Translation and Political Engagement

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Translation and Political Engagement
Activism, Social Change and the Role of Translation in Geopolitical Shifts


University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA

Abstract. The possibility of using translation for geopolitical agenda and political engagement has stimulated substantial interest in the last decade within translation studies and in other disciplines. Defining engagement in translation studies as translation with an activist component, this article reviews the discourse pertaining to translation and engagement. The case study of the translation of Irish literature into English over the last century, from the epoch of Irish cultural nationalism through Irish political independence to the present, is used as an exemplar of a translation movement that has been effective in achieving significant geopolitical results. Desiderata for a theory of translation and engagement are discussed, in the context of which a criticism is offered of Venuti 's contribution to the discourse of translation and engagement. The article concludes with the identification of characteristics shared by translation movements that have effectively contributed to political engagement and geopolitical change.

In Culture and Imperialism Edward Said has argued that narratives create “‘structures of feeling’ that support, elaborate and consolidate the practice of empire” (1993:14); at the same time his work documents the resistance and alternate structures of feeling created within dominated cultures to coun­ter the practices of empire, resistance that erupted in the 20th century in nationalist movements all over the world. Such resistance gradually won in­dependence for the colonized, bringing to an end the practices of direct colonial rule. Just as dominant cultures have created images of the past to bolster their practices of power in the present (cf. Said 1993: 15ff.), so have colonized cultures created visions of the past to further ideological resistance and po­litical programmes (cf. Fanon 1961/1963). Although such images of the past - like those of the colonizers - are manipulations of the past, often simplified or essentialized or even fetishized structures, they are powerful means of drawing together oppressed peoples and giving them a consciousness of their own potential for self-determination.

Translation is a prime way of creating such images, a factor that is notable in translations of narratives which involve the creation and recreation of structures of feeling. Translation plays this role within a colonial or neocolonial setting whenever it participates in the formation of cultural constructions, negotiating views of a people's past or present as it bridges gaps caused by linguistic change or a multilinguistic polity. It is, therefore, not simply the translation of narratives that is at issue here, but the translation of any central cultural documents, including laws, annals or other historical materials.

Translations are inevitably partial; meaning in a text is overdetermined, and the information in and meaning of a source text is therefore always more extensive than a translation can convey. Conversely, the receptor language and culture entail obligatory features that limit the possibilities of the transla­tion, as well as extending the meanings of the translation in directions other than those inherent in the source text (cf. Tymoczko 1999:ch. 1 and sources cited). As a result, translators must make choices, selecting aspects or parts of a text to transpose and emphasize. Such choices in turn serve to create representations of their source texts, representations that are also partial. This partiality is not merely a defect, a lack, or an absence in a translation - it is also an aspect that makes the act of translation partisan: engaged and com­mitted, either implicitly or explicitly. Indeed partiality is what differentiates translations of the same or similar works, making them flexible and diverse, enabling them to participate in the dialectic of power, the ongoing process of political discourse, and strategies for social change. Such representations and commitments are apparent from analyses of translators' choices word-by­word, page-by-page, and text-by-text, and they are also often demonstrable in the paratextual materials that surround translations, including introduc­tions, footnotes, reviews, literary criticism and so forth. The very words associated with politics and ideology emphasized here suggest the nexus of metonymy and engagement in the activity of translation, indicating that the partial nature of translations is what makes them also political.

1. A brief survey of the theme of engagement in recent writing on translation

Considerations such as the foregoing have fed the excitement in recent years about translation as a possible vehicle of political engagement, engagement that is not restricted to postcolonial contexts, and this interest is to a large extent identified with the work of Lawrence Venuti (1992, 1995, 1998a, 1998b). Venuti's work in turn looks back to that of Philip Lewis (1985), Jacques Derrida (1985) and Walter Benjamin (1923), to name but three im­portant figures standing behind Venuti's arguments. Within translation studies others have also taken up this line of thought - Susan Bassnett (1992, 1993), Sherry Simon (1994, 1996) and the writers in the collection gathered by Anuradha Dingwaney and Carol Maier (1995), for example. Meanwhile, working outside translation studies, similar voicings are heard from Tejaswini Niranjana (1992), Eric Cheyfitz (1991), Vicente Rafael (1993), Gayatri Spi­vack (1992), Homi Bhabha (1994) and James Clifford (1997), among others.

The harnassing of translation for political and ideological purposes is not original to these critics and theoreticians of translation, nor is it original to the present age. We see the impulse earlier among our own contemporaries in the work of actual translators, including Brazilian translators, with their theories of cannibalism in the service of autonomous cultural development and extension (see Vieira 1994). Quebecois translators can also be seen in this light and are often discussed as such, particularly feminist Canadian trans­lators like Barbard Godard (1990) and Suzanne de Lotbinière-Harwood (1991), as well as the earlier Quebecois playwrights, whose translations and work have been so well analyzed by Annie Brisset (1990). Indeed a long history of translation in the service of ideological agendas, antedating the present, has been demonstrated and analyzed by Venuti, notably in The Trans­lator's Invisibility (1995).

Other types of translation besides literary translation must also be seen in this context, and Venuti's accounts should be supplemented in this regard. Bible translations, for example, particularly in the medieval and early Ren­aissance period, have this character of ideological engagement, for literacy, access to the biblical text and lay movements of piety were direct challenges to the power structures of medieval and early modern society. Thus, Bible translation at the period is paradoxically a prime illustration of the relation­ship between translation and resistance to oppressive cultural conditions, indicating the relationship between translation and social change, and Bibli­cal translation was for several centuries theorized as such in writings contemporary with the early vernacular translations of the Bible. It was for these reasons, as much as for doctrinal ones, that many of the early move­ments sponsoring Bible translation were persecuted in their day and that Bible translators themselves were even on occasion burnt at the stake. In these diverse cases taken from the history of translation in the West during the last millenium, which could be multiplied in any thorough survey of translation worldwide through history, translation intersects in demonstrable ways with efforts to change power structures.

2. Engagement defined

Before proceeding, I'd like to clarify what I mean by translation and engage­ment. I'm not simply discussing the ethos or ideological orientation of a translation and a translator - the salutoriness or correctness of a translator's politics, or a quality in a translation that promotes good attitudes and good politics in its readers. Clearly the theory of translation is not the locus to determine a theory of valuation or to debate ideology. In fact it can be argued that most translators undertake the work they do because they believe the texts they produce will benefit humanity or impact positively upon the receptor culture in ways that are broadly ideological. This is true equally of literary translators who select texts to translate, translators of technical manuals, and Bible translators.

I am even interested here in something a little more active than the stance of writers who promoted literature engagee in the post-War period. I'm pri­marily concerned with translation as a sort of speech act: translation that rouses, inspires, witnesses, mobilizes, incites to rebellion, and so forth. Such translations act in the world and have an activist aspect. The subject, then, is translation that has illocutionary and perlocutionary dimensions, that actu­ally participates in social movements, that is effective in the world at achieving demonstrable social and political change. Clearly in pursuing such questions, the context of and audience for such translation are central issues, and I would agree with Douglas Robinson (1997: 112) who argues that an important test of a translation's political effectiveness is its ability to reach mass audiences.

In part I take this topic as my subject matter because the effectiveness of literature that simply aims at attitudinal shifts is much more difficult to as­sess. Attitudinal shifts are notoriously problematic to correlate with social change, and they are also conspicuously volatile and subject to reversals or ironic finales. It is a particularly questionable business to argue for the trans­formative value of changing the attitudes of a small avant-garde after a century filled with the repression, suppression and even extermination of cultural elites. From the annihilation of intellectuals in the Nazi death camps to Chi­na's Cultural Revolution, from the neutralization of leftists during the McCarthy period in the United States to the massacres of the educated classes in African countries emerging from colonialism, we have learned that such hopes are often sadly misplaced: pogroms and purges of the left occurred on virtually every continent in the last century, wiping away progress associ­ated with attitudinal shifts.1

The approach to engagement presupposed in this paper is in fact consist­ent with basic definitions of engagement as "the state of being engaged". In turn, engaged is defined as "contracted for, pledged", "betrothed" and, more to the point for our purposes here, "involved in conflict or battle" (American Heritage Dictionary). It might be argued that it is sufficient for literature (and translation, by extension) to be involved in ideological conflict or bat­tle, but such a view of engagement almost inevitably restricts the impact of such engagement to cultural elites, the difficulties of which have already been touched upon.

As should already be obvious, I am also concerned in this paper not only with translations that demonstrate engagement on the object level, but also with discourses about translational engagement that operate on a meta-level. In translation studies it is particularly hard to separate these levels: translators theorize their own work, theorizations produce translation strategies and even actual translations. Thus, any discussion of translation and engagement must of necessity look at both.

3. An Irish case study: a touchstone for postcolonial translation theories and questions of engagement in translation

Postcolonial approaches to translation are clearly central to the concerns and interests we are tracing. Following from descriptive approaches to transla­tion, developed by Hamar Even-Zohar (1978, 1990), Gideon Toury (1980, 1982, 1991, 1995), Andre Lefevere (1982a, 1982b, 1992) and others, postcolonial translation studies take up questions about the interrelation of translation, power, ideology and politics. The development of these approaches to translation has been aptly summarized by Robinson (1997), where he at­tempts to delineate the broad field of postcolonial translation studies and to situate within it the work of Niranjana, Cheyfitz and Rafael, relating this movement to the work of Venuti and others as well. Robinson (1997 :6) iden­tifies what he has called the "narrative or utopian myth of postcolonial translation studies", a trajectory deriving from Frantz Fanon (1961/1963: 178­79), among others, in which colonized cultures are seen as moving from a colonized stage in which colonial values are introjected, to a stage in which an independent identity begins to emerge but is constrained by opposition to the colonizers' values, to a third stage of decolonization in which truly au­tonomous perspectives can develop.

Despite the excitement generated among scholars by postcolonial ap­proaches to translation, however, in the context of his critique of Niranjana, Robinson (ibid:esp. 109-110, cf. 88-93, 104-113) notes the slim achievements in either translation theory or practice among those using postcolonial ap­proaches to the field. Moreover, he observes (ibid:78) that the issues raised by postcolonial translation theory are "so gargantuan ... , so enormous and complicated and thoroughly steeped in the social and political histories of cultures and civilizations spanning vast tracts of time and space", that it is difficult to move beyond gross generalizations in postcolonial approaches to translation studies.

In Translation in a Postcolonial Context (1999) I have suggested that localism - the study of particular translation movements located in the con­text of specific nations with their specific political contexts and specific histories - offers a means of moving beyond generalizations and of achiev­ing sufficient specificity so that both translation studies and postcolonial studies can profit from the study of translation in postcolonial contexts. In the book I then proceed to analyze one of the most interesting case studies of political translation having to do with a colonized nation, namely the case of translating early Irish literature into English in the context of an emergent Irish cultural nationalism, through the formation of the Irish state, and on into the later 20th century as well. I have focused on the translation of medi­eval Irish heroic narratives, narratives which were harnassed in constructing and redirecting popular structures of feeling, moving Ireland away from a colonized consciousness to resistance and then to decolonization. Transla­tion of early Irish texts, including translation of early Irish laws, annals and other cultural documents, was central to the emergence of Irish cultural na­tionalism - essential to the ability of the Irish to claim a history and culture for themselves, for example, and the attempt to construct an identity for them­selves that would free them from the English definitions of Irishness, definitions that at this distance are as malign as the most vicious colonial projections (see Tymoczko 1999:ch. 2). Translation of Irish literature per se was a cornerstone of the Irish literary revival, which was the seedbed of a great deal of Irish cultural nationalism in the period 1890-1916. Irish cultural nationalism in turn facilitated Irish political organization and, ultimately, Irish armed rebellion against Britain, a pivotal factor in the emergence of the Irish state and the end of colonial rule in most of Ireland.

Ireland is a small country, but its struggle for independence sent shock waves through the whole British Empire, rocking the foundations of imperium, establishing paradigms of textuality and action that inspired the rest of the colonized world. In 1914 Lenin had predicted that a blow against the British Empire in Ireland would be of "a hundred times more significance than a blow of equal weight in Asia or in Africa" (quoted in Kiberd 1995: 197), and so it came to pass. The Irish drive for independence was watched and emu­lated by nationalist movements in India, Egypt and elsewhere, with tokens of solidarity being exchanged and advice sought of the Irish by other colonized countries. The British authorities saw the direction history was taking as early as 1919, and cabinet minutes reveal the fears that "if the Irish case were conceded, the flames of revolt would be fanned in India and elsewhere"; England would lose the empire and deserve to lose it. Marx had been accu­rate in foreseeing that Ireland was imperial England's weakest point, that with Ireland lost the British Empire would be gone.2 The history of the trans­lation of early Irish literature into English, therefore, is the history of a translation practice that fired up Ireland, an entire country, an important coun­try, albeit a small one. The translation movement was central to the Irish cultural revival, and from the Irish revival grew the political and military struggle that won freedom from England. When we perceive resistance to colonialism encoded in translations of early Irish literature as leading to en­gagement between Ireland and Britain, then the translation movement investigated in my work must be understood as having contributed notably to shaping the world all of us live in today. It was a translation practice that changed the world, a form of engagement as much as a form of writing.

The role of translation in Irish political life can be seen in a graphic way in the transformation of the hero Cú Chulainn. In the early Irish texts, al­though he is the son of a mortal woman and the god Lug, Cú Chulainn is also a louse-ridden youth, whose battle-rages cause him to become distorted and grotesque, a danger to friend and foe alike. He guards the border of his terri­tory (Ulster), but leaves his post for a tryst with a woman - in pursuit of a woman's backside, as he puts it (cf. Kinsella 1969:133) - thus allowing en­emies to invade Ulster during the action narrated in the tale called Táin Bó Cúailnge (literally, 'the driving off of the cows of Cúailnge'). Cú Chulainn is ultimately killed by trickery and magic, after he insists on fighting when a strategic response would have demanded caution and refusal of battle.

The patriotic translators at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th eliminate almost all of this. Gone are the lice, the grotesque distortion, the woman's backside, the dereliction of duty, the prodigal death. Though Cú Chulainn' s supernatural birth is retained, the hero himself is decorous and noble, fighting against odds, and he dies in a scenario that nationalists saw as reminiscent of the Christian crucifixion. Because the Ulster Cycle in English translation and adaptation was subsumed within the framework of a heroic biography of Cú Chulainn, the stories could be integrated into a coherent pattern which worked to counter the depersonal­ization that colonized peoples suffer under colonialism,3 fostering instead self-confidence and heroic models of resistance to oppression. Cú Chulainn - particularly as he was pictured in translations of Táin Bó Cúailnge - came to epitomize the ideal of militant Irish heroism, which thus became a personalized concept, rather than an abstract one. The paradigm permitted nationalist identification with a hero of the most militant and uncompromising sort, and it glorified both individualism and action on behalf of the tribe. The trajectory these translations set to the Easter Rising of 1916 was a literal one, not merely figurative, for Cú Chulainn was a personal model for Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the Rising.

At the turn of the century, the story of Cú Chulainn was refracted in plays (including those of W. B. Yeats) and pageants, poetry and children's litera­ture. Images of him were produced by artists for high culture arenas and popular culture alike. A mural of Cú Chulainn taking arms stood in the en­trance hall of St. Enda's, the boys' school which Patrick Pearse directed for some years, and its motto, "I care not though I were to live but one day and one night provided my fame and my deeds live after me", provided the ethos for the children. Pearse had as a stated goal the desire to have the boys model themselves on Cú Chulainn (cf. Tymoczko 1999:80). This heroic representa­tion of Cú Chulainn continues to playa role in Irish cultural life, embodied in Oliver Sheppard's statue of Cú Chulainn memorializing the Easter Rising, a statue that stands in the General Post Office in Dublin.

Fifty years after the Irish state had won independence from Britain, these heroic representations were demythologized and deconstructed by Thomas Kinsella in The Táin, a 1969 translation of a number of the early Irish heroic tales. Kinsella transposed and even heightened the comic, earthy and sexual aspects of the texts, as well as Cú Chulainn's anti-heroic and grotesque quali­ties, challenging the nationalist tradition of noble Irish heroism. He translated in part to contest and subvert the pieties of Irish nationalism which had hard­ened into a repressive cultural ambience and a regressive politics. This demythologized and modernized Cú Chulainn is the image picked up and popularized by the Irish rock group Horselips in their record The Táin (1973).

After the beginning of the troubles in Northern Ireland in 1968, the story of Cú Chulainn was enlisted once again for ideological purposes, figuring in Northern Ireland in murals painted by both Catholic and Protestant partisans engaged in a politics of violence and terror (cf. Rolston 1995:17, 21, 28). Most recently, a representation of Cú Chulainn has been included in the vid­eos that play at the visitors' centre at Emain Macha, a major archaeological site in Northern Ireland. These videos inculcate a patriotic consciousness about the Irish Gaelic heritage of Ulster, and themselves take a partisan position in the dialogue about Irish identity in Northern Ireland.

In this sequence, which has been treated here in summary fashion, we find both interlinguistic translation and intersemiotic translation intertwin­ing, shaping in various complex ways the evolution of Irish political life. I've focused on the manipulations of the contents of the early manuscripts in their English translations, but in my extended treatment of this topic (Tymocz­ko 1999), I discuss in detail the translational representations of Irish literary form, Irish genres, Irish names, Irish cultural concepts and world views, and so forth, illustrating the ideological implications of all these facets of the translations in multiple versions spanning more than a century. The transla­tion history of early Irish literature into English parallels the decolonization of Ireland, and it stands as a prototype of translation as an activist enterprise with tangible geopolitical results. In a variety of ways the Irish case also confirms the utopian narrative of postcolonial studies - the movement from colonization, through a dialectical opposition to the colonizer, toward decolonization and cultural autonomy. There is an increasing assertion of native Irish culture in many respects in the translations, from the content of traditional Irish myths to material culture to literary form.

This case study provides actual examples of translation correlated with political action, social change and engagement that are quite different from the effects that Venuti and others only theorize about or enjoin. It contrasts notably with the translation activity of such literary figures as Ezra Pound, whose writings are not correlated with tangible political movements or re­sults. Ironically, moreover, however radical Pound's poetics, his political views led him down the path of fascism, which makes him a somewhat prob­lematic model to hold out in any discussion of translation and engagement. The Irish materials offer an actual praxis that Niranjana hypothesizes as possible, but cannot herself realize. The Irish translations both nuance postcolonial translation theory as it is emerging and also show why Niranjana has so little to offer practically - because the cultural interface of translating in a postcolonial context is so enormously complicated, so inherently difficult and so context specific, that results cannot be simply delivered whole cloth by a single translator at a single moment or indeed by any single approach to translation. The Irish translation movement can be considered traduction engagée, that is, it has ideological orientation, but it is also engaged in the sense of "involved in conflict or battle", often in all too literal and graphic ways, as we see in the numerous cases of armed Irish partisans who have invoked Cú Chulainn on the way to combat.

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