“The only reason of hostilities, quarrels, murders, brutal actions and doing all devil deeds around the world among people is forgetting God’s power, glory, loftiness, kindness and his mention. If we had known how much he loves us, we would have died from his love and not done these wild actions. The opportunities are moving like clouds, soon we shall return to him”


A literary translation is a device of art used to release the text from its “dependence on prior cultural knowledge” (Herzfeld, 2003; p.110). However, it is not an easy task to transplant a text steeped in one culture into another. Particularly demanding from the translator’s point of view is the use of culturally specific metaphors and allusions. In 1990 Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere, two towering translation studies scholars, famously announced what had been under way for some time: the “cultural turn” in translation studies. In brief, they envisaged that “neither the word, nor the text, but the culture becomes the operational ‘unit’ of translation” (Lefevere and Bassnett 1990: 8). The collection in which their piece appeared (Bassnett and Lefevere 1990) has recently been hailed by Edwin Gentzler (1998: xi), one of the leading synthesizers of translation theory, as the “real breakthrough for the field of translation studies” – which is true in the sense that it epitomized what is sometimes termed “the coming of age” of the discipline. In the 1990s translation studies has in many ways been informed by this cultural turn, which, as Bassnett (1998: 132-133) has shown, includes a rapprochement between cultural studies and translation studies, due to their related efforts to understand the process and status of globalization and national identities. This focus, together with the veritable explosion of postcolonial studies in literature in the last few years of the millennium, has entailed that the cultural turn in translation studies increasingly has become intercultural or multicultural.

1. Metaphors

Zefzaf’s use of metaphors or similes is sparing and the few used pose no significant problems in translation. The italic noun phrase at the end of the following quotation might not be crystal clear but it is connotative and, therefore, was literally translated:

“Always he sits there in the same place smoking, drinking, and trying to remember many things that might take him back to the naked childhood.”

Other than that, Zefzaf’s metaphorical language seems to be affected by the western idiom. And no more is this point well illustrated than in the following italicized simile from the ending of the story:

“In a moment, he fell off his chair near the window bumping his head against the wall. The sky remained bright while he was grunting like a hog in a sty.”

Such transparent similes pose no problems in understanding to the western reader.

2. Allusions

The occurrence of allusions, however, is more challenging. Not only does the translator of Zefzaf have to cope with the usual linguistic difficulties of translating from such a foreign language as Arabic, but he also has to handle different references and allusions. In some of its parts, the text of this story is interspersed with diverse references: Qu’ranic, historical and cultural. The following excerpts illustrate this point:

“How many strange things the human body carries without our being aware of them! There are two angels for example, one on the right shoulder recording the good deeds and the other on the left recording the bad deeds. The human body may also be inhabited by devils, and in this body there is also a spirit whose essence we cannot know since it is from a command of the Lord.”

In this excerpt, there is more than one allusion. The reference to demons possessing human bodies is almost a universal superstitious belief shared in many cultures and is in no need of explanation. The other two references to the angels and the spirit, however, are more Islamic in their nature and the English reader needs to be made aware of their scriptural origins: “When the twin keepers [angels] receive him, the one seated on his right, the one on his left, each word he utters shall be noted down by a vigilant guardian” (Surah 50, verse 17). And “They ask you about the spirit, say: “The spirit is from a command of my Lord and I have only given you [people] a small amount of the knowledge” (Surah 17 verse 85); Qu’ran (trans) Dawood 2000).

These references, and other similar in nature, are part of the prior cultural knowledge taken for granted by the author writing for a predominantly Muslim Arab audience. To give the closest approximation of the source language, therefore, it was necessary to opt for ‘glossing’ or using explanatory footnotes. Here is another example with an historical reference that also requires the use of a footnote:

“When they divorced, he didn’t think she would do that, but he soon knew that a woman is capable of doing anything. Didn’t she cause Adam to be dismissed from Eden and waged a war against Ali (May God be pleased with him)?”

The first reference to Adam and Eve in Eden is a biblical one and needs no commentary to the western reader. The second allusion, however, derived from Islamic history, might be a vague one to the western reader. It refers to A’ishah, one of Prophet Muhammad’s wives and daughter of his first caliph (successor). She played a significant role in supporting those who were fighting against the fourth caliph Ali—a revered figure in Islamic history especially for the Shiite sect. These cultural and historical allusions give a certain density to the language and need to be explicated in the translation to bring forth the richness of the text for the new readers. Footnotes, however, can be rather intrusive, and, therefore, their uses were minimized as much as possible. Sometimes, explanatory notes were deemed unnecessary or were integrated into the body of the text. The following citation is an example:

“His wife was pretty, and he used to buy her glasses, pottery, sweets and rabbits slaughtered and live. And sometimes he even preferred her to his two young children. But she used to hit him, beat her cheeks and thighs [as some women do when they mourn their dead].”

The cultural reference to a husband buying pottery and rabbits slaughtered and live as gifts to his wife are indicators of the local culture. Keeping this reference adds a foreignizing fidelity and gives the original flavor of a different culture. The reference does not need a footnote, however, since it is clear from the contextual surroundings. The second reference is to the custom of some women in the Middle East who beat their cheeks and thighs as an ultimate sign of sadness when they are mourning their dead. The bracketed note was inserted in the text to ensure that the significance of this humiliating act on the part of the wife is not lost to the western reader.

It is a great challenge dealing with a language that has a different feel and nuance embedded more in culture than in literal meaning, but I hope that this reconstruction of the translation process sheds some light on some of the linguistic and cultural issues that might be encountered in literary translation in general and from Persian or Arabic into English in particular.

On the Theoretical Frameworks of Postcolonial Criticism in literature

It is well-known that after Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin’s (1989) much-cited survey of postcolonial literature and criticism, The Empire Writes Back, the field has been one of the most fertile areas in literary studies. In fact, in many ways this study pointed the way in postcolonial studies with its positive comments on the major names discussed in this section and its final welcoming of “powerfully subversive general accounts of textuality and concepts of ‘literariness’” (Ashcroft et al. 1989: 194). Of course, Ashcroft and others had a number of predecessors – say, from Frantz Fanon to Edward Said in theory (and criticism) and from Chinua Achebe to Ngugi wa Thiong’o in literature and criticism -, who paved the ground for the boom in this decade (see e.g. Walder 1998).

But perhaps the field has been most strongly moulded by three theorists and critics, sometimes facetiously referred to as “the Holy Trinity” of postcolonial criticism: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha – here mentioned in their possible ascending order of significance (according to which they are given space below). Understandably, all three are major names, but as one of the leading scholars in African-American literary criticism Gates has primarily had an impact on his own area of specialization. Similarly, perhaps Spivak’s combination of postcolonial criticism and feminism has been most evident in analyses of race and/or nationality from feminist and “subaltern” perspectives. Thus, one could argue that Bhabha has played a central role in recent postcolonial literary studies, since his view of the key concept of hybridity has largely informed the postcolonial debate of the late 1990s.

Since these three scholars have exerted a considerable influence on the theory and practice of postcolonial criticism and later – directly or indirectly – on postcolonial translation studies, their theoretical starting-points should be examined.

For a long time Gayatri Spivak was primarily known as the translator of Derrida’s De la grammatologie into English and, by prefacing her translation with a lengthy, insightful introduction, she proved to be one of Derrida’s most sympathetic readers in (American) academia. She has gone on to develop a critical account of the multiple alliances – gender, national, racial, class, professional – of multicultural people, such as (e)migrants, taking herself as an example (female; Bengali/American; middle-class; academic). In doing so, she has made use of both Derrida’s work and that of French feminism, largely based on poststructuralist theory. This is evident in many essays and interviews as well as in her major work In Other Worlds. Essays in Cultural Politics (1987/1988). She describes her theoretical alliances as follows: “most critical theory in my part of the academic establishment (Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, the last Barthes) sees the text as that area of the discourse of the human sciences […] in which the problem of the discourse of the human sciences is made available” (Spivak 1987/1988: 77). In typical poststructuralist fashion this emphasis on textuality is presented – hedgingly, but still – as an attack on allegedly naive, liberal-humanist and positivistic conceptions.

“To my way of thinking, the discourse of the literary text is part of a general configuration of textuality, a placing forth of the solution as the unavailability of a unified solution to a unified or homogeneous, generating or receiving, consciousness. This unavailability is often not confronted. It is dodged and the problem apparently solved, in terms perhaps of unifying concepts like “man,” the universal contours of sex-, race-, class-transcendent consciousness as the generating, generated, and receiving consciousness of the text.” (Spivak 1987/1988: 78)

In The Location of Culture Homi Bhabha (1994) relies at least as heavily on poststructuralist theory, especially on Jacques Lacan, Derrida and Barthes (in this order, perhaps, since he considers himself primarily a psychoanalytic theorist). Bhabha (1994: 64) chooses “to give poststructuralism a specifically postcolonial provenance” in order to answer the later Terry Eagleton’s call for a “theory of the subject, which is capable in this dialectical way of grasping social transformation as at once diffusion and affirmation, the death and birth of the subject” (quoted loc.cit.). Characteristic of Bhabha is his use of abstractions, such as the subaltern instance, otherness and hybridity, and when at times the subject does exist as something approaching a real-life agent it is prevalently textualized in the most abstract forms with a questionable argumentative logic. As he puts it in his perhaps most widely anthologized essay, “The Other Question. Stereotype, discrimination and the discourse of colonialism”:

“The construction of the colonial subject in discourse, and the exercise of colonial power through discourse, demands an articulation of forms of difference – racial and sexual. Such an articulation becomes crucial if it is held that the body is always simultaneously (if conflictually) inscribed in both the economy of pleasure and desire and the economy of discourse, domination and power.” (Bhabha 1994: 67)

As yet I have not even mentioned the well-known fact that in many other academic quarters, such as philosophical and empirical aesthetics, historiography and sociology, the very underpinnings of poststructuralism have been severely criticized for more than two decades (despite the fact that poststructuralism – at times broadly termed postmodernism – has had a foothold in some niches of these fields). This critique has – as far as I know – never been adequately answered (and, most likely, cannot be). In brief, poststructuralism mainly rests on:

  • (1) A conservative notion of language and a misreading of Saussure (see Tallis 1988/1995);
  • (2) An (elitist) exaggeration of indeterminacy in meaning-making;
  • (3) An autonomous, a gentles textuality and intertextuality;
  • (4) An untenable anti-humanism (neglect of actual author and actual reader/s); and
  • (5) A constructionist view of man (emphasis on nurture, neglect of nature).

As we have seen in this brief review of three leading postcolonial theoreticians and critics, they have all largely based their writings on an array of poststructuralist theories. This means, in turn, that their theoretical frameworks are dubious and that the criticism they – and scholars and students influenced by them all over the world – produce stands on very shaky ground indeed.

In other words, what we need to recognize today is the complexity of literary communication and translation. In this endeavor expendable criticism in academic jargon on an untenable theoretical basis is not just scientifically off the mark; it is also morally dubious pedagogy (if this kind of writing is endorsed by teachers and scholars) and, ultimately, one of the reasons why literary studies have been given such a bad name in other academic disciplines. As in all literature, in postcolonial literature we should be aware of the uniqueness of every work, its context of production, mediation and reception – and the latter two in diachronic as well as synchronic perspectives (see Pettersson 1999). More specifically, in postcolonial criticism sweeping notions of hybridity are of little use, since the (post)colonial contexts differ so radically from case to case.

What has brought us to this point is obvious: this century has been one of textuality in literary studies: from Russian formalism and new criticism to structuralism and post structuralism. All the theoreticians and critics who endorse the writings of “the Holy Trinity” do so because they too are steeped in this tradition – which, needless to say, was sorely, needed after the preceding romantic biographism and which has produced much of lasting interest. To reiterate, what is called for now are broader frameworks, which are able to account for originally, mediating, receptive as well as textual aspects in literary communication – and case studies recognizing this complexity. In this century notably Marxists, feminists and postcolonial scholars have contextualized their objects of study; this is why it is particularly deplorable to see how many such (even prominent) scholars have been swept off their feet by poststructuralist frameworks and jargon.

Postcolonial Translation in Theory and Practice

As we move from postcolonial theory to the theory and practice of postcolonial translation, we see that much is taken over from the former or from the theoretical frameworks that inform the former.

The most widely discussed and cited translation scholar in the last few years has probably been Lawrence Venuti (especially Venuti 1995), who advocates foreignizing (as against domesticating) translation at all costs. First we should note what is obvious: this attitude is at least as old as Schleiermacher (1813/1992) in translation studies. Another point I have made elsewhere is that there are, especially in literary translation, instances in which the source text includes features such as the ones Venuti advocates – “discursive variations, experimenting with archaism, slang, literary allusion and convention” (Venuti 1995: 310). In such cases perhaps the convention of “faithful” or “invisible” translation Venuti (1992a, 1995, 1998) so despises would better convey the features that prompted their translations in the first place. What is more, it is at least potentially paradoxical that the translator should be “visible” and employ “foreignizing” features at the same time, since foreignizing features, at least in the Schleiermacher tradition (see Lefevere and Bassnett 1998: 7-10), were primarily introduced into the target text from the source text, not by the translator’s invention (on the last two points see Pettersson 1998: 338-339).

The influence Venuti has exerted on translation studies – not least postcolonial translation – has been widespread enough to warrant scrutiny of his theoretical framework. In fact Venuti’s major studies (1995, 1998) include little overt reference to literary theoreticians that inform his work. But in other fora he has been more outspoken. In his introduction to and selection in the edition Rethinking Translation. Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology (Venuti 1992b) and in a recorded debate (in Schäffner and Kelly-Holmes 1995), he puts his cards on the table:

“Poststructuralism has in fact initiated a radical reconsideration of the traditional topoi of translation theory. Largely through commentaries on Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Task of the Translator,’ poststructuralist thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man explode the «binary opposition between ‘original’ and ‘translation’» which underwrites the translator’s invisibility today.” (Venuti 1992a: 6).

A brief review of the theory and practice of postcolonial translation studies quickly reveals the extent to which translation scholars draw on poststructuralism, “the Holy Trinity” (especially Bhabha 1994), and Venuti (1995). Two of the earliest and most explicitly poststructuralist studies are Vicente L. Rafael’s (1988/1993) Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule and Tejaswini Niranjana’s (1992) Siting Translation: History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context. They are lucidly reviewed by Douglas Robinson (1998) in his survey Translation and Empire. Postcolonial Theories Explained. In fact Robinson (1998: 108-113) presents such a useful four-point list of criticisms of the frameworks of these two works and Venuti (1995) that I am content to list his points in brief. He asks:

(a) Whether the impact of foreignizing vs. domesticating translations on a target culture is as different as has been claimed;

(b) Whether the impact of either type of translation (if such a naive division in fact should be made at all) is as monolithic as has been supposed;

(c) Whether foreignizing translations are not inherently elitist; and

(d) Whether the stable separation of source and target languages in the assimilating-foreignizing distinction is tenable.

The importance of these four critical points lies in the fact that Robinson considers the results of employing theoretical frameworks in translation studies and goes on to suggest that acts of translation should be contextualized.

Roads to be Taken and Roads Not to be Taken

The above section title probably irks people who feel that translation studies should be past prescriptive admonitions, since the disciplinary watchword for more than two decades has been description rather than prescription. But why, then, have so many of the most eminent names in the field, from Lefevere (1975) to Gideon Toury (1995), continued to offer us various rules and regulations for translation praxis? What is more, Andrew Chesterman (1998: 226, 227) has recently suggested that “a prescriptive statement is simply a form of hypothesis, usually concerning the desirability parameter”, and, if this is the case, then “we should incorporate it [prescriptivism] into our empirical theory, testing its hypotheses just as we would test any others”. Chesterman (1998: 201) also identifies “the shift from philosophical conceptual analysis towards empirical research” as “the most important trend” in current translation studies, in conjunction with the general movement from translational to translatorial studies.

It is evident that if such a shift is to take place in postcolonial literary translation studies – and such a shift, I believe, is sorely needed inasmuch as the relevant approaches have been highly theory-driven since their inception -, then much should be done in order to effect rewarding interaction between theory and practice. Perhaps the discipline should even be turned on its head: translation studies could be practice-driven, rather than theory-driven. Since each act of postcolonial translation has such manifold contextual parameters, perhaps a meticulous study of those parameters would benefit not only the object of study and possible comparative theorizing, but also lead to a better understanding of the relevant postcolonial situation and its ties with the (former) colonizing culture – and other cultures.

Moreover, some ingrained notions in translation rhetoric – especially evident in the work of poststructuralist scholars but in that of others too – are definitely unhelpful. First, translation is often employed as an overriding and rather one-dimensional metaphor for interpretation of all kinds. Second, Lefevere’s notion of translation as rewriting is of little help, unless rigidly specified. Third, comparisons of postcolonial literature and translation are certainly of some interest, but should be combined with more enlightening studies of their dissimilarities. In all three cases it is the complexity of the act of translation and its position in its various sociocultural (etc.) contexts that should be closely examined.

Despite the fact that this paper has primarily presented a critical review of poststructuralist frameworks that have extensively informed postcolonial translation studies, let me note what should go without saying: other frameworks too should be subjected to similar scrutiny. For instance, Eric Cheyfitz’s (1991) The Poetics of Imperialism. Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan does not draw on poststructuralism but is seriously flawed by the rather common view in postcolonial translation studies of the precolonial society as a utopia and translation as the colonizer’s demonic tool (for a critical reading of Cheyfitz 1991 see Robinson 1998: 63-77, 105-108).

José Lambert, who for many years has struggled to see translation studies in a more global perspective, proposed “A Program for Fieldwork” a few years ago. Some of the central points in the program – the call for “hypotheses on communication principles” together with “microscopic and macroscopic research” (Lambert 1996: 414) – could certainly be of use in postcolonial translation. What is more, Lambert (1994: 21) has noted that since “the target pole and – even more – the binary opposition source/target have been stressed excessively in recent publications, the discussion of the source-target-transfer aspects of translation research has hardly taken place”. This would suggest that Anthony Pym’s (1992) multidimensional approach to text transfer in translation should still be pursued and renewed – and introduced into postcolonial translation studies.

In short, what postcolonial translation studies now need is at least (a combination of) the following: theoretical eclecticism, so that, for instance, the polysystem, Handlung and Skopos schools could be made use of; case studies firmly grounded in sociocultural fieldwork; and an interdisciplinary openness to related work in ethnography, anthropology, sociology, history, linguistics (especially pragmatics) and literary studies (especially literary pragmatics). This way translation studies might be able to accomplish what Robinson (1998: 79) – arguing against linguistic equivalence in translation studies – envisages:

“Translation in its multifarious social, cultural, economic and political contexts is impossibly more complex a field of study than abstract linguistic equivalence (which is already complex enough); but the chance of perhaps coming to understand how translation works in those contexts, how translation shapes cultures both at and within their boundaries, offers a powerful motivation to push on despite the difficulty of the undertaking.”


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