Translation, post-colonialism and power

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In her book Siting Translation, Indian academic Tejaswini Niranjana takes a fresh look at accepted translation theory. She discusses the inequalities between languages, linguistic and cultural domination and the manipulative power of translation. She also sheds new light on the role that translation plays in establishing representations of the colonial or post-colonial subject within post-colonial criticism.

Niranjana makes a simple preliminary observation: for the most-part contemporary translation theories are based on Western examples and are influenced by the eternal opposition between fidelity or betrayal and a focus on target or source. Such theories do not view translation from the point of view of power or history.
Niranjana makes use of new post-structuralist concepts such as the criticism of both representation and the genetic and teleological nature of traditional historiography in an interesting examination of the function of translation during India’s colonial period.
Translation and History
According to Niranjana, the meaning of historicity in translation involves examining « effective history ». Questions such as who did the translation, how, why, the translation’s impact need to be addressed. By examining the history of translation of classical Indian works into English from this view-point, it has become apparent to Niranjana that the translators were always European – missionaries or colonial administrators – since the Indians themselves were not considered worthy. She also notes in the prefaces to the translations a blatant desire, on the part of the translators, to purify Indian culture and make it seem more « English ».
Niranjana starts with an intertextual analysis and demonstrates that such translations were later used to justify laws and administrative texts for the colony. The image projected through the translations encouraged colonial ideology – the Indian culture was presented as static and unchanging, without history, or no history other than that of the despotic Orient. « History is denied because it is seen as fiction, but fiction – in translated form – is accepted as history », she says (p. 25).
Orientalist representations of translation then perpetuated themselves in English-language education, hence the notion of « living in the translation » that Niranjana elaborates in her analysis.
Translation, humanism and ethnology
According to Niranjana, contemporary translation theories are based on a vision of language as the representation of reality, Art being seen as the tradition of mimesis. In this case, translations always appear to be based on « sense », with the focus being placed on the original text.
These theories imply that all languages are equal, defining translation in humanist terms as a « dialogue between cultures ». It is by no means coincidental that translation has often been linked to evangelical work throughout history. Curiously, contemporary translation theories have not questioned this connection.
Niranjana also examines the relationship between translation and ethnography. Ethnography attempts to reconstruct the « primitive » world and represent it without questioning the power relationships between the coloniser and the colonised which were involved in the rise of the discipline. The same strains of colonial discourse are to be found in translation and ethnography. That is, denial of a pre-colonial history for communities studied – « nature » is instead the preferred subject of discussion. The translator or ethnographer as subject is totally eclipsed and the text takes on a sort of objective authority.
Retranslating history
Post-colonial translation implies a criticism of teleology and origin. It also implies an awareness of power relationships, historicity and the rhetoric of humanism which « speaks for » the colonial subject. History is thus rewritten by translation. Niranjana writes « As the post-colonial subject already exists in the translation, our objective should not be origin or essence but rather the complexity of the notion of « self ». This is where translators can intervene to provide a heterogeneity, avoid myths of purity and represent origin as already fissured » (p. 186).
Niranjana’s reply to those who disagree with using a Western theory to criticise the ethnocentricity of the West is that the idea of a lost purity is an illusion. Colonial violence leaves nothing « uncontaminated ». She subsequently states that the fight against colonialism has contributed to the evolution of Western thought and the recognition of difference.
And yet, although Niranjana’s analysis is convincing and goes beyond the usual opposition to contemporary translation theories, the study would greatly benefit from a few concrete examples.

Siting Translation. History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context, Tejaswini Niranjana. University of California Press, 1992, 204 pages.
Taina Teronen is a journalist and translator of Finnish origin who regularly contributes to Africultures. She majored in African Studies (literature) and translation and wrote her dissertation on the translation of African literature in Finland.///Article N° : 5453

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