The Context of Cross-Cultural Communication
Translation is never innocent – it always brings an element of inaccuracy drawn from human frailty.
Some of us – and I’m guilty of this much of the time, I’m afraid to admit – regard translation as a sort of pure science, meaning that it exists outside of the influence of political or religious fervour and serves solely to perfectly bring thoughts and ideas from one culture over to the next. But if I’m being honest, this is of course completely inaccurate: Translation, just like any other real-world discipline, is always affected by the political, economic, and cultural prejudices of both the translator himself and the entities paying for the translation. In other words, translation is never innocent: There is always an agenda involved.
As the translation services professional involved I endeavour to keep my own prejudices and worldview separate from the work I’m translating, but that’s easier said than done. The fact is, you need to actually know what your prejudices are before you can defend against them, and many preconceptions are invisible to us no matter how hard we try. Add to that cultural factors that often aren’t obvious until decades or even centuries have passed, and you have a recipe for an unwinnable war.
The Buck Stops Where
One of the main things to keep in mind is that most translation is paid for. Now, in theory just because you’re being paid to translate a work doesn’t mean you’re a pawn in a corporate game. Certainly if I were instructed to use certain language or to inject certain tones into my translation, I would quit on the spot. But it’s more subtle than that.
Consider the style guide: You’re translating and your employer has given you a perfectly reasonable style guide to follow. All well and good, but that style guide is affecting your choices when it comes to your translation work, and there’s no way you can guarantee that those choices aren’t affecting the end result of your translation. The fact is, by being paid to do this work we’re not 100% free to make pure translation choices, and it affects the work.
That’s why all translation, past and present, must be taken in with context. Who paid for the work? Who performed it? What was the translation used for? What were the political factors involved? As a quick example, we can assume that works translated into Russian during the height of the communist regime were not left unadulterated by a society that so closely monitored what its citizens were exposed to and thought.
Even today, in more enlightened time (we assume) we’re all victims of our upbringings and indoctrinations, and our decisions when it comes to word choice and grammar will be affected by these factors. In short, even when we approach our translation work as purely as possible we are still very likely poisoning the waters with our own prejudices and misconceptions and preconceptions – and that’s how we must approach the end result as well.
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