By Mona Elnamoury
In a most fascinating lecture on globalization and translation on Sunday evening, Prof. Michael Cronin spoke about translation, not traditionally as a bridge, but as a river that runs from bank to bank, evading rocks, travelling far and wide and connecting people on a deep under-surface level, not a superficial one. The river of translation, like all rivers, adds to the banks and is added by them.
This was the inaugural lecture for the House of Translation, a three-year-project administered by The National Center of Translation and The American University in Cairo’s Center for Translation Studies.
Here, Cronin questioned an idealistic view of translation’s mission to end conflicts, combat racism and fight violence. On the one hand, globalization may seem to make the translator’s messianic mission of crossing borders easier. But, politically speaking, we do have more gated compounds, more private security companies than ever. In fact, the political reality of the world adds more limits and underlines stronger borders between people. And what is socialization except imposing order on the world from a personal view; that is to say to set borders? So, should translators actually try to cross borders or should they rather think deeply about them?
In negotiating the rhythms of closure and openness in languages and
cultures, translators both filter and infiltrate the target languages and cultures. In this respect, it might be opportune to move away from an image that has been used to capture the task of the translator, the image of the bridge. Translation as a bridge between cultures, translators as bridge builders, these metaphors are commonplaces of irenic pronouncements on the global importance of translation. However it may be more useful to look under the bridge and see what is swirling down below.
While listening carefully and tensely to the overflowing stream of ideas and information of Professor Cronin, the image of the translator as an anthropologist came to me. This is the translator who spends time travelling far and wide into the target language and then takes the pain of travelling again into his/her own mother language in an attempt to eliminate borders. He or she is a messianic anthropologist who will probably end up contemplating deeply the differences and borders separating two cultures and perhaps not feeling home anywhere. And thus the translator ends up by having a newer self-definition. Translation becomes, in this sense, a continuous process of pushing out limits, internal and external, of changing and being changed.
Cronin differentiated between two types of culture: the extensive culture
and the intensive culture. The extensive culture is a culture of equivalence,
interchangeability. The intensive culture is a culture of difference and of human
singularity. The extensive cultures tends to be translated more. Arabic is an
intensive culture which explains the low percentage of published translated works from Arabic literature into English.
Cronin lists many other reasons for this shortage. First and foremost, there is the narcissism of the English language being the global language. When the English speaking readership becomes interested in Arabic literary works, their interest does not spring from a genuine engagement with Arabic literature as much as from a socio-political curiosity. There is also the lack of academic recognition for translators in addition to the usual problems like the lack of proper funding, the enormous effort involved in translation from Arabic and the scarcity of time.
Countries under dictatorships are also less prone to have a serious interest in translations, as Cronin said, “Dictatorships are famously suspicious of translators.The culturalisation of limits can be used to justify the worst forms of virulent xenophobia and the border can be much more a site of exclusion than a place of passage.”
On being asked about the influence of the Arab Spring on the interest in
translated Arabic literature, Cronin believed that the interest would certainly
arise but he still expressed his fear that the interest might be in certain immediate accounts of the revolutions rather than in the literary essence behind them.
Cronin’s river of information on a crucial topic like translation in a global
world has proved sweet enough to alleviate the darkness of current violence in
Dr. Mona Elnamoury is a lecturer at the faculty of Arts, English Dept., Tanta University. She also teaches at the MSA in the faculty of Languages and Translation, and has translated Ursula LeGuin into Arabic. She also writes.