“All writing is a kind of translating.”
So wrote Andrew Chesterman in the preface of his influential book on translation theory (1997: 3). This kind of statement is rather emblematic of the lofty ambitions behind modern translation theories. For all the diverse schools of thought and heated debates that have arisen around translation, academic theories are perhaps united in one regard: a desire to stake out the importance of translation to the rest of the world.
On the surface, this seems like a noble goal. As a translator, I would certainly like to receive more recognition for my craft, especially if that translates (so to speak) into a better pay. But I am also somewhat cautious about the ideological positions being promulgated through these academic theories. Translation theories often seem torn between describing what translation is and what it should be like. Perhaps in their awareness of the potentially transformative powers of translation, theorists cannot help being tempted to proscribe certain methods or to adopt a moralising stance.
In her reflections, Susan Bassnett provides a good example of the latter: Lawrence Venuti’s ideas on foreignisation versus domestication. Venuti’s argument that total domestication is a form of cultural appropriation infuses translation with a sense of moral urgency. If domestication shrouds cultural difference and reinforces the lopsided nature of cultural flows, then foreignisation, with its emphasis on multiple subjectivities, is a way of combating that.
Even scientific-sounding theories push forward an ideological agenda about translation and its role in the dissemination of information and culture. Take Eugene Nida’s theories of equivalence, for instance. By modelling his approach to translation on Noam Chomksy’s influential theories on universal generative-transformational grammar, Nida (2000: 134) was able to create a “science” of translation that justified “dynamic equivalence” as a generally ideal form of translation. If the purpose of theory is to put into words what many practitioners understand intuitively, then Nida’s model is very useful indeed. Yet at the same time, his work has been rightly criticised by theorists who stress the cultural dimensions of translation, including Bassnett herself (Bassnett, 2002: 34).
Inevitably, all of this sends mixed messages to amateur translators such as myself. That there is no empirical evidence to suggest that translators versed in academic theory are more efficient at their craft than their uninitiated counterparts is something I can easily understand (Pym, 2014: 27). Perhaps that is the point, in a way. There is a certain humility that comes with the knowledge that there are no easy answers. The confusion arises not because theory has no relation to the practice (as Jeremy Munday points out, Nida’s work dealt heavily with real and practical translation problems), but because there are so many different approaches and all of them are ideological in some way (Munday, 2012: 69). Translation theory is certainly not the most accessible of fields, which is unfortunate given its implications not just for translators but for the general public.
At this point, I feel I should talk specifically about the context in which I translate. I spend a great deal of time translating Japanese light novels for a niche online audience. I am under a lot of pressure to foreignise the material and retain as many of the original Japanese cultural elements as possible. Sometimes, the expectation is even to sprinkle the translation with arbitrary Japanese words for decorative effect. I cannot help but wonder at times if, by catering to the demands of my target audience, I am being complicit in an orientalist project. This is something I would probably not have thought so deeply about if I had not studied translation theory or majored in Japanese language and cultural studies, and it is certainly not something that my readers care to think about.
Bassnett suggests that translation theory may be out of step with current translation practice in this particular regard. I tend to agree. Beyond their work involving linguistic and cultural transfer, many translators must negotiate with a complex set of contractual demands and audience expectations. These issues are only further complicated when translators are expected to be invisible, to play the role that they are given and no more. The politics of translation remain hidden in plain sight for as long as translation theory remains in the domain of academics and (some) practitioners.
As I write this, I think about some of the common assumptions made about translation by non-practitioners. Sometimes, I am told that translation will always be inferior to the original. Other times, people say to me, “I don’t want you to make assumptions. I just want you to translate,” or “why can’t you translate faster?” as if translation is simple word substitution. Even those who are aware of some of the complexity behind translation tend to pose the issue almost purely in terms of the literal versus free debate, a limiting binary that modern translation theorists have urged to leave behind (Munday, 2012: 68).
My point is this: I don’t believe that the onus should lie solely on translators to read translations critically. I think translation theories would benefit from more input from non-practitioners. At the very least, readers owe it to themselves to understand the ideological positions of today’s translation theorists because those ideas may be reflected in the translations they read. Given how unfeasible it is to expect most people to learn entire languages in order to understand the vast range of cultural artefacts they are exposed to, the importance of translation theory cannot be overstated. But unless readers are equipped with the basic analytical tools to interrogate translation, it is only understandable that they be dismissive of the craft for its derivative nature.
The perceived “gap” between theory and practice is not just an issue for practitioners to worry about. Translation theories have always been shaped by their political climate, from the religiously charged anxiety around early Bible translations to today’s complex mix of globalisation, commercialisation and nationalism. It is impossible not to be affected by translations and the theories behind them. As the Japanese cultural scholar Koichi Iwabuchi (2010: 92) said, “Being supposedly politically neutral will mean colluding overtly and covertly with the uncritical pragmatic uses of media culture for creative industries and cultural diplomacy.” Translation poses problems for us all.
Bassnett, Susan. Translation Studies. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Chesterman, Andrew. Memes of Translation: The Spread of Ideas in Translation Theory. Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 1997.
Iwabuchi, Koichi. “Undoing Inter-national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism.” Mechademia 5 (2010): 87-96.
Munday, Jeremy. Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Nida, Eugene. “Principles of Correspondence.” In The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, 126-140. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Pym, Anthony. Exploring Translation Theories. Abingdon: Routledge, 2014.