Translating Culture vs. Cultural Translation.

Harish Trivedi, professor of English at the University of Delhi and “a prolific and engaged commentator on the politics of global English,” has a wonderfully acerbic essay (from 2005, but surely still applicable) on what Bathrobe, who sent me the link, calls the postmodernist appropriation of the concept of “translation.” He starts with a brief account of the historical reasons for the recent boom in translation, which “are probably traceable back to three distinct moments across the span of the twentieth century”:

The first of these was the concerted movement of translating Russian fiction into English which began in the 1890s and went on until the 1930s, which revealed to readers in English a body of imaginative work from an area outside Western Europe which was so new and exciting as to be shocking and indeed to induce a state of what was then called the “Russian fever,” with writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence not only enthusing about the newly discovered nineteenth-century masters of Russian fiction but actually helping to translate them in collaboration with the Russian emigre S. S. Koteliansky. The other two moments belong to the other end of the twentieth century, occurring as they did in the 1970s and the 1980s when two other bodies of literature from hitherto unregarded parts of the world were translated into English and caused a comparable sensation: from Latin America, and from the East European countries lying behind the Iron Curtain.

He then gets into Translation Studies, Cultural Studies, and “something called Cultural Translation”; here is a sample of his peroration:

If this is cultural translation, we perhaps need to worry about the very meaning of the word “translation.” One wonders why “translation” should be the word of choice in a collocation such as “cultural translation” in this new sense when perfectly good and theoretically sanctioned words for this new phenomenon, such as migrancy, exile or diaspora are already available and current. But given the usurpation that has taken place, it may be time for all good men and true, and of course women, who have ever practised literary translation, or even read translation with any awareness of it being translation, to unite and take out a patent on the word “translation,” if it is not already too late to do so. […]

All the recent talk of multiculturalism relates, it may be noted, not to the many different cultures located all over the world, but merely to expedient social management of a small sample of migrants from some of these cultures who have actually dislocated themselves and arrived in the First World, and who now must be melted down in that pot, or tossed in that salad, or fitted as an odd little piece into that mosaic. These stray little flotsam and jetsam of world culture which have been washed up on their shores are quite enough for the taste of the First World. Migrancy, often upper-class elite migrancy as for example from India, has already provided the First World with as much newness as it needs and can cope with, and given it the illusion that this tiny fraction of the Third World has already made the First World the whole world, the only world there is. Those of us still located on our own home turf and in our own cultures and speaking our own languages can no longer be seen or heard.

Over the top? Maybe, but most worthwhile polemic is over the top to some extent, and I enjoyed it a lot. (Warning: contains prophylactic doses of Bhabha and Derrida.)


  1. A couple quick and admittedly non-academic reactions after skimming that:

    1) In light of subsequent events it’s very amusing that he took so much time to savagely insult Jhumpa Lahiri for not being an “old-fashioned” translator.

    2) I don’t want to play the monoglot postcolonial overlord and nitpick the author’s English but I’m genuinely curious – what’s going on with “too” in this sentence?: “But a second and overriding sense in which too Rushdie claimed to be a translated man…”

  2. Is any field of human endeavor going to have its own academic representation? Are we going to have Plumbing Studies?

  3. Quick googling produced bunch of these:

    Plumbing Studies Diploma – Level 3 – Crawley College
    Diploma in Plumbing Studies – Alison
    The Diploma in Plumbing Studies is a course which is designed for anyone who wants to learn about modern-day plumbing.
    Plumbing Studies Diploma Level 2 | Chichester College, West Sussex

    Wait a bit and I am sure they will have Plumbing PhD program some day

  4. Why not. They give Nobel prizes for carpet cleaning.

  5. squiffy-marie von bladet says

    I have a PhD in essentially hydrodynamics, and why (I am inclined to huff) ever not? If you lot can write down closed form solutions to the Navier Stokes equations, the Clay Institute is all ears.

    ALSO: I personally hold that the term “translation” should only be used in its PROPER SENSE to describe “a geometric transformation that moves every point of a figure or a space by the same distance in a given direction”, although the margin is too small to contain my very worthwhile polemic on this important theme.

  6. If you look at old-timey ecclesiastical occasions like “The Feast of the Translation of the Relics of Saint Cuthbert,” you’ll see that the “migrancy” sense (at least in the limited domain of relics) is very old indeed. In fact, that seems to be an application of the OED’s sense I, with e.g. Englishing a novel first written in Russian being merely an application of sense II. (I am both intrigued and saddened to learn from the OED of an adjective “translatious,” which is alas now obsolete.)

  7. Ah, now I see that by commenting before reading Trivedi’s full piece rather than the excerpt hat quoted I had anticipated the punchline in the last paragraph.

  8. Hat, I’m surprised you didn’t react to the entirely gratuitous swipe against historical linguistics (“comparative philology”).

    AG: That too seems to me to mean ‘also’ (of which it is often a legitimate replacement, but in this case not so much).

  9. The author’s prose style is otherwise sufficiently unremarkable enough (and neither ESLish nor gosh-Indian-English-really-is-its-own-variety-ish) that the difficult-to-parse “too” seems most likely to be the artifact of an editing glitch.

  10. squiffy-marie: a PhD in essentially hydrodynamics

    You know who taught that, or something fairly close, was dearieme. Of this parish. But I haven’t heard from him for some time.

  11. JC: the entirely gratuitous swipe against historical linguistics (“comparative philology”).

    It is obvious that, like practically all literary types, the author does not know anything about the discipline apart from “it proved that Sanskrit is related to Latin, Greek and their descendants but has really nothing else to offer”.

  12. I personally hold that the term “translation” should only be used in its PROPER SENSE to describe “a geometric transformation that moves every point of a figure or a space by the same distance in a given direction”, although the margin is too small to contain my very worthwhile polemic on this important theme.

    By that definition I have translated my entire collection of books on more than one occasion. Although admittedly I have only translated it into another collection of books, related to the first by some sort of complicated permutation, the details of which I failed to record.

  13. For extra points: who was translated far beyond the daughters of men ?

  14. @David L: You probably translated and rotated your books, actually.

  15. If David L had any choice in the matter, after the translation and rotation the volume of the books might have been smaller, even though none were discarded. It’s that old black magic called the Banach-Tarski paradox.

  16. @Stu Clayton: Good point!

    One of my favorite xkcd comics:

  17. squiffy-marie von bladet says

    Banach-Tarski requires the use of the Axiom of Choice to construct non-measurable sets. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you may need a permit.

  18. Stu: Chucky the hen, but I certainly did not know that before just now. I never read a word of John Crowe Ransom that I know of.

  19. MR von Bladet, my comment began with “If David L had any choice in the matter”. Your scruples have already been dealt with.

  20. @Stu Clayton: Ah, but any choice is not enough. There are weaker forms of choice than Zermelo’s Axiom of Choice that are not sufficient to prove the Banach-Tarski Theorem. The most notable intermediate choice axiom is the Boolean Prime Ideal Axiom (or its equivalent the Ultrafilter Lemma).

    There is an interesting anagram of “Banach-Tarski,” by the way. It’s “Banach-Tarski Banach-Tarski.”

  21. You probably translated and rotated your books, actually.

    Very true, but when it comes to literature, as we all know, translation is never quite enough.

  22. I suspect he translated his books, but not his collection of books, because when he got the books to the new house he’d have put them back on the shelves in different positions relative to each other.

  23. @Brett: yes, the ultrafilter lemma (weaker than uncountable choice) can be used to prove the Hahn-Banach theorem, from which the existence of non-Lebesgue-measureable sets follows, and so to Banach-Tarski. (I summarize from the WiPe articles.)

    So many Choices are on offer that pickiness has become unavoidable. It’s like standing in front of a supermarket shelf with 15 different brands of dog food. You may be all post-modern about it, but the dog is not satisfied with relative consistency.

  24. There is an interesting anagram of “Banach-Tarski,” by the way. It’s “Banach-Tarski Banach-Tarski.”

    That cracks me up !

  25. David Marjanović says

    So I remembered right what the theorem was!

  26. Lars (the original one) says

    interesting anagram — Language Hat, your go-to blog for mathematical in-jokes.

  27. My ancient math-major avatar is pleased.

  28. There is a round table on translation with Harish Trivedi at Harish Trivedi: A Translation Roundtable, Part 1

    His career is described thus:

    Glamoured by modernist British Literature while a student in a high-colonial university in a small town in north India in the innocent 1960s, I felt fortunate to get a scholarship to go to the UK and to write my doctoral thesis there on Virginia Woolf. But the experience cured me, and I returned to India with the belated epiphany that English literature was not, and never could be, my literature. This was some years before Said’s Orientalism, so the first door I knocked on was that of Comparative Literature — followed by Translation Studies, Postcolonial Studies and a critical reading of British Writing on India. When my turn came to serve as the Head of the Department of English at the University of Delhi (1997-2000), I made it my one-point agenda to catalyse a radical reform of the syllabus through which we chopped off much British dead wood in order to make room for (a) literature in English not only from the UK and the USA but from all around the globe, and (b) literature in English translation not only from Europe but also from other parts of the world, especially India. As a result, I can now spend a whole semester teaching a 1st century AD Sanskrit play, a 4th century Tamil epic, a Hindi poet from the 15th century and an Urdu poet from the 19th, not to mention a couple of trenchantly postcolonial Hindi novels. In alternating semesters I still teach Shakespeare, just to keep my hand in, while in an M. Phil. class in translation, my students and I actually soil our hands with several Indian languages as we work together on translating them into English. This is a bed of roses of liberated postcolonial pedagogy and research that I myself helped to make, and it is gratifying to lie in it.

  29. That’s quite admirable, however clotted the jargon may sometimes be.

  30. “Postcolonial” has always been a problematic term for me. Not because I’m unaware of the evils of colonialism, but because Western colonialism was just one particular phase in history. The next phase will come unbeknownst to these academics with their minds stuck in the past, and when it does they will be totally unprepared. There will then be a big lag before they finally come around to analysing the “post-x” era, and they will be just as insufferable then as they are now.

    But his “liberated postcolonial pedagogy” sounds both broadminded and interesting because it has obviously freed him from the “canon” and allowed him to explore a lot of things that are beyond the mindset of many academics stuck in their tyrannical paradigms.

  31. “Tyrannical paradigms” – what Kuhn called normal science.

  32. That entire passage came across to me as amusingly arch – “glamored”, “trenchantly postcolonial Hindí novels”, “bed of roses”. It’s hard to be sure when the eyes are rolling and twinkling at the same time.

  33. The entire passage comes across to me as something written by an Indian. Things like “I felt fortunate to get a scholarship”, “the experience cured me”, “the first door I knocked on”, “just to keep my hand in”. They are perfectly good English, and yet the total effect is ever so slightly off, like someone who is proudly displaying his store of English idioms in contexts where a speaker from one of the “old” English speaking countries might not use them. That is how Indian English usually sounds to me.

    The tyrannical paradigms of the liberal arts are just intellectual fashions. Nothing to do with science.

  34. The point is not whether something is scientific. Kuhn claimed that normal science works within “paradigms”. These are accepted ways of thinking, no alternatives are in sight or needed until the paradigms start fraying experimentally or theoretically. You could also call them consensus views.

    Fashion is tyrannical in a similar way, but openly and by fiat rather than fray. Consensus here is based on the seasons, rather than experiments.

  35. A passage written by an Indian sounds like it was written by an Indian.

    How surprising…

  36. Er… that was the point. Not “amusingly arch” but typical Indian English.

  37. As a result, I can now spend a whole semester teaching a 1st century AD Sanskrit play, a 4th century Tamil epic, a Hindi poet from the 15th century and an Urdu poet from the 19th

    Ironically, of course, all of these are languages which owe a lot of their success to their use by colonial empires…

  38. I suspect that postcolonialists would hold that pre-modern empires mostly weren’t colonial. It was the European colonial empires that were so exploitative, racist, and capitalist.

  39. Quickly ran a few counter-examples, but they all fail on second point.

    Yes, European strand of racism is kind of unique. Arab merchant empires in Africa were exploitative and capitalist, but they really weren’t racist even when they made money selling black slaves.

  40. “Quickly ran a few counter-examples, but they all fail on second point.”

    China? Japan?

  41. Neither of them were ever racist in European sense. Japan may have been fascist once, but whatever weird nationalism they have, racist it’s not.

    Just the whole concept of race is so alien to Asia.

    I mean, just try to persuade Koreans and Japanese that they belong to the same Asian race…

  42. Well, if we understand racism to mean systematic discrimination against members of one’s own culture due to inherited characteristics, then Japan’s discrimination against burakumin probably counts, although this group is not visually distinguishable from other Japanese.

  43. Maybe, but I’m not sure how useful it would be; the term “racism” is already far too readily and widely applied, and it seems to me it needs to be pruned back, not extended.

  44. The analogy has been used, as I recall, to explain U.S. racism against black people to Japanese exchange students, and the students seemed to get it. Here’s a whole M.A. thesis called “Racism without Race? The Case of Japan’s Invisible Group”, written by a Japanese person, though whether a Buraku or not does not appear. It’s particularly interesting to me that both the IQ and the scholastic achievements of burakumin children are systematically lower than that of majority Japanese, though it is unquestioned by all that burakumin are genetically and culturally Japanese, distinguishable from others only by the occupation of their ancestors (nowadays, birthplace is used as a proxy for this).

  45. The analogy has been used, as I recall, to explain U.S. racism against black people to Japanese exchange students, and the students seemed to get it.

    Sure, it’s an excellent analogy for that purpose. That’s a different matter from having a heading RACISM under which are subheads “In the US,” “In Japan,” etc.

  46. John Cowan says

    I personally hold that the term “translation” should only be used in its PROPER SENSE

    Fr Rolfe (the Fr stands for Frederick) agreed, and always used tralate, tralation for what people do with texts. In a way, it reminds me of Gershom Legman and the Germanized Latin words his scholarly works are full of, like fellation and cunnilinctus, collectively known as oragenitalism.

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