D. Roig-Sanz u.a. (Hrsg).: Literary Translation and Cultural Mediators in 'Peripheral' Cultures: Customs Officers or Smugglers?

Literary translation and cultural mediators in 'peripheral' cultures. Customs officers or smugglers?

Roig-Sanz, Diana; Meylaerts, Reine
New comparisons in world literature
Basingstoke 2019: Palgrave Macmillan
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ekaterina Grineva, Internationales Graduiertenkolleg „Kulturtransfer und ‚kulturelle Identität' – Deutsch-russische Kontakte im europäischen Kontext“ Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg / RGGU Moskau

Translation studies and cultural transfer studies, key disciplines in dealing with intercultural interaction, stand out as young but influential fields. Efforts to rethink the validity of ‘nation-centered’ or ‘center-to-periphery’ structure in humanities from the 1990s onward led to a conceptual turn in translation and cultural studies since the mid-2000s toward globalization, multilingualism and cultural hybridity. A recent example of these trends is the book Literary Translation and Cultural Mediators in 'Peripheral' Cultures, published in the Palgrave Macmillan series „New Comparisons in World Literature“. This publication focuses on inter-peripheral literary exchanges and provides “an analytical framework for the study of cultural mediation from a supranational perspective” (p. 24). Following a new approach to ‘world literature’ in terms of a global extension of modern social forms and relations [1], this book can encourage scholars investigating translation flows in less explored areas, with special regard to post-imperial/postcolonial discourses.[2]

The volume brings together an international group of scholars engaged in conducting ‘renewed’ perspectives on translation, networks of cultural exchange and mediators. As Diana Roig-Sanz and Reine Meylaerts point out in the preface: “a too strong focus on the supposed specificity of a cultural mediator as a sole translator and on the hypothetical monolingualism promoted by a Western academic tradition are untenable both from an analytical and historical viewpoint” (p. 10). Hence, the editors propose to consider the figure of the cultural mediator across linguistic borders – and thus related to the spread and circulation of minor languages – as well as across spatial borders and thus in regard to constellations within and between the post-colonial nation-states). With his they argue for a much more flexible understanding of the mediating role than the one commonly conceptualized by literary and translation studies. The guiding hypothesis of the volume sees cultural mediators as smugglers, that is agents who promote exchanges and often create their own norms, circuits, channels and forms, and less as custom officers wanting to fulfil the dominant norm and obstruct exchanges. Abandoning methodological nationalism and critically consider the idea of “fixed” nations and their binary exchanges [3] – first put forward by Michel Espagne and Michael Werner in the 1990s – the editors look at cultural products through multiple methodological and disciplinary lens.

The book features twelve contributions assembled into two complementing parts, the first exploring various mediating agents, such as translators, critics, editors, publishers etc. and institutions (Chapters 2–7); the second shifts the focus to different mediation activities, including intercultural processes and strategic techniques in translation (Chapters 8–12). Almost all essays examine little documented transfer practices in so-called ‘peripheral’ cultures, engaging with translocal political-cultural and historical practices seen in the context of global history. For example, Alejandro Dujovne analyses Salomon Resnick as a presenter of Yiddish culture to the Argentinian Jewish community (Chap. 4), highlighting the complexity of cultural transmission after the appearance of Argentinian nationalist right-wing politics in 1933, when especially the young people shifted from Yiddish to the national language of the country. Though Resnick did not succeed in the competing against the predominant languages (e.g. French, German and English) when the Argentinian publishing market became the largest exporter of books in Spanish language in the world [4], he was one of the most prominent non-institutional mediators introducing Yiddish culture in Latin America. Outlining multilingual and multicultural backgrounds as also Resnick had, Rim Hassen describes a hybrid position of Fatma Zaida (Chap. 8) – probably the first woman to translate the Quran into French – documenting her “feminist translation strategies” (p. 219) in the context of Westernization of Ottoman society between 1838 and 1858. Hassen’s argument is based on a close reading of paratexts surrounding Fatma-Zaida’s translation and focuses on different transfer modes as additions, interventions and extrapolations of the source text “not on the basis of the degree of equivalence, but rather on the basis of their intended readers” (p. 221).

Developing the introductory reflections of the editors, both parts of the book provide examples of translators, who act and inter-act, each in their own way, as smugglers. For instance, as Yehua Chen argues in his article (Chap. 5), Mao Dun and Zhou’s brothers promoted small literatures in China rather than the well-known Western and American authors. Treating different countries as equals, they declined established categories like “small and weak” or “oppressed”. The following article, devoted to a similar issue, revisits the relationship between the dominant and the dominated as one of the main interests of the new theoretical approaches to ‘world literature’. Karen Thornber analyzes the translation of non-Western literatures into Urdu by the publishing house Mashal Books, which contributes to regulating power relations and hierarchies across literary communities in East Asia and the Indian Ocean Rim. Another illustrative example in this respect is given by Lieven D’hulst, writing about four Belgian “mediating agents” who propose Flemish folk songs as marginalized cultural repertoire (Chap. 9), and at the same time consider them equivalent to some counterparts in dominant early German and French music cultures. Even though the role of cultural mediators acting as smugglers prevails – as the editors state in the preface (p. 3, 14), – one still needs tools to look more closely at “the relation between smugglers’ and custom officers’ transfer practices” (p. 264). Such cases are discussed by Maud Gonne who explores the examples of interconnected mediating activities (e.g. self/translation, adaptation, plagiarism) in Georges Eeckhoud’s writings. She states, that the use of Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT) could provide new perspectives to study mediators often ignored by traditional models such as individuals, institutions, discourses and objects.

In general, Literary Translation and Cultural Mediators succeeds in redrawing the map of cultural transfer both geographically and methodologically, creatively introducing forgotten areas like Trieste, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Lima, Shanghai, Lahore, and Cape Town into the global market trend in translation. In this regard, this book sets the grounds for future cultural history studies as cross-border, emancipatory, and interdisciplinary contexts. However, even though the contributors of the book seek to escape ‘fixed’ national borders, their frameworks have some significant limitations. In particular, the use of such categories as smugglers or custom officers remains grounded within certain geographical and national frontiers, thus still producing a particular ‘national’ terminological approach which implies the conceptual framework of ‘fixed’ national borders. Furthermore, the announced broad palette of cultural mediation processes was in fact not enough explored in the volume.

Nevertheless, the contributors (as promised in the preface) do investigate some under-analyzed actors and institutions and examine their overlapping roles across historical periods and disciplines, as well as their efforts to renegotiate canons and hierarchies. Ultimately, due to the book’s innovative multi-dimensional and multilingual approach, together with its insightful contribution to ongoing debates about actor-network theory (ANT) and gender issues, it can be recommended for scholars working not only in Translation Studies, but also in interdisciplinary studies on culture and society in general.

[1] Caitlin Vandertop, Towards a New Theory of World-Literature, in: Ariel 49 (2018) 4, pp. 189-191.
[2] E.g. for a recent attempt: Elke Sturm-Trigonakis, World Literature and the Postcolonial Narratives of (Neo)Colonialization in a Globalized World, Berlin, Heidelberg 2020.
[3] Dirk Kemper / Paweł Zajas / Natalija Bakši, Kulturtransfer und Verlagsarbeit, Paderborn 2019.
[4] On ‘new approach’ to Latin American literature see Benjamin Loy / Gesine Müller / Jorge J. Locane, Re-Mapping World Literature Writing, Book Markets and Epistemologies between Latin America and the Global South, Berlin, Boston 2018.

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