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The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Ideology


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:

8. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Ideology

The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Ideology

Ideology is often the most controversial ethical challenge in both translation and translation studies, be it macro or micro, and certainly the most consequential even if its greater results have only become apparent in recent times. On the small scale, translations may come out abbreviated when they are not actually unabridged, as seen with Karl May previously in this series. Language may be altered and/or tamed, in some cases with politically charged words. On a medium scale, entire chapters may be removed that are considered too controversial, an example being earlier publications of Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin. The greatest consequence of ideological interference in translation is the process of canon creation through which an entirely different literary canon is constructed. While this sometimes happens due more to the target language audience’s predetermined literary taste, ideology also plays a part in determining how a country’s literature —and, by default, the country itself— is envisioned in the eyes of other cultures.

Figure 1: Curzio Malaparte, author of The Skin.

Translation’s Relationship To Power

As explored in the previous week’s article, the translator —notably in the eyes of translation scholar Maria Tymoczko— is not a neutral entity. Indeed, Tymoczko, in collaboration with Edwin Gentzler, edited an entire book on the relationship between translation and power, titled Translation and Power (Tymoczko & Gentzler, 2002). While part of a wider academic fascination with the concept of power complimentary of postmodernism in particular, Tymoczko and Gentzler describe the effects upon translation studies as enormous (Tymoczko & Gentzler, 2002, pgs. xii-xiii), as well as the “discovery” of translation techniques being used — the entirety of it presumably for malintent and never, as their generalizations imply, without the benefit of the doubt:

“Translations, rather than being secondary and derivative, were…one of the primary literary tools [Tymoczko’s italics] that larger social institutions…had at their disposal to “manipulate” a given society in order to “construct” the kind of “culture” desired…the source text itself was manipulated to create a desired representation…churches would commission Bible translations, governments would support translations of national epics, schools would teach translations of great books, kings would be patrons for translations about heroic conquests, and socialist regimes would underwrite translations of social realism, all for their own purposes pertaining to ideology and cultural power” (Tymoczko & Gentzler, 2002, pg. xii).

Although the general instances given may indeed include glaring examples of translation utilized for a nefarious political purpose, the problems with this summary are manifold, not the least of which is Tymoczko and Gentzler’s penchant for summarizing an entire, complex history in a manner of generalized totality. Even stubborn atheists would be hard-pressed to conclude that churches commissioning Bibles is always a “manipulative” act, reflecting an abhorrent cynicism on the part of the authors.

Figure 2: Illustration about cultural differences in three different conversations, by Justin Cheong (n.d.)

But while the issues with that understanding of translation and its relationship to power can be unraveled in many different ways, what is most telling about the language and descriptions Tymoczko in particular utilizes to make sense of it is her acceptance and embracing of the very power that throughout history has apparently been used in this “manipulative” manner. As Tymoczko writes in Enlarging Translation, Empowering Translators, “perspective is not simply a cognitive matter: it also relates to material conditions and subject position, ideology and values, politics, esthetics, and religion. It follows that questions of perspective inevitably lead to investigations of political and ideological issues on the one hand and to discussions of the agency and power of translators on the other” (Tymoczko, 2007. Pg. 190).

In other words, Tymoczko views power as an inevitable obsession on the part of the translator. As is always the case with generalizations, however, it only takes a grain of sand to cause an avalanche. Whereas one can always inquiry on the honesty of a translator as literature academics often question that of an author, many translation forewords and explanations exist that attest to motives of translation beyond the simple wielding of power; indeed, W.S. Kuniczak’s translation of Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy was unquestionably an attempt —and a successful one— at freeing Sienkiewicz’s masterpiece from an unhealthy power dynamic. Others have seen opportunities to promote cultures they have a passion for, while Bibles have also been translated throughout history to assist others in understanding its contents.

Figure 3: Conceptualization of different ways of thinking (n.d.)

In short, the infatuation with power in translation studies is not a perspective in opposition to the use of power to further ideological aims a translator may possess; is simply opposed to others using power to serve ends they disagree with. While it is difficult outside the academy to admire scholars who cherish this hypocrisy, the issues pertinent to this article relate more intrinsically to cultural representation and cultural interests, many of which may be in conflict with both translation scholars, contemporary translators —who, for all intents and purposes, are the real power-wielders— and the forces Tymoczko and Gentzler call out, irrespective of their ideological stance.

The Utilization of Ideology in Translation on the Micro Level

“Though I am not throwing away my tapes, I am choosing to be the author of this interview” (Réjouis, 1999, pg. 346), so said Rose-Myriam Réjouis, translator of Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau in a 1996 interview, who her blatant power-play is not, by any means, restricted to the interview’s publication. One of the translation choices Réjouis made as when translating a French pejorative slur —one that would most accurately be translated into English as negro— into blackman hearkens back to Lawrence Venuti’s domestic inscription: anticipating the political correctness on the part of postcolonial literature consumers in English. In this way, Réjouis chose to tame the novel, despite the very “un-tame” use of opacité on the part of Chamoiseau —a feature which Réjouis, to her credit, maintains in the translation, among other “un-domestic” creole elements that make her choice all the more antithetical— and counterproductive when it comes to Chamoiseau’s literary desire to “pair up truth with a kind of rhetoric that aims to strike the reader, to astonish him” (Réjouis, 1999, pg. 347).

Figure 4: Photography of Patrick Chamoiseau, author of Texaco (2009).

Domestic inscription is a common justification for ideological “slips” in translation on the micro level: little changes that, if a translator has good intentions, are justified by a desire to promote an author and bring them new readers. Perhaps comparative examples are necessary to determine how free a literary translation project is of ideological tampering.

An interesting debate among those invested in Polish culture arose when Kuniczak decided to transliterate the Polish names of Sienkiewicz’s characters in his translation of the Trilogy; taking for example the protagonist of With Fire and Sword, Jan Skrzetuski, who becomes Yan Skshetuski (Krzyżanowski, 1991, pg. 68). Kuniczak justifies this in the following manner: “There is nothing new about transliteration. Every English version of Sienkiewicz’s work (and many others in Asia, America and Europe) used it in some fashion without a word of protest from the author, because every culture strives to be understood in another language and he knew this better than almost anyone” (Kuniczak, 1991, pg. 65). He goes on to mention the venerable historian of Polish history, Norman Davies, who apparently believed Kuniczak’s translation should have been further transliterated. The reader’s ability to identify with the character was another consideration.

Figure 5: Július Kossak's ''Przeprawa Skrzetuskiego'' (1885).

Kuniczak’s case is interesting in that it sheds light on an alternate aim that does not require ideology. While Kuniczak does, indirectly, admit to utilizing an incremental form of domestic inscription, his transliteration addresses a linguistic issue rather than a political one that is not exclusive to Anglo-America or, by default, to its socio-political conditions. Despite the exposure to a multitude of cultures brought on by globalization, the surface-level nature of cross-cultural interaction means that expecting Anglo-American readers to simply digest names like Wiśnowiecki and Radziwiłł with the same ease as traditional English names is as unrealistic, and unlike Réjouis, Kuniczak’s faithfulness to an author who had been dead for almost a century was stronger than Réjouis’ faithfulness to a living author.

The Utilization of Ideology in Translation on the Medium Level

It is worth briefly mentioning an example of abridging that reveals much about ideological consideration, particularly its absurd nature. Evidently, however, this is an example of a publisher’s agenda, rather than the translator’s.

Figure 6: Photography by Elisabetta Rullo of Lungomare Caracciolo, Naples, at night (2019).

Curzio Malaparte’s novel, The Skin, was not well received by Italian readers. Delving deep into the Italian defeat, particularly its effects upon the city of Naples, Malaparte invested his enormously rich imagination into the story alongside a palpable sense of the absurd, depicting, for instance, American generals in Naples eating a childlike siren fish once the rest of the fish in the Naples aquarium have been eaten. Contextualized in relation to Europe’s youth, the fifth chapter is perhaps the most peculiar: titled The Son of Adam, its themes include Malaparte’s apparent views on Marxism —which were to change once Italy’s defeat obliged him to change his politics— and decadence; assuming, indeed, that Malaparte’s own views correspond with him being his own protagonist. It then goes on to depict a scene of young pederasts who simulate a “homosexual” pregnancy and birth, what Malaparte describes as a “confinement” ritual of a Uranian cult (Malaparte, 2013, pg. 131-153). The result: the "son of Adam."

In later editions of Malaparte's creation it can be discovered that The Son of Adam's chapter had been purged entirely, which may not be shocking at first thanks to how successfully the author designed the chapters to stand alone, allowing for a more seamless censorship. Given that The Skin is filled with all sorts of grotesqueries, excising The Son of Adam is a curious choice. Its most striking difference, its subject matter, gives a hint as to the ideological considerations behind its removal: homosexuality, as it is depicted, would have been a less-than-welcome theme, especially given the unambiguous connection Malaparte makes with ancient Italian rite and, by default, the heritage of the West. But the same question remains unanswered as it did with other choices: was it excised to make more readers into Malaparte fans —especially given his status in the Anglo-American world as a criminally underrated master with a small but strong base of fans—, or was it malintent? Whatever the real story, prominent translation scholars no doubt have their own views on the matter.

Figure 7: Metal door surrounded by books simulating bricks (n.d.)

Ideology in Translation on the Macro Level, and Canon Creation

If, say, a translator and their own ideology traveled to an unknown land of people and was the first to discover that unknown people’s literature, they would be the first and, for a while, the exclusive translator of it. Assuming they are fully-fledged ideologues, it is logical to assume that the choices they make would fit that translator’s ideological agenda, and even if they were not, the power they would have over constructing the canon of that literature in their own language is enormous. This is problematic no matter the composition of the source culture: if the culture is a generally conservative culture and the contrary ideologue only translates literature with themes closest to their thought, the translated canon in the translator’s native language will be, at best, a tepid shadow of the source culture’s canon, or a decent representation of a cultural minority, and the same vice versa. In this sense, ideology, however well-meaning it may be, directly and consciously interferes with the authentic cultural representation many readers are searching for, if only because their choice of a translation suggests as much.

Translators do not, however, have an obligation to translate the source culture’s canon for the basic reason that what made those works of literature canonical in the source culture very often has little, if anything, to do with the target culture. One Polish-to-English translator, Benjamin Paloff, is of that opinion: in a 2016 interview, he stated that “the idea that we should read Henryk Sienkiewicz because he is very important for Polish national consciousness is an almost absurd notion to the average American reader. Why should we care?” (Gliński, 2016). Paloff’s condescension toward the source culture aside, a lot can be unpacked from his vision of the act of translation, both in terms of his own ideological focus and the potential consequences of where he lacks an ideological directive.

Figure 8: Benjamin Paloff, academic and translator of Polish literature into English (n.d.)

Paloff views literature as a consequence of its circumstances that is only relevant insofar as it engages in a dialogue with readers, ergo his cynical disregard for the source culture. He translates exclusively for the target culture, which must form its own Anglo-American canon of Polish literature even if it means completely disregarding important authors in the source culture’s canon. In an interview that is largely about the legacy of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Paloff does not discuss translator Jeremiah Curtin’s sabotaging of Sienkiewicz’s work both artistically and ideologically, implying that, in terms of history, an author only gets one opportunity to become better known in another culture. No matter the reason, a rejection of that author is an ultimate rejection. Meanwhile a translator and academic aware of the canon “construction” Tymoczko calls out as “manipulation,” Paloff’s approach is straightforward: let the new readers decide. As he writes, “I translate because I want to share the experience” (Gliński, 2016).

While Paloff brings to Polish-to-English translation an ideological stance against Polish perspectives of literature like “Polish martyrology” —paired with a striking indifference towards the source culture not unheard of but not commonly seen from translators—, his lack of a goal for target language readers apart from experience sharing renders Paloff ideologically lopsided. There is, as mentioned, the goal of broadening the Polish canon and letting authors canonical in Poland remain obscure, especially Sienkiewicz. Rather than choosing ideology, Paloff chooses domestic inscription generated from cross-cultural dialogue. It is not altogether clear, however, if, in a post-national era, the Anglo-American reading public has any desire to formulate a new, Anglo-friendly Polish canon in translation for themselves to replace the authors Paloff criticizes Polonia (the Polish diaspora) for championing. Though conscious of academics formulating canons for their own interests, Paloff leaving it to chance and hoping enough Anglo-American readers will appreciate obscure poets like Andrzej Sosnowski to the degree they appreciate Czesław Miłosz or Wisława Szymborska suggests an even sadder reality: that Paloff, by possessing no ideological goal in the way it is understood by scholars like Tymoczko, is championing a hopeless cause; for if those academics had wished to integrate these other authors into a greater Anglo-Polish canon, they would have done so already.

Figure 9: Jeremiah Curtin and Henryk Sienkiewicz in 1900.

In that light, the ideological stances of Poles when it comes to phenomena like “Polish martyrdom” are not as farfetched or out of place as implied in Gliński’s interview. With the possible exceptions of Dorota Masłowska and Bolesław Leśmian, the authors Paloff tends to translate have nothing preventing them from traveling the same path to obscurity as Curtin’s translations of Sienkiewicz.


As Paloff’s situation shows, it may well be impossible to avoid ideology as a translator if said translator possesses goals beyond simply making a work of literature available to those many or few in the target culture who possess an interest. While tragic, Lawrence Venuti provides the best possible means of cross-cultural enrichment vis-à-vis his commitment to foreignness. While that commitment requires an ideological stance, prioritizing cultural otherness allows the ideological stance to take second place behind the culture itself without compromising the customary admiration many translators have for their source culture. To be sure, Paloff’s “realism” regarding the target audience should not be ignored, but complicity in the act of translation as domestic inscription risks producing a narrow view of what another culture’s literature may be. Domestic inscription, at best, renders the original novel somewhat more digestible for the target reader. But if an Anglo-American reader has gone out of their way to acquire a translation, chances are they have done so because of the foreignness, so as a result, Venuti’s stance in favor of foreignness does not exclude the desires of the target audience: it just does not assume that millions and millions of readers will flock right away to read any one translation. That, after all, is the job of the publisher, not the translation scholar.

Figure 10: An edited version of August Macke's ''Wife of the artist'' (circa 1910)

Nevertheless, as Venuti points out, “an ethics that counters the domesticating effects of the inscription can only be formulated and practiced primarily in domestic terms, in domestic dialects, registers, discourses, and styles” (Venuti, 2000, pg. 469). Should an ideological stance be truly allergic to any one translator, the old-fashioned rule —as shown by Kuniczak, and also by Paloff— of devout faithfulness to the original artist continues to be an effective path forward. It is, with or without ideology, the most conscientious translation path an aspiring translator can take.

Bibliographical References

Gliński, M. (2016). Is It Worth Translating Sienkiewicz? An Interview With Ben Paloff.

Krzyżanowski, J. R. (Ed.). (1991). The Trilogy Companion. Hippocrene Books.

Kuniczak, W. S. (1991). Translating the “Untranslatable” Trilogy of Henryk Sienkiewicz. In The Trilogy Companion, 58–65. Copernicus Society of America and Hippocrene Books.

Malaparte, C. (1964). The Skin (D. Moore, Trans.). Panther.

Malaparte, C. (2013). The Skin (D. Moore, Trans.). New York Review Books.

Réjouis, R.-M. (1999). A Reader in the Room: Rose-Myriam Réjouis Meets Patrick Chamoiseau. Callaloo, 22(2), 346–350.

Tymoczko, M. (2015). Enlarging translation, empowering translators. Routledge.

Tymoczko, M., & Gentzler, E. (Eds.). (2002). Translation and power. University Of Massachusetts Press.

Venuti, L. (2000). Translation, Community, Utopia. In L. Venuti (Ed.), The Translation Studies Reader, 468–488. Routledge.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: [Metaphorical representation of language barriers. Illustration]. (N.d.). Miami-Dade College.

Figure 1: [Portrait of Curzio Malaparte. Photograph]. (N.d.) The American Interest

Figure 2: Cheong, J. (N.d.). [Three groups of people from different cultures talking. Illustration]. Medium.

Figure 3: [Conceptualization of different ways of thinking. Illustration]. (N.d.) Stanford University.

Figure 4: Ji-Elle (2009). Patrick Chamoiseau. [Photography]. Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 5: Kossak, J. (1885). Przeprawa Skrzetuskiego. [Painting, oil on canvas]. Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 6: Rullo, E. (2019). [Lungomare Caracciolo, Naples. Photography]. Unsplash.

Figure 7: [Metal door surrounded by books simulating bricks]. (N.d.) The Badger Online.

Figure 8: [Benjamin Paloff. Photography]. (N.d.) University of Michigan.

Figure 9: [Portrait of Jeremiah Curtin and Henryk Sienkiewicz made in Warsaw]. (1900). Retropress.

Figure 10: Macke, A. (c. 1910). Wife of the artist. [Painting, oil on canvas — Digitally edited]. Simpson Center for the Humanities.


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Felix Purat

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