Anthony Pym

On border construction in translation history

October 2016

Translation may be characterized by a logic of irregular, intrinsically temporary information flows, since permanent flows are better handled by the strategies of language learning. This means questioning all conceptual frames that assume radical consistency over time: the borders between states, between languages, between identities, and indeed between the mediating professions, including the mediation by the researcher. All these borders must be seen as temporary, porous constructions. By the same token, all theoretical models that seek long-term patterning become suspect: norms, laws, and the counting of numbers in corpora inherently are of key interest when they serve to highlight the dynamics of short-term, temporary events.

From that perspective, translation becomes a constant challenge to the construction of borders, from a world of mixes and hybrids that are often hidden by the histories of national spaces and languages.

From another perspective, though, translation tends to occur in situations where a minority agent acts on behalf of a majority principle (i.e. there are normally fewer translators than people who need translations). We thus deal with situations of asymmetric information distribution and the constant risk of losing trust in the mediator. This is heavy with consequences for the political selection, control, and vetting of translators. The institutions that invest most heavily in signaling the status of translators are also those that depend on national or supranational borders. Translation as a social phenomenon, rather than translators as people, thus becomes an intrinsic and necessary part of border construction.

These twin perspectives clearly run at loggerheads. most powerful borders of our age, at both the national and supranational levels. The historiography of translation has no business proclaiming either of those perspectives to be articles of faith, neither good nor bad. Its task is rather to start from those conflicts as the forms of complex case studies, performing its own borders but without pronouncing resolution – which is precisely why our task is historical.

The talk will be illustrated by examples from the Spanish Inquisition, which has nothing to do with the translation history of Romania.