Translations, Culture and Power Relations. Aspects of Modern Globalization

Essay 2010 8 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Presentation, Translation Theories 2 René Faßbender

Translations, Culture and Power Relations

In the last few decades, the world has experienced unprecedented globalization, which, for translators, offers a host of opportunities. It is one of the key elements of our profession to make foreign material accessible to a culture that could otherwise not enjoy it. And the demand has been soaring! Modern technology has revolutionized people’s self-conception by making them more aware of their international neighbors. Accordingly, businesses want to sell their products beyond national borders, medical studies are conducted on global scales, best-selling novels like the Harry Potter Series are translated into dozens of languages and turned into movies within just a few years of their publication. Translation is a driving force in this new cultural landscape, it is “an enabler, a facilitator and a promoter of cultural exchange, cultural alteration and cultural enrichment” (Zaixi & Lu, 2007: 205). As we shall see, “The translator—and of course, correspondingly, all other agents involved in translation—as a supposed ‘mediator between cultures’ has a paramount role in this ‘global play’ and is necessarily caught within the web of the implications of the power relations inherent in these cultural and political formations” (Wolff 2008: 14).

Several scholars (e.g. Bassnett: 1998, Hall: 1991) have pointed out that our cultural identity is defined by comparing ourselves against “the others”. Once we seem know if/how we differ from the hot-blooded Mediterraneans, the shy Japanese etc., we begin to define our own identity and become increasingly aware of it. Without translation, there would be very little cultural awareness. How do we know other cultures, if not by reading their books, importing and using their products, listening to their politicians on the evening news?

Being a highly complex system with numerous constituents, ‘culture’ is not a clear-cut concept whose definition is universally accepted. Over time, scholars have put forward numerous definitions ranging from Lefevere’s (1985: 226) extremely vague “environment of a literary system” to more specific proposals, such as “a system of values associated with specific human groups which consists of their ideology, socio-politics, and customs and habits, in addition to the language they speak” (Zaixi & Lu, 2007: 206). In fact, ‘culture’ is so notoriously difficult to define that Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1963, quoted in Zaixi & Lu, 2007: 206) offered no less than 165(!) definitions such as the following:

Culture consists of patterns of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional [= historically derived and selected] ideas and especially their attached values.

Formulating the ultimate, all-encompassing definition is perhaps a losing battle, but while ‘culture’ has been defined in various ways, there is a lot more consensus regarding its vital importance for translation and the field of translation studies. It is now widely accepted that translation is not merely a linguistic transaction but a process that is closely interrelated with culture: “There are still occasional dissenting voices who argue that translation, surely, is primarily about language, not culture, and that the proper business of translation studies is to focus on the linguistic aspects of the translation process. In response to such voices, I would answer that of course translation scholars must focus on language, for translation is, after all, about transferring a text from one language to another. But separating language from culture is like the old debate about which came first – the chicken or the egg. Language is embedded in culture, linguistic acts take place in a context and texts are created in a continuum not in a vacuum. A writer is a product of a particular time and a particular context, just as a translator is a product of another time and another context. Translation is about language, but translation is also about culture, for the two are inseparable” (Bassnett 2007: 23). Bassnett’s chicken-and-egg metaphor works indeed quite well because - just like translation and culture - none can exist without the other. Translations are influenced both by the culture from which they originate and the culture in which they are to function as a new text. Like the egg, translations are a mere product, yet they are the very material that builds and sustains the culture into which they enter and they will invariably take on a life of their own. In translation studies, the movement towards an approach that would acknowledge the important interaction between culture and translation was termed “the cultural turn” by several translation theorists in the early 1990s including Snell-Hornby, Bassnett and Lefevere. Since then, research has focused on translation and gender, postcolonialism, and, more generally, translation as rewriting. While power relations are obviously an issue for both gender-related studies and postcolonialism, this is also true for translation as rewriting, where “the people involved in such power positions are the ones Lefevere sees as ‘rewriting’ literature and governing its consumption by the general public. The motivation for such rewriting can be ideological, (conforming to or rebelling against the dominant ideology) or poetological (conforming to or rebelling against the dominant/preferred poetics” (Munday 2008: 125). Lefevere describes three main factors that control the literary system and therefore make up the background for these power relations:

- Professionals within the literary system (translators, teachers, critics, reviewers);
- Patronage outside the literary system (publishers, media, institutions, governments) that can further or hinder reading, writing and rewriting of literature, and
- The dominant poetics, which is closely connected with patronage because “institutions enforce, or at least try to enforce the dominant poetics of a period by using it as the yardstick against which current production is measured” (Lefevere 1992: 19)

In the context of these power negotiations, culture and ideology can easily be leveraged and become part of a personal or, on a larger scale, even a political agenda. The selection of texts constitutes domestic canons for foreign literature, which, in turn, shapes attitudes towards foreign countries. As such, translation can even have a manipulative or subversive influence on existing values because it “is not just ‘a window opened on another world’, or some such pious platitude. Rather, translation is a channel opened, often not without a certain reluctance, through which foreign influences can penetrate the native culture” (Lefevere 1990: 2).

Munday (2008) gives several examples of cases in which culture and ideological pressures have played an important role in the translation process, such as the diary of Anne Frank, a Dutch Jewish girl, whose account of her endured hardship during WWII was translated into German with slight modifications. On some occasions, entire paragraphs relating to Anne Frank’s sexuality were omitted. It must be noted that the book’s editor was her father, so there was definitely a very powerful emotional aspect to this project, which serves as a reminder of the potential power that translators can exert. In order to produce true and accurate translations, we must be as impartial as possible, even when we disagree with the message of a ST. While the situation will rarely be as emotional as it must have been for the editor in this case, similar situations can arise from much more trivial scenarios, such as a ST that we consider to be of poor style (short sentences, weak arguments, etc.). In cases like that, it can be crucial to respect the ST for what it is and not rewrite it as what we think it should be (in the real world, this will also depend on the client and their individual needs). Munday also gives the following example from Frank’s diary:

ST: Er bestaat geen groter vijandschap op de wereld dan tussen Duitsers en Joden

Literal translation: There is no greater enmity in the world than between Germans and Jews

TT: Eine größere Feindschaft als zwischen diesen Deutschen und den Juden gibt es nicht auf der Welt

Backtranslation: There is no greater enmity in the world than between these Germans and Jews

This was less of an emotional decision but rather a smart business move to avoid affecting sales in post-war Germany by insulting her potential readership and because, according to the editor, this is “what she really wanted to say”. The latter reasoning is highly relevant for our daily work. Translators have been called the keenest of readers, they have superior skill and interest, as well as a desire to relate content to others who depend on them. However, at times we must exercise great care not to over-interpret texts and deprive our readers of forming their own opinions.

Since translations are products that emerge from a multi-layered context, most decisions that we make in the course of our translations can be analyzed from a cultural point of view. A translation can be too literal because of the way a translator was educated and trained (correct literal translations are nearly always sufficient for schoolwork but in professional translation they can lead to very upset clients). The decision to use a domesticating or foreignizing approach will often be based on culture as well, whether we want to promote or preserve the source culture (foreignize) or are driven by the desire to make concepts as accessible as we can (domesticate) and possibly reap the rewards of a ‘nice translation’. Most deviations from the ST in order to create an “equivalent effect” are also based on perceived cultural differences that seem to dictate such deviations. The end of an American business memo might read as follows:

ST Literal backtranslation of a likely German TT

Abbildung in dieser eseprobe nicht enthalten

Three things are noteworthy in this example:

1) The use of last names in the translation due to the fact that it would be considered inappropriate in German to use only first names in a written business text of this kind.

2) The different complimentary close because there are only few standard ways to end a business letter in German and a literal translation of “sincerely” is not among them. In fact, this cultural difference is so well established that any good dictionary will list “Mit freundlichen Grüßen“ (with friendly greetings) as a translation for “sincerely”. Any other translation would not make sense in this context.

3) The different job title. It is actually very common nowadays to leave English job titles untranslated in German (a perfect example of how translation can influence a receiving culture over time). Those translators that lean towards domesticating a text, however, will probably use a translation that corresponds to German business hierarchies.

In the cases mentioned above, translators must strive to make a decision based on their best judgment, and this ‘best judgment’ only deserves its name when it includes both a responsible understanding of the power that comes with translation, and an awareness of the reciprocal relationship between culture and translation. Of course, this does not only apply to translators but all other agents of translation projects as well. Especially when it comes to the creation of literary canons, translators are often just tools (of the publishing houses, foreign readers who demand certain kinds of texts, etc.), and the responsibility to foster an environment that allows for a balanced flow of information and cultural exchange does not rest on their shoulders alone.



ISBN (eBook)
File size
479 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Bristol
translations culture power relations aspects modern globalization




Title: Translations, Culture and Power Relations. Aspects of Modern Globalization