Translation and ideology: Why do I translate illegally?

Nov 8th, 2015
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  1. When Tymoczko (2003a) talks about the translator being “ideologically positioned”, she means that no translator is a neutral mediator. The translator is always influenced by their sociocultural context, which means that the translator is always biased in some way. Furthermore, the translator always takes an ideological stance towards the texts they translate, even if this stance is not verbally acknowledged. For example, Tymoczko points out that the translator who claims to be neutral is actually embracing the “Romantic” or “elitist” Western notions of individualism and objectivity (ibid.: 199).
  3. One can think of Tymoczko’s emphasis on the translator’s agency as a response to Even-Zohar’s polysystem theory (2005). Although Even-Zohar takes pains to distinguish his theory from the static, homogeneous systems associated with structuralism (2005: 2), he does still emphasise historical circumstances over ideology, per se. For example, he claims that innovation occurs in translation mainly when a branch of literature is “young” or “peripheral”, or when there is a “vacuum” in the literary system (1978/1990: 194). While not denying the importance of sociological context, Tymoczko claims that ideology, too, can steer change and innovation among translations. Translators are not simply cogs driven entirely by the sociological trends of their time; they make selective choices about what to translate and how to do it, based on their ideological agenda.
  5. Thus, according to Tymoczko, not only do translators occupy a geographical or a temporal space, they also occupy an ideological one. This is what she means when she describes ideological positioning as the translator’s “third space”. By putting ideology at the centre of translation, Tymoczko lays the conceptual groundwork for interventionist translation theories, such as postcolonialism and feminism.
  7. An example Tymoczko uses to articulate ideological positioning is the Irish language revivalist movement (2003b: 33). During the middle of the nineteenth century, the number of Irish speakers was in decline due to England’s political dominance over Ireland. The impending loss of the Irish language coincided with Ireland’s growing demand for sovereignty. Irish patriots argued for their right to a common language and history that was distinct from the English tradition. Translation was one of the means through which Irish literature and nationalist ideas spread across Ireland and beyond.
  9. The influence of Irish nationalism encouraged innovation and experimentation with language forms. This manifested in two obvious ways: firstly, more texts were translated overall, which encouraged translators to form literary communities and compare their works to each other. Secondly, the desire to make the Irish identity more visible pushed translators such as J.M. Synge to translate Irish speech into Hiberno-English, the English dialect spoken by many Irish at the time. Irish writers deliberately deviated from the writing style and content of the English canon, choosing to embrace hybrid forms instead.
  11. The Irish language revivalist movement is not the only case where nationalist ideologies have inspired translators to deviate from the norms of the dominant language. African writers, for instance, have sought to retain the culture-specific characteristics of traditional African speech acts in European-language writing. Not only do they transpose words from their traditional language, they also replicate the circular language strongly associated with African rhetorical styles (Bandia, 2003: 133). In this way, African writers create a distinctive “Euro-African” language that makes visible their complex cultural identities.
  13. Of course, even outside the context of postcolonialism, ideologies of nationalism and identity politics drive the act of communication that is translation. The example I want to talk about specifically is an area that I am personally invested in: fan translation. Fans of popular Japanese light novels translate and distribute them to an international audience online. In this case, there is no unified national identity among the translators. However, fans are unified by a desire to intervene in the formal industry channels responsible for translation and distribution (Pérez-González, 2012: 336). They provide translations for novels which never receive an official international release.
  15. Like other fan translators in this context, I believe in the goals of open online access and free artistic expression. I believe that translators should be free agents who can translate whatever they want without having to go through the traditional publishing process, where they are often marginalised and exploited. Only by breaking intellectual property laws can I challenge how information is normally translated and distributed across formal channels, a process which is heavily skewed in favour of the world’s dominant cultures. Even today, the market for translated Japanese literature in the English-speaking world is miniscule compared to the market for English literature translated into Japanese. By making my translations accessible on the Internet, I have helped create audiences where none previously existed. This, I believe, is my goal as a translator and mediator between cultures: to make previously unrecognised voices heard.
  17. It should be clear that my ideological positioning has influenced my own approach to translation. For a start, I translate without any input from the original author or any third-party agents. Because I see translation as a separate work of art from the source text, I work almost entirely alone. I also make no claims to producing a definitive translation. Rather, I state quote openly that my translation is only one possible interpretation of the text. This stance gives me the freedom to experiment with my language and different translation approaches. Most importantly, my translation process is open and transparent; I (the translator) am highly visible to my readers because my work is unauthorised.
  19. As a translator, then, I occupy a very complex and dynamic space online. The line between fan expression and piracy is a blurry one, and I am most certainly on the wrong side of the law. However, my very decision to translate without permission can be considered interventionist at its core. This may be the Marxist in me speaking, but I don’t believe that translation can truly subvert the imbalances of cultural imperialism unless it subverts the logic of capitalism as well. If the audience for Japanese fiction is entirely dependent on market forces, then it stands to reason that translations into English will be few and far between. As a translator and someone who cares passionately about cross-cultural communication, I think that this is a cruel injustice.
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