Thursday, October 15, 2015

Overcoming Essentialisms

I listened today to a speech by translation studies scholar Luc van Doorslaer, rather provocatively entitled “Is There such a Thing as Turkish Translation Studies?”  This was the plenary session in a conference held at Hacettepe University, Ankara, entitled: “Extratranslation in Theory and Practice: Representation of Turkish Culture through Translation.”  I thoroughly enjoyed the speech, which rather than attempting to answer the question of whether “Turkish Translation Studies” existed, looked instead at some of the areas in which Translation Studies (hereafter termed TS) could be analyzed at the institutional as well as the linguistic level.  In the end van Doorslaer concluded quite logically that there really wasn’t anything clearly identified as “Turkish Translation Studies”; rather there existed a body of work which might be more accurately termed “Translation Studies in Turkey.”

Fair point; but as I reflected on van Doorslaer’s lecture, I wondered whether our colleagues witnessing the paper might think in the same way.  In the questioning that followed the paper, it was clear that many participants were trying to explain to him how the Republic of Turkey was essentially different in the way it approached translation, favoring an historical and/or literary approach rather than a linguistic one.  One young man insisted that it was imperative for all Turks to “engage with the past,” so as to understand their present.

I am all for the idea of using the past to engage the present, and vice versa, but I wonder why the questioner felt it necessary to use the descriptive term “all Turks.”  I was prompted to look once again at the title of this conference (“Representation of Turkish Culture”), and wonder precisely why the organizers had kept that term “culture” in the singular.  While there has certainly been movements to promote a national culture in the post-1923 era, we have to take into account the inescapable fact that there exist as many cultures in Turkish territory as there are people.  Perhaps the essentialist term offers a sense of security to its users at a time of perpetual socio-political unrest.

Or maybe not.  Looking at van Doorslaer’s lecture in light of recent work published in the Republic of Turkey in translation (as well as in other related disciplines such as education), I detect a marked reluctance to engage with personal issues; how cultures are shaped by individuals and vice versa.  There is a peculiarly distancing effect evident in the research; it is invariably written in the third person, based on qualitative or quantitative evidence backed up with extensive scholarly apparatus.  It is certainly scholarly, but tells us little about how the writers feel about their work; what it means to them.

The reason for this detachment is institutionally shaped: scholarly work can only seem “scholarly,” if it is written impersonally, in a mode as “scientific” as possible.  Through such methods any writer, irrespective of their origins, can be approached equally; they have written articles according to internationally recognized (i.e. western) standards.  This might be a laudable aim in itself but leads to the kind of essentialisms (or generalizations) that tell us little about the writers’ subject positions or the cultures they represent.  Hence it’s very difficult to formulate a transcultural perspective on the material.

This is where I think adaptation studies can really make its mark on the disciplinary agenda in the Republic of Turkey and elsewhere.  It does not need to follow TS’s lead and look at issues of institutionalization, source/target text relations, academic traditions or historical research.  Inspired by political theorists such as Weber, psychologists like Piaget, and constructivist educators such as Jerome Bruner, this nascent discipline can focus far more closely on relationships between individuals and cultures; and how “adaptation” in this sense represents a perpetual process of reshaping, as individuals learn how to socialize themselves to new cultures, and cultures are reshaped through individual contributions.  Through such approaches we can understand the interrelatedness of different disciplines; how our understanding of concepts such as “Turkish culture” depends not only on an awareness of government and/or educational policies, but how such policies are consumed at different times by different individuals.  Through adaptation studies we can perhaps understand better why essentialisms continue to be a driving force within academic life, especially in departments striving for their academic and professional survival in a financially straitened environment.  More importantly, we could learn something more about ourselves and why we continue to pursue our academic (as well as personal) research.

We have a lot to thank translation studies for – in broadening our awareness of the interrelationship between language and translation policies and how they impact our daily lives.  Van Doorslaer’s plenary speech made this perfectly clear, even though his conclusions (advocating a more pluralist view of research) flatly contradicted the agenda suggested by the conference’s title (and the questioner’s perspective).  Nonetheless I think that adaptation studies can acquire an identity of its own, provided its practitioners are prepared to free themselves from translation studies’ coattails and make a bid for autonomy.  If nothing else, van Doorslaer reminded me of the importance of fulfilling this objective, for which much thanks.

Laurence Raw

15 Oct. 2015