The Ethical Task of the Translator

 In our age of nation states, in which languages are mostly confined within national borders, translation can transcend political boundaries by liberating original texts from those who might otherwise suppress them. Such was the theme of last month’s 37th annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA): the intimate connection between politics and translation.

Several panels were of particular interest. “Translating Recent Literature from Politically Troubled Cultures” cited translations from Belorussian, Cuban, Moroccan and Brazilian authors to explore the responsibilities of translators who work on politically sensitive topics. In troubled times, politics play a central role in narrative strategy. Does a dictator deserve a voice? Perhaps translating the artistry of a dictator’s rhetoric can illustrate why a people didn’t rise up against him. How can the common people overcome that domineering voice? When Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in January 2011, his story put a human face to the suffering of generations of North Africans living under the strain of dictatorship, sparking the Arab Spring. His gesture demonstrates the importance of writing and translating literature that preserves the power of individual sacrifice against impossible odds.

In the panel “Politics by Other Means,” the former Yugoslavia took center stage. The more political a literary work, hypothesized the panel of Balkan-language translators, the more likely that the work targets a local audience, and the more challenging it will be to translate. As the panel progressed, it came to light that politically troubled regions are widely expected to produce political literature at all times. This is unfair. Pre-war Yugoslav literature, for example, may have little to do with Slobodan Milosevic and his ethnic cleansing campaign. It thus becomes the translator’s responsibility not to politicize an apolitical short story from Serbian or Bosnian. But avoiding politics is in itself a political consideration.

As this year’s ALTA conference drew to a close, it became clear that translators face previously overlooked ethical challenges. Faithful and artistic translations of politically inspired texts are instrumental in capturing real political contexts, but we must be careful not to insert politics where originally there was none. Where it exists, translators must bring politics into a new language in order to show the human face of upheaval and help the wider world understand something new.