In this age of relentless globalisation, certain groups of people are routinely disenfranchised due to gender, ethnicity, nationality and social class. In this context, it’s helpful to consider the role translation plays in all of this, and whether it can ever help to empower the disenfranchised – or only serve to increase their vulnerability.
The controversial translation theorist Lawrence Venuti has argued insistently that fluent translations frequently perpetuate socio-political inequalities. In his view, translation is not an innocuous activity that facilitates communication – it can entrench inequality by bolstering the supremacy of dominant cultures.
Recent research has started to explore these complex issues. The translation scholar Israel Hephzibah focuses on English translations of Tamil literature produced by members of the so-called “untouchable” Dalit communities in India. These translations inevitably destabilise the traditional caste system by conferring literary credibility on the writings of a severely marginalised group. Such cases suggest that translation can become aligned with social justice.
But the fraught issue of endangered languages and cultures complicates the picture. UNESCO has estimated that 50-90% of the world’s languages will have become extinct by the year 2100.
It has been recognised for some time now that translations of indigenous texts (whether oral or written) can hasten language erosion in communities where there are few surviving native speakers. In contrast, translations into the endangered tongues can help to strengthen those languages.
On the whole, we seem to care less about vanishing languages than we do about endangered species – especially cuddly ones. When the last giant panda finally goes to the great bamboo grove in the sky, there will undoubtedly be prolonged global lamentation. But the Native American Klallam language expired on February 4 2014, when Hazel Sampson (its last speaker) died. Few news organisations felt its passing merited more than a cursory mention.
And even some translation theorists are sceptical. Emily Apter declared bluntly that she has “real reservations” about mingling translation studies and linguistic ecology – the study of how languages interact with their environment. Apter is concerned that the exoticising of expressions by native-speakers and other distinctive characteristics of a language risks imposing a fixed grammar where a natural variation should instead be allowed to prevail.
There are many different kinds of periphery in the modern world, and life close to them can be difficult, even precarious. But languages are spoken there too. They may not be the same languages as those uttered closer to the “centre” of things, but that does not invalidate them.