Thoughts on translation and (post)colonialism

Nov 6th, 2015
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  1. “In translation history, in part due to a legacy of colonialism, members of hegemonic cultures tend not to be exposed to difference and to be sheltered from the disturbing and alien features of the Other.” - Marina Manfredi
  3. The relationship between (post)colonialism and translation is a symbiotic one. Given that translation by definition involves cross-cultural interaction, power imbalances between nations underscore every act of translation. In fact, as Manfredi points out, the history of translation is a colonialist history. In colonial India, for instance, translations into the dominant language of English were used to absorb and assimilate the “Otherness” of the subjugated peoples. If translation contains the possibility of making diverse voices heard, it can also serve the purpose of shrouding those voices, of homogenising or stereotyping them.
  5. It is for this reason that I refer to the post in (post)colonialism in parenthesis, because in my eyes, the theory constitutes two sides of the same coin. If colonialism refers to the historical exploitation performed by colonialist powers, then postcolonialism, in its attempt to deconstruct those power relationships, acknowledges that the effects of the colonialism are far from over. Even today, translations can still function as a “repressive force” (Simon 2000: 28). That is to say, translators will tend to avoid risk by standardising their language according to the target language norms unless given a clear incentive to do otherwise (Pym 2008: 323). Consider also that English is fast becoming a lingua franca and that relatively few works are translated into English as opposed to from English. It is not a stretch to imagine that many translations involving a dominant language are, in a sense, “colonising” the minority languages. Unless translators are conscientious about how they choose to position themselves, they serve to perpetuate existing inequalities.
  7. As an Australian-born citizen translating Japanese texts into English, this is something I am very conscious of. Japan is not, by any conventional measure, a marginalised nation (it is home to the world’s third-largest economy), but it does have a history of being treated by Western observers as an exotic “Other”. More recently, the American occupation of postwar Japan can be thought of as a neocolonialist project. At the same time, I am keenly aware of Japan’s own history as a colonial power, and though I acknowledge that I will never share the same cultural experience as a Japanese person, I have no desire to affirm the toxic discourse of nihonjinron - theories of Japanese exceptionalism.
  9. Until I studied (post)colonialism, I found it difficult to verbalise my uneasiness about translating the Japanese language. My friends and acquaintances often call upon me to “explain” Japan for them, as if my knowledge of the language gives me the authority to speak about a country I do not live in. Despite my love of the translation craft, I find myself wondering if I am really qualified to translate. By “qualified”, I am not particularly referring to professional credentials but to a more abstract kind of moral qualification to put words in other people’s mouths. I want to translate in a way that will enable honest dialogue between cultures, where both sides are represented on an equal footing. This, I expect, is what Manfredi means by “diversity” and an “ethically responsible stance”.
  11. However, despite broadly agreeing with Manfredi’s assertions about the relationship between translation and (post)colonialism, I question whether the translation strategies suggested by Manfredi (i.e. “foreignisation” and “hybridisation”) can really resolve such complex matters like cultural appropriation and Western hegemony. I say this because I have employed such strategies myself, and I do not believe that they are effective if they are the sole extent to which translators engage with the texts and their target audiences.
  13. For example, there is now a tendency in Japanese manga translation to retain Japanese honorifics and preserve the right-to-left reading order of the original comics. This commitment to foreignisation is admirable, but it has also led English-speaking fans to form insular communities that fetishise the “Japanese” elements of manga. To further complicate matters, this type of cultural fetishising is actively encouraged by the Japanese government’s “Cool Japan” campaign, which aims to project Japanese popular culture in a positive light abroad. Translators of Japanese pop culture products (myself included) may in fact be creating propaganda that inhibits honest dialogue instead of enabling it. In this context, there are clear limitations to Manfredi’s conception of foreignisation as a form of ideological resistance against the oppressive forces of the West.
  15. Of course, Manfredi does not argue that a (post)colonial approach to translation must remain with the text alone. Translation, after all, is a far more complicated process than simply transposing words on a page. (Post)colonialist translation theories emerged during the “cultural turn” of translation studies in the 1980s and 1990s, and thus emphasises the importance of looking at a text in its broader sociological context (Bandia 2003: 130). A practical application of (post)colonialist translation theory cannot simply focus on the text either. The (post)colonialist translator is politically engaged and willing to engage in dialogue in and around their translations. Translation becomes not just an act of doing but a way of being. A multi-pronged approach to (post)colonial translation has a better prospect of success when the author, translator and audience are equally part of the conversation.
  17. Since learning about translation theory, I have tried to practice what I preached above. The good news is that (post)colonialism has its place in almost every academic discipline these days (Young 2009: 13), and so there is common ground for this conversation to take place. Even outside the academy, discourses on race and resistance have become much more commonplace. Lately, I have spoken to many fans of Japanese pop culture about the importance of reading translations critically. Not everyone grasps the weight of the subject, understandably. But I feel that it is important that I keep doing this, because the alternative is a greatly impoverished world, where marginalised voices remain unheard. Above all, I’m glad that translation theory has given me a language through which I can speak and negotiate my complex position as a translator and mediator between cultures. For that, I cannot thank Manfredi’s contribution enough.
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