Approaching the Social and Cultural Aspects of Translation

BYU’s Marlene Hansen Esplin, Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities, was elected to the International Comparative Literature Association’s (ICLA) Translation Committee this spring, 2020. Now, the secretary of this committee, Esplin shares how the study of problems of translation can lead to greater social consciousness.

PROVO, Utah (April 24, 2020)— Have you ever encountered a text and later found out that the version you read was not in the original language? Or have you ever encountered a text in multiple translations? If you have experienced either of these scenarios, you have touched on the jumping-off point for Marlene Esplin’s area of expertise: Translation Studies.

Translation Studies is a major field within Comparative Literature and, while translation matters can be approached in a number of ways, the ICLA Translation Committee focuses on “the impact of translation on society and politics and on literary and intellectual history.” They view Translation Studies as “indispensable for understanding a wide range of historical and contemporary phenomena from the protection of human rights to the marketing of literature.”

Esplin became acquainted with Translation Studies as a student in graduate school. As she was writing a paper “about a bilingual author who wrote in Spanish and then translated her own writing into English,” Esplin recounts that she “needed to come up with a working definition of ‘translation’ and ‘self-translation’—and [her] entrance into translation theory followed.”

Esplin began exploring translation from a sociopolitical perspective. “I’m very interested in the ethics and politics of translation—and in the consequences of norms that call for an ‘invisible’ or domesticated translation praxis, such that ‘the foreign’ aspects of translated texts are neutralized, ironed out, or devalued,” Esplin expresses.

In her work, Esplin is passionate about shedding light on how some voices are lost while others are amplified in the translation process. For example, she recently completed a project that focuses on English translations of  Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación, an early European account of people and places in the Gulf of Mexico region. In this endeavor, Esplin was “able to learn about the colorful cast of characters who have endeavored to translate this sixteenth-century text—and how they can’t help but insert themselves and their own dubious claims about early American Indians into their translations.”

Esplin says she “would like to examine cases of other translators who act as ethnographers.” In addition, she has begun to study the “collaborative translation projects of contemporary Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli,” who has been a major voice in conversations about the “transnational origins of the current refugee crisis,” involving refugees from, but not limited to, South and Central America.

As the secretary of the ICLA Translation Committee, Esplin hopes to advance the interests of the committee and to engage with other scholars writing about translation topics. On her election as secretary, Esplin says:

“I’m grateful for the chance to continue to work closely with scholars from other universities in the US and from universities outside of the US, some of whom have become close friends and colleagues. . . I hope to make both translation and scholarship relative to translation more visible within the ICLA and to support the various initiatives of the committee.”

—Natalie Shorr (Sociology, ‘22)