Translation and Conflict, by Dina Al-Mahdy


Designed by Graphic Designer Amal Ezzat, Publishing Department, Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Being[1] one of the scholars who have challenged a purely descriptive approach of translation and argued for a more engaged, committed translation practice, Mona Baker, an Egyptian Professor of Translation Studies and Director of the Centre for Translation and International Studies at the University of Manchester in England, has succeeded in creating a direct link between translation and politics, which has been evident through all the sections on the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) or the Middle East conflict on her website.

Through more readings of her works, it is deduced that part of her interest in translation in relation to politics is correlated to her interest in translation and conflict. It is the potential power of translation and what it does/can do in/to the world with all its changing, cross-crossing narratives that overwhelms her.

In Baker’s book, Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account, she addresses some interesting and important issues concerning the practice and ethics of translation, which may overlap with traditional theories of translation. To her, the power of translation, like most human inventions, can be used either for the benefit or for the ill of humanity, especially in conflict issues. Since our world constantly consists of conflicting, biased, and subverted realities, in addition to a variety of stories to which we have no direct access, no single narrative can capture or trace these constructed complexities whatsoever. However, one way of tracing both what is translated and how it is translated is via narrative theory.

Narratives, as used by Baker, are the everyday public and personal ‘stories’ that we live by, that guide our behavior, and that also constitute a crucial means of generating, sustaining, mediating, and reporting conflict at all levels of the social life, including, but
not limited, to the political aspect. These are the stories we tell ourselves, and not just those we explicitly tell other people, about the world we live in. As for the world of politics, we all take part in it by taking decisions about means of communicating with others, whether we realize it or not.

Baker’s narrative theory holds that a neutral translator is a mythical figure, and a translation process that only discovers what exists and relates to it neutrally is by far an
illusion. She argues that people’s behavior is guided by a variety of changing, intertwining factors: their backgrounds, the stories they believe, and the events they are embedded in, even more than by stories of their gender, race, or any other attributes. Those factors are intrinsically subverting the world around them, resulting in countless narrations and renarrations of the world.

Traditionally, the naïve romantic image of translation depicts translators as bridge builders between cultures for the purposes of promoting understanding between different people. To that end, translators are usually concerned with long-established ideals like how the target language text mirrors or matches the source language text. Knowing how hard it could be to break with such a tradition, Baker thinks of translation in a totally different way. To her, translation contributes to shaping the world as well as being part of the continuous process of its reconstruction; thus, it invokes and expounds new realities.

Contrary to the traditional romantic image of translation, Baker argues that bridges are being blown up all the time; the translation bridge is no exception. Similarly, Professor Michael Cronin, Senior Lecturer in the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies and Dean of the Joint Faculty of Humanities, Dublin City University, also defined the process of translation, not traditionally as a bridge, but as a river that runs through banks, eluding and sweeping rocks, travelling far and wide, and connecting people on a rather deep level. The river of translation, similar to all rivers, adds to the
banks and is added by them.

To demonstrate her point, Baker drew some interesting examples of translational acts that remain invisible; anything but discrete. The process of “trans-editing” is an example of what takes place in any newsroom, where there is a very thin line between the role of the translator and the editor. In this process, trans-editors are to «change», «add», and «remove» information, leading to a «renarration» of the original narrative into the target language.

Another example is a short clip posted on the Citizens Against Government Waste website, addressing the mismanagement and inefficiency in the US Federal Government, featuring a Chinese professor talking to his students in 2030, obviously amidst the hype of China’s rise over the world and the US downfall. Numerous parodies of this clip have been made, showing the potential powers of translation: the truth/untruth it can communicate, either by twisting facts altogether or generating a new chain of truths/untruths; thus, creating a narrative performance in their own right. Baker refers to the original clip as a ‘point of origin’ and points of origin always seem “authentic”. However, the subtitles added to the authentic clip credibility, where only scholars can question its validity.

In this regard, many questions raise their heads: What do editors do? Who can double check the stories? And who can trace the authentic original source in the framework of the process of «renarration» in the target language?

In context with the political seesaw, Baker points out that scholars of translation, by and large, tend to shy away from dealing with issues relating to ongoing contemporary political conflicts, such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, because they are inevitably controversial: consensus has not yet been reached on who is the victim and who is the oppressor. In an attempt to create a direct link between translation and politics, she refers on her website to Robert Young, a Postcolonial Theorist at the University of Oxford, who defines translation as an intercultural communication that cannot, by any means, avoid questions of power relations and political issues.

In contrast to the traditional norms of translation that appeal to ideals of fidelity, equivalence, and neutrality, Mona Baker demonstrates in her book that as translation exists in the world, and since the world does not consist of a neutral, impartial, or objective reality, the space of translation has become a very generic and compliant one for political work. Scholars, of all the people, need to keep challenging the countless narrations and renarrations of the world.

Although, they may lose sight, at some point, amidst a continuum of conflicting narratives, yet their embeddedness in those narratives triggers their ability to reason about them.

[1] This article was published in The Bibliotheca Alexandrina Newsletter (Quarterly Issue No. 14, July 2012). It is based on Mona Baker’s keynote lecture “Translation as Re-narration: Political and Ethical Implications” during the “Translation in and of the World” Conference held in 29 April – 1 May 2012, Doha, Qatar.

Link to the article in the BA Newsletter:

©2018 Dina Al-Mahdy All Rights Reserved



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