Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.

Against the “Good” Translation: The Power of Disobedience

By Gitanjali Patel Jessie Spivey

Today on WWB Daily, Gitanjali Patel and Jessie Spivey of Shadow Heroes, an organization that runs creative translation workshops for students, take on the myth of the "good" translation. Deconstructing the harmful and exclusionary assumptions behind the phrase, they propose an alternative approach to translation.

What is a “good” translation? “Good,” the most common word of praise in the English language, stakes a claim to universality. Yet, framed as an objective truth, this word becomes dangerous. Conjuring up ideals of quality, virtue, and obedience, “good” has become loaded with the binary it establishes and the archetypes it assumes. The Germanic roots of the word tie it to “gather” and relate the word to something that is “fitting” or “suitable.” With this in mind, we might ask, to whom is this fit tailored? And which stories are being erased in the process?

What is a “good” translation? Translation practice is steeped in the negotiations of power that still play a central part in determining “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.” As an educational tool, however, translation can help to develop an awareness of these structures and deconstruct learned thought patterns that push us to look for one “right” answer. At Shadow Heroes, we believe in the potential of translation to reframe both what we learn and how we learn. Our workshops, mostly delivered to students aged 15–18, seek to de-center Western Europe from language learning, and break away from the hierarchies of value that this emphasis establishes. Working between languages opens questions for which there is no single solution, acknowledging the individual experiences that shape our way of thinking and making space for multiple ways of being “good.”

People often talk about what is “lost in translation.” Indeed the phrase has become positively banal. But what about that which is willfully or unconsciously erased in translation to simplify foreign writers and their writing to make them easily comprehensible for an English reading audience?

Tiffany Tsao’s note on translating Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu—“a queer Toba-Batak–Indonesian poet from a working-class Christian background”—highlights how the complexities and nuance of an individual identity risk being flattened when “good” is equated with “easy,” when one seeks to tell a single story and affix a single identity label. At present, literary translation sits within a landscape that still bears the mark of colonial power structures, mapping out center and margin according to the white gaze. Just as the phrase “lost in translation” glosses over a form of erasure, the prevalence of terms such as “unheard voices” within publishing absolve the West of the act of unhearing, as has recently been pointed out in Minority Africa. Used in this context, “unhearing” and “unheard” are also ableist terms, as Shadow Heroes collaborator and board member Dr. Khairani Barokka notes, framed according to hearing privilege. Spread the Word's recent report “Rethinking Diversity in Publishing” demonstrates how rooting the supposedly universal concept of “good” in the assumed palate of a white (as well as cis and middle-class) audience can lead to the “exoticization and marginalization” of writers of color.

Within this context, a “good” translation is often defined according to how appealing it is to an imagined demographic of Anglophone readers; how easy it is for them to swallow. As one narrow understanding of “good” is sold as an ideal, difference is encouraged to bend to fit the expectations of an exclusionary mainstream.

Yet translation has the potential to rework the English language and, as a result, thought patterns. Speaking with Meena Kandasamy at this year's South Asian Lit Fest, Shadow Heroes board member Arunava Sinha called for the necessity of work on the part of the readers of a translation, and the importance of recognizing this readership as heterogeneous. Advocating for ­texts that “don’t lend themselves” to “easy” English, Sinha spoke of the value of “words and phrases that embody things that don’t exist anywhere else.” In making us aware of the personal presence that we bring to a text as a reader, translation teaches listening as an active process—one that necessitates understanding someone else on their own terms, rather than speaking over them, or for them. It can also act as a reminder of the vast and varied cultural contexts that shape language and languages, of which an individual can only have a limited understanding. It teaches us to embrace the double take and rework our initial conclusions about what sounds “right” or “wrong.”

“Young people are taught to value certain languages over others in a way that echoes global power structures.”

In her recent talk for the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, “Against Racist Ableism in Arts Education,” Dr. Khairani Barokka spoke of the racist and ableist norms that frame the Western understanding of the words “good,” “strong,” and “smart”: definitions that are built through the exclusion of diverse experiences and Indigenous cultures, be this willful or unconscious. These norms also have a damaging impact on the self-image, and self-confidence, of those who are set up to fail: those who do not fit this singular mold of “good.”

From a young age, children are taught an exclusionary definition of “good” and learn to want to be “right,” both in what they know and how they behave. These binaries shape a young person’s trajectory through education and society, but are also internalized, shaping how they view the world, and their place within it. The positioning of heroes and villains within narratives—whether literary, historical, or political—can substitute for a critical interrogation of structural and institutional issues. The Modern Foreign Languages syllabus in the UK, for example, is reflective of a curriculum that largely centers white and Western history and culture and opens little space for the discussion of decolonial questions that have the potential to fundamentally challenge the white British self-image as “good.” Students who are exposed to another language at home, meanwhile, are identified by the education system with the homogenizing acronym “English as an Additional Language.” Their linguistic heritage is more likely to be ignored and presented as an educational disadvantage than seen as a talent to be nurtured, championed, and shared. The Millenium Cohort Study (Campbell, 2015) revealed a clear pattern in which English as an Additional Language students were regularly under-assessed by their teachers. The limited provision of courses in the majority of languages spoken in schools means that it is more difficult for these language speakers to formalize and present their skills to others. In 2015, several UK exam boards threatened to withdraw from the teaching of what were labeled “lesser-known modern languages”—a problematic term in itself, used to cover Arabic, modern Greek, Japanese, Urdu, Bengali, modern Hebrew, Punjabi, Polish, Dutch, Persian, Gujarati, and Turkish. In such an environment, young people are taught to value certain languages over others in a way that echoes global power structures, and to efface existing talents when they present themselves in an academic setting.

“The translations the students produced were not ‘good’: they were dazzling, bold, and inventive.” 

So how to build an alternative? In an interview with The Rumpus, Madhu Kaza notes the power of the translation process to cultivate disobedience to the assumptions of the English-reading audience. She writes, “to do translation is to become intimate with being wrong. I don’t see that as a deterrent. The question is how do you want to be wrong?” It is worth noting that the first, now obsolete usage of the word “wrong” is recorded in the OED as denoting something with a crooked course or shape, that goes awry and deviates, as opposed to the straight, linear course of “right.” Rather than being understood as a negative, this deviance from a notion of “good,” whose power rests upon polarities and the ease of ignorance, can offer a powerful potential for reshaping the way we interpret the world.

Our most recent workshop series took place in a state secondary school in North London. When faced with difficult translations from new languages, the students had no trouble rising to the challenge, quick to engage with something new—whether in Japanese anime films, Arabic comics, or Turkish pop songs. Our last workshop in the series was about translating slang. Spotlighting a form of language so often referred to in opposition to “good” English, and so frequently associated with harmful stereotypes, we looked at the creative power of slang. Highlighting ethical considerations, we discussed how a translator’s choice to replace language rooted in a specific locality with slang from another country is a political act, involving deliberate choices. We ended the session by translating “Convoque seu Buda,” a song by Brazilian rap star Criolo. The task was by no means easy, as the language is filled with locally specific slang as well as political and cultural references. The translations the students produced were not “good”: they were dazzling, bold, and inventive. Here are the first sentences of the original, followed by the beginning of a translation by sixteen-year-old Anes:

Convoque seu Buda, o clima tá tenso
Mandaram avisar que vão torrar o centro
Já diz o ditado: "Apressado come cru"
Aqui não é Gta, é pior, é Grajaú
Sem pedigree, bem loco
Machado de Xangô, fazer honrar teu choro

Unlock your hidden Budda before those filthy liars
At one point they wouldn’t believe us then they wound up on fire
The tortoise will always beat the hare
Am I in Grajaú or GTA, I don’t know where
Without bleach to my skin, call me bem loco
The axe of Xangô will make you all poco

Our workshops seek to foreground curiosity and present difficulty in a space of play, encouraging collaboration and not competition. Using translation as an intimate listening exercise, we aim to encourage young people to question, reflect, and critique. Our hope is that this multifaceted approach to decolonizing curricula and mindsets will one day become commonplace. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes that “as a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” To recognize another person wholly, we must look carefully at the forces that shape the way we see difference, and make space for creative disobedience. Bringing translation into the classroom can create such a space.


Further Reading from WWB:

Exploring Italian Language, Rap, and Migration through Translation

Translating (in) Darkness

Translating the Ancient Female Voice as Queer

Published Sep 1, 2020   Copyright 2020 Gitanjali PatelJessie Spivey

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.