Translation and interpreting have a fascinating historical role in the development of empire and the postcolonial world. AN INTERVIEW BY THOMAS J. CORBETT

The work of Robert J. C. Young, Julius Silver Professor of English & Comparative Literature at New York University, concerns marginalized peoples and cultures. Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction devotes its final chapter to translation. Translation is seen not only as a colonial activity but also as a metaphor: transplanting England to New England, for example, is itself a form of translation. The interview began with an oblique question, a question that provoked a typically original and enlightening response from Professor Young.

TC: What is “localization”?

RY: As I understand it, localization is a word that globalization professionals use—it means localizing a product, either with respect to some material aspect that accommodates it to local practices (hamburgers made with halal meat in Muslim countries, beer in French McDonald’s, cars with heaters in their seats in Scandinavia) or, more interestingly from a translational point of view, taking into account the particular language situation of a specific market. This would mean the translation of any text element into a local language, adaptation to local orthography, but also to other practices such as whether that market uses pounds or kilos, the local currency, etc. I don’t see this as having a significant relation to translation, though you could argue for its importance with respect to certain practices of cultural translation.

As marketing strategies, these forms of adaptation are essentially superficial characteristics with respect to the core product, and this, I think, shows the falsity of the local-global antithesis which has been given much mileage of late. In fact, I don’t think that it constitutes a distinction as such, in the sense that the point about globalization is that the local has become globalized in any number of ways, both experientially and institutionally. We could say that in some sense there is no local any more, in the way that you could once have local experiences which were almost entirely unmediated by anything beyond their own boundaries. So if people are now talking about “localization” it is probably precisely because it is now impossible, other than in the superficial way I have described.

In my own field, that of Postcolonial Studies broadly conceived, there is much talk of location, as in the title of Homi K. Bhabha’s book The Location of Culture, which emphasizes the particular place and time of any cultural production, relative to all others [1]. The meanings of culture are determined by their locational parameters. In this sense, localization could be seen as antithetical to the idea of translation, which will always attempt to cross borders, to convey meanings beyond the local contexts in which they have been developed. Of course that does not prevent a translator attempting to preserve localized elements in a text, however paradoxical that may be given that a translation will always deprive the local of its local specificity. We could say that Schleiermacher’s idea of foreignizing translation is in some sense a version of this [2].

TC: What is one dealing with when one acknowledges that a text is “untranslatable”?

RY: In the heyday of deconstruction, particularly with Paul de Man, there was much talk about the impossibility of translation in general [3]. Today we have reoriented such discussions to more specific instances, even particular terms, such as in Barbara Cassin’s wonderful Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles [4].

First of all I would say that very few texts are untranslatable as such—they are simply less translatable or harder to translate. They are, in other words, at the extreme of the scale. We might say that a text is untranslatable not because it can’t be translated but because there is too much to translate, a surfeit of meaning, effects, rhythms, techniques. The untranslatable text is the text in which there are simply too many things going on. The problem with translation is not that these different aspects of the poem can’t be individually translated but that they can’t all be translated at the same time. You have to choose, and because you have to choose you have to fail with respect to all the other elements that you didn’t choose. So are we saying that the totality of the poem is untranslatable or that the individual element is untranslatable? Particular terms, words, however, can be untranslatable, and one response to that is simply to appropriate the word into the other language, as has been done in vast quantities in English, starting with some very simple examples such as “pajama.”

What interests me more is what one might call the traffic across untranslatable terms, in the sense that a word like “geist” will be translated across various European languages with the assumption that the different translations will have an equivalence, when in fact what develops is a kind of stereoscopic or three-dimensional volume in which philosophy or translation theory work, where there is a constant process of misprision. The paradox of translation theory, in my view, is that theorists move in their discussions about translation between texts written in different languages with the implicit assumption that there can be perfect translations.

TC: In what sense might one assert that an original text has an identity?

RY: Identity is a fluid concept, much over-used in our own time. Its only serious meaning, in my view, is its legal reference. There is much talk, for example, of all identities being constructed, but the simple fact is that my own identity, starting with my birth certificate, passport and the like, are official documents constructed for me by the state. Beyond that, identity means something more like sense of self, and of course we all feel different at different times—between being a professor and being a parent, for example, but I am not sure these are different identities. To say that the fact that we play different roles at different moments in our lives means that we have different identities is somewhat facile and betrays a lack of understanding about what identity involves.

Texts also have legal identities, relating to copyright, in a similar way, and we can say that beyond that their identities are constructed, in the sense that they are read in a certain way and put in certain categories (for example, a novel, or a “postcolonial” text) but these are not fixed, they change all the time. Texts perform different roles on different occasions in different contexts. The question of identity becomes more interesting with respect to translation. Once we translate a text, the question becomes whether the text still has the same identity in some way—so that, for example, we can discuss the translated text as if it is identical to the original. It is translation that poses the problem of the identity of texts, the relation of that to the concept of a “version,” and from that point of view your question demands a philosophical enquiry that is too vast to begin here but which by the same token offers a very promising potential. All questions of translation in some sense pose the question of identity.

TC: What might one understand by ‘postcolonialism’?

RY: I have been writing about postcolonialism for over twenty years now, written two “Introductions” and countless essays, which makes this a very big question for me. Postcolonialism means what it says, which is “after the colonial.” There are many different ways in which we can take this. For countries that were colonized, it means dealing with the aftermath and the debris of colonial rule, institutional, economic, material, cultural and psychic. For countries that were formerly (or indeed remain) colonial powers—all Western European countries with the exception of Norway (though even there the Norwegian Lutherans were involved in forms of colonialism), as well as Russia, China and Japan, together with countries that arguably continue colonialism in different modalities, above all the United States (the United States is both an imperial and formerly colonized power), it means deconstructing and revising their own cultures and historical narratives with respect to their own values, assumptions and hierarchies that were developed in the colonial period, and adjusting their own cultures to accommodate the migrants who have now brought the empire home, so to speak, and come to live in the formerly imperial centre. One effect of that is that the monolingualism that was developed so remorselessly during the state formations that took place during the period of European nationalism has now had to give way to new kinds of multilingual societies.

TC: Was there any such notion in the ancient world?

RY: Of the postcolonial? I know that ideas about the postcolonial have now spread both to the medieval and classical worlds of academic scholarship, and the analogy can be developed quite fruitfully. Having said that, the formation of the Roman Empire, and the world of Christendom that developed in its wake, took place under very different conditions than those of modern European empires. Nevertheless, we can see that the postcolonial perspective can be helpful in thinking through certain aspects of earlier historical periods. All of Anglo-Saxon poetry, for example, could be said to be marked by its own sense of being postcolonial with respect to the departed Romans (though that was not, of course, a word that they used!).

TC: What is the relationship between postcolonialism and translation?

RY: Many scholars have now investigated this question, and emphasized the role that translation played in the development of empire—from the role of interpreters for early explorers and conquerors, to the role of translations of local texts, particularly legal and religious texts—as a way to facilitate the institution of colonial rule, as in British India. Moreover the imposition of the colonizer’s language, and the devaluation of local languages so that they had no official status, meant that for local people, translation, together with bilingualism for some, became the mark of their colonial condition. At the same time, in this context some of the problems of translation, the impossibility for example of producing a perfect translation, became manipulated in certain power games. On the one hand, it was utilized for the colonizer’s benefit, as in the Treaty of Waitangi, where the English version is very different from the Māori where the language is simplified and vaguer. On the other hand, translation offered a mode of resistance for local people, a practice that is explored in Brian Friel’s wonderful play about British rule in Ireland, Translations [5]. Friel’s play concerns the translation process with respect to maps as a form of domination. In this respect we should add the work of José Rabasa on mapping [6]. The map gives one of the clearest instances of the ways in which knowledge, and the mediation of knowledge through a particularly powerful language and set of representations, can be a significant as well as highly symbolic part of the exercise of political and epistemological control.

The major theoretical impact, we could say, of the work that has been done on the relationship between postcolonialism and translation is to highlight the ways in which translation is always involved in a relation of power, both in terms of the institutional practice of translation and in the general relationship between languages, which are never neutral but always involved in larger formations of power. I think that has been postcolonialism’s most original and significant effect on translation studies.

TC: What is the role of translators in the postcolonial world?

RY: From a social and human perspective, the most important people are interpreters, in particular the people who are interpreting in legal situations such as applications for asylum, refugee status, the right to remain, etc. These people have tremendous power in such processes, and an awareness of the social and cultural issues faced by migrants, by people dispossessed through war, famine and poverty, is extremely important for them if they are to fulfill their roles effectively and humanely. I think interpreting in legal contexts is so important and greatly under-examined. I would like to know much more about its processes. For the most part the courts assume that interpretation, and indeed translation, are straightforward processes, whereas in fact they are often exerted as forms of control and reduction. In more general terms, the role of translators is not essentially different in the postcolonial world than in any other, except with respect to the general social consensus today that interaction and understanding between cultures has become more urgently important. Translators are the people who are most able to facilitate and enable understanding between people of different cultures.

TC: Who might be in a position to judge the quality of a translation?

RY: I don’t think fundamental thinking about this has changed at all in recent years. You can judge a translation from a linguistic point of view, with respect to its accuracy, the success of its rendition from source to target language. On the other hand you can judge a translation from the point of view of the reader. It may be a good translation technically, but unreadable, or it may be a poor translation, technically, but a powerful rendition, or simply useful from a practical point of view.

TC: What might one mean by ‘de-translation’?

RY: This is Jean Laplanche’s term, in his interpretation of Freud on translation [7]. Initially Freud discusses the dream work as a kind of translation that converts unacceptable material into a form that the dreamer can assimilate. Laplanche develops this further, by pointing out that since the dream itself is, from a Freudian point of view, the problem to be decoded, then what the analyst has to do in the analysis is in effect to detranslate it back to the original, unacceptable dream thoughts. These then need to be retranslated into a form that will enable the analysand to cope with his or her life more effectively in the future. I’ve used the concept quite extensively to discuss the ways in which we need to detranslate many of our concepts about other cultures—previous translations, as it were—in order to redevelop them into forms that are more appropriate to our modalities of understanding and cultural awareness in the twenty-first century. TC


1. Homi K. Bhabha, Harvard University: The Location of Culture, Routledge 1994 (ISBN 0-415-05406-0)

2. Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834), German theologian and philosopher

3. Paul de Man (1919-1983), Belgian literary critic and theorist

4. Barbara Cassin, Center Leo Robin: Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles (dir Cassin),   Le Robert 2004 (ISBN 2-020-30730-8, 2-850-36580-7)

5. Brian Friel, Irish dramatist: Translations (1980), pub. Faber 1981 (ISBN 9780571117420)

6. José Rabasa, Harvard University, author of Inventing America: Spanish Historiography and the Formation of Eurocentrism (1993)

7. Jean Laplanche, French author and psychoanalyst, author of, inter alia, ‘Psychoanalysis, Time and Translation’ (1992)

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