The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: A Translator’s Boundaries
Translating between languages tends to be a highly ethical practice, or at the least one that stimulates frequent conversation about ethics. This is especially true in the present day, when international discourse places high value on respecting other cultures. An ethical breach can take many forms, from misguided translation choices to intentional efforts to redefine a work of literature in a different and distortional manner. This series explores some of the ethical challenges translators face, either due to the challenge of the translation itself or willingly, while reflecting on the continuing debates between translators, translation scholars and others about what constitutes an ethical breach.
The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:
1. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Challenges To Originality
2. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: A Translator’s Boundaries
3. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Tinkering With Canons
4. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Cross-Language Plagiarism
5. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Shortcuts Between Distances
6. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Translating Geography
7. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: From Language To Motion Picture
8. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Ideology
The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: A Translator’s Boundaries
In the first article of this 101 series, the process of translation as an artwork with originality was discussed and the fine-line translation competently straddles between recreating a previously created work of art and doing so with a translators’ own unique artistry. But just how much “originality” should a translator infuse into their recreation of the original novel, poem, essay or play? Unlike an original work of art, where the author has free reign over his or her “territory,” a translation may frequently find itself with two inhabitants inside its framework: the original author and the translator. And there is not always space for two. In other words, how much agency does a translator have?
A Matter of Empowerment
It has become popular in recent years for translation scholars to encourage both a greater recognition of the literary translator as well as for the translator to make a difference through their artistic act. One such champion of the translator is Maria Tymoczko, who writes:
The translation of culture is a standard topic in translation studies, generally treated as a complex matter requiring linguistic and social knowledge, discernment and skill. It is less often discussed as a matter of empowerment, an important area in which translators exercise ethical, ideological and even at times political agency. This is curious because culture is the domain where human differences are most manifest, and representation of those differences is a primary form of assertion in cross-cultural interface, particularly encounters involving power. (Tymoczko, 2014, pg. 221)
Ideology in translation, the politicization of culture and the relationship to power in this context will be addressed in a later article in this series. What is interesting here is Tymoczko’s encouragement of the translator to utilize their translation projects in the service of a political end, a rally cry that has huge ethical implications; Tymoczko, at least in the moment, appears to encourage this whether or not the original writer would want or have wanted a translation of their work to be politicized. But irrespective of how reflective of a mirror Tymoczko may or may not be of contemporary academic ideas related to politics and power, the use of translation for these ends is not a new phenomenon.
An interesting example predating current academic trends are translations from small, occupied powers during the Second World War. Works of literature from Czech and Polish, to name a couple examples, found their way into English in circumstances that would have been less favorable during peacetime; this is especially true of the collected speeches of Czechoslovak leader Jan Masaryk, a translation of which appears to have done little to amplify his great stature among the Czechs given that his name and even that of his even more historically important father, T.G. Masaryk, remain unknown in the Anglosphere today. Another example of this post-war literature – Mist Before The Dawn by Antoni Bogusławski, “done into the English” by L. E. Gielgud and published in 1942 – is fascinating in terms of the contexts from which it was created (Bogusławski, 1942). The pamphlet was translated second-hand: Gielgud, though of Polish ancestry himself, is culturally as British as they come according to the introduction and had to converse with Bogusławski in French, which they both knew. Bogusławski, according to the books’ introduction, was originally a cavalryman in the Polish army who ended up in Britain in circumstances not clarified in this book. As the introduction itself confesses, “Polish poets have produced many inspiring lines during the present war…” (Bogusławski, 1942, pp. ii). So, and with respect to Bogusławski, why this poet in particular when there are so many to choose from?
As is colloquially exclaimed, ‘the proof is in the pudding.’ While Bogusławski may not be Shakespeare or Mickiewicz-level material – nor, to be fair, would his readers in either Britain or Poland have expected that – his poems display a fine eye for details both natural and architectural while evoking strong imagery both of the ongoing war and a longing for home. But however much Bogusławski may have longed for home in his poems, the details are so definitively English the average reader could be forgiven for thinking they were reading an English poet. This mistake would be virtually impossible to make with other commonly-translated Polish writers of the subsequent postwar era such as Czesław Miłosz, Jerzy Andrzejewski or Tadeusz Konwicki. The introduction justifies this by citing both Bogusławski’s Anglophilia along with a passion for Charles Dickens. While Bogusławski may well have been a hardcore Dickens fan, it is apparent that this cavalryman’s Polish origins ultimately have little, if anything, to do with his poetry appearing in English. It is the politics of Britain – especially the war-time politics – that take precedence. It is, as Tymoczko calls it, “a matter of empowerment.”
Even in this context, however, it would be just as unfair to accuse Bogusławski of political pandering as it would be to call 1942 a year of “politics as usual.” An even juicier specimen of this literature exists from 1945, the year the war ended: the Modern Czech Poetry anthology from 1945, translated by Ewald Osers and J.K. Montgomery. This translation is important in one sense: it was one of Osers’ early translations before he became among the most acclaimed and venerated Czech-to-English translators. Two elements stand out, however: while the introduction and details refer to Czechoslovakia as a country, there is not a single Slovak poet represented despite this pre-assumed prospect of reunification and Osers’ later translation and promotion of important Slovak poets. This is understandable for the times, as Slovakia had broken away to form the First Slovak Republic, a puppet state of Nazi Germany. The compensation the creators of this anthology included, however, suggests that the existence of Josef Tiso’s Slovakia was not the only factor in mind:
Owing to the temporary extinction of all free Czechoslovak life, these translations had to be published without the knowledge or consent of the authors or publishers of the Czech originals. The translators and publishers apologize to them for this technical infringement of their rights. They believe, however, that by publishing these verses they have worked for the cause of Freedom and acted in the spirit of the poets of Czechoslovakia. (Modern Czech Poetry, 1945, pg. 7)
Bogusławski’s pamphlet may have been published for the right reasons even in the political sense. It is not, after all, propagandistic poetry: indeed, the personal nature of poems like Three Pipes, for instance, is so powerful in its personal longing it stands ready to defy any attempt to politicize it for ulterior motives (1942, pp. 22-25). But through the lens of societies that have known peace for some time, Mist Before The Dawn nonetheless stands out as a work that has a bit too much of its publishers and possibly the translator in it. But while Tymoczko’s aforementioned observation applies in the basic, objective sense, the introduction in Mist Before The Dawn nonetheless prescribes benevolent motives on the translator’s part stemming from shared heritage, even explaining that this pamphlet would not have been produced had it not been for a chance encounter between the soldier-poet and the translator in Britain (Bogusławski, 1942, p. i). How, then, would a translators’ interference with boundaries take place where other motives are concerned?
The answer to this is best explained by the close relationship between translators’ personal aims and the formation of cultural identities via the translation process itself. Lawrence Venuti, perhaps the hottest firebrand in translation studies, is particularly known for pointing this out. In his article Translation, Community, Utopia, Venuti writes:
The inscription [of domestic intelligibilities and interests] begins with the very choice of a text for translation, always a very selective, densely motivated choice, and continues in the development of discursive strategies to translate it, always a choice of certain domestic discourses over others. Hence, the domesticating process is totalizing, even if never total, never seamless or final. (Venuti, 2003, pp. 2000)
Translators, ever aware of the end product of totalization, utilize these domestic discourses with great frequency. Add to that the complication of adding “particular individual perspectives having to do with values, political commitments, ideological engagements, and self-interest”; as Tymoczko writes, “culture is coded in the body of the translator as well as the body of the subject” (2014, pp. 227). In Tymoczko’s view, the individual “agency” of the translator, to use her word, is unavoidable; Tymoczko is, after all, suggesting that the source of a translator’s individual perspective is genetic!
Just as belief systems sometimes struggle with the concept of fate, so too is this apparently fated tendency to translate based on a coded culture in one’s body a struggle of a similar sort. And yet this would contradict Venuti’s general position of being in favor of “cultural otherness,” for how could a translator bring “cultural otherness” into another language if his or her culture was “coded” in a way not conducive to that task?
There are many translated works that feature either little of the translator or little enough of the translator, irrespective of the culture that is in their “bodily code.” Going into all the examples that accomplish this would take too long. Suffice to say that in a translated work, there is only so much wiggle room to fit the original author, the translator, the essence of the original culture, and elements of the target translation all in one. The foremost priority should be making sure the original author’s place in another language is deftly carved out, for while there are other writers in other cultures there is only one original author. If the author’s works have a political bent or their existence in another language somehow makes a political statement, the best literature of that type should be powerful enough to make its case to other language regions of the world with little extra assistance from the translator. For while translators are artists in their own right, they are also humble artists.
Bogusławski, A. (1942). Mist Before The Dawn. George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Karel Hynek Macha Statue (Picture 2). (n.d.). In Atlas Obscura. Retrieved October 14, 2022, from https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/karel-hynek-macha-statue
Masaryk, J. (1945). Speaking to My Country. Lincolns-Prager Limited. Foreword by Anthony Eden.
Modern Czech Poetry (E. Osers & J. K. Montgomery, Trans.). (1945). George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Tymoczko, M. (2014). Enlarging Translation, Empowering Translators. Taylor and Francis.
Venuti, L. (1998). The scandals of translation : towards an ethics of difference. Routledge.
Venuti, L. (2003). The translation studies reader (L. Venuti, Ed.). Routledge.Translation, Community, Utopia.
Figure 1: [Photograph of a hand holding a compass]. (n.d.). Media from Wix.
Figure 2: [Photograph of a robot arm reaching for a human hand]. (n.d.). Media from Wix.
Figure 3: [Photograph of the streets of London]. (n.d.). Media from Wix.
Figure 4: [Photograph of statue, Karel Hynek Macha]. (n.d.). Media from Wix.
Figure 5: [Post-it notes of words describing societal norms and expectations]. (n.d.). Media from Wix.
Figure 6: [Photograph of red pillars from Japan]. (n.d.). Media from Wix.