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Trans-Linguistic Practices : The Social Role of Translation in the Modern Era

par Lemardelé Élise - publié le

Research themes Literature – Translation Studies – Transversal Approaches

Principal Investigators

Florence Xiangyun Zhang (CRCAO/UPD), Lara Maconi (Associate Member of the CRCAO/Centre for Himalayan Studies)

Members :

Full Members

Annick Horiuchi, Cécile Sakai, Rainier Lanselle

External participants and international collaborators

Elise Pestre (MCF, UPD, études psychanalytiques), Antoine Cazé (PR, UPD, Etudes anglophones), Nicolas Froeliger (PR, UPD, EILA), Céline Wang (MCF, UPD/CESSMA)
CHENG Xiaomu (Associate Professor, Beijing University), Midori OGAWA (Associate Professor, Tsukuba University), WEI Keling (Associate Porfessor Renmin University of China)

Partner institutions

Beijing University (PKU), Renmin University of China (RUC), Fudan University


Let us recall once again the etymology of the word “to translate” : from the Latin traducere, it means “to lead from one point to another”, “bring across”, “transfer”. The figure of the go-between remains a lively metaphor for the translator, and translation work embodies this fluid crossing, this constant coming and going between two or more texts, languages, cultures and social contexts. Translation also conjures up the image of a bridge between two or more riverbanks, sides, or areas. (Two or more : because the often sharply bipolar approach does not reflect the long trans-linguistic and trans-cultural journey underlying the relationship between the source-text and the target-text).
Translation is also above all, and by definition, the accomplishment of a social act because it involves a position, a vision and a commitment ; it opens doors, crosses borders, establishes contact, makes a work accessible, brings together ideas, knowledge etc. Translation, because it is both subjective and individual but also part of a socio-historical and political context, is never a neutral process. At times political or ideological, pragmatic or economic, it is a societal act that involves different actors : apart from the translator, the editor and the reader come into play.
Translation essentially establishes a linguistic, as well as literary, cultural, scientific and pedagogical relationship and exchange. To translate is therefore to pass on/convey, but this act of “openness” and “circulation”, can also be subversive and revolutionary, because it enables the crossing of boundaries, breaks down walls and removes the barriers of exclusion. For this reason, translation can be a threat to some totalitarian regimes, and be subjected to excessive control or even censorship.
Because it is produced in a given period and context, a translation is also a text that reveals the nature of society, not only the one in which the work was created, but also that in which the translator and his reader live, the society that produces a given text, and the society that receives it, through the mobilisation of its own distinctive mechanisms of mediation, adaptation, reception and distribution. It may be observed that, depending on the historical and political circumstances of the moment, the translation of a work is modified, aided or thwarted by voluntary, accidental or simply unconscious endeavours.
If, according to Bourdieu, sociology is a “combat sport”, then translation is a life-long struggle for numerous translators. It would be interesting to focus on some translators and translations in specific time-periods (Dong Leshan and the “underground” translations during the Cultural Revolution, to take an example from China) that notably influenced the society of their country. It would also be interesting to study how today certain translators resist the political, social but also commercial dictates that various social contexts have to face (in particular, the phenomenon of translations being published on social media to avoid proscription and make the texts widely accessible).
In Asian contexts, which are our programme’s main focus, translation is closely linked to modernity. It was translation that enabled these to break with tradition, question the dogma of established powers, and become aware of the individual. The project is consciously limited to the “modern period”, without precise dates, because the issue of the definition of modernity in the various Asian contexts remains a complex and fundamental problem, that defies all unilateral efforts at dating.
The study of translation should be, more than ever, a research field that is open to a multiplicity of approaches, and in particular to a transversal approach within the cultural area of East Asia. This project aims to bring out a number of topics relating to the social role of translation, and to address these by working on broader research problems that are common to China, Japan, Tibet, as well as neighbouring countries, such as the Koreas, Vietnam and Mongolia :
The social aspects of the translation texts and translation practices ;
Portraits of influential translators (their political, social, literary and linguistic role) ;
-  Translation between political and literary commitment and disengagement ;
-  Translation between censors and censored ;
-  Translation and propaganda ;
-  Translation between the producer and the consumers of the translation ;
-  Translation through networks and on social networks.
Planned scientific activities
This project is also part of the “Translation and Trans-disciplinary Approaches” research theme of the Centre for Translation Studies (CET) of Paris Diderot University. In its preparatory phase, the project led to a workshop in November 2016 entitled “Translation, a political commitment ?” that was organised in partnership with Elise Pestre (Psychoanalytic Studies, Paris Diderot University) and brought together researchers, translators and editors.
Monthly/bimonthly seminar for which we plan to :
- Invite speakers that are experts in some aspects of our research topics concerning the cultural area of East Asia and Inner Asia (Vietnam, Mongolia, Tibet, North and South Korea, Japan).
- Invite politically engaged translators (for example M. Huang Canran who is very active on social networks), in order to gain an insight on the motivation, the process and the reception of translation).
- Organise workshops on the topics mentioned above, an international symposium and a publication (one part of it will be published online and another part as a conventional publication).