What the Act of Translation Reveals

At the Translation Studies Symposium, professor of Russian translation Brian Baer discussed the relevance of translation studies in the humanities and the insight translation practices give us into the ways knowledge travels through languages and cultures.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 9, 2017)—What can the act of translation teach us about the fabric of the our own cultures? At a panel for the Translation Studies Symposium, Brian Baer, professor of Russian translation at Kent State University and founding editor of Translation Interpreting Studies, discussed what translation reveals about the process of transmitting knowledge, theory and culture.

“Translations can lay bare the nature of cross-cultural and linguistic negotiation in a way non-translated texts do not necessarily do,” Baer began. “Translations can also make visible the iceberg of cultural assumptions and beliefs that lie below the surface of the text.”

In spite of what the study of translation practices has to offer, Baer said that the reading of translated works continues to meet with pushback, often in comparative literature departments. According to Baer, this resistance from departments of languages and literatures stems from the nationalist paradigm upon which modern literature was founded, a belief that the value of a work is strictly confined to the culture and language from which it originated.

“Modern literature departments were founded to prove the national genius of the culture they were studying,” Baer said, which, according to him, “relegated translation and other related phenomena – such as pseudo-translations – to the margins of literary study.”

Another barrier for translation studies is that people sometimes have simplistic views of what translation entails. Baer said that students often come into his classroom with preconceived notions of translation, spurred on in part by computer programs such as Google translate, which, Baer said, render the concept of translation as nothing more than a “linguistic matching game.”

“There’s this idea of translation as a product,” Baer said. “But if we think instead of translations being woven into the fabric of another culture, [it is] a process that is . . . many tendrilled.”

One of Baer’s current projects, for example, examines translated book titles and how they serve as sites of cultural framing. Baer cited the title I Am My Own Woman as an example, a translation of the autobiographical account of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite woman who tells the story of living as an open transvestite in Nazi and East Germany during and after the war.

Questions of culture mingling with translation arise when one considers the German title, which reads, Ich bin meine eigene Frau. Frau, Baer pointed out, can be interpreted as either “woman” or “wife.”

Translation here becomes an interesting site for understanding how different cultures have an invested role in marketing certain ideas through translation. “In the context of the memoir, it’s clearly wife,” Baer explained. “On the cover it is translated I Am My Own Woman, which invokes this phrase of empowerment and independence. They were packaging her in a certain way, and this is linked to the Western investment in post-communist history as a transition.”

Baer said that too often we think of the translator as autonomous, when in reality publishers and marketers of books also play a role in what or how something is translated. “I see translations as teachable moments as opposed to a necessary evil, and I think it can raise important, relevant and productive questions about how cultural objects and ideas travel,” Baer said.

Baer concluded, “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say in our rapidly globalizing world it is an ethical imperative to address this question, not to pretend that these are just magically carried into our culture or that they’re not translations at all.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia Cutler covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.  

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