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«Disappointing Translation Lavinia Heller University of Mainz, Germany Abstract The contribution translation can make for successful intercultural ...»

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Intercultural Communication Studies XX: 2 (2011) Heller

Disappointing Translation

Lavinia Heller

University of Mainz, Germany


The contribution translation can make for successful intercultural communication and

globalization is most often discussed in positive terms: translation removes linguistic

barriers and thus ensures cross-cultural rapprochement and exchange. Such a concept

of translation obscures the fact that the removal of linguistic barriers can also make way for the disappointment of expectations in intercultural encounters. Most often such “disappointing translations” are degraded to “mistranslations”, with the assumption that they inhibit intercultural communication, as they fail to achieve agreement. This paper will start from the counter-intuitive supposition that the disappointment of expectations can actually provide the initial stimulus for intercultural rapprochement.

Against the background of this assumption, this study emphasizes the important and prolific role that disappointing translation plays for intercultural connectivity in globalizing processes. It will be demonstrated that the negative experience of non- fulfilment of expectations can motivate processes of self-reflection and auto-correction in cross-cultural relations.

Keywords: Translation theory, intercultural communication, globalization, Sunzi bingfa, pragmatic polysemy, cognitive style of expectation Introduction The contribution translation can make for successful intercultural communication is mostly discussed in positive terms: translation removes linguistic barriers, thus ensuring cross- cultural rapprochement and exchange. The aim of this paper is neither to deny the importance of translation for globalizing processes, nor to doubt that translation can actually be successful even under complex conditions. The aim of the following discussion is to demonstrate that, counter-intuitively, the vital momentum for intercultural interchangeability and connectivity can also be reached by the indirect way of unmet expectations of the involved parties. The underlying supposition is, however, that translation is the medium par excellence enabling the experience of disappointment of expectations in intercultural encounters. The term “disappointing translation” refers thus to translation processes that, by removing linguistic barriers, do not enable cross-cultural rapprochement in the first place, but give way instead to the disappointment of expectations. The thesis will be put forward that such negative experience can actually be the initial stimulus for intercultural rapprochement.

I will begin with some conceptual considerations to clarify a) the notion implied here of translation and b) the theoretical perspective that allows for a positive understanding of

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unmet expectations for intercultural relations. Subsequent to these conceptual considerations, the paradoxical phenomenon of the vitalizing effects of the disappointment of expectations for cross-cultural relations will be illustrated by describing the transformation of China’s image in the West and the economic interrelation between the two cultures as a result of translation processes and intercultural encounters. Despite a very intense and productive intercultural rapprochement in the 17th and 18th centuries, it can be shown that towards the end of the 19th century disappointment of expectations in economic relations evoked a very hostile attitude regarding China in the West. However, at the end of 20th century the West has adopted a quite modest and respectful attitude towards its Asian business partner. Two Western statements (one of the 19th and another of the 20th century) will illustrate the Western reaction to frustration and explanations for failed economic negotiations with the Chinese. Interestingly enough, the change of opinion at the end of the 20th century did not arise from the maximisation of consent in commercial communication. On the contrary, the frustration of the Westerners pushed them to find better explanations for the deficient situation. From a pragmatist point of view, the new Western interpretation of its own disadvantage in economic communication with China proved to be a prolific starting point for interaction, even if it proceeds from the wrong assumption.

Furthermore, the new Western explanation of its own failure in commercial negotiations with the Chinese not only initiated a new culture of communication and interaction in the Western business world, but also in China. In the long run, it turns out that initially disappointing translation processes sparked the mutual adjustment of precepts for interaction in economic contexts. However, in order to appreciate the interrelation between disappointing translation processes and such adjustment of the conditions for cross-cultural communication, certain fundamental assumptions in the discourse of translation studies need to be revised.

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The Concept of Translation If we want to consider the role translation plays for intercultural connectivity in globalizing processes, models that focus on translation as mere representations of other texts will not prove to be very enlightening. Most often these approaches amount to nothing more than an account of what has been semantically lost or preserved. This approach is supported by the ever-lasting conduit metaphor (Reddy, 1979), which defines communication as transporting meaning in the form of objects packed into words, which serve as containers. The popular metaphors that conceptualize translation as bridge-building, or as ferrying foreign ideas and knowledge from one side of a river to another, or as replanting foreign plants on new soil, are all grounded in the conduit metaphor inasmuch as they all focus on the aspect of semantic transfer in translation processes. Translation concepts grounded in this metaphor presuppose that translation succeeds if the “meaning” of the original text has been safely transported into the target system, and if consent between the communication partners has been achieved. This supposition corroborates the persistent assumption inherent to the discourse of translation studies, namely that accurate translation prevents intercultural misunderstanding. In fact, the role that translation plays in cross-cultural relations is most often reduced to its assumed conciliating potential. The reverse 15 Intercultural Communication Studies XX: 2 (2011) Heller of this assumption is that if the translation process is unsatisfying or leads to conflict, it is to be considered either as “non-translation” or as “mistranslation”. This supposition leads to a very normative and consensual concept of translation ignoring the fact that actually it can be precisely translation that enables conflicts in intercultural communication.

The conciliating notion of translation dovetails with folk theoretical conviction about intercultural communication, implying that what inhibits rapprochement in the first place are the linguistic barriers. Consequently, the expectations are high that the possibility of understanding the culturally “other” linguistically will ensure a common basis for the smooth exchange of knowledge, ideas and prospect. As a result, translations that enable conflictual communication must be considered as “mistranslation” or “non-translation” since they obviously failed to transport the right meaning of the original across the linguistic border. However, what truly matters when discussing the role of translation in intercultural relations is not so much what has been lost or preserved from the original meaning; much more relevant would seem to be the consequences that the translational act has for these intercultural relations in terms of communication and interaction. With this view in mind, the conceptual focus in this paper does not lie in the difficulty of semantic polysemy in translation processes (as in traditional notions of translation conceptually based on the metaphor of transfer) but in pragmatic polysemy. Of interest here is not so much whether a certain meaning has been transferred “correctly”, but how the translated information is processed in the reception system, i.e., what consequences it has in the long run. In as much as cross-cultural exchange is not a linguistic or textual phenomenon but above all a matter of communication, only such a perspective that dissociates from a purely linguistic or textual concept of translation will provide insight into the importance that translation actually has for intercultural exchange.

The approach to translation not only as a linguistic but as an (inter)cultural and communicative phenomenon emerged in the 1970s, when translation studies emancipated as a discipline from linguistics and attempted to approach translation as a form of intercultural communication (Toury, 1980, 1995; Vermeer, 1978, 1996). This approach involved a critical discussion of so called “source-oriented” models, which focus on the source text (the “original”) or on the relation between source text and the target text (the translation). The main argument of the critics was that such “source-oriented” models sustain a notion of ideal translation that does not correspond to the translational reality, insofar as translation could never be equivalent to the source text.

However, translation is not “a construct created and/or dictated by theoreticians”, as one of the most severe critics in the field, Gideon Toury (1978, p. 27), points out. Translation proceeds independent of our professional or academic ideas of ideal translations. Target-oriented models, such as Toury’s Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS) or Vermeer’s Skopostheory (to name just two of the most systematic and influential in the discipline), proceed from the assumption that translation can only be described and analysed against the backdrop of its reception situation, since it is the reception pole that determines the conditions under which translation succeeds and fulfils the communicative function for which it has been produced.

The pragmatist notion of translation implied in this paper clearly builds on the delineated principles of target-oriented models, yet takes them a step further. Traditional target-oriented approaches are concerned with the reception environment of translation insofar as it provides information about the factors governing the translator’s decisions and the conditions under 16 Intercultural Communication Studies XX: 2 (2011) Heller which translation can fulfil its intended function. Their notion of translation processes remains limited, however; according to the traditional target-oriented perspective, the translation process ends with the (non-) fulfilment of its function in the target system. I am interested, however, in what happens afterwards: Which communicative processes enable translation once linguistic barriers have been removed and (linguistic) understanding has been made possible?

This is actually the crucial moment in intercultural communication. Consequently, from a theoretical point of view, the thesis that disappointing translations potentially contribute to intercultural interchangeability and connectivity can only be treated with a broader concept of the translation process in mind. This entails thinking of the communicative consequences of translation as conceptually belonging to the translation process itself. According to this perspective, misunderstandings, disapproval and disappointment belong to the translation process just as much as affirmation and agreement (Heller, 2008). Only with such a broader notion of translational processes at hand, will it be possible to look beyond the disappointment enabled by translation and to appreciate why intercultural communication keeps going and can actually have a positive outcome, even if translation does not provide the basis for the prolific exchange at first. In the next section, I will outline the important role that unmet expectations play in cross-cultural relations.

Disappointed Expectation in Positive Terms

In the philosophy of science the disappointment of expectation and the experience that certain theoretical convictions and presuppositions prove to be useless, dysfunctional or untrue are considered as the vital momentum for scientific innovation (Popper, 1972; Fleck, 1979;

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