TRANSLATION AND SOCIAL CHANGE: AN INTERVIEW WITH MONA BAKER

PERcursos Linguísticos - Vitória (ES) -v. 9 -n. 21 - 2019 - Dossiê: Tradução & Transformação Social - ISSN: 2236-2592, pp. 24-35.

Available at http://periodicos.ufes.br/percursos/article/view/27272/18388, with Brazilian Portuguese version.

Junia Zaidan: Translation and interpreting studies in Latin America have evolved noticeably over the last decade or so. Still, we have a long way to go to consolidate academic and social spaces in which translation and interpreting are noticed, recognized and valued. In your view, what are the requirements for that? 

Mona Baker: Translation and interpreting studies have gone through the same phase in Europe and the Anglophone world, and in some cases are still preoccupied with internal, theoretical issues that are failing to engage wider constituencies, both academic and public. These issues include a preoccupation with how to produce a water tight definition of translation per se; whether studies of untrained or volunteer translators fall within the remit of translation studies; and whether metaphorical uses of the term _translation_ by scholars in other fields encroach on our territory and constitute a threat to the discipline. In order to connect our academic work with the social spaces in which translation and interpreting function outside the ivory tower, and to demonstrate how consequential translation is in the real world and in the academy at large, we need to adopt a broader understanding of translation and develop a realistic discourse about our object of study, one that is meaningful and accessible to scholars in other disciplines as well as members of the public. 

Unlike areas such as ethnography and anthropology, which have had a long history of engaging with the ramifications of what is presented as academic research and its impact on the communities they write about, or new areas of scholarship such as social movement studies, cultural studies or gender studies, whose very raison d’etre has been to critique specific aspects of the social contexts that constitute their object of study, translation and interpreting studies have a very different history. The field is traditionally associated with a specific profession, and its history therefore began with a very practical orientation towards that profession. Even now, many translation scholars see their priority as raising the profile of professional translators and interpreters, providing them with the tools they need to improve their performance, including pedagogical resources to train a new generation of professionals, and ensuring that the academic and public discourse around translation avoids giving the impression that translators and interpreters might intervene in any way in the texts they render into other languages. The commitment to non-intervention in particular is considered necessary to reassure clients and the public that they can trust translators and interpreters not to leave any trace of their own views or ideologies in the texts they produce, to not contaminate the ‘intended’ message of the sender.

To be recognized and valued, however, we need to leave such sterile and unrealistic debates behind. Instead, we need to demonstrate relevance to the work of other scholars, whatever definition of translation they adopt, and to different aspects of social, cultural and political life. Even in terms of educating the next generation of professional translators and interpreters, it is simply not realistic or meaningful to focus only on the existing needs and prejudices of prospective clients and ignore the ethical and social responsibilities of translators and interpreters as citizens who actively participate in shaping all aspects of the environment in which we live. As Couldry argues in his foreword to _Citizen Media as Practice_ (Stephansen and Treré, in press), “Pedagogy, after all, is about unlocking the potential for imagining new worlds”. I would add that would be translators and interpreters are as capable of and responsible for imagining such new worlds as all other members of society.

Junia Zaidan: If social change is understood as the desired result of a larger struggle that has political, economic and discursive dimensions, what is the role translation plays in the contemporary engagement against oppression? The ‘sociological turn’ theorized by some scholars implies that the field is now even more engaged than it might have been before. Or is it the case that engagement has simply become more explicit?

Mona Baker: Translation has always played a key role in fighting oppression and hegemony in their many guises, as evident in a wide range of studies that document the contribution of translators and interpreters to resistance against racism, fascism, colonization and dictatorship (Rafael 1993, Tymoczko 1999, Asimakoulas 2007, 2009). Today, this role has assumed special importance, given the impact of globalization and the interconnectedness of struggles across the world, and has extended beyond the arena of practice to that of scholarship. Calzada Pérez, for example, has argued that in the age of new consumerism, translation studies must “become a platform for ideological resistance” (2007:246), specifically calling for translation scholars to contribute to resisting “the hegemonic ideology of New Consumerism” (ibid.:265) by “exposing and contesting some of the negative aspects of advertising” (ibid.:243). So, in a sense you are right: engagement today has not just come to the fore as an issue in translation scholarship, but is also actively defended and promoted in the ongoing debate about the remit of the discipline and how it should or should not locate itself within the profession and the wider society. Julie Boéri addresses this issue explicitly in relation to how powerful professional associations such as AIIC (the International Association of Conference Interpreters) have responded to the growing trend of professional interpreters and scholars of interpreting becoming involved in the alter-globalization movement and in activist collectives such as Babels (Boéri 2008). She represents a new generation of translation and interpreting scholars who are prepared to challenge received wisdom in the profession and discipline, and are able to demonstrate that activism is not incompatible with high professional and scholarly standards of performance. 

In terms of strands of scholarship, I tend to avoid the term ‘turn’ (the sociological turn, the cultural turn, the narrative turn) because it has a tendency to compartmentalize and oversimplify what in practice may be interconnected and fluid approaches and methodologies. Indeed, the best scholarship in my view resists labels of this type, especially in an interdisciplinary field like ours. In our introduction to the third edition of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, due out later this year, Gaby Saldanha and I further point out that “while the discipline has arguably reached a new level of maturity, it has not yet generated sufficient historical research on its own development for us to consider whether it does follow the pattern of periods governed by tradition and punctuated by periods of rapid and complete change, or ‘turns’, as Kuhn claimed about scientific knowledge”. Moreover, if by ‘sociological’ you refer to studies of translation and interpreting that draw on the work of scholars such as Bourdieu and Luhmann, then evidence for engaging with issues of resistance to oppression and hegemony has been rather limited so far. Typically, studies that have offered important insight into the role of translation and interpreting in both historical and contemporary struggles against oppression and hegemonic values have been eclectic in approach. Importantly, too, many of these studies are located outside the discipline. The work of Talal Asad in anthropology and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in postcolonial studies comes readily to mind here. 

Junia Zaidan: In many ways, our recent national experience resonates with some of the issues you have raised through your work on translation, one of which is the extent to which volunteer activist translation can engage with narratives to counter hegemonic western northern discourses. In what ways can a narrative approach to translation engage with social change? What are its limitations? 

Mona Baker: The narrative approach, in my view, has a number of key strengths that extend beyond the sphere of activism and volunteer translation, although its application has been particularly successful in this area. First, it treats translational choices not as local linguistic challenges but primarily as human practices that have a direct impact on the social and political world. Every choice is considered – at least potentially – as a kind of index that activates a narrative, a story that recounts slices of experience from a particular vantage point, and in so doing invites us to pass moral judgement, assign responsibility, and position ourselves within communities and relationships. The narrative approach therefore demands that we see translation not merely as a professional service to be ‘perfected’ but as an ethical endeavour to be critically reflected upon. 

Second, it encourages analysts to go beyond investigating the elaboration of a given narrative in an individual translation or interpreting event by tracing its trajectory across several texts and events, and across different media. This is because narration is conceptualized as a diffuse, dynamic process that cuts across individual encounters and texts and exploits all media and resources available to the narrator, at the same time as being constantly negotiated among different, often conflicting parties. Most importantly in my view, given a long history of preoccupation with binarisms and other types of rigid categorizations in the discipline, narrative theory resists the streamlining of translator choices into types of strategy (such as naturalization vs exoticization or domestication vs foreignization), acknowledging instead that in the real world, and especially in situations of intense conflict, translators and interpreters vary their strategies in order to pursue concrete political goals rather than adhere to abstract principles or textual formats. It therefore supports more engaged studies that eschew high levels of abstraction in favour of offering complex, reflexive accounts of the impact of translation in concrete, real-life situations. 

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that narrative theory is not easy to apply. A recurrent difficulty for scholars concerns the lack of a consistent, systematic model of analysis, of the type offered by Bourdieu’s field theory, for instance, or critical discourse analysis. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that there is not one but many narrative theories, and the most constructivist among these (of which the socio-narrative strand I have used in my work is a prime example) is also the most elusive in terms of offering an explicit methodology. Socio-narrative theory does not offer scholars a template for analysing encounters but purely a set of broad concepts such as public vs personal narratives and features such as relationality, selective appropriation and genericness. Some scholars have mistakenly assumed that applying narrative theory merely involves identifying these features in their data in a mechanistic, ‘checklist’ fashion, rather than invoking them only as and when they become relevant and supplementing them with attention to an open-ended set of textual and non-textual elements that can be shown to contribute to the elaboration of a given narrative. These elements may include colour, pitch, collocational patterns, irony, even directionality of translation and choice of source and target languages (see Baker 2010), and a host of other verbal and non-verbal signalling mechanisms, depending on the context and nature of the data under analysis. Only an analysis that integrates these disparate sets of features to produce meaningful insights into some of the intricate and nuanced ways in which translation impacts social and political reality is worth pursuing, but this type of analysis is also the most demanding. 

Junia Zaidan: Fighting external imperialist influence motivated by the vested interests of so-called developed nations has been the struggle of a number of collectives of volunteer translators in Brazil, since the coup d’état in 2016, who subtitled activist videos, translated open letters, motions, among other acts of translation (cf. ZAIDAN, 2019). Embedded as we all are in a highly charged international imperialist logic, do you see points in common between Latin America, Asia and the Middle East? 

Mona Baker: Absolutely. In fact, I know from the interviews I conducted with members of the Mosireen collective in Egypt (see Baker 2016) that they actively sought to connect with activists in Latin America, especially Brazil and Argentina. Philip Rizk, one of the film makers involved in this movement, told me when I interviewed him on 18 January 2014: 

… at some point, I got in touch with the Free Fares Movement … who were involved in the uprising in Brazil some months back. And it was important for me at that time to make our videos accessible in Portuguese, because there was a lot happening there and I wanted this connection to exist. 

Philip went on to explain the need for such connections further, in response to a question about the choice of languages such as Portuguese and Spanish to subtitle Mosireen videos into: 

it’s important that we connect with this kind of global protest movement because although it’s a very widely held sentiment here in Egypt that our uprising has been connected or related to protest elsewhere, I think it is important to try and push those kinds of interpretations as much as possible. And I think, especially at a period like this, it’s important to keep in mind that what happened in Egypt was in large part inspired by what happened elsewhere and vice-versa. 

Samah Selim’s discussion of crisis translation vs deep translation in her contribution to _Translating Dissent_ also confirms that connections with other struggles across the world are very much part of volunteer activist translators’ vision of how political and social change can be effected. Contrasting it to crisis translation, which she defines as “an emergency call for solidarity”, she advocates deep translation in order to build “international solidarity networks that are nonetheless firmly rooted in the granular struggles of a particular place” (2016:84). Working alongside Mosireen film makers during the Egyptian uprisings in 2011-2013, activist subtitlers like Samah ensured that “a series of videos in 2012 on the uprisings in the Egyptian industrial sector and worker control of abandoned and newly nationalized factories” were subtitled into Spanish to make sure that “links were forged with the Argentine factory recovery movement that emerged in the wake of Argentina’s massive debt default of 2001” (ibid.:85). Moving in the other direction, “[a] documentary on the recovery movement at the Argentine Zanon factory was subtitled into Arabic and screened for the Egyptian workers on strike at the Suez-based Iffco Refinery” and “[a] message of solidarity from the Zanon workers for striking Ceramica Cleopatra factory workers was also translated as part of this *Mosireen *initiative and screened for the workers in Egypt” (ibid.). 

There is no doubt then that a shared culture of resistance exists across the whole world today, and that volunteer activist translators and interpreters play a key role in nurturing the connections that keep this culture alive. But many other sectors of society are also aware of the connectedness of struggles, not just geographically but also in terms of forms of oppression such as racism and colonialism. In her justification for refusing to allow her book _The Color Purple_ to be translated and published in Israel, for instance, Alice Walker drew an analogy between the black struggle and the struggle for Palestinian rights, stating that “Israeli policies were “worse” than the segregation she suffered as an American youth” (_Times of Israel_ 2012). 

Having said this, it is also clear that much more needs to be done to connect movements in various parts of the world, including the Middle East and Latin America, with those in Asia and Africa. The conference I organized in Cairo in 2015 (see https://globalizingdissent.wordpress.com/) and responses I received following various presentations in different parts of the world drew my attention to this issue. For example, one of the activists who attended the conference in Cairo came from Taiwan, and later wrote to tell me that they didn’t know much about what was happening in Egypt there; she then volunteered to subtitle some Mosireen videos into Chinese to help spread the word. Similarly, when I gave a talk on volunteer subtitling during the Egyptian uprisings at the University of Virginia Charlottesville in 2014, a student from Ethiopia approached me at the end to say that much was happening in her country but it was largely disconnected from and invisible to activists in other parts of the world, including Egypt. This suggests that much more needs to be done to connect with activists in Asia and Africa in particular, and that we must prioritize subtitling and translating into, from and between languages like Amharic, Swahili, Chinese, Urdu and Thai rather than continue to focus exclusively on English and other European languages. 

Junia Zaidan: You are a voice from a non-hegemonic country whose work in Europe has played a crucial role in making visible a range of problems, conflicts, violences, narratives from the periphery that otherwise might have remained unheard of. What word of advice would you give undergraduate and graduate students from a Latin American country marked by (neo)colonial violence like Brazil, in order for them to deconstruct eurocentric perspectives on society through translation? 

Mona Baker: This is a difficult question, because I believe that each of us draws on a different set of experiences and areas of strengths to make our own contribution to the fields in which we end up working. What contribution we manage to make, moreover, is constrained or enabled by the particular circumstances – including working environments – in which we find ourselves, especially at the beginning of our careers, when we lack the experience and the confidence to articulate a vision that reflects our own perspective on the world and is capable of engaging others. 

I have been extremely lucky in working in a broadly supportive, flexible environment at the beginning of my academic career, albeit one in which hegemonic values and modes of interaction did intimidate me for several years, until I acquired enough confidence and experience to push back against them. I was particularly fortunate at that stage to be given considerable leeway in terms of pursuing almost any topic that appealed to me, and time to experiment with different types of research. This is no longer common in academia, especially in the UK, where most academics work extremely long hours just to stay on top of basic teaching and administrative duties, and where various measures have been put in place to direct their research through initiatives such as the impact agenda and the pressure to apply for grants earmarked to specific themes. While this scenario may offer some advantages, it does have the effect of over structuring career paths and leaving early career academics in particular little time and opportunity to think beyond the next deadline, the next hurdle on the way to securing a position in the academy, and practically no chance of developing enough confidence to question hegemonic values and practices. Before they know it, early career researchers now find themselves stuck with a particular combination of teaching topics and research avenues, within their chosen discipline, that they have to prioritize in order to get a job – because these are the teaching areas in demand and the kind of research deemed worthwhile by the hegemonic institutions to which they are applying. 

These challenges exist for scholars from hegemonic as well as those from non-hegemonic countries and require a high level of determination, as well as luck, to overcome. Challenges of this nature aside, young scholars should be encouraged to approach research as a worthwhile and enjoyable endeavour rather than a chore or a means to securing an academic job. The more an area of research captures their imagination the more likely they are to make a genuine contribution to it. The stronger their position in academia becomes, and the more they collaborate within organized networks such as unions and associations, the more able they will be to introduce fissures within the edifice of hegemonic structures. 

Referências 

ASKIMAKOULAS, Dimitris. Translation as Social Action: Brecht’s Political Texts in Greek. TTR: Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction, v. 20, n. 1, 2007, p. 113-140. 

ASKIMAKOULAS, Dimitris. Translating “Self” and “Others”: Waves of Protest under the Greek Junta. The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture, v. 2, n.1, 2009, p. 25-47. 

BAKER, Mona. Narratives of Terrorism and Security: ‘Accurate’ Translations, Suspicious Frames. Critical Studies on Terrorism, v. 3, n. 3, 2010, p. 347-64. 

BAKER, Mona. The Prefigurative Politics of Translation in Place-based Movements of Protest: Subtitling in the Egyptian Revolution. The Translator, v. 22, p. 1, 2016, p.1-21. 

BOÉRI, Julie. A Narrative Account of the Babels vs. Naumann Controversy: Competing Perspectives on Activism in Conference Interpreting. The Translator, v. 14, n. 1, 2008, p. 21-50. 

CALZADA PÉREZ, Maria. Translators and Translation Studies: Scholars as Inoculators of Resistance. The Translator, v. 13, n. 2, 2007, p. 243-269. 

CAULDRY, Nick (in press). Foreword. In: STEPHANSEN, Hilde; TRERÉ, Emiliano (eds). Citizen Media as Practice, London & New York: Routledge. 

RAFAEL, Vicente L. Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian conversion in Tagalog society under early Spanish rule, Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. 

SALDANHA, Gabriela; Mona Baker. Introduction. In: BAKER, Mona; SALDANHA, Gabriela (eds). Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, London & New York: Routledge, 2019 (in press). 

SELIM, Samah. Text and Context: Translating in a State of Emergency. In: BAKER, Mona (ed.). _Translating Dissent: Voices from and with the Egyptian Revolutio_n, London & New York, 2016, 78-87. 

TIMES OF ISRAEL. Alice Walker Says No to Hebrew ‘Purple’, 19 June, 2012. https://www.timesofisrael.com/alice-walker-refuses-to-authorize-hebrew-version-of-the-color-purple/.

TYMOCZKO, Maria. Translation in a Postcolonial Context: *Early Irish Literature in English Translation, Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 1999. 

ZAIDAN, Junia C. Santana de Mattos. Tradução, mídia e democracia: o golpe de 2016 como guerra discursiva. In: GALVÃO, Ana Carolina; ZAIDAN, Junia Claudia S. M.; SALGUEIRO, Wilberth (Orgs.). Foi Golpe! O Brasil de 2016 em análise. Campinas: Pontes, 2019. 

Sugestões de obras de autoria, edição e co-edição de Mona Baker: 

BAKER, Mona. Translating Dissent: Voices from and within the Egyptian Revolution (Critical Perspectives on Citizen Media). Londres e Nova Iorque: Routledge, 2016. 

BAKER, Mona. The Prefigurative Politics of Translation in Place-based Movements of Protest: Subtitling in the Egyptian Revolution. The Translator. 22, 1, p. 1-21, 2016. 

BAKER, Mona & BOLETTE, Blaagaard. Citizen Media and Public Spaces: Diverse Expressions of Citizenship and Dissent. Londres: Routledge 2016. 

BAKER, Mona. Translation as an Alternative Space for Political Action. Social Movement Studies. 12, 1, jan p. 23-47 24, 2013. 

BAKER, Mona. Interpreters and translators in the war zone: Narrated and narrators. In: The Translator, 16, 2, p. 197-222 25, 2010. 

BAKER, Mona. Critical Readings in Translation Studies. Londres: Routledge, 2010. 

BAKER, Mona. Translation and Activism: Emerging Patterns of Narrative Community .In: TYMOCZKO, Maria. (ed.) Translation, Resistance, Activism. Amherst e Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, p. 23-41 18 p., 2010. 

BAKER, Mona. Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. Londres e Nova Iorque: Routledge, 1998. 2001; second edition, co-edited with Gabriela Saldanha, 2009. 

BAKER, Mona. Critical Concepts: Translation Studies. Londres: Routledge, 2009. 

BAKER, Mona. Resisting state terror: theorizing communities of activist translators and interpreters. In: BIELSA, E. (ed.) & HUGHES, C. W. (ed.). Globalisation, Political Violence and Translation. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd., p. 222-242 21, 2009. 

BAKER, Mona. Reframing conflict in translation. Social Semiotics. Jan 17, 2, p. 151-169 18, 2007. 

BAKER, Mona. Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account. Londres e Nova Iorque. Routledge, 2006. 

BAKER, Mona. In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation. Londres: Routledge, [1992] 2011.