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‘Why do dominant cultures translate so much?’

Translation is a hot topic. Search for ‘translation’ in Google and you’ll see numerous news stories; many are to do with an innovative array of emerging translation technologies – for example, earbuds that can translate languages in real time.

Whereas human translators may find simultaneous translation mentally exhausting, machine translators can last as long as their batteries. Whereas human translation requires the time it takes to learn language, machine translation can be as fast as the available internet connection. Indeed, Google Translate offers unprecedented access to multiple languages.

But machines have not mastered translation – artificial intelligence cannot detect and process the complexities of human speech and literature, the significances of context, emotion, and intention. But does a machine know it is translating? Or conversely, is the problem that all a machine knows is translating? In The Independent, translator and academic Andy Martin writes:


‘A machine translator does nothing but translate. This is how it sees its job. As a form of tautology or equivalence. One set of words is exchanged for another set of words. One code is replaced by another code. But, you will say, isn’t that what translation is? This is what I tell my class: if you want to be a good translator, don’t translate. Only bad translators translate. You have to live it.’


Martin also alludes to the mystical properties of ‘good’ human translation:


‘There is, at the core of the translation process, a mystery, an almost mystic transcendence. There is no direct equivalence of one language to another. […] So you convert them into something other than words. Something like ideas, imprecise though that term is. Or feelings.’


Italian novelist Elena Ferrante seems to concur with Martin – in her weekly column in The Guardian (translated by Ann Goldstein), she writes:


‘Translators transport nations into other nations; they are the first to reckon with distant modes of feeling. Even their mistakes are evidence of a positive force. Translation is our salvation: it draws us out of the well in which, entirely by chance, we are born. I am therefore Italian, completely and with pride. But if I could, I would descend into all languages and let myself be permeated by them all. Even the terrible Google Translate consoles me. We can be much more than what we happen to be.’


Ferrante’s religious imagery is suggestive. The primary entries for ‘translation’ in the Oxford English Dictionary include ‘Removal from earth to heaven, orig. without death […] but in later use also said fig. of the death of the righteous.’ For Ferrante, translation is salvation in the sense that its denoted passage from earth to heaven is a safe passage with a guaranteed arrival; the translated soul is delivered and protected.

I am always struck by the contrasting ways in which translators understand and describe their work like this. For example, Korean translator and poet Don Mee Choi writes:


‘It was a difficult and painful process of sorting out my own dislocation, understanding how my own displacement has been translated by others and represented in the official narratives of power. So I understood and still understand my translation and writing work as a decolonising act.’


(Sophie Collins cites this quotation in her introduction to the recent anthology Currently & Emotion: Translations.)

In another example, taken from a roundtable on ‘Moving Across Languages, Borders, and Cultures’, Mexican translator and poet Heriberto Yépez says:


‘Why do we translate? I think psychohistorically it has to do with trying to dominate the other, trying to absorb the other. […] If writing is, as we know, imperialistic in nature, translation is more clearly imperialistic. How to gather the other. If we are still hunters, how we hunt, and how the ways we hunt become fixed […] One of the ways we hunt in a fixed manner is translating. Why do dominant cultures translate so much? It is the same as gathering oil.’


As Choi and Yépez emphasise, translation cannot be extricated from histories of imperialism and colonialism. This is not to say that translation is an intrinsically imperialist or colonising act. Indeed, both Choi and Yépez suggest ways of understanding and practising translation in terms of decolonisation, transformation, and liberation.

On my upcoming course, Decolonising Translation: Poetry, Power, Relation, and Difference, we will read diverse translators and poets and think about the politics of translation with regards to power, relation, and difference, and experimenting with translation practices, including machine translation, homophonic translation, and multilingual translation. We will try out Choi’s ‘displacements’, in which she places Emily Dickinson in South Korea and displaces Dickinson’s poetry, and Yépez’s ‘mother and daughter’ translations, in which he interpolates a source text with new writing and gradually erases the context and matter of the source. We will also try out practices suggested by the poetry of Vahni Capildeo and the theory of Édouard Glissant.

By looking at translation through the optics of the history and theory of decolonisation, I hope we will develop our own, new understandings of translation, finding our own positions on the topic, and producing poems in response to the mystical, metaphorical, and political properties of translation, asking: in what ways does the translation of languages offer safe passage, as Ferrante has described? Who or what is saved? Which people, which languages, which cultural objects, which histories? Who or what does the saving?


Think about the politics of translation across multiple languages on Nisha’s new online course, Decolonising Translation: Poetry, Power, Relation, and Difference. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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