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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Why Study Translation Sociologically?

TranslationPosted by Sergey Tyulenev Fri, June 28, 2013 09:15:20

Now I am writing a book, or rather a textbook on translation and sociology, primarily for advanced stages of translation theory courses or programmes. The process is engaging in that I have to go through a great deal of special sociological literature and select what I see as applicable to translation studies. Since this is what I'm mostly involved with these days, I would publish here some excerpts in a couple of posts...

Why study translation sociologically? The answer, after all the developments in TS' cultural and especially sociological turns, is obvious: because translation is a social activity. It is never practiced (and therefore, should not be theorized) outside its social context: it mediates—successfully or not, impartially or partially—between peoples, nations, interacting groups, and individuals. Translation is a social activity in the social-functionalist sense. It is a profession and can be studied in terms of the sociology of professions.

But also, translators are social beings. They grow up in a society, absorbing a particular worldview, ethical and aesthetical values. Becoming professionals, they remain socialized individuals—products of their social upbringing. They learn to be more open-minded to other cultures, they learn not to be rash, let alone bigoted or biased, in their evaluations of the people for whom they translate, yet they do not turn into translating machines—they still remain socialized humans. Their work, their translations, whether written or oral, bear an imprint of their socialization, sometimes invisible even to translators themselves. On the surface many decisions translators make appear as their own. The social underpinnings of their decisions, however, always lurk behind their individual wills and individual styles, however idiosyncratic. To bring them to the fore, a meticulous analysis, taking into account the entire social milieu in which translators work(ed) may be required. This is the second aspect in which translation should be considered sociologically: its practitioners are social beings.

Thus, in sociology , there are two aspects that are relevant to the study of translation: translation is social as an activity and, moreover, as an activity practiced by socialised human beings.

A good example of such analysis is the conclusions which scholars studying the famous Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (also referred to as Torah and Old Testament) Septuagint. Translating a sacred text has always been believed to require extra-caution on the part of the translators in order to exclude any interference with the rendered original. Such translations may later be canonized and treated as highly as their originals, replacing them. This is what happened to the Septuagint. There are several renderings of the legend of its creation, some of which claim that the translators worked under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit and thereby the guarantee of the supreme quality was divinely assured. Yet upon a closer inspection, it turns out that the influence of external socio-cultural traditions upon the translators of the Septuagint was quite considerable. Scholars find evidence of Jewish exegesis and legalism (which is only natural, seeing that the translation was made as a Jewish text). There are also traces of Greek philosophical, Platonic and Stoic, ideas and stylistic features. At least some of the external data are believed to have been added by translators inadvertently. It was noted that the influence of external traditions is especially noticeable whenever there was an exegetical, textual or theological problem in the original text. Translators had to interpret dubious passages and it is here that their own assumed values, of which they may have not been fully conscious as they took these values for granted (as any of us), influenced the translators’ decisions. The social came out from behind the individual.

What is this social and how does it come out from behind the individual? Language is a prime example. Language is a social phenomenon because it is the basis of all things social. As Anthony Giddens, a leading sociologist, says: “All of us speak languages which none of us, as individuals, created, although we all use language creatively.” One the one hand, we learn the language of our language community, then we learn more languages, none of which we created. Languages are the social in us. That is what the Russian-American linguist and semiotician Roman Jakobson meant in his classical article “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation” when he wrote that “[l]anguages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” For example, he explains, in languages where action is expressed in terms of whether it was completed or not, “naturally the attention of native speakers and listeners will be constantly focused on such items as are compulsory in their verbal code.” Note the words Jakobson uses here: “naturally,” “constantly” and “compulsory.” These words stress the fact that watching for linguistic characteristics of words we use in our native languages is natural, that is, something beyond our conscious control—subconscious (it may not always be so when we speak foreign languages). Our focusing on grammatical aspects of our language is also constant because whenever we speak or listen to our mother tongue, we inevitably—although mostly subconsciously—register all linguistic nuances. All grammatical features are either compulsory or optional—we must or may say something (in English we may say ‘a female student’, but in French we must say ‘étudiante’), but what is crucial for a sociological interpretation of this phenomenon is that it is a particular language as a product of a particular society that makes our choices either compulsory or optional; it is a particular language as a social phenomenon that makes us naturally and constantly focus on some features of what and how we speak. (To be cont.)

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