Cultural Translation in theory and practice – what is it? Do I do it?

Anthony Pym said in his keynote, “we all live in multicultural, multilingual societies… with lots of lines running over… you can have the values of a culture but not the language – that is quite common. [But a person] with one language and one culture doesn’t make a great translator… they’re not translators.” Everyone laughed. It seemed so obvious. But I sank down in my chair a little.

The chair in question was in a screening room being used for a symposium called Cultural Translation in theory and practice, which was convened by my peers in the school of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies at University of Nottingham. Most of the students in attendance were studying translation. My PhD is in Cultural Studies, the discipline I use to study Chinese contemporary art. I don’t speak Chinese, or any other language than English. I don’t, by Pym’s definition, translate between languages. I am the bad translator with one language and one culture.

Translation affects me acutely. For the last three years or so I have regularly written for a magazine based in Shanghai, who translate my English text and publish in Chinese. I used not to write for translation, but over time I have become aware that, by including extra explanation and information that I wouldn’t have to write for a British art specialist audience, I am providing more cultural insights and local knowledge for my Chinese readership. You can see one of my articles here, courtesy of Art World.

In my studies, I read a lot of material that is either translated from Chinese or written by a Chinese person in English – a kind of self-translation from mother tongue. The latter was one of the forms of translation talked about at this symposium which I had never considered – Wangtaolue Guo, an MA student at China University of Hong Kong, used the example of diaspora author He Jin who actually expresses his otherness through his use of the English language. The implications of this, as well as the implications for meaning when writers knew they were writing to be published bilingually, I will need to take into account as my studies progress.

There are some other questions that arise from what I have written so far. What is Cultural Translation? (That is probably the most important one!) Do I do it? Does translation have to have a ‘product’ or can it be spoken, or a thought? Where does adaptation fit into this (translation from one media to another)? When is a translation an interpretation (in an artistic sense)? What is the relationship between curatorial practice and translation?

Some of these questions I will have to leave hanging. A year or so ago I wrote an essay for Modern China Studies journal called Parallel Realities, where I explored some of the cross-over between the cultural turn in translation studies and curating contemporary Chinese art outside of the UK. In the process of writing this I articulated to myself, and I still think, that contemporary art is a language – understandable to some but not others. On reflection, I was probably one of the writers who used the term ‘cultural translation’ without really explaining what I meant by it – which was the starting point for Dr Sarah Maitland’s talk at the symposium.

Using some excellent hand-drawn Power Point slides, Maitland offered a definition of Cultural Translation that departed from the ‘key’ literature that is oft quoted and which, she pointed out, was almost opaquely confusing. (I’ll have to go back to the particular Butler material she mentioned though… because there is a lot about uneven modernity and difference that is interesting for the scholar working with the female subject in the context of a country still classified as ‘developing’ according to the UN in their 2014 report).

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The theories that she drew on most in her definition were those of Paul Ricœur, who proposed that what happens between a reader and a text is the same as between a human being and other cultural objects. To paraphrase: Maitland said that leading on from Ricœur, we can say that there are multiple ‘guesses’ or ‘interpretations’ – as many as there are readers or human beings encountering cultural objects and texts (so far so Barthes). Crucially she said that in communicating these ‘translations’ we have to display humility – they are simply one guess, or one interpretation, and by broadcasting them we subject them to scrutiny. – And further translation.

She used the quite brilliant example of the Hillary Clinton Women’s Card. Donald Trump, who was translating Clinton’s campaign, said something to the effect of “she is using the women’s card” – meaning that her campaign hinged on and exploited her gender. The Clinton team ‘translated’ Trump’s comments into a physical card that her supporters could buy, to show their allegiance. It raised her team millions of USD and was used as a hashtag on social media.

Woman card

The question of whether translation requires a product, i.e. public broadcast, physical object, other cultural or performative offering was not really dealt with. Closely related though is the question: is cultural studies a methodology? This was touched on in the presentation by Klaus Mundt, a tutor on the Translation studies programme, who argued that translators could be taught to practice cultural translation. In effect, he seemed to be proposing detailed literary analysis strategies, in particular focussing on the emotions evoked and the ‘cultural items’ in the source text. These items would then require a process of research before the translators attempted to find something that evoked a similar meaning in their ‘target culture.’ His method was a definite move away from linguistic equivalence. But from a cultural studies perspective it seems a bit problematic to change, for example, ‘greasy spoon’ in the English to Taiwanese 24 hour breakfast café. It really would depend on the purpose of the text.

I suppose this is where Cultural Studies and Cultural Translation meet: in collaboration we can talk about the meanings that slip and shift between cultures as we produce or analyse cultural products, both source ones and translations. But more than that, I think I do participate in Cultural Translation – and translators participate in Cultural Studies. Interestingly on my way home I saw an article about the Man Booker International, which for the first time split its prize money between the winner, Korean author Han Kang for her book The Vegetarian, and Deborah Smith – who translated it. It was a great signal of recognition for translation as an art.

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