Key Cultural Texts in Translation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sch of Modern Languages


In every literate culture, texts of various types and genres and in various forms play central roles in presenting and representing the culture to itself and in defining its cultural others.
Such texts can be of many different genres, but paradigm cases tend to be religious, political (constitutions, inaugural speeches, speeches to a people by its leaders in times of crisis; manifestos, posters), literary (including children's literature, travel writing, poetry, plays, films, poetry, painting, songs) historical and journalistic. The key concepts that they help to define include for example, childhood, adulthood (and the relations between them), citizenship, freedom and personal identity (and the relations between them), nationhood, foreignness, democracy, dictatorship (and other political "states"), and the sacred.

Such concepts typically vary across languages and cultures, and their variance comes to light especially clearly, and sometimes only, in translations, both in the language of the translation, and in paratexts such as translators' prefaces, post-scripts and notes. These can highlight perceived translation difficulties and the reasons for them, and the solutions adopted and the reasons for those. They can highlight the reasons for re-translations, revealing perceived miscommunication or felt needs for greater precision - perhaps because previous translations were kept deliberately vague at key points; and re-translations can also reveal approximations of the varying concepts to each other.

The aims of the project are (i) to identify a selection of key cultural texts from a selection of cultures; (ii) to identify key concepts used in these texts (iii) to examine the treatment of such concepts in translations and re-translations of the texts into different languages (iv) to trace the development of the concepts through key cultural texts in translations and re-translations; all this with a view to (v) enhancing our understanding of how cultural exchange and transmission with regard to the concepts identified function in a variety of circumstances and periods, with a view to learning from this what kinds of conceptual adjustment may be made to ease migration and intercultural communication and to enhance our ability to learn from our cultural others.

The identification of such concepts has significant policy relevance, because as Chomsky (1979: 38-39) has pointed out, there is a danger that liberal-democratic political states, which do not prohibit the expression of contentious views, may instead 'fix the limits of possible thought: supporters of the official doctrine at one end, and the critics ... at the other'. Translations may show us the essentially contested nature of certain concepts across cultures; and recognising the essentially contested nature of some concepts may go a long way towards altering the nature of our discussions of them. As Gallie (1956: 193) puts it:

'Recognition of a given concept as essentially contested implies recognition of rival uses of it (such as oneself repudiates) as not only logically possible and humanly "likely", but as of permanent potential critical value to one's own use or interpretation of the concept in question; whereas to regard any rival use as anathema, perverse, bestial or lunatic means, in many cases, to submit oneself to the chronic human peril of underestimating the value of one's opponents' positions. One very desirable consequence of the required recognition in any proper instance of essential contestedness might therefore be expected to be a marked raising of the level of quality of arguments in the disputes of the contestant parties.'

By looking for patterns of similarity and difference in the treatment in translations of these concepts across time, locations and modes, we may learn what constitutes success and failure in people's attempts to adjust and accommodate mutually.

Planned Impact

In the public, private and voluntary sectors, those charged with promoting the harmonious co-existence of varied sociocultural groups not only within the UK, but across all of the cultures and languages that the project will cover, will benefit from the enhanced understanding of cultural sentitivities that engender the kinds of adjustments to texts and other form of expression that the project will illustrate. They will be able to search the text repository for examples of how, for example, ways of referring to members of cultural groups and to the objects which they consider essential to their cultural identity change over time and with context, and draw parallels with contemporary situations.

Politicians, journalists and others charged with disseminating political, cultural, social and health related messages will be able to draw on its findings both in forming and phrasing policy. For example, the repository will contain examples illustrating how politically and personally sensitive topics are conveyed different languages at different times and for different audiences.

Representatives of organisations concerned with translation and interpreting services, policies, education and training will be able to visit the text repository for guidance on current terminological, textual and cross media and cross mode matches, and on current and past translation practices. The organisations' representatives will have had significant input to the project and the construction of the repository on which they will now be able to draw in their education, training and examining programmes, and for other purposes as these may arise.

The secondary school sector will have available to it valuable educational resources which will provide sample materials from far beyond the United States, to which locale Lukas and Medhurts' (2009) volume, "Words of a Century: The Top 100 America Speeches, 1900-1999", is confined; and they will be able to use not only speeches, but also written texts and texts in other media. These resources will include, in addition to the repository itself, the edited book outputs, which will take the form of edited volumes focusing on the texts in the repository, with annotations and discussions.

In the longer term, the enhancement of intercultural understanding which this project will promote will clearly contribute significantly to the health of nations including but also widely beyond the United Kingdom.

We will ensure that potential beneficiaries will be able to engage with the research by way of making the Key Cultural Texts in Translation repository freely available and making its existence widely known through press releases from the Press Offices of the University of Leicester and the home universities of participants, and through policy briefings to politicians, public, private and voluntary sector representatives.

The PI has good relations with and knowledge of the translation profession in the UK and in Europe, and sector members already serve on the Advisory Board of the Research Centre for Translation and Interpreting Studies of the University of Leicester. The main international partners are equally well connected in their locales.

Articles in newspapers and professional journals written by the PI, the partners and others will also act as vehicles of dissemination of information about the Network and the text repository.


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