Translation in the Politics of Culture
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Translation in the Politics of Culture Luise von Flotow University ofOttawa Most writing can be shown to be "political" in some sense, conforming to the context in which it is produced, deliberately transgressing it, reflecting upon it, or aiming at a particular readership in order to convince, seduce or otherwise exert influence. Most reading, too, is conducted in a political context in which a written text may be suppressed, ignored or awarded prizes. Texts that reach the public, as well as those never published, are embedded in the social, political and cultural processes of their day. Translation, the careful reading and deliberate rewriting of a text, can be viewed as doubly political; not only was the first text embedded in and influenced by certain political configurations, but the second text, the rewritten version, adds yet another layer of politics, that of the new, translating culture and era. Politics, in the widest sense of the term, and translation are activities that have always been linked-in the present as much as in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Yet for many years, the cultural, political and ideological aspects of rewriting/translation, as well as the importance and ubiquity of these activities, have been obscured by other interests: among them, a strong focus on national literatures and national "genius," which precluded the study of translation; notions about writing as creative work and translation as an always-foiled attempt at achieving equivalence, which rendered translation a second-class art; "formalist" questions about how to define translation or establish criteria for a "good" translation, which produced subjective evaluations; and, since the 1950s, the hopes placed in machine translation, which fired linguistic approaches to translated texts. These interests largely ignored the cultural importance of translation in creating and transferring knowledge, and the ideological and political role it plays in the translating culture, all of which pushed the study of translations, in particular of literary translation, to the periphery of academic pursuits. Over the course of the last twenty years there has been a renaissance in translation studies, a new focus on its roles in certain 10 THE POLITICS OF TRANSLAnON cultures at certain periods. A loose association of researchers and academics, located, not surprisingly, in "translating" cultures such as Israel, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Canada, inaugurated the "cultural tum" in translation studies, which has now spread throughout Europe and is making headway in the United States, South America, India and South Africa. The dynamism of this development is doubtless supported by international and national politics, such as the official multilingualism of the European Union and the exchange of personnel across its language borders; the official bilingualism of Canada; and in the greater economic and political forces of globalization. Translation in these scenarios is vital, and the study, analysis and teaching of translation have taken on new importance. In literary translation studies, the field has also benefitted from the post-structuralistlpostmodemist debates around originality, authorship and authority, which have served to open the way for the study of influence, of metissage, and for new voices in the field: women, postcolonial writers and critics, gay, lesbian and queer thinkers. While translation studies as a discipline is decidedly heterogeneous, with scholars developing many different areas of research, one common thread seems to be the idea of systems. The cultural productions of a particular society are part of a system that consists of many, possibly conflicting, and certainly competing, subsystems: "a differentiated and dynamic 'conglomerate of systems ' characterized by internal oppositions and continual shifts."! Scholars studying translation within this "polysystern approach" locate their texts in the political, economic and cultural contexts from which they derive and into which they move; they examine the forces and processes that may have influenced them and seek to understand the interaction of source and translating culture in the texts. Translations are not evaluated as "good" or "bad," nor is the possibility or impossibility of translation at issue; instead, texts designated and accepted as translations in a certain culture are studied in context, and the context always includes politics.' Such work in translation studies is also beginning to be done by scholars focussed on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They, too, have renewed their interest in translation and politics over the course of the last decade. Rita Copeland's 1991 study of rhetoric, hermeneutics and translation in the Middle Ages is clearly concerned with texts in systems and the political and ideological issues that impinge upon interpretive practices. She writes in her...


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Subject Headings

  • Translating and interpreting--Europe--History--To 1500.
  • Translating and interpreting--Europe--History--16th century.
  • Civilization, Medieval.
  • Renaissance.
  • Literature, Medieval--Translations--History and criticism.
  • European literature--Renaissance, 1450-1600--Translations--History and criticism.
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