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The translator as social being

It should go without saying: not only are translators social beings just by virtue of

being human; their social existence is crucial to their professional lives. Without a

social network they would never have learned any language at all, let alone one or

two or three or more. Without a social network they would never have kept up with

the changes in the languages they speak. Without a social network they would never

get jobs, would find it difficult to research those jobs, would have no idea of what

readers might be looking for in a translation, would have no place to send the finished

translation, and could not get paid for it.

All this is so obvious as to seem to require no elaboration. Everyone knows

that translators are social beings, and depend for their livelihood on their social

connections with other human beings.

What is strange, however, is that the significance of this fact for the theory and

practice of translation was recognized so very recently by translation scholars. Until

the late 1970s, with the rise of polysystems theory, the mid-1980s, with the rise of

skopos/Handlung theory, and the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the rise of postcolonial

theory, virtually no one thought of translation as essentially a social activity.

Translation was a linguistic activity performed on texts. The significant factors

controlling translation were abstract structures of equivalence, defined syntactically

and semantically — not the social network of people, authors, translation commissioners,

terminology experts, readers, and others on whose real or presumed

input or influence the translator relied to get the job done. The only real issue was

accuracy, and accuracy was defined both narrowly, in terms of linguistic equivalence,

and universally, with no attention to the differing needs and demands and expectations

of real people in real-world situations. If a client wanted a summary or an

expansion, so that it was difficult to establish neat linguistic equivalence between

a source text and a shorter or longer target text, that simply wasn't translation.

Medieval or more recent translations that blurred the distinction between translation

and commentary, so that target texts contained material not found in the source

texts, were not translations. If it could not be discussed in the abstract structural terms of linguistic equivalence, it was not translation, and generally wasn't discussed

at all. A translation either was accurate, in the sense of truly conveying the informational

content (and, for some theorists, as much of the style and syntax as possible)

of the source text — and accurate in the abstract, purely in terms of linguistic analysis,

without any attention at all to who commissioned it and for what purpose, in what

historical circumstances - or it was not a translation and thus of no interest to

translators or translation scholars.

These attitudes have changed drastically since the late 1970s; this book is one

reflection of those changes. However, old habits die hard. The intellectual tradition

on which the abstract linguistic conception of translation was based is very old; it

runs back to the beginnings of Western civilization in the origins of the medieval

church and indeed of Greek rationalism (see Robinson 1991, 1996, 2001). The

inclination to ignore the social construction, maintenance, and distribution of

knowledge is an ancient Western tradition, and its legacy is still very much a

part of our thought today, despite massive philosophical assaults on it all through

the twentieth century. As a result, it still seems "intuitively right" today, despite a

growing awareness of the impact society has on translation, to judge the success of

a translation in terms of pure linguistic equivalence. We know better; but at some

deep level of our intellectual being, we can't help ourselves.

As a result of these inner conflicts, you may find much of the material in this book

simultaneously (1) perfectly obvious, so obvious as not to need saying at all, and (2)

irrelevant to the study of translation, so irrelevant as to seem almost absurd. It does

"go without saying" that translators are social beings, that social networks control

or channel or influence the activity of translation in significant ways, that there are

many more factors determining the "success" or "goodness" of a translation than

pure linguistic equivalence — but at the same time those factors seem somehow

secondary, peripheral, less important than the bare fact of whether the translator

conveyed the whole meaning of the source text.