The translator’s invisibility

We live, Khan (1995, ix-xiv) beautifully stated, in a world characterised not just by difference, but by a consuming passion for it.

Culture is and has historically been used as a conduit of power and to mark humans from one another and to reinforce that differentiation. Claiming certain cultural norms and practices to be universal, the signs of culture have often functioned as exclusive, denying value to the work of non-bourgeois, non-male, non-western cultural producers.

day 195 - doux baiser

In the nineteenth century, western cultural producers, embedded in the modernising project of the time, defined and redefined the notion of civilisation within their dominant cultural systems, multiplying racial identities and the sets of exclusions they prompt and rationalise. The justification of the colonial enterprise that spun from modernity was partly due to the contribution of anthropology and the rest of the emerging social sciences (Fabian1983:17). They promoted a scheme of terms where all living societies sat on a temporal slope and a hierarchy of capacity for rationalising. Natives not only lacked moral values but negated them. Natives were, “enem(ies) of values and in this sense […] absolute evil” (Alatas, 1977:24). Culture was the property of the West. The ‘people without history’ (Wolf, E., 1982) did not own cultures, rather, they were forever submerged in what was conveniently portrayed as a quintessentially tradition-bound prison, an unenlightened, irrational, state untouched by modern technology and industrialisation.

Linguistic differentiation

A strict linguistic differentiation of racial groupings became popular amongst the European linguists of the nineteenth century. Believing that languages constituted the person, they looked for affinities and differences in the system of linguistic representation of various language groups. Linguistics was then transposed into the domain of anthropology and sociology with great ease because the former was seen as an intellectualist philosophy that treats language as an object of contemplation rather than as an instrument of language and power (Bourdieu, 1982:37). Linguistic disciplines and censorship groups inculcated then, and still do now, their own needs and values to others in the form of durable frames often beyond the grasp of consciousness and will (Bourdieu, 1982:37). Frames, which become common sense assumption are implicit in the conventions according to which people interact linguistically[1].

Fairclough (1989: 2) calls these type of assumptions ‘ideologies’. Closely linked to power, ideologies are means of legitimizing existing social relations and differences of power through the recurrence of familiar ways of behaving. Relations and power differences are taken for granted. Ideologies interact with language, this being the commonest form of social behaviour. And then, it is the job of white middle class gatekeepers to constrain the discourse types, which can be drawn upon to those of the dominant cultural grouping.

The standardisation of a language is a clear example of power used to sanction certain segments of society and other communities through language use.

Historically, dominant cultures have often used a series of institutionalised mechanisms to fix certain values according to different products, allocate these products deferentially and inculcate a belief in their value[2]. These mechanisms contribute to legitimating the established order by creating distinctions and legitimating them[3]. This is what Bordieu (1982:23) described as Symbolic Power – an invisible power which is ‘mis-recognized’ as such and thereby ‘recognized’ as legitimate. Foucault (Discipline and Punish 1975:221) also made reference to this power or discourse in his analysis on discipline and other procedures of subjection. He proved how power reaches individuals by inserting itself into their actions and attitudes, learning processes, and everyday lives becoming institutionalized, unchallengeable mechanisms, violently describing and delimiting what can be said and what cannot be said. Violence becomes built into the institution itself.

This Anglo-American cultural bias extends itself into all areas of book production, distribution and access (it is seen as a mere work for hire or a technical stunt). In other cultures translation enjoys a great deal more prestige than it does in North America. Why not grant authorship of a translated book to its author and to the person responsible for the Meta, XLV, 1, 2000 translation?
The reason, I fear, is that translation is perceived as a mere transfer of an author’s vision from his language into another language. It follows, then, that to information specialists translation is little more than a mechanical process. Yet nothing could be further from the experience of a literary translator who does not only translate texts, but rather attempts to re-create contexts […] The translator must not only be conversant in the language she’s translating from, she must also be a competent writer in the target language so as to be free to mold the text of the original into a new reality. The end result must be the perfect fit of two cultural contexts, made possible by the act of translating the text. To be truly effective the translator must, as Levine says in her brilliant conclusion, be free to subvert the text “through frequent violations of usage […] through a resistance to language as useful or usual.” (Levine 1991: 8). While this holds especially true for translators of contemporary Latin American literature, the concept can serve as a paradigm for a disposition towards the text which places the translator squarely in the author’s place.
In all instances the translator must take the liberties of an author to subvert language in order to transfer a literary work into the cultural and textual context of the target language. Now it is the publishers’ turn. For translated works of art to make their way into the cultural context of the English language, publishers must place greater value on the transformatory power of literature, not simply see it as a commodity to be published merely on the grounds of its commercial potential. This conceptual change is necessary for translation to be valued for what it is, namely a work of art emanating from another author’s context and brought into the readers’ universe by its other author, the translator.

“Authorship”, however, can be understood in several senses. It concerns not just creativity or individuality, but also ethical responsibility, a point that has been overlooked by many of the literary ideologies.

Copywright Law

Another instrument used currently to render translators’ work invisible is Copywright law. Designed to protect authors and the way their work is used, literary or dramatic works become automatically protected as soon as they are written down or recorded somehow. Translators will need to obtain permission from the relevant copyright owner in order to make a translation of a protected work. Ownership of copyright in the underlying work is separate from ownership of copyright in the translation. Under Australian law, the general rule is that the creator of a work will be the first owner of copyright in that work (although this rule is subject to a number of exceptions. A translation is generally protected by copyright as a literary work. This is separate from copyright in the underlying work, which is also protected. As a result, it is possible that copyright in the translation and copyright in the underlying work are owned by different people. As Venutti says, in Copywright law, the translator is and is not an author. MORE on Venutti page

I’d like to close this post with a liberating thought inspired by Octavio Paz : an original text comes to exist inside another text, and the new text is ‘less a copy than a transmutation’ :

“The poet, immersed in the movement of language, in constant verbal preoccupation, chooses a few words – or is chosen by them. As he compbines them, he constructs his poem: a verbal object made of irreplaceable and immovable characters. The translators’starting point is not the language in movement that provides the poet’s raw material, but the fixed language of the poem. A language congealed, yet living. His procedure is the inverse of the poet’s: he is not constructing an unalterable text from mobile characters; instead he is dismantling the elements o the text, freeing the sings into circulation, then returning them to language “. (Paz 1971)



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