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The role of the translator: mediator, moderator, gatekeeper

Our macht.sprache. project has given us cause to think carefully about the work of translation, and the people who do this work. We are invested in getting input from people who work in and with translation throughout the project. In the course of our research, some translators have already been generous enough to give of their time to share their thoughts. In this article, we offer an overview of some of the considerations that are going into our development of macht.sprache., and draw on some of the insights these translators have shared.

Translation is the kind of work that often goes unseen, even as it is so crucial. Invisible work tends to lead to an under-appreciation of those who do it, with the effect that translators might often be positioned in a secondary or subordinate role – with (a lack of) remuneration to match. And yet in so many ways, translators do incredibly important work. The decisions they make participate in producing and normalising certain discourses. They can play a significant part in championing a given text, if they advocate for the necessity of its translation – and thus dramatically increase its visibility and reach. And they function as mediators between not only different languages, but the different discursive worlds that go with those languages.

This last point is especially important when it comes to politically sensitive language. Many German-speakers may note how much of the vocabulary used in German-language discussions around politically sensitive issues is permeated by English terminology – race, person of colour, queer – these are all routinely left untranslated in conversations that happen in German. And often for good reason, because many might say that there is a discursive culture that goes with such terms, and that these terms implicitly bring with them, which might well be absent or altogether different in any attempt to render them in German. Some are inclined to articulate this in terms of the discussion culture around such issues being somehow more ‘advanced’ in the English-speaking world. As a native English speaker, for whom this is all very convenient, I’m still extremely sceptical of this view: English is guilty of any number of linguistic crimes of insensitivity, and not least to be considered as embedded in its imperial histories. I’m also given to wonder about the dangers, the flattening, the loss of heterogeneity, that come with the dominance of English as, in so many contexts, a global lingua franca.

But even within English, as my conversations with translators helped me realise, there are plenty of differences. Translators are acutely aware, for instance, of the differences of translating for American English and British English audiences (these being two of the most significant markets that are considered by publishing houses). And even within the Anglosphere, one could argue that certain discourses are dominated by concepts and terms from the North American arena.

In place of the narrative of a more ‘advanced’ discussion culture existing around politically freighted language in the English-speaking world than in the German, Katy Derbyshire – who has translated the work of Olga Grjasnowa from German to English – had a refreshingly different take. Though, in her view, some of these discussions have perhaps been happening for longer in, say, the UK, this means that the debates around politically sensitive language seem less tired and jaded in the German context. In addition, she pointed out that some of these topics have been the focus of German-language post-migrant discourses for longer than many people realise.

Translators, then, operate as mediators between such discursive and linguistic worlds. In the face of the secondary position they might oftentimes be ascribed, they assert their agency in a myriad of important and consequential ways. When confronted by contemporary texts they viewed as using politically insensitive language, the translators I spoke to talked about simply refusing to use certain terms, and even rejecting the proposed work outright. These can be very risky, or indeed costly, decisions in a job that can be extremely precarious, as freelance translators may not know where their next job is coming from, and may also have to have discussions to persuade authors and editors (in positions of power over them) of their convictions if they propose to diverge from the source text. Nonetheless, translators spoke of removing the language they viewed as problematic and editing passages; of adding critical distance by inserting “people referred to as x” in place of a potentially problematic term, as well as various other solutions. They reported trying to anticipate the knowledge their readers were likely to have on a given topic, and the response such language was likely to elicit in their audiences.

Their considerations here were oftentimes informed by nuanced assessments of the positionality of the author they were translating. The positionality of authors in this regard has long been a subject for consideration, but as the recent furore around the proposition of having Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” translated by a white person attests, the current discussion culture is becoming increasingly sensitive also to the positionality of the translator of a text. The potential complexity of these tensions was also raised by @eine.schwarze.liest.buecher in our interview with her last year, when she spoke of a panel she attended on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, in which the white translator and panellists of Colour discussed their different interpretations of certain passages.

Translators assert their own authorship of translations in multiple figurations that include how they interpret the text and understand the politics of its language. They enact ownership of a text that will also finally be theirs. And sometimes they function to some extent as gatekeepers: evaluating what should and should not go through, also in terms of politically sensitive language and imagery, thus affecting how a text and the discourse of which it forms a part, emerge into a different linguistic world.

As we put together macht.sprache., we hope to create a tool that can help in the complex and important work that people who translate do. An integral part of this project is thus also the goal of creating visibility for these issues so that not only professional translators, but also those of us who translate in less formal capacities, can develop and train our own sensitivity to and awareness of politically weighted language. These observations point to the necessity of incorporating voices from multiple positionalities into the conversation, and keeping in mind that, while macht.sprache. aims to provide technological assistance and facilitation, the role of humans who translate and their insights, will never be obsolete and are not to be underestimated.