Ethics of Renarration

Mona BakerMona Baker is interviewed by Andrew Chesterman 2008. Cultus 1(1): 10-33. Click on the link below to download a copy of the interview. Baker Ethics of Renarration 2008 Opening question and answer quoted below. In lieu of an abstract. Chesterman: Your recent book Translation and Conflict. A Narrative Account (2006a) raises some interesting and important issues concerning the practice and ethics of translation and interpreting. You argue that translation is especially significant in conflict situations, and (like most human inventions, I suppose) can be used both for good and for ill. It is thus important to consider both what is translated and how it is translated, and one way to do this is via narrative theory. I’ll bring up some queries about narrative theory later, but let’s start with some basic assumptions. One of your fundamental assumptions is that translations (and translators) can never be absolutely neutral, objective, since every act of translation involves an interpretation – just as no observation of any scientific data is ever entirely theory-free. This reminds me of one of the starting-points of the so-called ‘Manipulation School’ of translation studies in the 1980s (see e.g. Hermans 1985). They too argued that translators inevitably manipulate as they translate, and took many examples, mostly from literary translation, to illustrate this point. How do you see the relation between your approach and theirs? Baker: As with almost any writing on translation (or indeed writing on anything else), there is always some overlap with what others have written or argued. The particular overlap you point to with the so-called Manipulation School also exists with the work of postcolonial theorists, feminist scholars of translation, much of what goes under the banner of linguistic approaches (see, for instance, Mason 1994), work on dialogue interpreting (Wadensjö 1992/1998, Mason 1999, etc.) and many other types of theorizing on translation and interpreting. The difference lies in how this claim is elaborated, specifically: (a) the type of data one examines in order to support the claim, (b) the conceptual apparatus that is applied to the analysis of this data, and (c) the degree of self-reflexivity demonstrated by the analyst. In the case of, say, the Manipulation School, as you have chosen to call it, the data are strictly literary, the conceptual apparatus consists largely of one or another version of system theory, and (to my mind, at least) there is no specific effort to reflect on the analyst’s own position. Lefevere (1992) is a typical example. In Translation and Conflict, I drew on examples from a variety of genres, mostly non-literary – examples not only of political conflict, an area to some extent shared with postcolonial theorists, but specifically of contemporary political conflict, including the so-called ‘War on Terror’, state terrorism, Guantánamo, Israeli atrocities in Jenin and other parts of Palestine, bin Laden, Kosovo, etc. Scholars of translation by and large tend to shy away from dealing with issues relating to ongoing contemporary conflict of this type because they are inevitably controversial: consensus has not yet been reached on who is the victim and who is the oppressor, as it has in the case of South Africa or Nazi Germany, for instance. There is also still an element of risk – sometimes very high risk – involved in discussing these contemporary conflicts. The question of risk aside, I believe controversy is healthy, and that it is productive for the discipline to engage with issues that give rise to disagreement, even passionate disagreement, and for scholars using examples from such contexts to be open about their own positioning. In terms of conceptual apparatus – perhaps you will want to come back to this in later questions – essentially narrative theory, or the version of it that I tried to elaborate in Translation and Conflict, offers new insights that simply have not been explored before in the discipline. It illuminates different aspects of translational behaviour and offers fresh explanations for it. One of its strengths is precisely the fact that it encourages self-reflexivity on the part of the analyst – it makes you constantly aware that you are not analysing other people’s narratives from a privileged position but from a specific narrative location that restricts your own vision in specific ways. It also provides a basis for elaborating an ethics of translation, an issue that I tried to tackle in the final chapter of the book by drawing on Walter Fisher’s work, commonly referred to as the ‘Narrative Paradigm’. (See e.g. Fisher 1987.)