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Global Translation: The Dream of a Translation Tower of Babel

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We read in the Bible that the whole world had one common language for all people who became skilled in construction and decided to build a tower that would reach to heaven. "... and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do." (Genesis 11:5-6) Without this common language, their society couldn’t function. God disrupted their speech and split up their entire society. Their construction was not a temple for God but a monument to themselves, to reach heaven and become gods. The story is all about disobedience and arrogance.

After the destruction of the Tower of Babel sons of Adam are restoring their talents to reconstruct and pose a symbol of power with the same ramifications. But the stature of a unified language in the form of English language, the World Wide Web, Global Economy and other cultural strategies are not enough to overpower the divinely established human diversity. One should not allow a wide scope for the disappearance of diversified cultural and national identities in the process of translation which usually happens when translating from a dominant language into the dominated or even vice versa. Of course, it is the function of a true translator to preserve as much of the cultural tinge of the source language as possible.

One admits that there are different approaches to translating a text. Nevertheless, when translating a literary text the reader expects to read at least a near literary work in the target language. It is clear that such a translator constantly oscillates between fixity and change, the fixity to stay faithful to the source language and its components and the change to transcend the translation red lines in terms of different elements, from linguistic to cultural. The translator as communicator has to communicate the source language in the form of the target language as a "cultural other" and avoid subverting or inverting it into the receiving language. Thus a literary work, say, translated into a language different from its original would reward the target reader with new ideas.

So diversity remains a source of knowledge for mankind. Why then, one may ask, the trend to homogenize languages? Why is it that large numbers of languages are dying, many are starving and only about a dozen are expected to settle? Is there another tower of Babel being constructed? If yes, how different would it be from the archetypal one? There have always been attempts to homogenize, dominate and map the world geographically (e.g. the sixteenth century European expansionism), a time to track the world economically, to think the world ideologically, to imagine the world textually, linguistically and ultimately culturally. The common ground linking all these attempts is to build a certain tower of Babel as to once more commit the same human sin, that of Adam/Eve, Cain and Noah’s people prior to the flood.

Broadly speaking, translation refers to any communication of knowledge in terms of language or whatsoever. Great national literary traditions, for instance, have flourished and been affected by some other literary movement across the border where people speak a different language and are entertained by a different culture. Translation runs through all human veins and affects all walks of life. It is more often than not a reciprocal movement which results in the natural process of enriching and purifying cultures of diversified nations.

Now the so-called center of the world, the dominating West, is assumed as the great original while the dominated world is subjugated and regarded as colonial copies of the prototypes. Colonies are read as translations of the United States and Europe. Thus Plato’s patriarchal idea instills the meaning that copies have little or no value in the "new imperial republic". Translations, then, are evaluated as less than originals while the act of translation takes away from the original. In the realm of translation as a means of cultural exchange the governing rule should be the give and take rule which negates any sort of power hierarchy or hegemonic definitions.

It is not important if translation is carried out from a Western language into non-Western or the other way round. The truth is that wherever the West is located in this translation binary it always dreams of a higher status. Take an example, from the archive of Persian-English translation literature. Translation is expected to be a reciprocal cultural process but sometimes it is merely consumed by the West. Over the nineteenth century Arabic, Indian and Persian texts were either translated or modified and published with additional marginal notes. Nevertheless, the receiving (English) language through some textual practices or personal announcements imagined other cultures as subordinate. Edward Lane, the well-known translator of The Thousand and One Nights, commented that Arabs were far more credulous readers than the European ones "and did not make the same clear distinction between the rational and the fictitious."[1] Edward Fitzgerald too accused "the Persians of artistic incompetence and suggested that their poetry became art only when translated into English."[2] Lane and Fitzgerald both were great translators of the period. Nevertheless, they self-complacently regarded themselves as members of a superior culture: "Translation was a means both of containing the artistic achievements of writers in other languages and of asserting the supremacy of the dominant European culture.[3] A great translator could maintain his or her greatness by presenting a genuine picture of the source language or writer. Goethe, for instance, truly appreciates the work of the great Persian poet Hafiz. The former describes the effect of the latter on him as being too intense. He could not resist the influence of Hafiz. This sort of bilateral cultural exchange between East and West would result in great literature in the world. It would also instigate communication and love: Baba Taher, another Persian poet, wonders how good it would be if love were reciprocal.

Postcolonial theory alerts readers to the essential issues that complexity needs to be restored in order to understand the relations to other identities. Edward Said introduces a new analysis for discovering "revolutionary ideas". He regards imperialism as paradoxical. On the one hand, people were either exclusively Western or exclusively Oriental; on the other hand, imperialism "consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale".[4] On the whole, he always wants readers and critics to have a contrapuntal reading of texts in the context of Orientalist cultural exchange. Hall also invites us to heed the postcolonial call which "obliges us to re-read binaries as forms of transculturation, of cultural translation." Hall also realizes the need to rediscover the "transverse movements which were always inscribed in the history of "colonization" but carefully overwritten by more binary forms of narrativisation."[5] Obviously, Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi realize the function of postcolonial theory here: "The post-colonial frame allows us to better understand the outcomes of translation by taking into account the asymmetry of languages and cultures within the evolving global context and by insisting on historically informed criticism."[6]

To give the reader an example of showing the truth about Orientalist translation let us examine translations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam which took place in the 1930s. Some Indian translators translated from Fitzgerald’s English version but a few translated directly from Persian language. The latter group posed a definite act of resistance to English intervention while the former group merely showed colonial dependence. This is how different translations are judged by Indian readers and critics:

Thus, if the Persian poets such as Khayyam and Attar needed to be supplied with "a little Art" by Fitzgerald before they could become acceptable in English, Fitzgerald in turn needed to be fairly comprehensively modified and even subverted before he could be metamorphosed into successful Hindi poetry.[7]

So it is clear that translation has been interwoven in the colonial experience as a strategy among other cultural strategies to perpetuate the superiority of dominant cultures. However, it is time to re-read the history and practice of translation at the present time since there has occurred a revolution regarding an awareness of power relations in terms of textual transfer from one culture into another.

But let us reverse the situation now and examine the translation scenario from English to Eastern languages. Of course, it is enough to study the canonical works in the realm of English literature to find that not only literary works written explicitly on the Empire like Rudyard Kipling’s Kim but implicit works such as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park also are entangled in the imperialistic web whose elements could be traced in "the structure of attitude and reference" coined by Edward Said. Translating such literary works might open a conduit through which foreign influences know how to penetrate and subvert a native culture.

Antonio Gramsci referred to the role of ideology in translation; he used the term hegemony which was responsible for production and control of mainstream cultural knowledge across cultural barriers. In the 1970s some scholars examined cultural systems which could affect translation. However, in the late 1980s other groups of scholars explored the impact of colonization, in particular, on translation. From that time translators and scholars in general grew sensitive to their understanding of other cultures. Even the optimistic concept that universalism which implies that all may have the same things materialized in their languages and cultures was questioned. Universalism or universal truth became an allusion instilled by hegemonic powers in hope to make the dominated subjects accept the culture of the center: If you conform to us and if you try to be like us you will be civilized, modernized, cultured, rational, and so on.

Therefore, when a translator translates from a hegemonic language with its hegemonic standards into a dominated one he would serve the dominating power because s/he contributes towards the integration of the hegemonic culture into the dominated one. In such cases the source culture is in control of the target one. That is why above ninety percent of translation works are from hegemonic into dominated languages. Even in the few cases from dominating into dominated culture the works would be imagined as mysterious, hard to understand, esoteric and stereotypical. Sometimes, dominated authors look for larger popularity or greater number of readers then s/he has to resort to the dominating language and thus accepting some of the rules of the game or conformity to the hegemonic models. Postcolonialists reject the idea that translation is constantly controlled by the target culture. "The history of colonialism is full of cases in which an imperial source culture from, say, England or France or Spain initiated and controlled a process of translating the Bible and other source texts into the "primitive" "local" target languages of the colonies. This usually involved sending a missionary from the source culture into the target culture to learn the target language..."[8]

Translation has sometimes been used by dominated natives to form a resistance in the face of hegemonic cultural assaults. It has sometimes become a tool of resistance for native translators. Rafael argues that they empowered themselves in the asymmetrical colonial relationship by allowing themselves to freely interpret (by translating) the outlandish impositions of the colonizers.[9] This kind of interpretation allowed the natives to handle the situation within the boundaries of their cultural and psychological framework, in a way to ease the colonial pressures on them.

Under the influence of globalization manifested in the form of the same McDonald’s food stuff, the same Nike Shoes, the same Disney films and the same Microsoft Windows, the gradual collapse of "otherness" becomes a threat for the practice of (self-) identification. To recognise the self it needs to be fore-grounded against its other (This is how the Western hegemonic powers used to and still identify themselves). Cloning, by sheer duplication of aesthetics in consumer products, becomes then a new form of colonialism, or "clonialism", according to Cronin.[10]

At the end I would like to return to the translation Tower of Babel. In this sense, Babelianism or rather neo-Babelianism inspires for mutual and instantaneous intelligibility among human beings in terms of communicating through different languages which are somehow homogenized for the purpose. In this case the builders and designers of the tower do not intend to reach the sky but the global meaning intended for everything described as global, such as global economy, global communication, global language and global culture. There will be a Babelian phenomenon but this time as a multilingual reality made possible through global translation. “Translation then becomes a tool for homogenisation”: “Reluctantly, translation is recognised as indispensable. It becomes an additional cost to the building project.” [11] Translation is "accepted but only on the condition that it can be engineered to produce a pre-Babelian illusion".[12]

So man needs wake-up calls sometimes particularly when his arrogance goes too far. He is better off keeping a check on his attitude and being on the look out for signs of building towers. Once he gets started on a tower of Babel it is likely that he gets carried away. Global translation ought to use the refined language of love. When the inspiration is an elevated one it gets translated into a global architectural mastery like the Taj Mahal not a homogenized construction like the Tower of Babel.


[1] Lane, E. The Thousand and One Nights, London, 1859.

[2] Bassnett, S. Translation Studies, rev. edn, London: Routledge, 1991.

[3] Bassnett, S. and Trivedi, H. Post-colonial Translation, London: Routledge, 1991, p.6.

[4] Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism, New York, Knopt, 1993, p.336.

[5] Hall, S. "When was the "Post-colonial?" Thinking at the Limit", in I. Chambers and L. Curti (eds), The Post-Colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons, London and New York: Routledge, 1996, p.247, 251.

[6] Post-colonial Translation, p.176.

[7] Ibid, p.8.

[8] Robinson, Douglas. Becoming a Translator: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation, London: Routledge, 2003, p.196.

[9] Rafael, Vicente L. Contracting Colonialism - Translation and Christian Conversion in the Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule, Durham and London: Duke UP, 1993.

[10] Davila-Montes, Jose M. ‘Retrotraduccion, publicidad y “post-clonialismo”, in Balcells et al. (eds). Estudios Humanisticos – Filologia. Leon, Spain: University of Leon, 2007 (431-442). (Originally in Cronin, Michael. Translation and Globalization, London: Routledge, 2003. p.128.)

[11] Davila-Montes, Jose M. ‘Retrotraduccion, publicidad y “post-clonialismo”, in Balcells et al. (eds). Estudios Humanisticos – Filologia. Leon, Spain: University of Leon, 2007 (431-442).

[12] Cronin, Michael. Translation and Globalization, London: Routledge, 2003. p.128, p.62.

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