The Translator as Cultural Mediator in Research Publication1

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The Translator as Cultural Mediator in

Research Publication1

Karen Bennett

University of Lisbon, Portugal

Abstract: Given the imbalance that exists between English and other languages in research publishing today, academic translators working into English are obliged to orient their translations towards Anglo-Saxon norms and values in order to ensure acceptance by international journals. However, when the norms governing textual production in the source culture are very different from those of the target culture, extensive domestication is required, which may be difficult for authors to accept. Hence, the translator needs a profound understanding of the values and assumptions underpinning the discourses in question in order to act as cultural mediator, sensitively negotiating the construction of a text that is acceptable to both parts.

Keywords: academic translation; English as lingua franca; Romance languages; cultural disjunction; cultural mediation.

Non-native English speaking (NNES) authors that have little or no knowledge of English often have no alternative but to resort to translation in order to get their work published internationally; and while a considerable portion of academic translations are still undertaken on an informal basis by colleagues or acquaintances, many authors quickly learn that it is often more efficient in the long run to make use of the services of professional translators, who have a broader perspective of the complex issues involved.

Unlike their counterparts working in the literary arena for whom aesthetic and ideological questions may be a major concern, translators of academic research are necessarily motivated by more pragmatic matters. Their primary focus will be to help their clients achieve a real-life goal (such as publication in a foreign journal) and their entire translation strategy will be subordinated to that aim. Hence, the translator has to have in-depth knowledge of target culture expectations in that particular disciplinary area in order to make the most effective linguistic choices.

When the text is destined for an English-language journal, the need for a target-culture approach in translation becomes even more pressing. The overwhelming dominance of English in the world of academic publishing means that the cultural gatekeepers that control admission to the most prestigious journals are notoriously unsympathetic to the problems faced by foreign scholars (Lillis & Curry, 2010; Canagarajah, 2002). In fact, the continuing prevalence of the myths of “universalism” and “linguistic realism” in science (language is believed to directly reflect external reality without any rhetorical manoeuvring or mediation) has meant that many native English speakers are effectively unaware of the possibility that other cultures may encode knowledge differently. They will therefore tend to interpret any deviations from the norm as authorial, or even scientific, incompetence.

The translator’s role in this scenario is therefore that of the cultural mediator, negotiating the production of a new text that conforms to the expectations of the target readership while remaining as faithful as possible to the intentions of the original author. In situations where the norms governing textual production in the source culture are radically different from those of the target culture, tensions may be generated that require a great deal of skill to overcome. Hence, the translator's task may also include an interpersonal component, in which she effectively arbitrates between author and text receiver in order to achieve a solution that is acceptable to both.

This chapter examines some of the historical and ideological reasons for the different attitude to academic text production still prevailing in one particular cultural space (the Catholic Romance-speaking cultures of Southern Europe). Using this as an example, it then goes on to explore ways in which the translator might seek to overcome such cultural disjunctions.

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