Translation, representativeness, representation

Two questions: Who can translate? Who may translate?

In thinking and talking about issues of identity, subjectivity, representation and translation, I would like to make a conceptual distinction between two issues. Even though they are deeply interwoven, I think it is worth pulling them apart, in order to clarify exactly what is at stake in the discussion, and what we are actually talking about. The distinction can be captured by two questions and two keywords (see also this [forthcoming] piece by Anna Strowe and me).

The ‘rooms’ of translation: Representativeness first

Both of these are important and complex questions, and profoundly interrelated. But, in my view, the heated (and often very polarised and reductionist) debates that have recently circulated about translation and identity (i.e. questions about who can and should translate; about translation and representation) arise, in the first instance, because of a lack of institutional and social representativeness. Philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò, in an essay titled “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference” uses the concept of the ‘room’ (partly literally, partly metaphorically) to refer to the spaces in which decision-making happens, and from whence influence emanates: “Being in these rooms means being in a position to affect institutions and broader social dynamics by way of deciding what one is to say and do. Access to these rooms is itself a kind of social advantage…”

Representation: What kinds of knowledge(s)?

Having set out some of these ‘first principles’, I want to dig a bit deeper into ideas and questions around the complex relation between representation and representativeness. First, it needs to be made clear that no one (or hardly anyone) is arguing that a translator must have absolute identity with the author. That is a false framing of the arguments about representation that have been put forward, and a false framing that leads to — or is even designed to lead to — a dead end, shutting down conversations about questions of power in translation. The fact that so many respondents have misconstrued the argument in this way (deliberately or not), is in itself telling: There is, evidently, a much deeper cultural contestation at play, which I think boils down to the fact that those who have traditionally benefited from the existing structures are reacting against what they perceive as a threat to this status quo.

Representation: Rights, responsibilities and risks

To return to the axiom of the creative freedom of writers and translators: Let’s, in principle, accept that everyone can write or translate everyone; that shared lived, embodied experience is not a prerequisite to ‘slip into another’s skin’. But with rights come responsibilities; in this case an ethical responsibility to consider whether you truly are the right, or best, person for a translation. You, as a translator, may of course be able to do it, even without sharing a frame of reference or experience with the text or author. But in some cases, you may want to consider whether there is not someone else who could do it better; even, someone else who, in this moment, should do it, on ethical or moral grounds, rather than you, considering the structural inequalities and lack of representativeness. This, I think, is what Marieke Lucas Rijneveld expressed in their poem after stepping down from the Gorman translation (translated to English by Michele Hutchison):

Thinking forward: What can institutions do?

When we consider these issues, we need to be explicit about the fact that there are power differentials involved; historical and present realities of oppression and exclusion; historical and present realities in which dominated/marginalised groups of people have not had or do not have a voice; where their stories have been appropriated by dominating cultures. This is crucial. Those who have set out the argument that translation ought to be seen as the domain of unfettered imaginative exchange, a crossing of borders in pursuit of our common humanity, blithely gloss over the fact that those patterns of exchange have never been equal; those borders that translation is meant to cross, exist often in the first instance to keep ‘Them’ out from the spaces that define ‘Us’; and ‘common humanity’ is happily ignored by those in power when it serves their purposes. Yes, in an ideal world it would not matter who translates who; but in the profoundly unequal world we live in, where some have the opportunities to speak, and have also used those opportunities to claim the stories of others for their own purposes, it does matter.



Professor of translation studies at Utrecht University, linguist, writer, poet.

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Haidee Kotze

Haidee Kotze

Professor of translation studies at Utrecht University, linguist, writer, poet.