Dennison, Madiera — Reading Between the Lines: An Investigation of the Violence in Translation

Dennison, Madiera.  “Reading Between the Lines: An Investigation of the Violence in Translation”


Johan Galtung defines violence in his article “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” as “present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations” (168). Galtung’s definition provides a basis in which any action or concept, regardless of the use of physical or blunt force, can be considered violent as long as it directly minimizes an individual or group’s ability to reach their true potential. An individual’s potential is dependent on the makings of identity: language, thoughts, ideas, and expression. When the identity is tampered with, the potential can be altered, lost, or never reached. Therefore, violence is not only an attack on potential, but also an attack on the very identity that establishes its possibility.

Regardless, the real difficulty of violence prevention is identifying violence’s presence in situations or constructs where it is not obvious. How can one uncover violence in concepts with socially conscious intentions or violence that is interwoven within the very processes of an inherently non-violent movement? Even the most harmonious of acts can become vehicles of violence, especially when the intentions behind those acts have underlying ill agendas. In particular, translation, a concept heavily used in global education, conflict resolution and violence prevention, can easily become a vehicle of violence through its deterioration of an individual or larger group’s self, due to its possible disregard of cultural context and support of oppression and dominance.

The Common Role of Translation

As globalization and interconnectedness become more common concepts within the paradigms of developed societies, the importance of cross-cultural communication and understanding are more significant to globally conscious citizens. War, poverty, and hunger are no longer simply a problem for those involved; these issues are transmitted all over the world through news networks, television shows, social media, the economy, or the job market. The growing dependency of countries to one another increased the need for skills that “universalize” understanding (Papuvac 104). In particular, translation is usually used to provide a means in which cultural and linguistic differences between individuals or groups of people are no longer barriers. According to Jose Ortega y Gasset’s “The Misery and Splendor of Translation,” early theories depict translation as a utopian act in which it “arises from humanity’s separation from nature, and man from man” (Papuvac 100). Further, other earlier theorists claimed translation’s ultimate purpose was to advance the human spirit by transforming the “consciousness of the translator… the receiving languages and society” (104).

Outside the global realm, translation is also an enlightening occurrence in which “when people want to be understood, regardless of whether they only have a few words of the other language, they will be able to communicate” (101). Yevtushenko states “the translations of various literatures from language to languages is a mysteriously powerful mutual transfusion of blood between the sliced up pieces of the single body of mankind” (107). Theories suggest meaning can easily be found between languages, yet it is far more difficult for an individual to translate a thought into a word, something humans do on a regular basis, for “words spoken by individuals are only the tip of the verbalized and unverbalized thoughts swimming in our heads” (102). Yet, if this did not happen on a normal basis, communication of an individual’s deepest thoughts and theories would never be shared with the world. It is true; early theories behind defining translation as positive and liberating towards the linguistic identity, where it can “broaden one’s horizons” and “[increase] flexibility of thinking” develops this concept to a degree where a global peaceful context is possible (106). In terms of intercultural exchange, translations are seen “across national, political, or cultural divisions as acts of solidarity between people against power interests,” allowing the recognition of a common humanity regardless of international political borders” (106). Although these early theories suggesting translation’s place in creating frameworks of equality and peace are still considered as valid, current theorists in translation studies argue the opposite; destructive aspects of translation are hidden under its universal exterior, where the irreconcilability of difference is becoming more of the norm than commonalities found within difference (107-108).

Depravity of Culture

A way in which translation provides evidence of violently portraying the irreconcilability of differences is in its disregard of cultural context. According to Vanessa Papuvac in her chapter titled “Righting Babel? Translation as Cultural Transfusion or Cultural Violence,” the meaning of a work is not permanently found in the words and phrases used by its origin: Language barriers should not equal communication barriers (103). Instead, the most important part of a translation is portraying the culture that surrounds the entity being translated: experiences, histories, an individual’s accessory ideas, biases, and opinions behind the words recorded. However, the inclusion of culture in translation is not the norm. According to Lawrence Venuti, the violence of translation within cross-cultural communication can be defined as “the forcible replacement of the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text with a text that will be intelligible to the target–language culture, assimilate to its positions of intelligibility, its canons and taboos, its codes and ideologies” (Venuti196). Venuti notes a trend that the universalistic, romantic theories of translation seem to leave out; when a piece of writing, a situation, an opinion, or even a response is translated into one language from the other, the translation becomes separate from the culture it is founded within. Therefore, when the cultural context is no longer considered necessary to understanding the translation, the identity of the original language or piece is skewed in order to fit the ideals and notions of the target language’s population.

It should be noted that in these instances, the translation becomes more important than the original in influencing the target language’s ideologies and ideals about the identities tied to the translated work. According Venuti, the original aim of translation was to make the culture that is considered an “other” recognizable or familiar within the target culture (196). Unfortunately, whatever difference the translation makes within the original text will be consumed by the target language’s culture, assimilating into their positions and ideals concerning the foreign text. When translators disregard preserving the cultural and linguistic difference within the work being translated, this choice can cause cultural and linguistic harm for those involved. As a result, the language translated, as well as the culture and people it represents, are pigeon-holed by the translation’s appropriation (196).

Ortega y Gasset also presents another problem conveyed when cultural context is not included within the translation: the pitfalls of linguistic literalism. Words are not taken very seriously; although “our thoughts are articulated in language, our understanding is not contained by language” (Papuvac 109). This idea once again supports why the culture behind any sort of work being translated is so important to be considered; if words do not have meaning unless the entities communicating have the same shared experience with what was said, then how can a translation minus its cultural context be considered acceptable? Further, why would translators choose to disregard the cultural context?

Dominance and Oppression

The problem with translators asserts another aspect of translation that can be destructive towards identities; the use of translations to promote the superiority of one group over another. Venuti argues that because the violence of translation is “inherent in the translation process”, the translator is aware of this violence, and “exercises a choice concerning the degree and direction of the violence at work in his practice” (197). With this in mind, there are two methods in which translators can choose to look at a text; the domesticating method, where the text is translated to appeal to the target language’s paradigm of understanding, or the foreignizing method, which “sends the reader abroad and points out the linguistic cultural difference of the foreign texts” (197). While the domestication method already involves an ethnocentric nature towards the target languagc, the foriegnization method is not any better; it can cause the native target language to have an alien reading experience (197).

The dangerous nature of domestication and foreignization are not because of their blatant bias, but the actual oblivious intentions of translators behind them. In particular, English language translations of foreign texts have always gravitated towards domestication, yet the vast majority of time, they are not trying to be violent towards the foreign text. Instead, translators actually believe that domestication is the best method to impact the target language (200). Regardless, although the thoughts and ideals behind the use of these methods might be oblivious to their violent tendencies, they still promote a dynamic in which the ‘foreign language’ is inferior to the target language in some capacity, whether it be because the foreign culture is too alien to understand, or that the language simply does not do a good job explicating ideas like the target language can.

It is true; internationally, translation has a lot of power in shaping the national identities of foreign countries, which can play a role in alleviating conflicts concerning race or geopolitical confrontations (196). However, at the same time, translation allows a superior power to maintain “literary canons” of their language and the foreign language to sustain their cultural dominance (196). If a foreign language’s identity is unable to properly depict their ideals due to the image retained by the more dominant language’s culture, how can their potential be achieved? How can their lexicons, their political and social movements be taken seriously? Overall, their potential is no longer obtainable.

Violence of Translation in a Real-Life Context

Even though the violence depicted in translation is mostly explained by theories concerning language and culture, it should be understood that translation has many different forms in society. For example, media framing of a global conflict, a group of people, or an event can be considered a form of translation, especially when a television network chooses to display facts in a way to convey a particular idea to their audience who are physically distant from where the news is occurring. A report processes an event in order to provide its viewers with an understandable summary of what is occurring, much like translation can communicate a text in a way that the target language can understand.

In a study conducted by Mahmoud Galander, a scholar at Qatar University, the media framing of the Darfur crisis in 2004 was compared between three different publications, two Muslim newspapers and The New York Times, to convey the power of western media over promoting the negative characterizations of the Muslim community (Galander 1). According to the findings of the study, the Muslim newspapers were heavily influenced by The New York Times’ depiction of the conflict, which focused on explicating the issue as “ethnic cleansing, rape, and genocide” of Africans by the Muslim militia in the area (Galander 6). Translating the incidents in Darfur as only acts of genocide and violence directly continues to promote the Muslim community in a negative light, and the severity of these actions is hard to shake off. Even though a decade has passed since the crisis’s peak, the Islamic community is still shaped by these negative depictions (8).

Further, the heavy influence of a western source that is farther away from the actual conflict compared to the eastern sources reiterates the power in which framing, a complex use of translation, can represent the superiority of one culture over another. In this case, even though the conflict did not directly involve any western populations, The New York Times’ reports were considered more legitimate than those whose audience is directly involved.

Further Discussion of Translation’s Inherent Violence

Although theories argue the opposite, translation does not seem inherently violent; the violence that occurs as a result of translation is the direct result of those who wield it. In this case, the role of translator(s) is arguably important to how ‘violent’ the text is. Lawrence Venuti makes that point in stating translators must not necessarily worry about preserving the foreignness of a text, but instead make sure that the translation does not promote constructs of imperial power, such as “ethnocentrism, racism, cultural narcissism, and imperialism” that domesticating (making it fit within the cultural context of the target language) and even foreignizing seems to support in most cases (211).

How can translators promote empathy and understanding, rather than superiority, especially when the only people who are able to translate are those who are in power and have the means to be educated in the matter? Would it simply be a means of bringing awareness, or having multiple agents from different angles to translate in order to create better meaning? Famous playwright and writer Arthur Miller and Yevtushenko believe in the latter, allowing their works to be translated in multiple languages in order to recognize “a common humanity” regardless of cultural difference (Papuvac 107-108). Further, it can “give the original new life and potential immortality” (106). Meanwhile, most theories argue that translators “should comprehend the translated text to such an extent that they can understand how the original receptors must have understood the original text” (Venuti 204). However, not all translation occurs in a context between linguistically and culturally opposite cultures, or between experts that heavily study the field of interpretation. In fact, all individuals must use translation at some point in order to communicate, interact, and develop relationships between one another. Therefore, promoting awareness of the violent tendencies of translation seems to be at the forefront of combatting this elusive problem.

The Academic Scarcity of Translation Studies

Even though translation seems to be increasing in importance within the social realm of society, the academic field is lacking in stability due to this tension (Papuvac 113). Violence has become translation’s central defining feature, and the early humanist ideals of the concept “overcoming barriers between people and spreading shared understanding” are now mostly believed by “novelists and practicing translators” who are constantly in contact with its usefulness (117). While foreign language departments are choosing to disregard its study as legitimate, there are “interpreters working in conflict zones [continuing] to risk their lives as mediators between international and local forces with little substantial protection or recognition” (119). Academia is a sure way of spreading the importance of awareness, and if the scholarly realm feels translation is a failed attempt due to its possibly dangerous nature in the wrong hands, awareness is hard to spread.


There is a constant tension concerning the importance of translation in cross-cultural communication; while it can bridge the gap of understanding with others who come from different backgrounds and can preserve the work (in some respects) for others to enjoy (which in turn, creates empathy, a trait needed in nonviolent communication), it can also be a “locus of difference”, which is not necessarily bad either, but can cause conflict (Venuti 211). Translating a text, an event, a discussion into another language or cultural context can make it somewhat understandable in the target language. On the other hand, it can also be seen as a form of establishing power over another by violently terrorizing the culture and language of the native. The subliminal nature of violence in translation makes it more damaging, which is why awareness is so important to promote. However, the obstacles of others, including the public and scholars, in understanding this secret nature is difficult, for the concept has a long history of peace-keeping and conflict resolving roots, both on global and social scales. Further, the absence of academic work on translation studies and ethics speaks volumes to how the violence of translation is usually so unrecognizable. Veena Das makes a point about this concept in her article titled “Violence and Translation,” where she explains that uncovering the presence of violence in translation can be achieved “if it was possible to acknowledge the fallibility and the vulnerability to which we are all subject, and to acknowledge that the [violence] is over interests, and further that these interests need to be negotiated” (211). One of the most difficult parts of uncovering a rather negative context of a usually harmonious act is the pride of those who choose to only investigate its goodness instead of holistically examining any sort of possibility, regardless of good and bad. The violence in translation will only be eradicated when every individual chooses to read between the lines, rather than simply regard its face value.


Works Cited

Das, Veena. “Violence and Translation.” Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002): 105-12.

Galander, Mahmoud. “News Values, Cultural Proximity and Cross-cultural Media Framing: How Western and Muslim Media Covered Darfur.” Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research, 5(2): 113-128.

Galtung, Johan.  “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.”  Journal of Peace Research 6.3 (1969): 167-191.

Ortega y Gasset, José, Carl R. Shirley, and Ciriaco Morrón-Arroyo. “The Misery and Splendor of Translation.” Translation Review, 13 (1983): 18-30.

Papuvac, Vanessa. “Righting Babel Translation as Cultural Transfusion or Cultural Violence.” Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance. Nottingham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

Venuti, Lawrence. “Translation as a Social Practice: Or, the Violence of Translation.” Translation Perspectives 9 (1996): 195-213.





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