M1: Unit 4: Chapter 5 – Capital: are translators disinterested?

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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 5: Capital: are translators disinterested?

5.1 More often than not we use the language of economics in our discussion of translation, hence the expressions ‘translation loss’ and ‘translation gain’. ‘Loss’ and ‘gain’ in this sense are used to describe the changes occurring to a linguistic message when transferred (or converted, to follow the economic metaphor) from one verbal system to another. In this chapter we will discuss another economic term, but not with reference to the translation process as such. The concept of capital, which Bourdieu used to account for the behaviour of culture producers, will help us shift the emphasis of our discussion from the process of translation to the agency of translators.

5.2 For Bourdieu, the concept of ‘capital’ is a tool for dismantling an idea that has long been associated with producers of culture, namely disinterestedness. Bourdieu uses this economic concept to question the widely held belief that the creations of painters, sculptors, or writers are engendered by a blissful moment of inspiration and in the absence of any self-interest. He argues that the self-interests of culture producers which motivate and structure their practices are disguised in such seemingly disinterested claims as ‘serving the cause of art, literature, culture, etc.’, ‘invigorating literature with new themes, genres’, etc. The role of the sociologist of culture, for Bourdieu, is to unveil these interests, view them in the context of a specific field of activity and use them to provide a fresh understanding of cultural practices.

5.3 Bourdieu stresses that all forms of social and cultural action are interested. In other words, culture producers seek profit from their intellectual or artistic labour. They seek to accumulate capital. Accumulating capital is the goal that drives culture producers into action, and capital is also the resource they deploy in their struggle for dominance in the field. However, this capital is not necessarily in the form of financial profit. In addition to economic capital Bourdieu distinguishes two other types: cultural capital and social capital (Bourdieu 1986: 241).

5.4 Cultural capital, in turn, takes one of three forms: embodied, objectified and institutionalised. Embodied cultural capital is concentrated in the knowledge, the skills, and the cultural, artistic and political preferences which individuals possess. It is acquired either deliberately through education or spontaneously through the unconscious processes of socialization. In addition to its symbolic value, embodied cultural capital “yields profits of distinction for its owner” and is convertible to both economic and social capital (Bourdieu 1986: 243).

5.5 In its objectified state, cultural capital materializes in cultural objects “such as writings, paintings, monuments, instruments, etc.” (ibid: 246). The materiality of objectified cultural capital makes its conversion to economic capital easier than is the case with embodied cultural capital. The paintings produced by a painter or the publications by a literary translator have, besides their symbolic value, an economic value. This value is determined by the place occupied by the painter or literary translator in question in the hierarchy of culture producers in their respective fields.

5.6 Institutionalised cultural capital takes the form of an academic degree, a title or an award which is acknowledged by an educational or cultural institution. In Bourdieu’s words, institutionalised cultural capital is “a certificate of cultural competence which confers on its holder a conventional, constant, legally guaranteed value with respect to culture” (1986: 248). This symbolic value, which is also convertible into economic profits, gives individuals with institutionalised cultural capital a certain advantage over other individuals within the same field of activity.

5.7 Social capital is the range of actual or potential social resources possessed by producers of culture (Bourdieu 1986: 248). This may take the form of membership in a particular group which allows each of its members to enjoy “the backing of the collectively-owned capital” (ibid: 248-9). The volume and effect of social capital possessed by a culture producer is dependent on the network of connections s/he can build and put into effect. It is also dependent on the amount of capital possessed by those to whom s/he is connected (ibid: 249). Group membership, being the basis of social capital, yields material as well as symbolic profits. Material profits include “all the types of services accruing from useful relationships” and symbolic profits “derive from association with a rare, prestigious group” (ibid: 249). In connection with translation, social capital can take different forms. At one level, it finds expression in the connections translators have with publishers, theatre directors (in the case of drama translation), book reviewers, authors of prize lists, etc. At another level, it takes the form of membership in associations of translators, translation movements, etc.

5.8 This understanding of cultural production is quite relevant to our study of translation. We usually think of translators as non-biased ‘mediators’, ‘brokers’, or ‘coordinators’ between cultures/languages. Even in our own discussions of translation we often invoke the metaphors of ‘translation as a bridge’ or ‘translation as a mirror reflection’ which again emphasize the idea that translators are disinterested and that they have no motivation other than facilitating communication across languages. This rather idealistic conceptualisation of translation prevents us from seeing the complex set of motivations underlying the work of translators.

5.9 We can then understand the practices of early drama translators in Egypt as motivated by the need to accumulate economic profit. Most of these translators were Levantine immigrants who came to Egypt in the second half of the nineteenth century for various reasons, but mainly because of a deteriorating economic situation in the Levant (Philipp 1985: 82). Young professional and well educated Levantines who could not get employment at home, found in Egypt a viable alternative to make the most of their professional, mainly language, skills (ibid: 83-4).

5.10 These immigrants worked as freelance journalists, theatre producers and translators. In all their cultural endeavours they strove to attain a more stable financial situation in Egypt. To achieve this they adopted what Bourdieu calls a ‘large-scale’ mode of cultural production through which they sought to reach the widest possible range of culture consumers. In enacting this mode of production, the Levantine immigrants produced translations for the market and not for recognition or canonization (Bourdieu 1993a: 39).

5.11 Tanyus Abdu’s career as a translator in turn-of-the-century Egypt is an illustrative case of ‘large-scale’ cultural production. Although his version of Hamlet appeared in print in 1902, it was primarily targeted at mainstream consumers of theatre productions. Publishing the translation was an attempt at maximizing the economic capital he had gained from the stage version. It is not surprising then that all the changes he introduced in his stage version which resulted in a huge commercial success were kept in the published version. Abdu was known for his massive translation output within a relatively short life. Although he died before he was sixty, he is thought to have translated between 600 and 700 stories and plays (Zaytuni 1994: 126; Landau 1958: 112). His view of translation as a commodity that should meet an increasing demand in the culture market and secure the financial stability of the translator greatly influenced the quality of his translation. With these economic considerations in mind, Abdu did not care much about staying close to the Shakespearean text.

5.12 To make and maintain financial profits, early drama translators in Egypt made the best use of both their cultural and social capital. Their knowledge of foreign languages, mainly French, and their awareness of the expectations and sensitivities of culture consumers guaranteed a minimum of commercial success. Part of the cultural capital which early drama translators employed in their endeavour to accumulate economic capital consisted in their fair knowledge of the folk narratives that were in circulation during that time. Knowing how appealing these narratives were for the majority of Egyptians, drama translators assimilated the plot structure of these narratives into their translations. The common plot that is typical of most, if not all, of these narratives centres on the hardships encountered by a kind-hearted, pious hero who prevails in the end. This explains the change of the ending in Abdu’s version of Hamlet and in many other translated plays and works of fiction during that time. Abdu was by no means alone in this regard. To give you just one other example, Najib al-Haddad’s translation of Victor Hugo’s Hernani, which was staged in 1900, arabized the names of the protagonists and the setting of the play, and changed its ending: Hernani (arabized as Himdan) does not commit suicide by taking poison; instead he marries the Spanish princess (Hanna 2005: 188).

Salama Hijazi5.13 Investing in social capital was no less important for early drama translators in Egypt. In the early stages of the development of the field of drama translation in Egypt, the success of a given translation required social capital in the form of relations with theatre managers and leading singers of the day. The fact that Abdu’s translation found its way to the stage and hit unprecedented success is only explained by his connections with leading theatre makers, especially the Egyptian singer-cum-actor Sheikh Salama Hijazi, whose presence in any theatre performance at that time guaranteed large and devoted audiences. Salama Hijazi, who played Hamlet in Abdu’s version for more than fifteen years, interfered with the translation process and asked Abdu to interpolate pieces for singing. Maintaining social capital also meant tailoring a translation that would suit the capabilities of Hijazi, as Abdu knew that the play would be doomed to failure without him.

5.14 How capital is accumulated, multiplied, diminished, or converted to other forms of capital is determined by the dispositions informing the decisions of culture producers and the series of successive choices they make in their field(s) of activity i.e. their habitus and trajectory respectively, as Bourdieu would call them. This is the subject of the next chapter.

Further reading: Bourdieu 1986; 1993a; Hanna 2005

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