Translation Studies and Its Turns

Translation Studies and Its Turns

Research, Ideas, Issues

In my blog, I am going to publish fragments of my current research, or share my ideas about what I come across in the publications I read or in the materials I study, or discuss issues in Translation Studies which, I think, call for a discussion. My posts do not claim to be anything more than work in progress and are inevitably of fragmentary nature. I count on my readers and their expertise to fill in the blanks and to contextualize discussions, whenever necessary. All borrowings must be acknowledged.
NB: The posts are published so that the newest one comes first and shown on the main page, therefore the older ones are to be found the section "Previous Posts." The New Testament principle is at work: the first will become the last.

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Going Down, Translating Up

TranslationPosted by Sergey Tyulenev Mon, April 15, 2013 09:37:53

Colonialist techniques of translating the colonised are usually associated with international colonialism. Yet there is an intranational one. In the mid-nineteenth century, upper layers of European societies started to discover 'lower' layers of their own societies. In the 1840s, a collection of essays The Physiology of Saint-Petersburg was published in Russia. The collection explored hitherto not so much unknown as ignored parts of the city and their inhabitants. They were ignored by ‘high’ literature and official mass media. The move was of the democratic nature and, in that sense, it is comparable (mutatis mutandis) to what would be known in the next century as post-colonialism. In this post, I will not, however, discuss The Physiology of SPb, interesting though it is. I will talk about the country where I live now.

In England, Victorian colonialism prompted interest in criminological and social reportage which were seen as anthropology or ethnography of sorts. There was, however, an important difference: these endeavours were projected not into the outside of the country, but inside England itself. In the 1840s–1850s, Henry Mayhew, a journalist working for the newspaper Morning Chronicle, embarked on his discovery of London. He met and described in his articles and sketches a variety of London underclasses. In 1861–1862, he published his London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopaedia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work. The title implies one of the criteria of Mayhew’s social stratification—different people’s attitude to work. His research was directed downwards. He did not consider those who will work, cannot work or will not work among the upper classes—they were the ones for whom he described those from below. The upper classes' position towards the offered description was, therefore, not unlike colonisers (once again, mutatis mutandis—the comparison is far from exact!).

Mayhew also characterised the objects of his descriptions according to another criterion, the one he borrowed from the nascent anthropology of his day. He paid attention to his subjects' relationship to a permanent home/living space. He found them comparable to what civilised (sedentary) people of his time viewed as vagabondage. Let us look at how Mayhew opens his essays:

“Of the thousand millions of human beings that are said to constitute the population of the entire globe, there are—socially, morally, and perhaps even physically considered—but two distinct and broadly marked races, viz., the wanderers and the settlers—the vagabond and the citizen—the nomadic and the civilized tribes.” (Emphasis added.)

It will be noted that Mayhew sees his own compatriots as belonging to a different race or tribe. He continues by describing these nomads as distinguished from “the civilised man” by their “repugnance to regular and continuous labour”; by their “want of providence in laying up a store for the future”; by their “inability to perceive consequences ever so slightly removed from immediate apprehension”; by their “passion for stupefying herbs and roots […] and intoxicating fermented liquors.” Among other characteristics, unlike “the civilised man,” they can endure extreme privation; they are immoderately passionate for gaming and “libidinous dances.” Their women have no chastity or “female honour.” Importantly, these vagabonds are distinguished by “the looseness of [their] notions as to property.” They have only a “vague sense of religion” and a “rude idea of a Creator.” In sum, Mayhew sees his fellow-Londoners of lower social layers as little different from pagan ‘savages’ anthropologists found in far-away lands. This is one aspect of Mayhew’s translating his subjects ‘up’ for “civilised” citizens.

Yet he also went ‘down’ to these “nomads” and let them speak for themselves. This “radically distances his work from commentaries about subcultural life which remain remote from their subjects—or, as Elizabethan rogue literature sometimes did, which might actually invent or fabricate a subcultural speaking subject” (Ken Gelder). Thus, there are three types of this intranational colonial translation: inventing what ‘savages’ might say; describing them without letting them speak; and, as Mayhew did, describing them, but also letting them speak for themselves. The postcolonialism of our days offers another possibility bringing us to the other end of the spectrum—letting the subaltern speak for themselves (not necessarily externally describing them).

The external observer, such as Mayhew, inevitably translates from 'down' ‘up’. Andrew Tolson, drawing on Michel Foucault, sees Mayhew’s work as othering and subjectifying the people he described and interviewed. Mayhew worked towards his target audience—those who read his newspaper sketches and his book, “the civilised m[e]n.” Later, a step further, towards 'them', would be made: there would be attempts to mix up with these subalterns. In the mid-1860s, James Greenwood, a journalist and novelist, contributed to the Pall Mall Gazette a series of descriptions of a London workhouse. Seth Koven saw Greenwood’s experience as an example of ‘slumming’—upper class representatives’ ‘adventures’ of pretending to be members of underclass groups in order to observe and learn about their lives. Yet, Koven claims, Greenwood’s reports were not neutral, there was always a rhetorical effect. For instance, Greenwood described his visiting the lumpens at night employing an oxymoron—darkness turned out to be more revealing than the light of day, darkness dispelled all hypocritical official state covers.

Gelder argues that “slumming again [like Mayhew’s work] has something anthropological about it and, indeed, it is also associated with the slummer’s experience of racial difference.” As with colonial descriptive practices, representations of social underclass societies are inevitably a kind of narration. Subcultures of the social underworld are presented in this or that way by a narrator. The representation is never direct and authentic, even if the describer is compassionate towards his subjects; the representation is always mediated. Such narrations are, therefore, translations and their authors are translators. Such translators negotiate between their subjects and their target readerships in the same way as interlingual translators do between their source texts, cultures and social systems and their target wordings and audiences.

To add another spin to the described phenomenon, an example of collective narrations-translations are mythifical and stereotypitipical representations or self-representations of entire nation-states’ cultures. Iurii Lotman and Boris Uspensky speak of Russian culture as prevailingly mythological with its deliberate renaming and complete shifts of names, such as the renaming of the state, the capital or social or state institutions. Cultures are selectively described in order to create their new images. Interestingly enough, in the case of a culture’s self-description, a translation is made by representatives of this culture (scholars, writers, mass media) and what can be named with the help of another oxymoron—self-othering (this definitely deserves more discussion). Unlike Mayhew’s or Greenwood’s narrations, however, such narration-translation is usually upgrading, rather than downgrading: the translation presents the culture in question as a nobler, richer and more original than it may be in reality.

Such cultural metamorphoses have been studied in cultural studies, sociology and anthropology and they may be a worthy subject for translation scholars, too—this is, after all, a type of translation.

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