Lau Kin-chi, Hui Po-keung, Chan Shun-hing

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The Politics of Translation

“Why in a rush?”

“Why not?”
The retort is exemplary in revealing that the institution of a system, rule or course of action is founded on a situated decision that cannot be accounted for within the system or by the rule instituted.

To the question “Why in a rush?” which, as aquestion, asks the respondent to be accountable, that is, to offer an account, an answer, an explication of the reasons, the response is a refusal of accountability: “Why not?” The retort, if taken literally, is to shovel accountability back to the person who asks the question; it may be a step taken with the will to continue a dialogic relation. Yet in the situation under consideration, this retort cannot be taken in its innocent, logical sense – e.g. “what would be the reasons for delaying?” – and can be read only as a rhetorical move to cut short a dialogic relation, a refusal to account for the decision to rush the election, the procedures of which were already underway. The refusal thus poses itself as so fully justified that no more words are needed for an explanation. As such it is a disavowal of the ethico-political nature of any decision to institute something new, for the decision cannot pretend to be made on objective and disinterested scientific ground. Neither can it appeal to any self-evident, transcendental principle. It is this condition that reveals that decisions are made in a world charged with relations of power fraught with dynamics of domination, under specific circumstances, and from a certain position embedded in a system of values and practices.

“Why not?” is a refusal in this case for it is posed as a rhetorical question directed at an Other.26 But “Why not?” may also be posed reflexively, in which case it will carry the rhetorical force of opening the issue for consideration again, in the recognition that no definite answer, whether a yes or a no, can fully account for itself on its own to all parties involved. Any decision made must be the outcome of a process of negotiation, that is, be ethico-politically made.

However, the decision made in a specific situation is also an ethico-political decision made possible with the termination of the process of negotiation, and is thus haunted by what it represses in the first place, and hence must be made again and again, each time confronted by the return of the repressed. To deny the ethico-political nature of the decision by presenting it as justifiable in terms of objective, neutral and even universal norms and values is to disavow the Other repressed in, yet constitutive of, the decision. Such denial and disavowal, concealed by the representation of knowledge and truth as objective and rational in terms of an understanding of necessary conditions, is at the same time a denial and disavowal of one’s complicity with the dominant power. As Foucault’s analysis of power shows, “intellectuals, as bearers of the speaking positions allowed within the social regime of truth, are themselves agents and beneficiaries of this system of power.”27 It is the task of intellectuals to engage with this system of power even in the midst of one’s complicity with it, not so as to facilitate its maintenance and expansion, but in ways that contribute to forces working for its transformation. It is in this spirit that we have taken up the episode cited in the beginningfor examination, both as teachers and as translators, as an intervention into the state of teaching and understanding translation in Hong Kong. The intervention is, following Foucault, based on “the recognition that discourse is implicated in the general regime of power in society,”28 and that discursive practice is one of the fields effective in the constitution of the configuration of culture, knowledge and power through the assigning of subject positions in the institution of a network of power relations that enables the perpetuation of the prevailing dominant power bloc.

Non-discursive practices, such as training for examination, constitute the other field in the precipitation of a self enabling the formation of seemingly self-reproducing patterns ofrelations in the configuration of culture, knowledge and power. In short, the institution of a new programme can simply be the product of the articulation of habitual ways of relating to others and getting things done with a particular discourse or a bodyof discursive elements strategically appropriated from various discourses. The condition for the naturalization of such articulation is that the subject positions assigned to the enunciating subject (the person producing utterances in a specific context)do not allow the space for a practice of the self in which the normal course of action or train of thought is allowed to be disrupted or deviated from. Yet it is only in such disruption and deviation that the other can figure forth in the demand for accountability.

As we have tried to show, the dominant practice in the translation department is a reluctance to account for themselves. In fact, they cannot do so even if they try, for they are speaking from positions guaranteed by an education system that is not even accountable to the professional world it claims to be mainly serving. What they have in fact been doing is a translation of training for examination into training to be a translator. For the facilitation of such a translation, they appropriate an instrumental notion of translation and a convenient and abstract notion of language as standard, leaving no room for the accountability of any assigned subject position. Its claim to being professional, scientific and objective amounts to a dismissive refusal to engage with the relations among culture, knowledge and power.

Borrowing from Henry Giroux’s discussion of the contribution of cultural studies to the critical reflection on education, as teachers we must first reject “the assumption that teachers are simply transmitters of existing configurations of knowledge.”29 We must do this in order to disrupt the above unchallenged understanding of translation among mainstream educators and the majority of students, both having run the gauntlet of the elitist examination-based education system and having been scarred in different ways and degrees by it.

The belated acknowledgement by the Education Commission, in its proposals for educational reform, of the destructive practices in the education system is at least a sign of the opening up to change. However, the slogan “Learning for Life” championed by the Commission is still premised on the notion of conformism, that is, it assumes that new situations call for new forms of conformism. Rather than simply confining ourselves to equipping students to better conform to new demands, we believe that teachers, as intellectuals situated within the system of power which elicits their complicity, can go one step further. In the words of Joe Murphy, by giving

students sensibility to understand economic, political and historical forces so they’re not just victims of these forces but can act on them with effect. Giving [students, especially the poor] this power is a threatening idea to many. But it is essential to the health of a democratic society.30

If a standard language cannot be as “pure” and innocent as it pretends to be; if language is a multiplicity charged with contesting and even dominating relations of power; if language is not a mere tool of representation, but rather the site where relations of domination and resistance play themselves out; and furthermore, if language is not governed by logic as the identity politics of a standard must presuppose, the implications for translation are disturbing. For then translation is not free of the politics of representation, and in translating, one participates in a process charged with struggles precipitated in history. The materiality or life of language is perceptively described by Bakhtin as follows:

[A]ll words have the “taste” of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life.31


[A]t any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles and so forth... Each of these “languages” of heteroglossia required a methodology very different from the others... All languages of heteroglossia, whatever the principle underlying them andmaking each unique, are specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in words, specific world views, each characterized by its own objects, meanings and values.32

If it is the life of language to be multiple (or heteroglot in Bakhtin’s term), the maintaining of an abstract standard language must suppress this awareness by representing the standard language as preexisting, and always there, as if without a history, in the dictionary and canonized works, for an investigation into the history of a standard language would very soon reveal the arbitrariness of the authority of the standard language, that is, it does not have the legitimacy it claims to have.

The simplistic manner in which the “modern old guards” adhere to the assertion of the standard language, with the amazing fact that they even fail to put forward a more workable and defendable notion of standard languages which correspond to the complexity of the contemporary professional world, betrays the fact that the notion of the standard languageis serving a different function than aiming to correspond to the actual functioning of the world. Rather than serving to guarantee quality in the production of would-be-professionals, it simply functions as the barely disguised device for the imposition of brute authority.

Standard language and control work for one another. In fact, it is the structure of a desire to control the Other in the constitutive relation between the self and the Other that accounts for the naïve assertion of the normative authority of thestandard language. The desire to control is basically an expansionist structure and can only maintain itself by constructing more rules and mechanisms of control. In the case we are discussing, the “modern old guards” even go to the extreme of subjecting themselves to the control of the administration whose business is to control.

In resorting to more regulation by administrative and managerial rules, the “modern old guards” are in fact inventing more rules with which to bind both students and themselves. They constantly quote rules and regulations to justify their deeds, while new rules and regulations are being drawn up ad hoc to cover complex situations. Deadlines for student submission of papers or projects are strictly adhered to, with different penalties for different degrees of lateness of submission clearly delineated. There has even been discussion of which hour of the day the deadline should fall on. A near-hysterical control over examination marks is carried out. Imagine an academic with a calculator in hand, in an examiners’ board meeting, instructing the teacher of each course to bring down the percentage of students with a B+ or above to within 10% of the total number of students -- only to find out afterwards that a wrong table had been used as reference, that up to 20% of students could have received an A- or above in individual courses according to the university’s guidelines. Yet the grossly unjust penalization of students, which caused over 90% of students tograduate with a second-class lower-division honours or below (while the university’s guidelines call for 20-30% of students to graduate with second-class upper-division honours or higher), need not be accounted for or redressed.

Whether wittingly or unwittingly, the "modern old guards" are seeking to control administratively through their brute imposition of authority the marking of students, a practice to which they were being subjected when they were students and which produced them as the successful ones. Academically, they seek to control through the imposition of the brute authority of the standard language which a student can only learn piecemeal when they are told that they have deviated from a norm. Thus, they are enabled by a system, or rather sub-system, of control, that is itself neither willing nor capable of risking responsibility, to perpetuate that system. The price of such "success" is that they become mediocre-elite-in-power with a closed mind that can see no further than self-preservation through controlling and subduing the Other. By means of invoking words such as “fairness,”“objective assessment,”“standard,” “professional quality,”“linguistic proficiency or competence,” and the like, they disavow their implication in a system of power, in our case, a system operating with crude techniques of control, and hence the question of politics in general of institutions and the question of the politics of translation in particular.

As we are also part of the teaching machine, we are also in complicity with the system of power in our participation in the role of assessor and examiner, not to mention the game of truth for the preparation of students for surviving in the competitive professional world. Thus it is our task as intellectuals to engage the system of power in critique as an intervention into our complicity. The interrogation of the institutional setting necessarily constitutes for us part of the politics of translation which, in our case, comprises the politics of teaching translation.

As we have been arguing, the “modern old guards” as teachers of translation maintain their authority partly by means of the invocation of an imaginary standard language that only exists performatively, i.e., through the act of interdiction inflicted on students for their supposed deviation from a “norm”, irrespective of the question of representation. However, if langauge is a dynamic field, rather than a passive instrumental medium, in which domination and resistance are inextricably woven together, the question of representation and its politics must be taken seriously in the teaching and doing of translation.

In our Hong Kong story, we have been trying to sketch, in quite a preliminary way, the context that is suffocating for any conscientious dialogue about translation and the teaching of translation, not to mention the active engagement in taking the question of the politics of translation seriously.

Instead of leaving us dispirited, this situation makes us feel all the more obliged to attempt to open up a space for more constructive discussion and collaborative intervention. In fact, what we have outlined so far can be regarded as suggested directions for more substantive and extensive researches, such as the effects of schooling experience we can read in various sectors of the professional world and the government with regard to their ways of relating to things and to one another, both conceptually and practically. Another area of research would be the various disruptive responses resisting or deviating from specific relations of domination. Here, in view of the dominant practice around us, we think it appropriate to begin the discussion of the politics of translation by pointing to a sensitivity of language that is soaked in the dynamics of life. For doing that we think Gilles Deleuze’s and Gayatri Spivak’s discussion of rhetoricity and the minor use of a major language can be very helpful.

Rhetoricity: minor use and resistance

In Daniel Smith’s reading of Deleuze, the standard as an ideal constant determines a relation of domination between the majority and the minority, designations which do not reflect quantitative differentiations, but rather a relational differentiation of power. Thus the model made up of designations such as “white, Western, male, adult, reasonable, heterosexual, residing in cities speaking a standard language…” represents the norm, and “any determination that deviates from this axiomatic model, by definition and regardless of number, will be considered minoritarian.”33 While “the majority is in fact an abstract standard that constitutes the analytic fact of ‘Nobody,’”

[a] minority by definition has no model; it is itself a becoming or a process, in constant variation, and the power of a minority is not measured by its ability to enter and make itself felt within the majority system. Minorities have the potential of promoting compositions (connections, convergences, divergences) that do not pass by way of the capitalist economy any more than they do the state formation.34

The standard is the rule of the majority represented in the rule of law. A minority of course has to struggle to be written into the constitution, but that is not where its power lies. The standard, the majority, the norm, the representative and the typical are what are normally represented; and publishing institutions, the media, academia, state institutions and business circles play crucial roles in their circulation. Thus the first question in the politics of translation should be, in Spivak’s words, “What is it that you are making accessible? The accessible level is the level of abstraction where the individual is already formed, where one can speak individual rights.”35 In other words, the making accessible of a text through translation already involves entering into the sphere of the majority where, for the translator, the publishing institutions or the relevant body that commissions the translation are the immediate force of seduction determining one’s complicity with the majority. For example, for a market-oriented economy, being readable and consumable is of course a crucial consideration guiding translation practice. Similarly, large official bodies, from national governments to international political bodies, large corporations including publishing, and specialized bodies such as universities and chemical and engineering firms, are often confined to working within the boundaries defined by a certain rule or model. These are forces of seduction for staying on the “safe” side, that is, to go along with the majority. In view of this, Spivak stresses that:

I remain interested in writers who are against the current, against the mainstream. I remain convinced that the interesting literary text might be precisely the text where you do not learn what the majority view of majority cultural representation of self-representation of a nation state might be.36

What Spivak points to here is not simply an unproblematic identification with the position of the minority, for majority and minority are relational terms, making the relation between the two a tricky one.

First of all the minority always relates to the majority as belonging together in sharing a major language as a condition of daily existence. Thus the point is not to exclude oneself from the major language, but, as bell hooks says, to use the oppressor’s language, not simply for the purpose of survival, but also as the medium for various minority groups to build solidarity in their struggles against oppression. In other words, a major language always contains in itself the relation between the majority and the minority. As Spivak says, “Cultures... have a dominant sphere in its traffic with language and contingency.”37 This contingency is a line of flight where a minor use of the major language is possible: “Only the possibility of setting up a minor practice of major language from within allows one to define popular literature, marginal literature, and so on.”38 Together, contingency and the minor use of the major language constitute the specificities of the language, which are all lost in the standardized language.

Accountability in the practice of translation does not allow one to content oneself with the prevailing standard use of a language, for the acquisition of language is a formative process of individuals in the fashioning of social identities and the securing of specific forms of authority to which the individual is subjected. On the one hand, power cannot circulate without the institutionalization of “standards,” standards which constitute the structure one cannot but inhabit. On the other hand, the institutionalization of “standards” is historically embedded in a process of the assertion of authority and its contestation. Historical research, that is, research into the history of the language and the history of the author’s moment, as well as the history of the language the translator employs in the translation, can enable a glimpse into the relation of forces in the determination of what is said and the way it is said, allowing one to go beyond the assumption of an intending subject using language (conveniently understood as a standard language) as a tool. In other words, if language is not composed of ready-made standards, but rather is engaged in a process of becoming, as Bakhtin and Deleuze teach us, then language cannot be exhausted by the meaning. Whatever “standard” and “meaning” we ascribe to language, they are not only slippery, but very often also in tension with one another, with the “standard” often turning out to be empty, not meaning anything, while the “meaning” often overflows any formulaic expression.

Following from this, accountability in translation cannot be understood in terms of correct standard usage and the adequate transfer of content. Accountability demands not only taking note of the negotiation involved in the dialectic between the imposition of authority and the corresponding resistance in the constitution of the self/Other relation. It also requires taking note of the contingencies in the process of becoming, contingencies that cannot be understood in terms of purposeful and rational maneuvers. This calls for a different relation to the language of the text than merely learning the language quickly or merely being able to conduct a conversation in it.

Spivak, in her discussion of the politicsof translation in the context of the feminist movement, points to the danger of inserting the Eurocentric concern with individual rights and “a species of neocolonialist construction of the non-Western scene” in the translation of a third world woman’s text when an intimate relation to that third-world language is lacking, and translation is taken to be transferring content. For Spivak, without making any effort for oneself to be intensely involved in the other language, so that one may sometimes even prefer to talk about intimate things or discuss complicated issues in that language, without questioning oneself the way one is representing the other, one would be committing dubious politics even if one thinks that one is honouring the other’s right by representing her or him through translation.39

The instrumental approach to language in translation has the political implication of attempting to control the other and of remaining inscribed within the discursive practice in the construction of colonial relations between the self and the Other. In fact, one cannot control the other if one cannot control the self; hence the instrumental approach to language works for both the source language and the target language. In contrast, in order to give up control of the language which seeks to render otherness, the incomprehensible, manageable in terms of the meaningful and the communicable, one must go beyond logic and court the language by“hanging out,” earning the right to be intimate with it. That is, rather than relating to language as a formal structure that necessarily presupposes language to be an instrument for the representation of logical relations in an ideal world, language is seen as an everyday life practice in which rhetorical force has priority over logic. The rhetorical use of language not only points to the specificity of the historical, social and cultural context without attention to which the rhetorical force would be lost, it also points to the limits of language, the possibility of absolute contingency.

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