M1: Unit 4: Chapter 6 – Habitus and trajectory: the agency of translators

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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 6: Habitus and trajectory: the agency of translators

6.1 Closely connected to the concept of capital are Bourdieu’s two concepts of habitus and trajectory. While accumulating capital is the goal that motivates the behaviour of culture producers, their habitus generates the strategies which enable them to attain that goal. Based on their habitus and the type of capital they seek to accumulate, culture producers choose to follow one trajectory rather than another. In this chapter, I will address these two concepts and explore their implications for our understanding of Abdu’s version of Hamlet.

6.2 For Bourdieu, habitus is the set of dispositions and schemes of perception and appreciation that organise the practices of individuals (1990: 53; 2000: 138). One’s habitus is the product of the collective constraints and conditions of the fields s/he is involved in, on the one hand, and the personal experiences acquired through the multiple and unconscious processes of socialisation, on the other. The dialectical relation between what is collective and what is personal makes one’s habitus always subject to change and adjustment. This change is also due to the shifting nature of both fields and one’s individual experiences. It is important to appreciate the interplay between the ‘collective’ and the ‘individual’ in Bourdieu’s concept of habitus; without this interplay, the concept could easily be misread as deterministic, a mechanical reproduction of the constraints of the fields. Although habitus in Bourdieu’s work is mainly a means of maintaining the structure of the field and reproducing the tacit assumptions on which it is premised (Bourdieu uses the term doxa to refer to these assumptions), it may also challenge these assumptions and hence allow for change.

6.3 Habitus does not generate well-defined decisions and choices with calculated ends. All it generates are unconscious orientations that enable individuals to find their ways in the fields in which they operate. For these ‘orientations’ Bourdieu uses the term strategy. Depending on the positions they occupy in the field and the types of capital they seek to accumulate, the habitus of individuals generate one of two types of strategy:conservation strategies and subversion strategies (1993b: 73). Conservation strategies are deployed by dominant members to maintain the hierarchical structure of the field and their privileged status within it. Subversion strategies are usually employed by newcomers to the field or those old members who occupy the position of the ‘dominated’. These strategies are enacted to contest the status quo of the field in a way that allows the dominated to find their ways towards the dominant position.

6.4 Pertinent to our discussion is the distinction between ‘primary’ habitus and ‘professional’ habitus. Primary habitus comprises the dispositions acquired by the individual during the early processes of socialisation (through the family, social class, schooling, etc.). Professional habitus consists in the dispositions and schemes of perception acquired by the individual when getting involved in specific professional activities. Think, for instance, of how people become legal translators. This requires them to take specifically tailored courses which provide them with a set of specialist skills and dispositions. Through this professional training individuals acquire what it takes to become a ‘legal translator’, i.e. the ‘professional’ habitus of legal translators. In some translation activities professional habitus is not constituted through conscious and pre-defined training. It rather takes the form of indirect apprenticeship. This is typically the case of literary and drama translators who usually do not receive formal training. They acquire the skills necessary for their profession merely through assimilating, consciously or unconsciously, the practices of other translators.

6.5 Like all the Levantine translators who immigrated to Egypt during the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Tanyus Abdu received his early education in Christian missionary schools. French language and literature were essential components in the curricula of these schools. This may explain the fact that most, if not all, Levantine translators translated from the French. Even original works which were written in English were translated through the French. In Abdu’s case, Hamlet was translated through an unknown French version.

6.6 Levantine translators were not known to have professional training in translation during that time. However, their professional habitus drew on their primary habitus and was further developed through the actual practice of translation in the Levant during the second half of the nineteenth century. These translators mainly translated popular fiction and targeted the widest possible readership. As Christians, they tended to rid their Arabic of the rhetorical features characteristic of Islamic discourse. However, after immigrating to Egypt and finding themselves in a new environment with relatively different norms of translation, they had to compromise and devise a language that reflected their own norms and at the same time met the norms of the literary establishment in Egypt. This resulted in what historians of translation condemned as a ‘hybrid language’. This again explains the language Abdu uses in his version of Hamlet where we find neo-classical Arabic side by side with a modern variety of Arabic that verges on the colloquial.

6.7 The trajectory of these Levantine translators, including Tanyus Abud, also helps explain their translation product. For Bourdieu, trajectory is the series of successive positions individuals occupy in one field or a number of overlapping fields (1993b: 189). It is the sequence of decisions that field members make at different moments in the development of the field, or in different fields of activity. The trajectory of translators is only identifiable by examining these decisions in relation to the options available in the field(s): their transitions from one preferred genre to another, shifts in translation strategies across time and genres, the choices they make in adjacent fields and shifts from one medium to another. Trajectories of translators are also determined by the network of social relations they have with other agents in the field(s) in which they are involved, i.e. publishers, reviewers, theatre directors, etc.

6.8 The case of Tanyus Abdu is representative of the trajectories of early Levantine translators who contributed to the field of drama translation in Egypt. Like other Levantine immigrants who became principal agents in the newly emerging field of journalism in Egypt, Abdu, in addition to his translation and writing for the theatre, wrote and translated for a number of newspapers and weeklies. Most of his translations of popular fiction were published serially in weeklies before they were published in books.

6.9 Translating for newspapers had a great impact on the translation practice of Tanyus Abdu. It gave him access to the reading public at the time, allowing him to establish what they did and did not want. In the introduction to his translation, republished in book form, of Michel Zevaco’s cloak-and-dagger novel Les Chevalier de Pardaillan, Abdu recounts the responses of the readers after the publication of one part of his translation in 1907 in his bi-monthly magazine, al-Rawi, as follows: “many of the subscribers were too anxious to wait for the next issue of the magazine; they would write to me asking about the destinies of the heroes, and many of them would call” (cited in Zaytuni 1994: 134, my translation). Abdu mentions that one of the issues of al-Rawi, where part of his translation of Pardaillan was published, sold ten thousand copies (ibid). Thus, the trajectory of Abdu as manifest in his translation and writing for the theatre, and his translation of popular fiction within the field of journalism shows his tendency to prioritise economic capital over other types of capital. It also shows that his translation practice was in conformity with a dominant mode of ‘large-scale’ production.

Further reading: Bourdieu 1993a; 1993b; Landau 1958.

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