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29 - Ideology and translation

"In my mind, I formed the elements of a new ideology; Wilson had taken over the goal of saving humanity from war"1.

As with all forms of communication, as for translation, a debate has been going on since time immemorial over the possibility that ideology influences the strategies adopted. When meaning by "ideology" a set of convictions aimed at some practical action (Seliger 1976: 91-92), we usually disregard the aspects of individual ideology to the advantage of the so-called collective ideologies, those around which political and social movements gravitate.

Tejaswini Niranjana did some research on the subject of the relationship between translation and ideology:

In a post-colonial context the problematic of translation becomes a significant site for raising questions of representation, power, and historicity. The context is one of contesting and contested stories attempting to account for, to recount, the asymmetry and inequality of relations between peoples, races, languages2.

This argument develops og the theme of the cultural implicit. Ideology intrinsic in the existence of a culture with a given set of values, implicit and taken for granted, provides for the non-neutral description of that which is other; what is more, ideology, judgment are completely hidden. Judging a world that is other, and moreover judging it with a "false clean conscience" like those who believe or pretend to, that they don't judge at all, that they limit themselves to describing reality, is a double violence.

In forming a certain kind of subject, in presenting particular versions of the colonized, translation brings into being overarching concepts of reality and representation. These concepts, and what they allow us to assume, completely occlude the violence that accompanies the construction of the colonial subject3.

There is, therefore, a form of implicit ideology deriving from the existence of a culture and of power relationships between the cultures themselves. But there are also forms of explicit ideology that have the use of ideology in translation as their objective. In some spheres of Feminist criticism there is the explicit proposal to censure through translation some male-chauvinist aspects of literature, and to recreate such works in a politically correct version that can be acceptable to women.

In this case the implicit ideology is that of the male-chauvinist, which saturates the pre-Feminist literature, and the explicit ideology is Feminist that intends, through an overtly violent act (and therefore intentionally less violent than the male one, that is insidious), to overthrow the power relationships in the literary field through translation. I'm not interested here in taking sides for or against a given ideological viewpoint in translation: I'd like to point out the differences of method and differences on the continuum implicitness/explicitness of ideology.

Still on the front of explicit ideology - or at least very apparent in the eyes of other cultures - there are cases like that of Fëdorov who, in his classic Osnovy obshchej teorii perevoda (Foundations for a general theory of translation, 1953) is often in line with the Soviet ideology prevailing in the Fifties. The third chapter, sounding overtly comical read today, makes it possible to understand how dramatic it could be for people living that situation from the inside, is entitled "Marx, Engels and Lenin on translation". In it we realize that of course the three Marxist ideologists were indefatigable translators and refined translation scholars. Read what Vladìmir Il´ìch Uljànov, in art Lenin, wrote about translation:

We ruin the Russian language. We use foreign words without necessity. We use them inappropriately. Why should we say defekty, when we can say nedočety or nedostatki or probely? [...] Shouldn't we declare war against the unnecessary use of foreign words? (Lenin, Complete works, volume 40, p. 40, p. 49)

From this position, between the lines, we realize how Lenin was conservative, chauvinist and nationalist, and how little he cared that the perception of the other (that he calls "foreign") were culturally neuter. It is very well known that in the Soviet regime, to be able to be published even in a scientific context, one should celebrate the personality of the leader (in Russian the word vozhd´, sometimes translated as "guide", derives from the verb vodit´, to lead, therefore it sounds as a calque on the Latin language, as in Italian the word dux attributed to Mussolini). This personality cult characterizes all totalitarian regimes, where often ubiquitously the image of the dux is spread and his enterprises are described in fields very far from politics.

All references to the cabinet of Italian Premier Berlusconi are completely intended.

Beyond these "surface ideologies", we must consider the subjective ideologies that sometimes remain unspoken. The Italian satirical songwriter Giorgio Gaber used to sing in a celebrated song:

Un'idea, un concetto, un'idea,

finché resta un'idea

è soltanto un'astrazione.

Se potessi mangiare un'idea

avrei fatto la mia


The underlying sense of these verses emphasizes that, beyond the stated ideologies and independently from them, there are ideologies of which people can have no conscious awareness, that however dominate their minds in a insidious way.

If for example my stated ideology is Egalitarianism, and I attend demonstrations for brotherhood among peoples, but I have a disgust for the smell of food of my neighbors belonging to a culture different from mine, the conflict between public and private ideology (surface and deep ideology) is self evident.

Since, as we have seen in the previous parts of the course, the interlingual translation process actually consists in a set of intersemiotic translation processes bringing the verbal material to be translated into mental material of the translator, who then re-transforms it in verbal form, the individual implicit ideology of the translator is an essential aspect of the translation process.

I therefore consider it impossible to divide the ideological aspect from the other aspects of translation. Since everybody has an ideology, and everybody translating interferes with the translation process with their own ideology, the best solution in my opinion is for such ideology to be explicit at least for the translator herself. In other words, this means that it is necessary for each translator to have at least some control over her own mental processes and her own deep ideology so as to be able to inform her texts' readers of the kind of ideological deformation inevitably following from such a premiss.


Bibliographical references

CANETTI ELIAS Die gerettete Zunge. - Die Fackel im Ohr. - Das Augenspiel, München, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995, ISBN 3-446-18062-1.

CANETTI ELIAS The Tongue Set Free. Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 0-374-19950-7, p. 1-286.

FAWCETT PETER Ideology and translation, in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, 1998: 106-111.

NIRANJANA TEJASWINI Siting Translation. History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context, Berkeley, Univerity of California Press, 1992, ISBN 0-520-07451-3.

1 Canetti 1999: 225.
2 Niranjana 1992: 1.
3 Niranjana 1992: 2.
4 An idea, a notion, an idea, until it remains an idea is just an abstraction. If I could eat an idea I could accomplish my revolution.