The ‘cultural turn’ – and beyond

As was pointedly the case in discussions of culture, pronouncements on translation have often claimed an all-encompassing conceptual range for their object – even when offered from intellectual standpoints otherwise defined by their wariness of totalising designs. A case in point is George Steiner’s argument, in After Babel, that ‘translation is formally and pragmatically implicit in every act of communication, in the emission and reception of each and every mode of meaning, be it in the wider semiotic sense or in more specifically verbal exchanges. To understand is to decipher. To hear significance is to translate’ (1992: xii). Other examples, from markedly diverse backgrounds, include Octavio Paz’s dictum, ‘when we learn to speak, we are learning to translate’ ([1971] cit. Schulte and Biguenet 1992: 52), and the Irish critic Robert Welch’s belief that ‘all legitimate intellectual inquiry is translation of one kind or another’ (1993: xi). This tendency to propose an indefinite extension of the concept of translation (an ambition that inevitably carries the risk of a loss of heuristic and operative value) has been particularly in evidence whenever translation and culture are explicitly approximated or equated, as was regularly the case in contributions that partook or followed in the wake of the ‘cultural turn’ in TS. A decisive stage in this process was The Manipulation of Literature (1985), the landmark collection edited by Theo Hermans urging the view that translation is one of the tools for cultural ‘manipulation’ in society, a decisive means through which social institutions intervene in the construction of an envisaged ‘culture’. In his foreword to Constructing Cultures,a later and largely congenial collection, Edwin Gentzler could declare, with the confidence of a summation, ‘the study of translation is the study of cultural interaction’ (Gentzler in Bassnett and Lefevere 1998: ix). Gentzler’s confident claim was made with the benefit of hindsight on an argument that by the late 1990s had run its critical course, and was accompanied by a recognition of the key role played by the collection’s editors, Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere, in the ‘cultural turn’. It vindicated an equation of translation and culture on the relational understanding (an important premiss of cultural studies) that culture is precisely defined by interactions, indeed comprising all the dynamics proper to human experience.

The range of the cultural dynamics or ‘interactions’ that have been explored in contributions to the disciplinary construction of TS is as broad and diverse as it could be, in the sense that it includes all the major currents and causes that have energised the humanities and social studies in recent decades. Prominent strands in the culturalist imbrications of TS have included:

i. the brand of hermeneutics and criticism represented by scholars such as George Steiner, who has influentially argued the culturally revealing role of translation, its power to ‘light up’ the contours of national and transnational literary histories, gauged from the way in which (through translation) different cultures process the literary past (Steiner 1992, 1993);

ii. rather prominently, gender studies, through approximations between the power nexus involving originals (authoritative, empowered) vs. translations (derivative, subaltern) and gender-determined, male vs. female positions. As phrased by Lori Chamberlain in her study of ‘Gender and the metaphorics of translation’, ‘the opposition between productive and reproductive work organizes the way a culture values work’ (Chamberlain [1988]: 306);

iii. no less momentously, colonial / post-colonial concerns. Translation has been invoked, both as practice and concept, in studies of the relations between coloniser and colonised – but also, redemptively and with particular impact, as an inspiring model for a postcolonial cultural conformation: for Maria Tymoczko, ‘post-colonial writing might be imaged as a form of translation (…), a metaphor of transportation across (physical, cultural or linguistic) space or boundaries’ (Tymoczko in Bassnett and Trivedi 1999: 19-20); and for Homi Bhabha, in a much-quoted passage from The Location of Culture, ‘it is the “inter” – the cutting edge of translation and renegotiation, the in-between space – that carries the burden of the meaning of culture. (…) by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the other of our selves’ (Bhabha 1994: 38-9).

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