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Translation in the Globalized World

As powerful, rich and profound as literature can be, its creation is ill-suited to the fast pace of today’s digital world and the lack of time it leaves readers even using 'time-saving devices'. This is certainly true of global affairs: unlike a social media response or even a hit song, an artistically brilliant novel about an event in the world will at best achieve publication long after the public’s interest in any one global event had faded. By working and uplifting a single language that is not always English, an antithetical goal to globalization, authors largely work within the confines of their own culture.

Translators, or at least translation scholars, are in contrast well poised to comment on the ongoing phenomenon of globalization given their involvement with the translation and interpretation of languages. As translation scholar Michael Cronin seeks to argue in his book, Translation and Globalization, “translation, and by extension translation studies, is ideally placed to understand both the transnational movement that is globalization and the transnational movement which is anti-globalization” (Cronin, 2003, p. 1). Cronin goes on to say that “translation is rarely suited to the binary reductionism of polemic (for or against globalization)”, which along the above quote may sound contradictory but rather, by virtue of its role as an intermediary between languages, translation is able to delve deeply into this phenomenon in a manner that does not compromise itself.

Figure 1: Photograph of professor and linguist Michael Cronin for the Royal Irish Academy (2021).

A Translator’s Neutrality: Cronin vs. Tymoczko

In his book, Cronin focuses deliberately on non-literary translation citing not a disinterest from the academy but due to the vagueness with which both society and translation studies at the time handled it (Cronin, 2003, p. 2), referencing terms commonly heard in global affairs environments, such as ‘promoting understanding’ and ‘encouraging trade’. Terms of this sort have become so ubiquitous in news media and cross-cultural dialogue, and yet a lack of study to go beyond this surface-level, often-diplomatic dialogue in a translation context is understandable given that it often, as Cronin explains, has to do with insider knowledge. As ‘ideally placed’ as translation and translation studies is, translation scholars are in this sense outside observers. Ultimately, a translator’s neutrality in this instance depends on the role his or her employers have allotted which, while not totally neutral in the case of interpretation, is wholly professional and demanding.

The work of another translation scholar, Maria Tymoczko, author of The Irish Ulysses, serves as a counterpoint to Cronin while also suggesting why translation studies focuses more on literary translation. In her book Enlarging Translation, Empowering Translators, Tymoczko strongly focuses on ethics and ideology. “As the discipline of translation studies has taken shape in the postpositivist climate since World War II, there has been clear movement away from a primary focus on technical questions about how to translate toward larger ethical issues, many of which turn on the agency and power of the translator” writes Tymoczko (Tymoczko, 2007, p. 190). An example she gives is translators in postcolonial contexts: “postcolonial translation studies focused on the powerful roles that translators have played in ideologically charged situations, either to promote cultural and political change or to consolidate power” (Tymoczko, 2007, pg. 190).

Figure 2: Book cover of ''Enlarging Translation, Empowering Translators'', written by Maria Tymoczko (2007).

The introduction to Enlarging Translation —particularly its reflections on Tymoczko’s Slovak-American origins and contextualizing her childhood in a world of ongoing globalization, reinforced by Tymoczko’s own intellectual grounding in postcolonialism— highlights numerous shared perspectives with Cronin’s book, particularly a deep understanding of the effects of globalization and a desire to “do something about it”. Tymoczko’s book, however, is strongly social in character and is interested in how translation will form a “cultural interface”. In her introduction, Tymoczko wastes no time rejecting Cronin’s neutral positioning (Cronin himself is not mentioned) as a “pernicious” Western understanding of translation which she additionally accuses of being “narrow” and self-deluded in its aspirations for objectivity, a concept Tymoczko apparently doesn’t believe a translator can be based upon our greater relationship to language:

“Western conceptualizations of translation can be associated with the metaphor of the translator as standing “between” in the transfer process. The metaphor of between suggests that the translator is neutral, above history and ideology; the translator can even be seen as an alienated figure in this construct, an alienation that can be passed off as the “objectivity” of a professional (cf. Tymoczko 2003). The consequence is the effacement of ideology and the evisceration of the agency of the translator as a committed, engaged, and responsible figure” (Tymoczko, 2007, pp. 6-7).

Figure 3: Metaphoric representation of geopolitical strategies as a chessboard (2020)

While Tymoczko’s anti-Western and anti-ideological-neutrality prejudice is palpable, her central point of criticism is what she calls the “transfer metaphor”: what translators elsewhere call information transfer. The apparently non-Western view Tymoczko cites is the idea of untranslatability, and while Tymoczko does not use that word, she explains it as “meaning as being constructed by cultural practices and cultural production, notably language, and inflected by the context…As a consequence the target text meanings can never be fully “the same” as source text meanings, nor is there a circumscribed meaning in a source text that awaits transfer or carrying across by a translator” (Tymoczko, 2007, p. 7).

Ideology aside, the approach Tymoczko brings up is more ideally suited for literature due to its more complicated nature and the weaker market demands placed upon literary translation, which allow for more creativity. Tymoczko, however, also believes that the translator’s agency is put at risk by Western modes of translation, as translators are forced to take up “narrow” translation strategies. Her concern for the translator’s agency is strong, but at the expense of clients of translators: if the translation is done for professional purposes, as it would certainly be in a geopolitical atmosphere, it is unlikely that a politician would be interested in the poetic nuances of what a politician is saying, opting instead for the information itself. It is also worth mentioning the ultimate consequence of Tymoczko’s translation worldview, since if a perfect translation that captures every little nuance is impossible, interested parties may eventually ask the question irrespective of their ideology: why bother translating anything at all? Either way, both Cronin and Tymoczko’s outlooks on translation are invaluable when studying, pondering or ruminating upon the role of translation in the global world.

Figure 4: Conceptualization of the challenges faced in intercultural communications, illustration made by Abaldewy (2015).

Cultural Interfaces

In Enlarging Translation, Tymoczko reviews the transition between focuses on European/Western ideas of translation versus others, presumably found in what society today calls developing nations, framing them in Western geopolitical impetuses. The first mentioned, World War II, was the use of translation for propaganda purposes and cracking enemy codes, practices that, it should be said, would have prioritized rote information transfer a la the Western understanding. The second was the formation of the European Union and the maintenance of national languages, necessitating continent-wide transnational translation of all kinds (Tymoczko, 2007, p. 5). The latter impetus, combined with North American technological infrastructure, lay the groundwork for globalization based upon Western views — or “dominance,” to use Tymoczko’s ideological language.

Figure 5: Bust of Zeno de Citio, a Stoic philosopher, from the Farnesio Collection in Napoli. Photographed by Paolo Monti (1969).

Globalization, in Tymoczko’s view, is comprised of a multitude of cultures but unequally. It is here where Tymoczko and Cronin find common ground, especially when including Cronin’s “translation triumvirate” — the translation hegemony of English, French and German (Cronin, 1995). Where Cronin goes a step further is with Irish Gaelic and other minority European languages, where translation is both a blessing and a curse, since it is difficult to think of a cultural interface functioning healthily with Irish Gaelic in the marginal state in which it remains today.

In his book Translation and Identity, Cronin discusses Western ideas originating in Ancient Greece that inform ideological values translators would certainly benefit from: Zeno, influencing Cicero to argue for equal rights for all, and Diogenes the Dog’s idea of the cosmopolitan, or world citizen (Cronin, 2006, pgs. 7-8). This heritage of ideas also highlights the situation of the “dominant West” Tymoczko opposes as being more tragic than “pernicious”. While it would be a stretch to suggest that the ideas laid out above are exclusive to the West and have not appeared elsewhere in history, contemporary understandings of those ideas have their origins in these. As well as it is theoretically possible that a totally equal cultural interface would allow non-Western counterparts of these ideas to assert themselves, Tymoczko’s stance against the intellectual tradition informed by these ideas may not be in the interest of achieving a cultural interface that resembles the one she describes in Enlarging Translation.

Figure 6: Diogenes (1873), oil on canvas by Jules Bastien-Lepage


A cultural interface, if realizable, would resolve a number of the problems translation and many languages dependent upon it face in the present day. It may even redeem some of the problems Tymoczko perceives in the “pernicious” West. She, after all, references “translation…as… one of the discursive practices that contributed to freeing Ireland from colonialism, a discursive practice that took its place among other discursive practices” (Tymoczko, 1999, p. 15). Cronin mentions a number of manners through which minority language speakers have found outlets beyond the constraints globalization has placed upon those societies today, an example being travel and the potential thriving of minority languages outside their constricted domain (Cronin, 2003, pp. 156-158, 164).

Painting the West as the culprit, however, as mentioned before, risks consequences should translators and translation scholars aspire towards a cultural interface world whose origins lie with Ancient Greeks like Diogenes and Zeno. While the invisibility of the translator is indubitably a state of being that should be remedied, the middle ground occupied by the translator – ideological or otherwise – may prove more suitable for a conceptual fusion of the global structure. After all, it goes without saying that translation as a practice is redundant if cultures aren’t able to learn from each other.

Bibliographical References

Cronin, M. (1995). Altered States: Translation and Minority Languages. TTR: Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction, 8(1), 85.

Cronin, M. (2003). Translation and Globalization. Taylor and Francis.

Cronin, M. (2006). Translation and identity. Routledge.

Tymoczko, M. (1999). Translation in a Postcolonial Context: Early irish literature in english translation. Routledge.

Tymoczko, M. (2014). Enlarging Translation, Empowering Translators. Taylor and Francis.

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Felix Purat

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