Comptes rendus

Michaela Wolf, ed. Übersetzen – Translating – Traduire: Towards a “Social Turn”? Vienna and Berlin, Lit Verlag, “Repräsentation – Transformation. Translating across Cultures and Societies,” 2006, 367 p.[Record]

  • Ryan Fraser

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  • Ryan Fraser
    University of Ottawa

This is an important book. As the first substantial anthology of research united under the emerging sociological turn in Translation Studies, it marks a fork in the path of traditional enquiry. Naturally, this sort of book carries the responsibility of bi-directional vision: forging ahead necessarily goes hand-in-hand with a careful retrospective assessment of the paths leading to this point. This, Michaela Wolf accomplishes admirably in both her choice of materials and her foreword, aptly entitled “Translating and Interpreting as a Social Practice – Introspection into a New Field.” I interpret this as an epistemological metaphor of sorts, “introspection” referring to a look inward, a reflection on past modes of knowing as we move beyond into new ones. Past modes, she explains, can be charted as an evolution from the linguistic approach of theorists like Eugene Nida in the 1960s and 1970s to the cultural turn introduced by Bassnett and Lefevere in the early 1990s, with its appropriation of polysystem theory and descriptive studies (Even-Zohar, Toury), and its eventual convergence with post-colonial theory emphasizing discourse-based relations of force between colonial powers and cultural minorities. As for the new sociological modes, they are marked by our current appropriation of theorists like Niklas Luhmann, Pierre Bourdieu, and Bruno Latour. Of these three, the one whose concepts resonate most consistently through the subsequent chapters is Bourdieu. A word of warning: the book requires reading competency in three languages—English (12 chapters), German (10 chapters), and French (8 chapters)—to be assimilated in its entirety, a fact that is not necessarily problematic in a European context, but which may well hinder reception in a North American one. Of course, problems of this sort should not be overstated: if there is any readership that should be receptive to this sort of heteroglossia, it is one composed of translation scholars. However, because embracing the principle of linguistic plurality does not, in itself, mean solving the problem of communicative functionality, it should also be pointed out that Wolf has taken care to provide all abstracts in English, and to separate the 30 pieces of this 367-page anthology into 6 sections of 4-6 chapters each, each section subsumed under a separate English-language title uniting its chapters under a single theme. And in this sense, the book, for its breadth of scope, achieves a singular structural balance. Wolf’s editorial discipline is doubtless to thank. There is a striking homogeneity in chapter length, exactly ten pages for virtually every piece, including documentation. Power relations between institutions and translating agents form the recurring theme of the first section, entitled “Symbolic Power in the Translation Field.” All five of its chapters—with the exception of the first: Sabina Matter-Seibel (“Margaret Fullers Übersetzungen deutscher Werke: Soziale Entstehungsbedingungen und genderspezifische Aspekte,” pp. 23-34) on Margaret Fuller and her translation of Goethe as a means of advancing the cause of women in 19th-century patriarchal New England—draw directly on Bourdieu, either to frame the translator in his/her “habitus” (Hannes Schweiger, “Habituelle Divergenzen – Siegfried Trebitsch als Übersetzer und Vermittler George Bernard Shaws,” pp. 45-54) or to demonstrate how the power relations constructing the “fields” of publishing influence the translation and circulation of texts. Denise Merkle (“Towards a Sociology of Censorship: Translation in the Late-Victorian Publishing Field,” pp. 35-44), for example, is interested in the social stratification of late-Victorian England, and specifically in the role played by its two-tier publishing system in the success of Richard Burton’s The Thousand Nights and a Night. Ileana Dimitriu (“‘Symbolic Power’ and ‘Worldmaking’ in Politically Over-Determined Times: Translation and Social Practice under Dictatorship,” pp. 55-64), for her part, is concerned with translation as …