The Blown-up Bridges of Translation in Mona Baker’s ‘Translation as (Re)-Narration’

Author and translator Mona Elnamoury is in Doha, Qatar this week attending the “Translation in and of the World” conference. She shares these observations.

Photo courtesy Mona Elnamoury

By Mona Elnamoury

In “ Translation in and of the World,”  a three-day conference organized by the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, the British Council and the Translation and Interpreting Institute,  keynote speaker Mona Baker was introduced by Ahdaf Soueif as the first scholar to establish a direct link between politics and translation.

If you visit Baker’s website and see the sections on the Middle East conflict or the academic boycott of Israeli institutes, you would instantly think you have found a direct link between translation and politics. The links are many, and what translation does/can do in/to the world with its various changeable narratives fascinates and awes Baker.

Translation, here, is not a discrete process: It is part and parcel of the conflicts with which we live. Against the traditional romantic image of translation as a bridge between cultures, Baker draws our attention to the fact that bridges are being blown up all the time. The translation bridge is not an exception. Translators used to associate translation with an identifiable discrete text and think of traditional points like how the target languages matched or addressed the source language.

But while she knows how hard it could be to change such a tradition, Baker seems to invite us to think of translation in a totally different way. Many translational acts remain invisible; anything but discrete. In the newsroom, there is often a process of translation and editing where there is a very thin line between the role of the translator and the editor.

And what do editors do? I asked myself as she mentioned that. They write stories. Who can double check the stories? I asked myself again. Scholars can try.

Here, Baker briefly explains narrative theory. Our world does not consist of independent objective reality on which we  can report. It’s instead a variety of stories to which we have no direct unmediated access.  No single narrative can capture all forces or sources. It is so complicated that no one does.  We all engage in the world of politics because, whether we realize it or not, we keep making decisions about how we are going to communicate.

Translation is by no means outside that space; it’s part of the continuous process of (re) constructing the world. It is just a myth that translation only discovers what exists and relates to it neutrally. To Baker, a neutral translator is a mythical figure. Translation contributes to shaping the world in a particular way in the sense that it invokes and elaborates new realities.

Narratives as used by Baker are the everyday stories we live by. In her book, Translation And Conflict: A Narrative Account,  she explains that narrative constitutes a crucial means of generating, sustaining, mediating, and reporting conflict at all levels of the social life. It also applies to individual narratives, and it includes but  does not confine itself to the political aspect.

Narratives are dynamic entities that keep changing daily as people get exposed to new experiences and slightly change their stories. Narrative theory holds that people’s behavior is guided by the stories they believe in and  by the events they are embedded in more than by stories of their gender, race, skin color or any other attribute. Narratives are dynamic. They cannot be streamlined so that people can pick from them. So we can be in a variety of changing, criss-crossing set of narratives. Moreover, narratives are inherently undermining; they subvert the world around them. The importance of the narrative theory is that it allows us to trace narratives that do not belong to a special stretch of texts but can come from different systems and sources.

The ‘Authentic’ Original

To illustrate her point, Baker discussed an interesting example of the use of subtitles. In March, 2011, Citizens against Government Waste ( made a short clip for the purposes  of undermining the welfare policy in the US and referring to it as governmental waste. This clip was totally changed by various parodies and shows the potential powers of translation.

In the clip, a Chinese professor is talking to his students in 2030, obviously after the US has been deposed and China has taken over the whole world becoming the greatest solo power.  The Chinese professor is engaged in a short speech attempting to explain the reasons why great nations fall so that their empire will not make the same mistakes again. The subtitles to the parody clip were devastatingly subverting of the original as is shown below.


Chinese Professor – Beijing, China 2030 AD – Why do great nations fail? The ancient Greeks… The Roman Empire… The British Empire… and the United States of America They all make the same mistakes turning their back on the principles that made them great America tried to spend and tax itself out of a great recession Enormous so-called ‘stimulus’ spending massive changes to health care government takeovers of private industries and crushing debt. of course, we owned most of their debt… so now they work for us…
[You can change the future. You have to. Join Citizens against Government Waste to stop the spending that’s bankrupting America. (See the video.)


Chinese Professor- Beijing, China 2030 AD Why do great nations fail? The ancient Greeks… The Roman Empire… The British Empire… and the United States of America They all make the same mistakes The rich bought control of the government and media and distracted the people with spectacle while they stole the nation’s wealth Eventually there were only the poor and the rich The new poor grew angry So the rich betrayed the government they controlled hiding in and fueling the angry crowd Friends inside kept the government powerless but just to be safe
they manufactured fear of a foreign evil

But who’s stupid enough to fall for that one again [laughter]

[You can change the future. What’s happening. Hot stuff]

In the handout to the presentation, Baker explains that  CAGW, a descendant of J. Peter Grace’s 1980s-era anti-wasteful spending commission, is in principle bipartisan, though in this election its campaign about the menace of ‘stimulus spending’ has an obvious partisan tilt.

Also, for those familiar with the Chinese economy, the analytical content here is hilariously wrong. The ad has the Chinese official saying that America collapsed because, in the midst of a recession, it relied on (a) government stimulus spending, (b) big changes in its health care systems, and (c) public intervention in major industries — all of which of course, have been crucial parts of China’s (successful) anti-recession policy.

This is only an example of what can be done with texts and the (un) truths they can convey, changing reality altogether and fostering a new chain of events and (un)truths. Baker notes that the people in the clip were professional actors and what they said was a carefully written script.

“Translation” is used here in a particular way. It was meant to inspire fear of the foreign other by the effect of the different language. The audience would normally believe the subtitles because the original looked and sounded credible. Baker notes that the original text (clip) is a ‘point of origin’ and points of origin always seem “authentic”. It is a constructed, material experience of society. The subtitles added to that credibility. Here, we have a case of the absence of the original.  The “translation” was provided first, and the “original” came later. It is, then, a narrative performance in its own right.

Technology and Reality

Translation has been changed by and changes technology. A question raises its head here: To what extent it is useful to keep questioning that a presentation is not reality? To understand that history is a constructed entity is important in all cultures.

To Baker, the West’s narratives are important to focus on now because they are the stronger ones. The West has media tools which can/do shape reality. The power the West is holding needs to be challenged; all their narratives must be challenged because people live these realities, replicate and recreate them. “I want to challenge the Western constructed realities in translation studies,” Baker said.

As translation exists in the world, and the world is not a neutral place,  the space of translation is such a productive and malleable one for political work. Of all people, scholars need to make their political positions open and to keep challenging the different narrations and (renarrations) of the world. We could lose sight sometimes in the wild sea of conflicting narratives but our “embeddedness” in narrative does not dim our ability to reason about them.