M1: Unit 4: Chapter 3 – Translation as a field: rethinking ‘social context’

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Chapter 1: Introduction Chapter 5: Capital: are translators disinterested?
Chapter 2: Hamlet lives and sings in Arabic: Is that what Shakespeare really meant? Chapter 6: Habitus and trajectory: the agency of translators
Chapter 3: Translation as a field: rethinking ‘social context’ Chapter 7: Conclusion
Chapter 4: Positions: naming the foreign Chapter 8: Bibliography

Chapter 3 – Translation as a field: rethinking ‘social context’

3.1 To fully understand the translation choices made by Tanyus Abdu we need to view them in context. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) may be helpful here. The ideas developed by Bourdieu are meant to locate cultural goods in the different but closely intertwined social contexts in which they are produced and consumed.

3.2 ‘Social context’ is a key notion in sociological approaches to culture. Such approaches, especially those with Marxist affinities, generally tend to view the relation between the cultural product and its social context in terms of a crude reflection, whereby any cultural product is seen as a mirror of society. This view is rather reductive in its conceptualisation of ‘social context’, and arguably limits our understanding of how cultural goods, including translation, are produced. In contrast, Bourdieu’s sociology provides us with a richer and more nuanced picture of the workings of cultural production. Instead of the simplistic understanding of ‘social context’, Bourdieu’s sociology seeks to locate cultural products in multiple and overlapping contexts. Bourdieu distinguishes three such contexts: 1. the social space, i.e. the society at large at a certain moment in time; 2. the specific field of activity within which the cultural product in question (be it literature, plastic arts, drama translation, etc.) is produced; and finally 3. the neighbouring fields of cultural production which overlap with this field and partake in fashioning its products. Through what is now known as the ‘theory of field’, Bourdieu displaces the simplistic notion of reflection by means of what he calls refraction. By ‘refraction’ he means that social effects are not straightforwardly reproduced in cultural products; they are rather adjusted, appropriated and complicated through the logic governing the specific field of cultural activity within which cultural goods are produced. In terms of this view, the value and significance of any cultural product is appreciable only through our understanding of both the structure and dynamics of the field(s) within which it is produced, on the one hand, and the larger social space which comprises these fields, on the other. In this and the following chapters, Bourdieu’s key concepts will be addressed with direct reference to Tanyus Abdu’s translation of Hamlet

3.3 For Bourdieu, the field is a construct, a hypothetical socio-cultural space which can help explain the mechanisms of producing cultural goods. This space functions through the logic of ‘conflict’ between different producers of culture with different understandings of how and for whom cultural goods should be produced and what kind of profit is to be expected from them. The fact that this space is premised on ‘conflict’ makes it dynamic and changeable.

3.4 The conflict involves two major groupings of culture producers: one maintains that the financial profit that cultural products yield is the only mark of success, whereas the other group subscribe to the view that the success of cultural products is only evidenced by the recognition they get for their producers. In contrast with ‘heteronomy-oriented’ producers, the term Bourdieu uses for the first group, the second group conceives of the cultural product as autonomous and thus separate from any economic considerations. In the field of art production, for instance, this conflict is between the proponents of ‘bourgeois’ or ‘commercial art’ and the proponents of ‘pure art’ (Bourdieu 1996: 223). In the field of drama translation the struggle is between those who maintain that drama translation, especially when put on stage, is bound to be conditioned by economic factors and those who believe that drama translators should serve nothing but the intentions of the source playwright and the aesthetics of the source text.

3.5 The field, as conceived by Bourdieu, comprises a number of elements:

  • The options available to producers of cultural goods within the field in question, which Bourdieu calls positions.
  • The resources available to these producers which allow them to join the field and produce cultural goods according to a minimum of parameters. Bourdieu uses the term capital for these resources. ‘Capital’ also means the amount and type of profit expected from the cultural product.
  • The dispositions which inform the decisions of these producers, which Bourdieu terms habitus.
  • The range of successive positions occupied by culture producers in the field(s) of their activity, which Bourdieu calls trajectory.
  • A minimum of presupposed ideas which producers of cultural goods take for granted and on which their products are premised. The term used by Bourdieu is doxa.

Drawing on Bourdieu’s theory of field, the following chapters will suggest an alternative reading of Abdu’s translation of Hamlet, with special focus on Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘positions’, ‘capital’, ‘habitus’ and ‘trajectory’.

Further reading: Bourdieu 1993a; Brubaker 1985; Gouanvic 2005

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