EVENT: Cultural Translation Symposium

BCMCR Cultural Translation Symposium

We are looking forward to welcoming you to BCU on Thursday 21 June 2018 to our final event in the ‘Conversations on cultural translation’ series. We will be hosting a number of speakers to discuss cultural translation in a wide range of contexts, from translation practice to jazz.

Please sign up to our eventbrite here by Thursday 14 June 2018 so we have a good idea of numbers for catering.

11.30am | Registration open

Refreshments will be provided.

11.55am | Welcome

12.00pm | Keynote – Dr Sarah Maitland

1.00pm | Lunch

A buffet lunch will be provided

1.30pm | Session 1

Marie-Christine Boucher, ‘”Meine Gegenwart, überschrittene Zukunft“: [Cultural] Translation in Transnational German Literature’

Sorcha O’Boyle, ‘The native made foreign: alienation and healing through intra-cultural translation’

Xihuan Hua, ‘Chinese Social Process and the Identity Transformation of Nushu Cultural Transmitters–A Perspective of Nushu Cultural Translation’

Annette Naudin, ‘The role of cultural translation in developing diverse cultural leaders’

2.45pm | Break

Refreshments will be provided

3.00pm | Session 2

Anja van de Pol-Tegge, ‘The Sorrow of Belgium (Hugo Claus)– a case study on stereotypes in German literary translation’

Dunya Ismael, ‘Retro-cultural Translation: a new perspective towards neutralising power balance’

Sid Peacock, ‘Cultural Translation in Transnational Jazz’

4.00pm | Closing remarks

SEMINAR SERIES| Sid Peacock on ‘Surge in Spring’

As a way of exploring cultural translation in jazz, Sid Peacock presented Surge in Spring as an example of the way a jazz festival might lend itself to a melting pot of cultural influences.

This video will give you both a flavour of the festival and a window into the way it is saturated with examples of cultural translation. It’s a marvellous example of the way in which a cultural form such as jazz serves as the medium for creativity and cultural transformation.

Thanks, Sid, for allow us to share the video.

CONFERENCE: On Translations at Nottingham Contemporary | part 2

The Nottingham Contemporary, a gallery/exhibition space in Nottingham, hosted the On Translation conference  from 16 to 17 February 2018.

In these posts (find part 1 here) I’ll give a brief overview of what went on and tease out some of the key questions that it raised for our cultural translation research theme.

Stefan Nowotny | The Ambivalence of Translation, or: The Foreclosed Middle

The conference on Saturday 13 Feb started with Stefan Nowotny’s keynote lecture on translation. Nowotny’s main argument aimed at critiquing common-sense understandings of translation. This helped frame the conference as an event that would examine translation in terms of ‘a space of criticality’. Nowotny made some interesting claims about translation that I want to unpack in this post, as I think they flag up some of the issues around translation, and by extension the idea of cultural translation, relevant to the cluster.

Nowotny first of all sets out a day-to-day understanding of translation. Translation, in our common-sense understanding, is supposed as a process of communication through which an equivalent is found in a ‘destination’ language for a word in a ‘source’ language. He thinks it makes the following four assumptions:

  1. Unity of language allows for unimpeded communication – in other words, the ‘source’ language, and indeed the ‘target’ language, are considered to be secure, stable, and united entities, and that intra-lingual communication is totally straightforward and fluid.
  2. Within day-to-day communication, translation is considered a secondary activity. Most of the time, goes the assumption, we communicate freely within our own language and never think of translating anything unless we come up against a language we don’t know.
  3. What Nowotny describes as ‘linguistic difference’ is understood very simply as the idea that a ‘source’ language differs from a ‘target’ language.
  4. The goal of all translation is equivalence – to find an equivalent meaning (or one near enough) for one word in another language.

Nowotny then takes these assumptions to task. The first assumption, in Nowotny’s eyes, is in error becauselanguages are not stable or unified entities. Even a cursory understanding of language will tell you that languages shift and change over time, are full of internal differences, like dialects, and also internal change, like the incorporation of new elements from other languages. But Nowotny claims that in fact a language doesn’t exist as an unified body, at least not an abstract entity that is external to a person, selected from and used by individual agents. Quite the reverse: he sees language as emerging in specific social groups and determined by a specific social context in the first instance, and then mistaken as an abstract, unified body afterwards.

This reversal draws on a re-reading of the relationship between the Saussurean ideas of langue, parole, and langage. If social relationships are prior to the conversations that take place within them, viewing ‘language’ as a unified and abstract body ignores those relationships. In the context of translation, he argues, this view leads to a degree of social erasure, which can be problematic (as Vasquez’s seminar set out).

I have a hunch that part of the issue with critiquing a common-sense understanding of translation in this way is that it doesn’t leave much wiggle room for translation as an actual practice. What do translators and interpreters do then, and what should they do, if our common-sense understanding of translation is incorrect? Even potentially violent? Does translation or interpreting ever actually truly work, or are we doomed to continual species-wide misunderstanding? Is a degree of social/relational erasure something that takes place in every communicative act? Or is it, as Nowotny appears to argue, something specific to a dominant practice of translation and therefore something we can avoid (perhaps with new practice)? Nowotny, sadly, didn’t have time to really flesh out answers these questions.

However, while his paper might seem to throw the concept of ‘translation’ (and by extension of ‘cultural translation’) out with the conceptual bathwater, for me he also helps draw attention to the ubiquitousness of translation itself.

Nowotny’s critique of assumption no. 2 (that people engage in translation only when languages are different) is thought-provoking. He argues that intra-lingual translation happens on a daily basis. The experience of seeking an alternative for a word appropriate in one context but not in another is a humdrum feature of interpersonal communication. Indeed, from a psychoanalytic perspective the ‘translation’ of bodily impulses into language is a formative human experience. So, while ‘translating’ may not be as straightforward as we think, the idea that this potentially fraught activity is nonetheless an part of everyday life is at the very least an interesting proposition.

CONFERENCE: On Translations at Nottingham Contemporary | part 1

The Nottingham Contemporary, a gallery/exhibition space in Nottingham, hosted the On Translation conference  from 16 to 17 February 2018.

In these posts (find part 2 here) I’ll give a brief overview of what went on and tease out some of the key questions that it raised for our cultural translation research theme.

Seminar: Rolando Vasquez

Friday’s main event shaped up as a seminar that explored the colonialist implications of translation, given by cultural critic Rolando Vasquez. It was a challenging session. It pushed us to think about the epistemological assumptions we hold when translating, but also raised broader questions about Western frames of reference and the violence they might do, wittingly or unwittingly, to those cultures that are seen through Western eyes.

Drawing on the postcolonial theory, Vasquez argued that translation between Western civilisation and non-Western cultures is inherently colonialist. This is because Western epistemology claims, at base, to be able to know the truth of any particular situation (a hangover from the Enlightenment), and also because Western epistemology implicitly or explicitly centres the West in any frame of reference it might use to explore non-Western subjects. Vasquez calls this our ‘arrogant ignorance’ – we implicitly centre ourselves and assume that we are perfectly able to know everything there is to know, if we don’t know these things already.

Vasquez then outlined the principal consequence of our ‘arrogant ignorance’: non-Western truths/ideas/ways of knowing, being, etc. that don’t look familiar to us are ignored or ‘erased’ when they are translated into a Western context. This counts, for Vasquez, as a repetition of the original act of colonial violence that he takes as founding Western modernity.

In straightforward terms, when we translate, for example, indigenous  mythology into Western cultural forms, say for an academic paper, we also unwittingly erase its ‘temporal and ontological specificity’, that is, we overlook those elements for which an equivalent in our Western conceptual schema cannot be found.

A similar argument that specifically handles cultural translation crops up in Talal Asad’s path-breaking essay, ‘The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology’.(1)

Vasquez’s decolonial approach to (cultural) translation is, I would argue, inherently political. It isn’t simply about exploring the challenges involved in cultural translation but holding those who erase subaltern specificity to account. It is about ensuring that colonial violence remains foregrounded, rather than forgotten.

Vasquez raises tough questions, particularly for scholars who work on culture that circulates to and from non-Western contexts. I admire his refusal to wave away the horrors of our shared colonial past. At the same time, of course, Vasquez is writing a broad thesis about a very general (global and historical) practice of translation rather than attending to specific texts, so some of what he says may or may not pan out in the details. Nonetheless, a challenging and informative seminar.


(1) Asad, Talal. “The concept of cultural translation in British social anthropology.” Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography 1 (1986): 141-164.