Papuvac, Vanessa — Righting Babel: Translation as Cultural Transfusion or Cultural Violence

Papuvac, Vanessa. “Righting Babel: Translation as Cultural Transfusion or Cultural Violence.” Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance. Nottingham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 99-119. Print.

In Vanessa Papuvac’s chapter titled “Righting Babel? Translation as Cultural Transfusion or Cultural Violence,” the author investigates the tensions of translation studies through the conflicting goals of language advocacy and language governance. According to Papuvac, language advocates want to “enforce global language identity rights to protect languages against globalization and Global English,” while governance “implies increased cross-language communication.” She references the discussion of the biblical Babel in Genesis, which envisions a world of one language and its possible value to the harmony of humanity: “If as one people speaking the same language, they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (99). The biblical myth is discussed frequently in this debate and Papuvac uses its correlation to investigate the validity of both theoretical arguments: is translation a means of establishing global harmony, or a means of “destabilizing cultural and linguistic identities” (100).

Papuvac first discusses the early theoretical belief of translation as a harmonious act, for it allows not only the interpretation of an idea in multiple languages, but also the possibility of communicating thoughts into words. In this regard, translation is therefore a common ordinary occurrence, and that “it is merely more obvious in the translation across languages” (101). Papuvac further argues that the all who communicate must have a level of trust in one’s translation of a thought, even if interpretations of an idea will differ from person to person (103).  In this case, multiple translations of a meaning will actually increase correspondence and common ground amongst those in society.  This idea grows from the belief of humans having a universality of spirit, and that spirit is the means by which we understand one another, not words or language. For example, since poetry embodies the human spirit, meaning it can be understood by anyone as an expression of the trials of humanity, multiple translations merely improve the essence of its meaning (107).

However, this idea of translation merely expressing universal ideas is fading due to its disregard for the cultural contexts of those ideals. Although translation might promote the universality of ideas to be understood by any individual, regardless of their cultural paradigm, it is still deemed oppressive since the structure of a language affects and reflects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world, making theorists concerned over “the cultural and linguistic defilement” created by translation (109). These ideas support the Whorfian theory of linguistic determinism, and, in regards to language advocacy, promote supporting minority languages in developing their own lexicons rather than simply adapting to English (110). Cultural exchange should be promoted rather than translation. Further, current thinking understands “the pursuit of knowledge as imperialism,” making translating no longer a means of creating harmony, but instead one of “creating cultural and linguistic harm” (113).  Still, while many want to preserve languages of minorities to allow their connection to nature and man-to-man, there are many who work within the field of governance as translators in conflict zones to promote peace (119).

The idea of translation being a violent process is something I find extremely interesting, especially when looking towards cultural exchange and its importance in promoting conflict resolution and peace, rather than aggression and oppression. I see validity in both theoretical positions: while translation can be a means of bridging a gap of understanding with others, it can also disregard the context of the language or writing within its cultural sphere. For instance, while we promote programs that support learning minority languages in order to preserve those cultures, we also promote the study of English in the majority of less-developed countries in order for them to become active members in the globalized economy and culture. But on both sides, what are the costs? There must be a means in which translation can both ameliorate communication between different cultures, while also preserving the autonomy of an individual to choose to learn and use a particular language.

Several questions come to mind: Can empathy be achieved in translation? Can it be created by translation? Does the violence of translation depend on the person or institution that decides to wield it? Also, even though the idea of universality of language due to translation seems to be waning in popularity, might advances in neuroscience and nonviolent communication give it a new basis and emphasis? Could translation be a vehicle of nonviolence, empowerment, and empathy?  And can there ever be actual common ground between language advocacy and language governance, or will they always be so contradictory?

Madiera Dennison

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