Concepts & practices in 20th-century translation

Cristina Roquette

Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal

“Double-voiced words’’: from Bakhtin’s heteroglossia to heterolingualism in writings by hyphenated authors

Abstract: According to Bakhtin, language is socially produced. Because literary works have the same social foundation, they are dialogical, being immersed in a specific social context that will influence their most defining contours. Not expressing a single voice or point of view, literary works are also heteroglot or other-voiced, providing a polyphonic expression of ideas, opinions and voices.

Keywords: Translation Studies, Bakhtin, Social Construction of Meaning, Portuguese- American writers, heteroglossia, heterolingualism.

‘Two voices is the minimum for life, the minimum for existence’



Although Translation Studies only emerged as a discipline in its own right in the late 1970s, it has since taken several paths that not only convey different viewpoints of analysis as far as the purpose of translation is concerned but have led to the development of a new paradigm, culturally centred, which through the years has given rise to a prolific collection of theoretical approaches.

The cultural turn of the 1980s was indeed a major breakthrough. It meant moving from a strictly linguistic-centred notion of translation towards an assumption that rendered translations first and foremost a cultural fact.

Gradually, the linguistic features of the translated-text-to-be (the source text) started to be undermined, and issues related to sociocultural aspects from both the source and the recipient or target culture began to play a different role during the process of translation. A more profound debate on translation (process and product) opened the way to the questioning of age-old quests such as the pursuit of a faithful, accurate and definitive translation.

While I do not intend here to go into the specificities of the different turns taken by Translation Studies since its advent, it nevertheless seems important to emphasise the growing awareness of the social and cultural nature of translation, in spite of the multitude of frameworks underpinning the conceptual choices of scholars in different aspects of this vast new field.

The importance of looking at translation as a cultural event, socially contextualised, has granted the possibility of overcoming problems resulting from viewing it as a mere transfer of a written text from one language to another. The departure from this non-abiding truth that conveys the idea of translation as being a finalised product and ignores the mutual effect that source and receiving culture have on one another has broadened the scientific interest and depth of Translation Studies. As Mary Snell-Hornby puts it, Translation Studies “is concerned, not with languages, objects, or cultures as such, but with communication across cultures, which does not merely consist of the sum of all factors involved” (66). In fact, the first communicative relation embedded in the translation process results from the translator’s particular and personal reading of the source text. Involving the understanding of the translator throughout the process, the product of translation (the translated text) is bound to be influenced by it; thus it can be argued that it is a result of a singular understanding that necessarily encompasses multiple understandings, which is why we can consider it a refraction of the initial meaning, if there actually is one.[2] In this matter it is Bassnett who claims (citing Octavio Paz):

all texts, being part of a literary system descended from and related to other systems, are “translations of translations of translations”: every text is unique and at the same time it is the translation of another text. No text is entirely original because language itself, in its essence, is already a translation: firstly, of the non-verbal world and secondly, since every sign and every phrase is the translation of another sign and another phrase. (46)

In the context of a volume setting out to discuss the outcome of the sociopolitical, economic and ideological upheaval of the first half of the twentieth century, particularly as regards the production of knowledge and its specific effect on “the ways in which translation was thought and practiced, and translators were perceived and employed”, it is imperative to consider the role played by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), the Russian philosopher known to have been one of the most important theorists of discourse of that century, whose ideas should be taken into account since they had the prerogative of anticipating some of the directions of contemporary thought. According to him, language is socially produced or, as he argues, produced in a dialogic context where there is no first or last word. Meaning, therefore, can never be finalised, instead it will always be renewed in the process of subsequent development of dialogue. This dialogical perspective of language will lead us, firstly, to a theory that emphasises the connection between language and culture, and secondly, helps us understand how important Bakhtin- ian concepts such as polyphony and heteroglossia can be applied to Translation Studies, thereby helping to find plausible answers to certain translational problems that arise in specific contexts.

Before taking my own path towards explaining Bakhtin’s contributions to Translation Studies, I should note that my acquaintance with his conceptualisation of language and the production of meaning took place while trying to find solutions and adequate translation strategies to face specific difficulties emerging from what Margarida Vale de Gato calls “the irruption of another language within the principal discursive one in certain novels”[3] by the so-called hyphenated or “diasporic authors”, such as Portuguese-Canadian or Portuguese-American writers, and the challenges it may most certainly pose to the translator’s craftsmanship nowadays. Although written mainly in English, the use of heteroglot vocabulary in these novels, often joining English and Portuguese words, creates a specific kind of difficulty for those engaged in their translation into Portuguese. Trying somehow to analyse this type of translational problem brought me to the proximity of concepts created by Bakhtin, an author who did not explicitly theorise about translation or the translator’s task or mission but whose view of language as a dialogic event was effectively a cultural turn avant la lettre.

  • [1] Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (qtd. in Dentith, 1996).
  • [2] In his essay “Mother Courage’s Cucumbers: text, system and refraction in a theoryof literature”, published in Lawrence Venuti’s The Translation Studies Reader, AndreLefevere argues that “[w]riters and their work are always understood and conceivedagainst a certain background or, if you will, are refracted through a certain spectrum,just as their work itself can refract previous works through a certain spectrum” (234).
  • [3] Margarida Vale de Gato Paper presented at “Neither Here nor There, Yet Both: International Conference on the Luso-American Experience”. Lisbon, 11 - 13 July 2013.
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