancing, globalised modernity which made its innovations so necessary. Appreciating Conrad’s interest in translation elucidates and confirms Fredric Jameson’s judgement of his writing as a key factor in the emergence of modernism in the early twentieth century.

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