Culturalism and Translation Studies

The broader consequence of Williams’s seminal work towards the rise of cultural studies was to be predicated, however, on the convergence of his culturalism with the influence of French thinking of the 1960s and ‘70s. This involved, crucially for the purposes of this entry, an assimilation of the notion that meaning arises from process rather than residing in essence or inherence, in other words, that it is relationally constituted. Such perceptions were central to the legacy of Ferdinand de Saussure’s work, developed earlier in the century but given additional conceptual substantiation by the authors (in particular Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault) who, by breaking the mould of determinacy and of the logic of the closed system, enacted the transition from structuralism to poststructuralism. For the intellectual consolidation of cultural studies, a decisive notion was indeed that artefacts, texts and practices do not have meaning inscribed in them from the outset (and for good), but rather derive it from a process of ‘articulation’ (as Stuart Hall influentially phrased it – cit. Storey 1994: ix). Cumulatively, Foucault’s concern with the nexus knowledge-power, and its manifold manifestations within distinct discursive formations, provided an angle on semantic and representational processes that converged with the founding political matrix of cultural studies – and proved no less operative as regards the ‘cultural turn’ that so decisively assisted the disciplinary development of TS through the 1980s into the ‘90s.

Indeed, a significant part of the rationale behind the rise of TS involved a focus on power that either borrowed from or paralleled the emergence of analytical and conceptual models – with the Foucauldian analysis as a key example – that became landmarks for discussing the operation of culture in the closing decades of the twentieth century:

i. A case in point is provided by the affinities between polysystem theory and the centre-periphery model. When Itamar Even-Zohar argued the productivity of studying ‘translated literature’ within a ‘polysystem’ largely defined by eminently changeable power relations involving ‘central’ and ‘peripheral’ literatures  ([1990] 2004), his immediate conceptual enablement might derive (as claimed) from literary criticism (the Russian formalists, in particular). However, he was also drawing on a broader nexus that in the relevant period saw its application extended from discourses on politics and economics (e.g. as part of world-systems theory, epitomised by Immanuel Wallerstein’s studies on geopolitics and geoculture – 1991) to many other dimensions in the study of culture.

ii. Likewise, the favour enjoyed in recent years by arguments designed to rescue translation from its traditional minor status as secondary writing (its derivative nature at odds with the ‘metaphysics of origin’) owed much to the postmodernist questioning of the literary canon, which exposed the hierarchies and valuations of any gallery of great authors and great works (all of them ‘original’) as no more than a reflection of historically determined power dynamics. Cumulatively, however, this counter-canonical strand in recent critical history was itself a particular manifestation of the broader anti-establishment ethics and politics that so momentously marked the western experience since the 1960s and 70s, gradually promoting an ostensible acknowledgement of cultural diversity and respect for minority cultures into central discursive positions (Guillory 1993, Gorak 2013).

iii. A third example of ethical and political positions that have enjoyed a significant resonance within discourses on culture, and additionally contributed to the growth and consolidation of TS, involves the critique, launched from the field of comparative studies, of a literary history arranged into national literatures. The cogency of this critique, and the corresponding rise to favour (and disciplinary centrality) of comparative literature, arguably reflected the wariness of nationality that marked the politics of western democracies since the middle of the twentieth century – but it also favoured a recognition of the role of translation as a matrix for writing that straddles the borders of languages and cultures, a domain in which history is always ‘transnational’ (as Michael Cronin has argued – 2006: 23).

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