Panel 10: Key cultural texts in translation ( Kirsten Malmkjaer)

In every literate culture, texts of various types and genres and in various forms (textual, audiovisual and visual) play central roles in presenting and representing the culture to itself and in defining its cultural others (people, places, and customs).
Such texts can be of many different genres, but paradigm cases tend to be religious, political, literary, historical and journalistic. The key concepts that they help to define include for example, childhood, adulthood (and the relations between them), citizenship, freedom and personal identity (and the relations between them), nationhood, foreignness, democracy, dictatorship (and other political \"states\"), and the sacred.

Such concepts typically vary across languages and cultures, and their variance comes to light especially clearly in translations, both in the language of the translation, and in paratexts such as translators\' prefaces, post-scripts and notes. These can highlight perceived translation difficulties and the reasons for them, and the solutions adopted and the reasons for those. They can highlight the reasons for re-translations, revealing perceived miscommunication or felt needs for greater precision - perhaps because previous translations were kept deliberately vague at key points; and re-translations can also reveal approximations of the varying concepts to each other.

Participants in this session will be asked to identify what they believe to be a key cultural text, explain why they think it functions as such, identify key concepts used in it, and examine their treatment in one or more translations. The point of this is to highlight the essentially contested nature of certain concepts across cultures, and the types of adjustment this may (or may not) engender.

This is important in at least two respects: As Chomsky (1979: 38-39) points out, liberal-democratic political states, which do not prohibit the expression of contentious views, may instead \'fix the limits of possible thought: supporters of the official doctrine at one end, and the critics ... at the other\'. Translations can disturb these limits in ways that are worth examining and learning from. And, as Gallie (1956: 193) points out:

Recognition of a given concept as essentially contested implies recognition of rival uses of it (such as oneself repudiates) as not only logically possible and humanly \"likely\", but as of permanent potential critical value to one\'s own use or interpretation of the concept in question; whereas to regard any rival use as anathema, perverse, bestial or lunatic means, in many cases, to submit oneself to the chronic human peril of underestimating the value of one\'s opponents\' positions. One very desirable consequence of the required recognition in any proper instance of essential contestedness might therefore be expected to be a marked raising of the level of quality of arguments in the disputes of the contestant parties.

By looking for patterns of similarities and difference in the treatment in translations of key cultural concepts, and recognising their essentially contested nature, we may learn what constitutes success and failure in people\'s attempts to adjust and accommodate mutually, enabling disturbances of perceived relations of periphery versus centrality among cultural groups and the concepts that are embodied in the texts that they consider central to their cultures.

Sample questions to be illuminated:

  • What is and what makes a key cultural text (in different cultures this is likely to vary) (e.g. its structure, content, modes of dissemination, reception ...)?
  • What concepts do key cultural texts tend to include (in different cultures this is likely to vary)?
  • Are there patterns in the ways in which these texts/concepts are treated in translations?
  • Can these be related to features of cultural context?

Further information: This panel will augment and complement the AHRC funded network “Key Cultural Texts in Translation” running at the University of Leicester from 1. May 2012 till 30. April 2014.