Message to Colleagues in Translation Studies

From the archive (legacy material)

Translation is a matter of intercultural communication, yes. But, as has been widely demonstrated in recent years, it also involves questions of power relations, and of forms of domination. It cannot therefore avoid political issues, or questions about its own links to current forms of power.

Robert Young, Postcolonial Theorist, University of Oxford

Since the academic and cultural boycott of Israel began to gain strength, around the second half of 2002, many scholars have been at pains to argue that politics and academia don’t mix. Within our own discipline, some still insist that translation should act as a bridge between cultures, and that the mission of translators is to enable dialogue rather than to block it. Others insist that translators are intercultural agents, that they somehow stand ‘outside’ individual cultures, and add insult to injury by dismissing the very real horrors of ethnic cleansing as part of an ‘ancient territorial struggle’, some irrelevant issue on the margins of ‘our’ much more immediate and civilised world!

I do not find any of the above arguments convincing; indeed I find some of them positively offensive and racist. Academia is clearly part and parcel of political institutions, and it is dangerously naive to assume otherwise – as an Israeli scholar has recently argued in the context of boycotting American scientific journals. Moreover, translation in particular is at the very heart of the current struggle for world domination and is openly used as a political tool in an increasingly violent and conflictual world. One only has to visit a site such as MEMRI’s to get a feel for how a full-blown programme of translation involving several source and target languages typically underpins colonial and racist projects that set out to demonize other cultures. On the positive side, we find articles written by Israeli peace activists in Hebrew being translated into English and circulated within hours. The translation is sometimes done by the author, sometimes by other activists – generally by people who do not think of themselves as translators, though there are also professional translators who use their skills to promote worthwhile political agendas, including boycotts and other expressions of protest.

This highly political context in which translation is assuming an increasingly prominent role, and the violent, often racist, but above all naive reactions of some colleagues within translation studies following my decision to implement the boycott of Israeli institutions in concrete terms, have led me to conclude that translation studies is somewhat out of step with the world, and out of touch with one of the most important aspects of its own positioning.

It is my firm belief that the future development of the discipline depends on the ability and willingness of those engaged in promoting it to open translation up to broader cultural and political issues. The well-worn metaphor of translation as bridge building seems rather disingeneous in a world where real bridges are systematically being blown up by warmongers – in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq – to be reconstructed by their multinationals a few months later for a handsome profit. We have to be able to conceptualize translation in more realistic and meaningful terms, and for this to happen we need to engage more directly with the real issues that surround us and the discourses we ourselves help formulate across linguistic and cultural boundaries. This site offers a sample of such discourses, focusing on the one area of conflict I am most familiar with: the Middle East.

Mona Baker
Editor of The Translator
Editorial Director of St. Jerome Publishing