Who’s the Boss? Power Relations Between Agents in the Literary Translation Process

Ilse Feinauer and Amanda Lourens

Stellenbosch University, South Africa


We investigate the exercise of power in the production of three works of fiction, translated from Afrikaans into English, as commissioned by Media 24, the biggest publishing house in South Africa, which publishes newspapers, magazines and books in most of the 11 official languages. The works investigated were translated by the same award-winning translator (Elsa Silke), namely: Niggie by Ingrid Winterbach (2002), translated into English as To hell with Cronjé (2007, 2010); Vaselinetjie (2004) by Anoeschka von Meek, translated as My name is Vaselinetjie (2009); and the anthology In bushveld and desert: a game ranger’s life (2008) by Christiaan Bakkes. In bushveld and desert is a compilation of short stories' selected and arranged chronologically by a specific agent (the compiler) tasked by the project manager (see Bakkes 2004a, 2004b, 2006,2007,2008).

This study represents a detailed investigation, focusing on the mutual influence and causative relationships between the agents (authors, translators, revisers, editors and proofreaders) involved to infer the system of social positions and relations in which they operate, and to describe the power struggle between them. These agents of intermediation, as Heilbron and Sapiro (2007:101) refer to them, are engaged at different levels of the translation process.

Our study can be classified as a genetic translation study, i.e. it involves investigations of manuscripts, drafts and other working documents such as e-mail correspondence. As Cordingley and Montini (2015:1) state, genetic translation studies want to reveal “the complexity of the creative processes engaged in their production”. We want to deduce the working interaction between the various agents based on “the textual evidence of the [social] activity of translation rather than the translating subject” (Cordingley and Montini 2015:1).

As is typically the case with genetic translation studies, this chapter is situated within a sociological conceptual framework where the collaborative processes influencing the translation product are studied, i.e. the impact of source text authors, translators, revisers, editors and proofreaders, who each played a different role in the translation process. Cordingley and Montini (2015:13) aptly refer to “the many hands that contribute to the translation process”. Our investigation can also be described as “agent-grounded ... from the viewpoint of those who engage in it, in particular (social, cultural or professional) settings” (Buzelin 2011:8). This study is an investigation of the subjective social identities of the relevant agents and of the power relations established in the social context of literary production in these cases. The agency of the relevant agents is determined by the other agents and by the prevailing social context.

In these three case studies, we want to determine specifically power relations at work in translation projects and whether the translator is indeed the more subservient agent between the agents working at grassroots level to deliver a specific translation product. We do so by analysing the e-mail correspondence between the individual agents participating in the production process, i.e. source text authors, translators, revisers, editors and proofreaders, in order to infer the system of social positions and relations in which they operate, and to better describe the relations of power between them. To guide our exploration, we pose the following research question: What power distribution is revealed by the agents’ discourse, specifically through their use of lexical chains, speech acts and modifying adverbs? We do not extend this study to the target texts, so we do not investigate how the power plays out in the published texts. The conclusions of the study provide insight into the nature of translation as a sociologically-driven process, as well as into the power relations at play between the production agents in these three different real-life processes.

Power Relations and Agency

Researching translation in relation to power involves uncovering an array of possible power dynamics by analysing translational activities at various levels or from various angles (Botha 2018:14). Since the 1970s, translation studies scholars (especially Bassnett, Hermans, Lambert, Lefevere, Toury, Van den Broeck, and later also Baker and Tymoczko) became increasingly interested in exploring issues surrounding translation and power. In particular, Tymoczko and Gentzler (2002) in their seminal work Translation and power have renamed the ‘cultural turn’ in translation studies the ‘power turn’. These scholars focus mainly on the power of the translators who, according to Hatim and Mason (1997:147), do not only “facilitate [between source and target texts], but take sides, aware that texts (and they themselves) are carriers of ideologies”. The translator thus becomes “an ethical agent [with the power to generate] ... social change” (Tymoczko 2003:181) or an “activist involved in renarrating the world” in relation to a specific ideology (Baker 2006).

Heilbron and Sapiro (2007:101) affirm that the translation of a literary work is shaped by the agents of intermediation who are situated at different levels of the translation process. According to Bourdieu (1985) “competing interests” of different agents in the production line underpinning their actions, or as Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992:23) put it, the agency of an individual is centred in that individual’s ability to influence or put pressure on the other agents in the field.

Translators are also seen as victims of institutional power systems such as regimes, patrons, publishers and censors, as well as of source text authors. Hatim and Munday (2004) explore how the power of translators can be deduced from their translated products. This can be linked to Lefevere’s (1992:15) control factor of‘patronage’ as that which operates outside the literary system, and has power to promote or constrain literary translation. Patronage basically consists of three elements which can be seen to interact in various combinations: the ideological component, the economic component and the status component. Simeoni (1998:12) assigns a very low status to translators in terms of their advocacy of subservience to the client, to the public, to the author, to the text, to language itself, and, in certain situations of close contact, even to the culture or subculture within which the translation is required to make sense.

Kinnunen and Koskinen (2010:6) conceptualise agency both as part of its social context and the agents’ intentionality. They see agency as “the ability and willingness to act”, where ‘willingness’ refers to the internal state and disposition of an agent. One could see this as relating to conscious reflexivity and intentionality of the implications of agents’ actions. ‘Ability’ refers to the constraints within which agents can exercise choices, and implies power relations between individuals. ‘Agency’ and ‘acting’ also imply exerting influence on an activity or person. In this sense, Kinnunen and Koskinen’s ‘willingness’ relates to Simeoni’s Selbstzwange, and their term ‘ability’ to Simeoni’s term Fremdzwange (Simeoni 1998:5).

Agency is depicted in this chapter as a relational concept. This means that the agents’ capability to act is constructed by the practices and identities of the other agents involved, or as Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992:23) see it, the agency of an individual is centred in the individual’s ability to influence or put pressure on the other agents in the field. Like Awung (2018:57), we also draw on Bourdieu (1993), arguing that the claims of free will usually associated with the actions of a single agent are exaggerated, since any action occurs within a social context that either enables or limits the extent of this action. Decisions taken during the translational negotiation process, conscious or subconscious, are always influenced by the agents’ habitus and by their relationship with the other agents working on the same project, whose activities are also the result of their habitus. Bourdieu (1990:65) postulates the idea of agency with his term ‘habitus’, which he describes as attributes, qualities or dispositions that each individual owns. The habitus of each individual is brought about by socialising with other agents in all spheres of life in which this individual operates; it is neither inborn nor learnt. From the above arguments, it is evident that the agency of an individual agent is determined by the other agents and by the prevailing social context. Tyulenev (2014:11) applies this view to translation practice when he states that “every translation decision is always an interface between the translators’ own individuality and the society of which s/he is a part”. He encourages an analysis of translational context in order to understand translation decisions, and in this way directs translation studies to a study of various agents within the translation project.

As with other creative ventures, literary translation occurs in real cultural, political and social environments, involving real agents with interests in the production and reception of these translations. These production agents usually operate in teams. Feinauer and Lourens (2017) show that this inevitably leads to tension among the agents in various agency positions, especially if the boundaries of these positions or of the tasks to be performed are not discrete. The authors prove empirically that there is no clear task division between translators, revisers, editors and even source text authors, and show that in literary translation practice there are different combinations of self- and other revision by the translator and other agents, implying that there is no clear-cut line between self- and other-revision. Therefore, the processes of revision do not seem to be coordinated among the various agents.

As the power relations between agents involved in producing a literary translation are fairly symmetrical on a sociological level, it is not easy to deduce power imbalances as would be the case in more asymmetrical relations. Power imbalances in the case of apparent symmetry are expressed in more subtle ways. According to Van Dijk (1993:258) “social cognitions allow us to link dominance and discourse. They explain the production as well as the understanding and influence of dominant text and talk” (own italics). As Botha (2018:48) aptly puts it, “a state of asymmetry always exists based upon the general ability of one party to control communicative choices”. Luhmann views power as a communicative function that power holders are enabled to select. Botha (2018:48) extends this view of communication in relation to power to the discussion of translation “as the ability to select, represent or reject translational communication can be measured within the context of the usurpation of communicative choices”.

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