Where Sociology and History Intersect

Two main principles guide the exploration of literary imports into Swahili. First, translation history should address problems of “social causation”, explaining “why translation was produced in a particular social time and space” (Pym 1998:ix). Second, translation history is based on an understanding of translation as a socially contextualised phenomenon. While many approaches exist that add value to the field (e.g. Buzelin 2005; Luhmann 1995), my approach to the sociology of translation is based on Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory concerning the (re)production of knowledge, and Pascale Casanova’s, Johan Heilbron’s and Gisèle Sapiro’s theories on the transnational circulation of symbolic goods.

Bourdieu’s (1993, 1996) framework understands the sphere of literary production as an autonomous field—with distinct rules, institutions and specific (material and symbolic) capital—yet permeable to influences of other (e.g. political, economic, religious) fields, which render literary struggles sensitive to external changes such as political or economic crises. However, the impact of external determination is neither deterministic nor mechanical. A structuring force of the field is the habitus, i.e. the embodied cultural and ethical dispositions acquired through socialisation and social conditions (Bourdieu 1977). Habitus is understood by Bourdieu (1977) as the product of two histories, that of the field to which a person belongs and that of the person’s trajectory in the social space. In this sense, habitus is both a product of individual and collective histories and a producer of individual and collective practices which in turn potentially shape the structure of the field. The interplay between structure and agency also emerges from the agents’ investments aimed at maintaining or overturning the doxa, which defines a set of values and discourses viewed as fundamental and legitimate by a field and which is maintained by habitual practices (Bourdieu 1977). In the literary field, texts are considered not only material but also symbolic resources over which the diverse categories of agents struggle to obtain symbolic capital, which in turn determines the position agents occupy in that field, and therefore its very structure (Bourdieu 1993). Furthermore, texts are also mobilised to sponsor a particular agenda as they can manifest homologies of interests or be used for instrumental usages (Bourdieu 2002).

Bourdieu’s sociological framework was applied by Casanova (2002, 2004), Heilbron (1999), and Heilbron and Sapiro (2008) to conceptualise a world literary space as a (semi-autonomous) field in its own right—with its own economy that produces hierarchies, with its own history and geography which oppose centres and frontiers, and with its own consecrating authorities. The circulation of literary goods in such a world literary space is regulated by political, economic and cultural power relations, implying hiérarchisation of the various literary fields. In such a hierarchical space, translation is described as a resource of consecration in the literary world, both in the sense of visibility and accumulation of literary resources which could be converted into literary capital.

Both field theory and the concept of a world literary space have a profound historical dimension. In Bourdieu’s (1993) sociological scheme, the changes, upheavals and struggles at the heart of the field constitute a crucial and generative element that creates its history. Similarly, Casanova (2004:175) considers “the revolts, assaults upon authority, manifestos, inventions of new forms and languages - all the subversions of the traditional order” as the substance that makes the history of the very structure of the field.

However, while translation has long been recognised as a social and historical practice, the disciplines of sociology and history in translation research have remained separate. In his seminal book Method in Translation History, Anthony Pym (1998:10) observes that translation practices are not sufficiently reconstructed as “social history”, and suggests a method that puts the human translators, their “social entourage” and the social contexts in which agents operate at the centre of the historical vision. Hanna (2016:67) also criticises translation histor(iograph)y for paying “little attention to the social genesis of historical translational phenomena”. At a different level, Duarte (2003:16) points out that the “author-oriented, canon-preserving, nation-based” orientation of much historical research is a limitation. A lack of interdisciplinary research has been identified as a further empirical impediment. Casanova (2004), for example, points to how history and literary theory sometimes exist in a state of mutual neglect. However, in recent decades, a greater reconciliation of sociology and history is being supported (see Delisle and Woodsworth 1995; D’hulst 2001; Hanna 2016; Roig-Sanz and Meylaerts 2018). Merging sociology and history, in my case by means of Bourdieu’s relational thinking, makes literary practice a socialised practice, one that exists in the network between different mediators and their institutional frameworks, the discourses in which they engage, the contextual positions they occupy, and the elements of power driving their translation practices. From this perspective, charting the history of the field means tracking a collective history of cultural (re) production. But it also means, as Pym (1998:144) maintains, looking for the “diffuse and multiple” social causation.

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