Frames of War in News Translation: Butler and Valdeón

The title of this post comes from Judith Butler’s Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2010, hereafter FoW) Bizarrely, the book was translated in French as Ce qui fait une vie: Essai sur la violence, la guerre et le deuil. We’ve lost the reference to framing in this translation, which is unfortunate, as it is framing itself on Butler’s account that determines what makes a life, and what makes a life grievable, or what makes the loss of a life appear as a justifiable outcome of contemporary warfare. Following the important work of Roberto A. Valdeón, however, I want to pick out a few points on these frames are articulated and rearticulated in translation, how translation can serve to both confirm a dominant ideology concerning the justifiability of warfare, but also prepare the grounds for its contestation.

Butler’s book examines “the ways in which visual and discursive fields are part of war recruitment and war waging.” Against some of the academic stances taken in Critical Discourse Analysis I covered in an earlier post, which, as Valdeón recalls “had no real impact on the society it aims to change, or, at least, contribute to change” (Valdeón 2008, 301), Butler immediately adds that

the point is not merely descriptive but critical and oppositional… If war is to be opposed, we have to understand how popular assent to war is cultivated and maintained, in other words, how war waging acts upon the senses so that war is thought to be an inevitability, something good, or even a source of moral satisfaction. (FoW ix)

Butler’s major concern in this book is to inquire into how visual, discursive and narrative technologies manufacture assent to war through their framing of the issues at hand. The frame, she writes, “does not simply exhibit reality, but actively participates in a strategy of containment, selectively producing and enforcing what will count as reality.” (FoW xiii) Frames importantly operate by determining who’s in and who’s out with respect to moral considerability and grievability, and I’m interested here in how the ‘who’s out’ gets reiterated in the aporetics of translation, and where translation can stand as an act of resistance. While most of Butler’s arguments concern photography here (the Abu Ghraib photos, for example), she is also quite attentive to the news media through which the frames of war are reiterated.

Television coverage of war positions citizens as visual consumers of a violent conflict that happens elsewhere, at least in the United States where geographical distance from our so-called enemies allows us to wage war without close domestic scrutiny of our actions. It may be that global media operations like CNN actually export the perspective of the US, enforcing a sense of infinite distance from zones of war even for those who live in the midst of violence. But if the framing of what we see challenges the credibility of the claims made about war, then we fail to be effectively recruited into the war effort of the news. (FoW xv)

Roberto A. Valdeón is a figure at the forefront of the study of news and informative texts in translation who makes considerable use of the notion of framing in his work. Framing is itself a key concept in communications studies, “defined as the central organizing idea that allows news consumers to make sense of events” (Valdeón 2015, “(Un)stable sources…”, 440). Frames, as Valdeón draws from Lakoff and Castels, are “not a question of words, but a ‘mode of thought, a mode of action.’… The media use existing frames to promote connections in the minds of the readers” (Valdeón 2016, 15). The notion of framing also has an important history in translation studies, as Valdeón illustrates via Mona Baker’s Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account. Framing, he writes, “implies an active participation in the construction of reality (Baker 2006: 106), or the construction of certain construes of reality.” (Valdeón 2008, 300) No frame is ever given once and for all, however, and depends on its continued and repeated reiteration for its survival. As an important means through which a given frame may survive – or not – translation is extremely well positioned, I argue, in re-framing otherwise the media discourses through which war is constructed as necessary and justifiable.

Some particularly important aspects of framing in news translation for Valdeón, following Baker, involve ‘labelling,’ the choices writers and translators make to portray an issue in a certain light. ‘Ambiguity,’ however, allows news writes to present “the same set of events… in different ways… violent conflicts can be framed as war, civil war, terrorism, etc.” (Valdeón 2008, 300) ‘Selective appropriation,’ finally, concerns the omissions or additions made by writers and translators “to suppress, accentuate or elaborate particular aspects of a narrative.” (ibid., 301) Valdeón thus proposes to relate framing to “the mechanisms that journalists resort to in order to produce source texts which, in turn, can also affect the selection and de-selection processes undertaken by news producers when relying on articles published in other languages.” (Valdeón 2015, “(Un)stable sources…”, 440)

Valdeón’s thesis is that the framing that occurs in news translation participates in the construction of a world “according to Anglophone norms, interests and, most likely, ideological agendas” (ibid., 323). I’ll have more to say about the ecolinguistic and biocultural aspects of news in translation in my next post, along with the question of language death, and will stick to the question of war here. English expressions, for example, become the norm in framing global conflicts. “For instance, the creation of the narrative of the ‘War on Terror’ (Baker 2006), with its ideological implications, has been exported to other languages (i.e., the Spanish press often uses the phrase ‘la guerra contra el terror.’) (Valdeón 2010, 155) Particularly with respect to the term ‘terrorism,’ Valdeón writes, the major Western news agencies “set the agenda for the smaller ones, let alone regional and local media” (Valdeón 2012, 860).

War news, Valdeón writes, was the staple diet of the early newspapers, all of which heavily relied on translation (see Valdeón’s paper on the Dutch Corantos, 2012), citing a 1693 English article from the London Gazette quoted from French sources. As he writes, “war news was often used to project negative images of the Other.” (Valdeón 2015, “Fifteen years…”, 637) More current studies of ideological biases introduced by means of translation in the news have examined “the ways in which translation has shaped the audience’s views of such a momentous news event as the Falklands War” (ibid., 640). In his own work, Valdeón has studied the role played by translation in accounts of the Basque separatist group ETA with respect to terrorism in the British Broadcasting Corporation, writing that “the same actors of the news event, as well as their actions, can be referred to as ‘separatist’ or ‘terrorist’ depending on the medium and language we are dealing with.” (Valdeón 2008, 300)

It seems to me that an obstacle not only to the study of news in Translation Studies, but to an appreciation of the ethical and political role translators can play in re-framing the questions of global warfare is indeed the marginalization and invisibility of translation. Valdeón notes, from his interviews with a number of news translators, that many do not see themselves as translators, but see their work as marginal or secondary. Indeed, the information age has further exacerbated this invisibility towards, as he cites David Bellos, “anonymity and impersonality.” (Valdeón 2015, “Fifteen years…” 636) But this dimension of the anonymous and the impersonal, familiar to readers of Blanchot, Deleuze and Foucault, is also that of the excluded; that which lies beyond the frame, and onto which every translation opens in its re-framing.

The potential for resisting the frames of war might thus lie in rethinking translation in the information society. This appears to be along the lines of what Valdeón cites from Baumann et al. concerning “the subversive nature of the translators as agents of resistance or change.” (Valdeón 2015, “(Un)stable sources…”, 444) Valdeón again seems to hint at something like Blanchot’s concept of the anonymous and impersonal neuter or third person, drawing from Homi Bhabha in proposing a Third Space, “a crucial point at which the news company, the writer/translator and the ultimate reader can meet without feeling that their political, cultural and linguistic backgrounds have been undermined by those of others.” (Valdeón 2008, 323)

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