The Politics and Paper Trail of Translation

A few years ago I wrote about the politics of translation for a wonderful journal, Working Papers in Educational Linguistics,* also known affectionately as “Whipple.”

If you take in at least some small portion of the video embedded above, you will be reminded that no matter how effective our Google translate apps or machine learning algorithms become, there remains a crucial human element in the practice of translation. In fact, the word “element” is perhaps too conceptual to express the politicized, ver material life of translation and, most importantly, translators. Translation is not ever only a transferal or permutation of semantic values. It is work done by and upon bodies; it is work, as in labor; and it is a transgression of the most dominant and naturalized ideologies we have about language.

On the one hand, the translator transgresses the purity of the idealized monolingual speaker–an interloper.

On the other hand, the translator’s inevitably imperfect/incomplete/”slavish”** translation violates the purity of translatability–given the way many cognitivists (or universalists of one stripe or another) insist that meaning exists outside of language/communication, and therefore total translatability is theoretically possible.

Above all–and more to John Oliver’s point–it is not only the procedural nature of translators’ work that gets pushed into precarious, often invisible, usually undervalued, threatened and threatening positions; the labor conditions of translators are exceedingly precarious. They are underpaid and undercredited, sure; they are, in the theater of war, targets of their bosses’ political opponents without a guarantee (or even much of an offer) of protection from said bosses.

In researching my paper, I was fascinated by political movements in which translators played highly visible roles; what a satisfying performance to witness. But in our neoliberal perma-wartime global economy, translation mega-factories employ the “white collar”*** foils to the embedded translators John Oliver profiles, pumping the linguistic life blood (reams of red tape) into millions of financial transactions, corporate mergers, and perhaps, visa (non-)processing chains. Invisibility is ever more the modus operandi of translation’s politics: translators can work on a literal life-or-death basis, and they can also work in such a way that slowly and sterilely eviscerates their humanity. There aren’t a whole lot of them pulling something off safely in between.

And this, while they perform the godlike task of mobilizing unlike minds to reach a meeting ground, without which society as we know it would not exist. If this is how we treat the pros, what about the myriad young people who broker language in the informal economies of everyday life? How can we better value, substantiate, and support translatorly work? Surely it involves reforming not only the labor and educational sectors but also re-tooling our popular understandings of the boundaries between languages, how porous (and mine-ridden) they can be.

*full disclosure/real talk: I have absolutely no financial conflict of interest with respect to this particular institution (anymore).

**(that is a term often found in reviews of translations, as Joyelle McSweeney has brilliantly pointed out)

***they habitually overwork their highly skilled employees, pay poverty wages on a “perma-lancing” basis, and use intimidating or pyramid scheme-esque tactics to maintain their ranks

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2 thoughts on “The Politics and Paper Trail of Translation

  1. Now I want to go back and read your WPEL article! So many popular ideas about language yield the idea that translating is easy. This article makes me remember how I was glad to see that in the elementary school I taught at, a kid’s translation / language brokering was [supposed to be] always part of conversations about their academic performance or whatever. Like, “So-and-so doesn’t participate in whole groups oral discussions much…” “Well, how does that fit with the fact that he regularly translates English and Spanish for the new student?” Somebody at that district had really done that part of their homework.

  2. masterful synthesis of lots of important insights, really enjoyed this. Invisibilization of translators goes lock-step with invisibilization of minority/ marginalized languages, and the monoglot assumption that they’re on the way to disappearance. Of course translators are only a temporary necessity, for the inconvenient time between now & the inevitable future when everyone finally realizes that the best way to speak is to speak like us (ventriolquating, e.g. monolingual politician).

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