News Translation and Biocultural Diversity

In my last post, I’d begun to think about the potential ethical and political role that translation could play with respect to how warfare and armed conflict is framed in the news. Drawing from Judith Butler’s work, I’d examined how the work of Roberto A. Valdeón gives us a better understanding of how the frames of war maintain their reiteration through news translation. Most translators of news articles do not in fact see themselves as translators, as Valdeón convincingly shows through rigorous data and interviews, and this contributes to the further marginalization and invisibility of translation in, as he perhaps unwittingly borrows from Levinas and Blanchot, the domain of the anonymous and impersonal.

If news translation operates in reiterating the frames of war so that human (and other) lives are increasingly seem as ungrievable, as is Butler’s argument, the same can be said for the lives of languages and cultures. This is because framing not only serves to maintain the justifiability of warfare, but the entirety of the Western (particularly American) military-industrial complex, and thus the justifiability of neoliberal economic policies. 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.” (Valdeón 2008, p. 323)

In my doctoral dissertation, I’d tried to tackle what ecolinguists and other theorists call the question of biocultural diversity; “the diversity of life in all its manifestations – biological, cultural, and linguistic – which are interrelated within a complex socio-ecological adaptive system.” (Maffi, 2005) The most widely cited study from 1992 (Krauss) estimates the loss of 90% of the world’s languages by the year 2100, with more recent studies placing the figure a bit more optimistically at 50%. But as most of these languages are spoken by a very small number of people, their loss entails the loss of an entire culture. As a report jointly released by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the WWF (The World Wide Fund for Nature) and Terralingua, an organization committed to biocultural diversity puts it, “languages have been called ‘the DNA of cultures’ – they have encoded the cultural knowledge that people have inherited from their ancestors, and each generation continues to add to this heritage.” (Skutnabb-Kangas, Maffi & Harmon, 2003) With respect to translation, Michael Cronin has importantly written that “the issue of translation and minority languages is not a peripheral concern for beleaguered fans of exotic peoples gabbling in incomprehensible tongues, but the single most important issue in translation studies today.” (Cronin 2003, 144) Cronin is one of the few people working in translation studies to champion “the contribution of translation to genuine biocultural diversity on the planet.” (Ibid., 4) So where does news translation fit in here?

Along with a study of the news events selected to be translated from BBCWorld into Spanish on the network BBCMundo, Valdeón suggests that

the selection of the information included in those reports contributes to create a certain perspective of the world, which is projected onto the target audience. This image accentuates an ethnocentric view of the world whereby Anglophone news is given prominence at the expense of more international items. (Valdeón 2008, 303)

Two examples can serve to illustrate Valdeón’s point; the news event of a terror alert at Ibiza’s airport, and another concerning the planting of bombs by the Basque separatist group ETA; both appear in BBCWorld, and yet were not deemed of sufficient interest for Spanish-language readers. In their selection of what news events to translate, he writes, “text producers are already participating in projecting a certain view of the world whereby Anglophone issues, however irrelevant or laughable… are regarded as crucial and, consequently, placed at the heart of the news portal.” (Valdeón 2008, 320) In other words, the frame that is being set up here could clearly be seen to contribute to a feeling of a certain inferiority of one’s culture and interests over another.

A key reason behind this may be a certain shift in the understanding of the role of the news in what Valdeón calls the information society. Valdeón’s thesis echoes Guy Debord’s famous theses in The Society of the Spectacle. As the latter argues, “the spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people mediated by images.” (Debord, 2004, 7) The commodification of the news, as Debord might put it, works towards the disintegration of all community and critical awareness (Debord 2004, 14); towards the stage at which “the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life. Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity.” (Ibid., 21) We see Adorno and Horkheimer argue something similar in The Dialectic of Enlightenment in their chapter “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” As they put it, the notion of amusement itself “ha[s] been taken over from above and brought fully up to date” by the culture industry. (Adorno & Horkheimer 2002, 107) For Valdeón, news is today understood mostly as a matter of entertainment; individuals seek information for pleasure (whether in gossip columns, celebrity news, or sports sections), information that is forgotten soon after. Information and translation, Valdeón argues, become mutually interdependent in a globalized, cosmopolitan and consumerist world economy. English thus becomes the Lingua Franca, the key currency of the language of information. As such, “in this brave new world, where information and entertainment have become almost indistinguishable, translation becomes a commodity itself, albeit an invisible one, much more so than in the past.” (Valdeón 2010, 155)

We are beginning here to have a better idea of the interplay between the devaluation of other languages and cultures, the championing of Anglo-American interests and norms, particularly as concerns entertainment and popular culture, and the acceptance of more sinister military ideologies and neoliberal economic policies. Nowhere can a military-industrial agenda be better served than when news and entertainment become indistinguishable. This is particularly the case when informative texts take on a persuasive function. “In some of these texts, the latter will prevail as information is presented in such a manner that it also intends to allure the reader to the product.” (Valdeón 2009, 77) Informative texts such as tourist brochures, Valdeón writes, interact with their readers, and consequently deal with “the translation of information, rather than with the translation of texts (as defended in Venuti 1995, 18) and, very often, with what could be described as product translation. Corporations and institutions are interested in communicating effective messages that may result in product consumption or in habit formation.” (Valdéon 2009, 79) As Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto notes, global capitalism, in an important sense, requires unencumbered, universal translation. And, as Valdeón notes, informative texts differ from other kinds of texts, such as literary works, in that the former are commissioned from the source culture, not the target one. (Ibid., 79) Ironically, the more translation becomes a commodity in facilitating the championing of Anglo-American issues and political positions, neoliberal economic ideologies, and the mass consumerism of American material and cultural products, the more it erases its mediating role. Conversely, rethinking the role translation can play in biocultural sustainability, in fostering an appreciation for minority languages, alternate economies, and local cultures necessitates rethinking the interruptions and resistances can pose to dominant paradigms. And these will only be possible if we situate the visibility of translation otherwise, perhaps from the very periphery of the anonymous and impersonal.

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