Chapter 9: Postcolonial Theory
9.1 Postcolonial theory shares with gender studies a strong political and ideologicalconcern and an historical projection. Postcolonial researchers work under the shadow of Western hegemony. They have done much to bring non-Western cultures to the attention of the rest of the world, but they are aware that in doing so they run the risk or merely reinforcing the dominance of the Western models and paradigms – if only because the language of international dissemination is likely to be English.
9.2 In analyzing the role of translation under conditions of colonisation and decolonisation, postcolonial researchers have shown there is more to translation than the apparently innocent transfer of information from A to B across a language barrier. But they also know that even as they conduct these analyses they are applying intellectual models deriving from the current centres of power in the global economy. Increasingly, alternatives to these models are being elaborated in various parts of the world and in a range of languages other than English – with all the stark paradoxical consequences when it comes to communicating those alternatives beyond one’s immediate sphere.
9.3 Both postcolonial and gender-oriented approaches have in common with poststructuralism a mistrust of the beguiling rhetoric of hegemonic discourses and an unwillingness to continue to think in essentialist or binary terms. But postcolonial theory puts the emphasis on the impact and significance of translation in a context of political, military, economic and cultural power differentials. It directs its focus to the use made of translation not just as a textual, domestic construction of an ‘other’ but as an instrument to extend domination. We saw before that translation operates in the context of unequal relations between cultures. Postcolonial theory delves into these power structures. It stresses that by appropriating foreign cultural goods and transforming them into the discourse of the hegemonic culture, or, alternatively, by serving as the vehicle that dumps the dominant power’s cultural goods on a subject people, translation connives with power and becomes entangled in a web of complicity. Postcolonial studies question the morality of this complicity and celebrates those instances where translations appear to resist domination.
9.4 It is from this position that Tejaswini Niranjana, for example, criticizes descriptivism as a project that still clings to the belief in objective knowledge and naively speaks of ‘equivalence’ (suggesting ‘equal value’) between texts. Niranjana argues that ‘[t]he “empirical science” of translation comes into being through the repression of the asymmetrical relations of power that inform the relations between languages’ (Niranjana 1992: 60). The criticism, coming as it does from a committed position, draws out the political and ideological implications of the scholarly discourse on translation, indeed of any discourse. Neither the practice of translation nor the historical or contemporary metalanguages of translation are neutral.
9.5 The message has not been lost on someone like Lawrence Venuti, who is perhaps best described as a cultural materialist rather than a postcolonial scholar in the strict sense. Like many feminist translation researchers, Venuti combines the practice with the academic study of translation. He both preaches and practises a ‘resistant’ or ‘minoritizing’ form of (literary) translating, one designed to counter both our conventional expectations of ‘smooth’ translations and the dominant value systems of the hegemonic Anglo-Saxon culture.
9.6 A particular feature of postcolonial studies is their interest in hybridity. Colonial and postcolonial subjects, and many living in a globalizing world, are exposed to several cultures at once. In many former colonies, the colonial language lives on and is viewed with ambivalence, both resented for its past and accepted for the opportunities it offers. Translation, as a uneasy crossover between unequal cultures, may be seen in a similar light. Translations, too, can carry contradictory cultural values, affirming neither one nor the other but transforming both.
9.7 Poststructuralist, gender-based and postcolonial approaches have made most of the running in the study of translation over the last fifteen years or so. They have opened up new perspectives and asked novel questions. In addition to focussing attention on new objects of study, their main contribution has perhaps been their emphasis on the need for self-reflection.They all, in one way or another, oblige those studying translation to look inward and to reflect on their own position, presuppositions, agenda and methodology.
Further reading (see Chapter 11): Bassnett & Trivedi 1999; Robinson 1997; Tymoczko 1999.