Multimodal Translation: The Ethics of Interpreting W.G. Sebald’s Novels



With the incorporation of photos in his narrative texts, W.G. Sebald has presented a unique challenge to translators, for his work has fused documentary, memoir and fiction. Sebald himself oversaw the layout of photos within his work, and critics such as Stefanie Harris have emphasized the vital role that these images play by forcing the reader to “ask how [the images] might function with and against the language of the text.” Yet despite this vital role, translators have largely ignored the placement and layout of Sebald’s photos. Scholar Noam M. Elcott has stated: “The nuances of Sebald’s startling layouts (as well as his radical use of languages) virtually have been eliminated in English translation and passed over in silence by critics and scholars.” In other words, because of the inattention that both translators and scholars have paid to images and layout within Sebald’s novels, an integral part of Sebald’s texts has been lost to non-German-reading audiences. I therefore argue that, just as it is incumbent upon the translator to take social, cultural, and political backgrounds into account, so too should translators attend to the modalities of the literary text. Indeed, with the rise of technology and the increasing growth of multimodal literature – literature that incorporates a range of literacies, including linguistic, visual, and topographical – scholars have begun to address the design of such multimodal texts and the ways in which such texts both enable and resist readerly constructions of their storyworlds. Drawing upon these theories of multimodal literature, I use Sebald’s The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten) – a novel that exemplifies the difficulties of cross-cultural communication – to argue for modality as both an essential factor in translation and an essential part of translation studies.