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Everybody knows what a translation is and what it’s for… Or do they?

Dr James Hadley, an early career researcher in translation and translingual studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), is on a mission to point out what we don’t know about the ways people produce, appreciate, and use translations.

I want to show how translation underpins everything we do in the 21st century, and why it is vital to all our lives. My central focus is translation theory, something that might sound quite straightforward. You just take a text in one language and rewrite it in another language without changing the message don’t you? What do you need a theory for?

Well, it is a lot more complicated than that. In translation studies, we look at the ways that translators’ personalities show through in the work they produce, the ways that their political, religious, or ideological leanings leave indelible marks on their translations, and the ways that aspects of the translator’s personality can go on to have massive, but usually unintentional and unforeseeable effects on people reading their work.

Currently, I am working on indirect translations, or translations of translations. These often appear when a culture has a demand for texts in a foreign language, but for whatever reason, can’t translate directly from A to B, so they go via another language. A good example is the first Japanese translation of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which appeared in 1887, only 20 years or so after Japan had ended its more than two centuries-long period of near-total isolationism.

At that time, very few Japanese translators knew any language apart from Dutch or English, because the Netherlands had been the only European nation allowed to trade with Japan during isolationism, and Britain’s empire was the most powerful at the time. So instead of going to the Grimms’ original German text, the translator went via an English translation.

The interesting thing is that reading the Japanese translation he produced, you might never know that the stories originally came from Germany. Almost every identifiably German aspect of the stories is exchanged or omitted along the way. Allusions to Christianity are replaced with Confucianism, for example, and Cinderella is renamed ‘Osusu’, a word derived from the Japanese word for soot.

It is my hypothesis that indirect translations are particularly inclined towards this kind of cultural appropriation because of the process that creates them, together with the circumstances in which they appear. If this hypothesis is correct, what kinds of implications might it have for what we know, or what we think we know about whole cultures whose languages have not been translated directly into our own?

Translation studies is full of these kinds of questions, and I am keen to share them with everybody. I am doing this by inviting scholars who are currently producing some of the most exciting and ground-breaking translation research to visit the Institute of Modern Languages Research, and allow us all to interact with their work. Our first speaker promises to change the way we read subtitles.

Dr Luis Pérez-González is co-director of the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies at the University of Manchester. He is an expert in audio-visual translation, and is currently looking at how non-expert translators use subtitles to prompt political or social change. He will join us on 4 November at 4pm for a free, open, interactive seminar – Subtitling dissent: a biopolitical perspective – on this subject. No language skills are required. I hope you will be able to join us.

Dr James Hadley is an early career researcher at the Institute of Modern Languages Research. He is interested in the ways that translation theory has been used, and even more interested in the ways that it has not been used. To date, much of his research has focused on translation in under-researched contexts, such as Japan, and medieval Europe. He is currently completing two projects, one on indirect translations or translations of translations, and the other on the phenomenon of celebrity translators in the Meiji period Japanese context. His next project will be an ambitious survey of the use and generation of translation theory today.

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