The cliché that all translation is treason, epitomized in the Italian proverb traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor), reveals a recurring anxiety about the impossibility of producing a translation that is faithful to all sorts of originals: original meaning, original tone, original intention. Implied here is that an original source exists that does not derive from anything else. Implied here is purity.
Translation is a process and a product. The process is always immersed in particular circumstances that shape it and are shaped by it; the product tends to hide these conditions. The product also hides its creators.
Beyond its linguistic sense, translation is a form of social mediation that often remains invisible as it permeates and structures social relations. Sociologists Michel Callon and Bruno Latour proposed the idea of a sociology of translation in their critical discussion of modern political philosophy and, specifically, the notion of a social contract as the foundation of sovereignty and social organization. These authors understand translation as “all the negotiations, intrigues, calculations, acts of persuasion and violence, thanks to which an actor or force takes, or causes to be conferred on itself, authority to speak or act on behalf of another actor or force.” For them, the drafting of a contract social and the elevation of a sovereign to representative of a people is just an instance of a wider process of constant and conflictive translations and retranslations.
“Translation,” says Boaventura de Sousa Santos, “helps us define the limits and possibilities of collective action.”
In the world of institutionalized writing, a successful translation is one in which the final outcome conceals the reality of the practice, thus creating the illusion that a preexisting, stable meaning can be seamlessly transferred between different languages.
The idea of a transfer or displacement is already present in the Latin etymology of the word translation. The medieval literary motif of translatio studii refers to the idea that the transmission of universal knowledge takes place as a continuous rewriting of preceding texts that convey an invariable truth. This movement forward in time occurs physically across different geographies and nodes of power, from its original source in divine knowledge to Antiquity (beginning with the systematic translation of Greek culture performed by ancient Romans) and, lastly, to medieval France —the latter, according to the twelfth-century trouvère Chrétien de Troyes. Eventually, this imagined trajectory would reach Enlightened Europe, whose philosophy of universal history entailed the idea of a rediscovery of classical knowledge. In the nineteenth century, Hegel famously maintained this motif of westward translation when he developed his epoch-making theory of world history: “Universal history moves from East to West.” he claimed. “Hence, Europe is the epitome of the ending point of universal history; Asia represents its beginning” (translation my own).
“My own translation”? “My translation,” to avoid redundancy?
Original: “Die Weltgeschichte geht von Osten nach Westen, denn Europa ist schlechthin das Ende der Weltgeschichte, Asien der Anfang.”
Translatio studii is directly related to the concept of translatio imperii, another medieval notion that understands the progression of history as a displacement, from East to West, of the center of imperial power. This notion was later translated into the U.S. project of imperial expansion and the Manifest Density. “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” wrote Bishop George Berkeley in his Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America, published in 1752. Historian Jacques Le Goff points to how closely associated these ideas are when he says that “the transfer of power, translatio imperii, is above all a transfer of knowledge and culture, translatio studii” (my translation from the French original).
The French original: “Le transfert du pouvoir, translatio imperii, est avant tout un transfert de savoir et de culture, translatio studii.”
From a modern perspective, the ideas of translatio studii and translatio imperii echo in contemporary critical examinations of the corpus of ideological mechanisms employed by colonial powers in order to legitimize their rule. In his book The Invention of the Americas, Enrique Dussel points out the early modern construction of a unified tradition of “the West.” By drawing from a variety of ancient and modern cultures, and claiming for itself the most advanced position in this trajectory, “Europe hegemonizes the human experience of forty-five hundred years of political, economic, technological, cultural relations within the Asian-African-Mediterranean interregional system.” Hence, a colossal process of translation and mistranslation was presented as a self-evident, seamless original called Western culture.
Dussel draws on Edmundo O’Gorman’s seminal argument from 1958 that America was not discovered because there was no such thing in the first place. America was invented as the result of being interpreted within a pre-existing framework. Interestingly, despite his epistemological radicality, O’Gorman’s is a Eurocentric, celebratory account of the invention of the Americas. In the imperial thrust of Spain, he sees an assimilatory project under equal terms.
Translation and mistranslation were constitutive of the imperial projects of the early modern period. When Columbus’s expedition first arrived in the Americas, communication was attempted through equivocal readings of signs. A paradigm of this initial landscape of miscommunication was the Requerimiento, a legal declaration that was read to the native peoples in the first decades of the sixteenth century on behalf of the Spanish monarchs. Enunciated in Castilian, a language that the peoples who were to be subjected by it had no way of understanding, the Requerimiento was a warning or, more precisely, a threat of enslavement and dispossession to anyone who refused Spain’s self-declared right to take possession of the lands and to subject and evangelize the people of what for them was a new world. (Eventually, Jerónimo de Aguilar, Spanish castaway, prisoner in Mayan lands and one of Hernán Cortés’s most important interpreters —although not as important as Malintizin [Malinalli, Marina, Malinche]—, would interpret the Requerimiento for Mayan speakers).
(Gonzalo Guerrero, Spanish castaway and prisoner in Mayan lands would refuse to become one of Hernán Cortés’s —either important or futile— interpreters and, instead, translated himself into a fighter against the Spanish conquerors and on behalf of his new, adopted community).
“Por ende, como mejor podemos, os rogamos y requerimos que entendáis bien esto que os hemos dicho, y toméis para entenderlo y deliberar sobre ello el tiempo que fuere justo, y reconozcáis a la Iglesia por señora y superiora del universo mundo, y al Sumo Pontífice, llamado Papa, en su nombre, y al Rey y reina doña Juana, nuestros señores, en su lugar, como a superiores y reyes de esas islas y tierra firme, por virtud de la dicha donación y consintáis y deis lugar que estos padres religiosos os declaren y prediquen lo susodicho” (my emphasis).
Theoretically, the Requerimiento demanded —required— understanding. In reality, it impeded communication.
This document operated as a performance enacted by the conquerors to their own authorities in order to translate the enslavement and dispossession of natives into legal actions that could be justified within Spanish juridical frameworks.
The letter Columbus wrote about his first journey, in which he gave an account of his experience to the Spanish monarchs, was soon followed by a Latin translation that began to circulate in Europe in 1493, a month after the original Castillian version (or versions) was (or were) created. The news disseminated accross Europe through printed editions, which quickly followed translations to additional languages. The original version of Columbus’s first letter, in which he declares having arrived in new lands and taken possession of them for the monarchs, has not been found to this day. In the words of Diana Taylor: the documentation of this foundational scenario “has no original” to be found in any archive.
“Y luego que llegué a Indias, en la primera isla que hallé tomé por fuerza algunos de ellos, para que deprendiesen y me diesen noticia de lo que había en aquellas partes, así fue que luego entendieron, y nos a ellos, cuando por lengua o señas; y estos han aprovechado mucho” (emphasis my own).
Taken from a digital 2011 edition of the Spanish original version that lacks an original original.
Concealing miscommunication is a political strategy.
In technological contexts, glitches break this illusion by making media visible, as Laura Marks notices in her discussion of the circulation of digital information in Arab contexts. “When the medium shows its materiality,” she argues, “we’re lucky, because it’s easier to detect the codes by which it’s enfolded.”
When discovery (invention) gave rise to conquest, new protagonists emerged at the center of the stage. One of them was Hernán Cortés, whose expeditions ended in the fall of the Mexica empire in 1519. But bringing down the most powerful empire of Mesoamerica was only possible thanks to the linguistic interpreters and cultural mediators who forged crucial alliances with native nations like Tlaxcala, Texcoco, or Cemporala, among others, and allowed for the emergence of a diverse army of Mesoamerican and, to a lesser extent, Spanish soldiers. Among these interpreters, Jerónimo de Aguilar, Gonzalo Guerrero and, above all, Malintzin are widely known. Their role, besides the crucial duty of linguistic mediation, involved a sociological translation, in the sense proposed by Callon and Latour, through which the Spanish imperial project managed to translate the anti-imperial will of a diverse universe of peoples subjugated by the mighty Mexica empire into a unified struggle. —“Whenever an actor speaks of ‘us,’” Callon and Latour argue, “s/he is translating other actors into a single will, of which s/he becomes spirit and spokesman.” Then, they mistranslated these anti-imperial collective efforts into a new project of colonial domination of the same peoples who had fought for their liberation.
Less discussed is the instrumental role played by translation in cultivating an anti-colonial sentiment that would lead to the independence struggles of the nineteenth century against Spanish rule. Historically, translation has been part of colonial and decolonial processes. Just as oral interpretation was fundamental for the colonization process begun by Cortés in New Spain, literary translation was a key practice for the anti-colonial revolts of the eighteenth century.
The independence of the Spanish colonies was largely a work of translation of texts and ideas coming from the European and U.S. Enlightenment: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States, Du Contrat Social ou Principes du Droit politique by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke…
These writings disseminated throughout the continent among the criollo or Hispanicized leaders of the independence struggles, as studied by Gabriel González Núñez. This circulation produced a massive corpus of translation between imperial languages: a translatio of a liberal, anticolonial sentiment that, nevertheless, resulted in a modernization of colonial structures.
“Una de sus consecuencias fue la importación exitosa, lo que Even-Zohar llama ‘transferencia’, de varias opciones al repertorio cultural de las repúblicas nacientes” (my emphasis).
“No se limitaban simplemente a transmitir textos de una cultura a otra sino que ejercían un importante trabajo de selección e incluso de transformación. Combinaban escritos de distintos autores, incluso diferentes tipos de documentos, para introducir en el repertorio cultural de destino solo aquello que a los traductores les parecía digno de emulación, solo aquello que de un modo u otro promovía la visión que ellos tenían para el nuevo repertorio cultural. […] Este trabajo de cuidada selección se aplicó no solo a la hora de determinar qué traducir sino también a la hora de censurar los textos que sí se traducían. Es así que vemos a Moreno sacar del Contrato Social los temas sobre la libertad religiosa, a Molinos del Campo hacer lo mismo con sus traducciones de varias constituciones y a García de Sena eliminar o matizar todo lo pertinente a la separación de Iglesia y Estado en sus dos obras traducidas. Esto demuestra que a modo de ver de estos traductores, no era cuestión solo de copiar modelos extranjeros sino que había que moldearlos a la realidad de las repúblicas emergentes. Es decir, estos traductores revolucionarios no buscaban reproducir sin ajuste los modelos extranjeros. Más bien lo traducido representaba un menú de opciones para la formación de un nuevo repertorio cultural.”
These translations worked as a teléfono descompuesto in which the Hispanoamerican supporters of the independence of the colonies transferred and modified liberal ideas according to their own context and political interests.
(The capitalist industry of literature put an end to these forms of transference, as texts are constrained to exist as final, authorized versions. As such, they have to be properly cited and their reproduction is framed in legal paradigms that reinforce the idea that words are a thing to be owned. At the same time, without compltetely breaking with this model, translation destabilizes it: original texts are often retranslated, putting into question the existence of a single meaning. If original texts that circulate through literary institutions are forced to be final, their translations rarely are. Sometimes, there are mistakes to be corrected; others, the passage of time warrants an update to which the original would never, could never be subjected).
The importation of European political models would soon become a point of contention that would prompt calls for retranslations. Key nineteenth-century figures like José Martí chastised Europeanized Latin Americans as a dissonant cultural pastiche. —“Bolivian elites are a caricature of the West,” wrote Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui many decades later.
The liberal ideology that was translated from the European Enlightenment into the constitution of the newly independent nations in Latin America entailed a homogenizing conception of the state as an entity constituted by one nation, one language and, posited more or less explicitly, one race. Unsurprisingly, colonial modes of subjection were perpetrated by these new state structures in what Pablo González Casanovas and Rodolfo Stavenhagen described in the 1960s as “internal colonialism.” Tellingly, one of its main effects has been the minoritization and archivization of non-European languages: their exclusion from the living dynamics of translation and their confinement to a static past.
(When did Náhuatl stop being a lingua franca?)
(According to historian Federico Navarrete: “Aunque parezca paradójico, el náhuatl antes y más lejos que el castellano fue la lengua de la conquista y de la Nueva España. Malintzin, la gran negociadora de la alianza indo-española, hablaba tecpillatolli y por medio de él pudo tejer las alianzas principales para Hernán Cortés: con los cempoaltecas, los tlaxcaltecas, los chalcas y los texcocanos. […] En 1821, a la hora de la Independencia es posible que más habitantes del nuevo país que se llamaría México hablaran o entendieran náhuatl que los que hablaban o entendían castellano. La conquista del náhuatl por el español habría de suceder a finales del siglo XIX y hasta bien entrado el siglo XX, no en el siglo XVI”).
Another historical and historic trajectory of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles burst into visibility in 1994, when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation declared a war against the Mexican state arguing “Somos producto de 500 años de luchas.” If the nineteenth-century insurgent elite, enlightened by ideas coming from France and the United States, saw itself as the opposition to colonial rule, the Zapatistas trace a radically different, centuries-long translation of anti-colonial resistance, which includes the postcolonial state among the colonizing powers to be fought to this day.
Far from going back to illusory origins and sources of purity, countering colonial translations has required a continuous mobilization and betrayal of meaning that articulates different temporalities and geographies. Decolonization is, among many other things, a process of constant retranslation.Martí, José. Nuestra América. Venezuela: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1977. Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. Greco, Gina L.. "From the Last Supper to the Arthurian Feast: ‘Translatio’ and the Round Table." Modern Philology 96. no. 1: 1998. 42-47. Edelstein, Dan. The Enlightenment: A Genealogy. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press., 2010. Hegel, Georg Friedrich Wilhelm. "Vorlesungen Über Die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte" Sämtliche Werke. p. 243. Hamburg: Verlag von Felix Meiner, 1955. Berkeley, George. "On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America" Eighteenth-Century English Literature. edited by Tillotson Geoffrey. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovic, 1969. Le Goff, Jacques. La civilisation de l'Occident médiéval. Paris: Arthaud, 1964. Dussel, , Enrique. The Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of ‘the Other’ and the Myth of Modernity. New York: Continuum, 1995. Alonso Araguás, Icíar, and Jesús Baigorri Jalón. "Reflexiones metodológicas en torno a Bernal Díaz del Castillo." Cronistas de Indias: antropología en Castilla y León e Iberoamérica 1. no. 1: 2002. 159-168. López de Palacios, Juan. "Requerimiento." Biblioteca Digital Ciudad Seva, 30 Apr 2021. Accessed https://web.archive.org/web/20070501102909/http://www.ciudadseva.com/textos/otros/requeri.htm. Columbus, Christopher. ".Barcelona: Red ediciones." La carta de Colón anunciando el descubrimiento, 1 Jan 1970. Accessed https://www-digitaliapublishing-com.proxy.library.nyu.edu/visor/16602. Alcántara, Berenice. Conference Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, UNAM. 10 Apr 2019. González Núñez, Gabriel. "Traducciones para y por los españoles americanos: el papel de los traductores en la independencia de Hispanoamericana." Humanidades: revista de la Universidad de Montevideo 3. no. 3: 2018. 69–100. Rivera Cusicanqui, Silvia. "Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization." he South Atlantic Quarterly 111. no. 1: 2012. 95-109. González Casanova, Pablo. "Sociedad plural, colonialismo interno y desarrollo." América Latina 6. no. 3: 1963. 15-32. "Primera Declaración de la Selva Lacandona." Enlace Zapatista, 21 Apr 2021. Accessed https://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/1994/01/01/primera-declaracion-de-la-selva-lacandona/. Stavenhagen, Rodolfo. "Siete tesis equivocadas sobre América Latina" Sociología y subdesarrollo. 12. Mexico: ditorial Nuestro Tiempo, 1972. Navarrete Linares, Federico. "Los nahuas y el náhuatl, antes y después de la conquista." Noticonquista, 23 Apr 2021. Accessed http://www.noticonquista.unam.mx/amoxtli/2270/2257. Callon, Michel, and Bruno Latour. "Unscrewing the big Leviathan: how actors macrostructure reality and how sociologists help them to do so" Advances in social theory and methodology: Toward an integration of micro- and macro-sociologies. eds. Karin Knorr-Cetina, and AaronV. Cicourel. 277–303. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. O'Gorman, Edmundo. La invención de América: Investigación acerca de la estructura histórica del Nuevo Mundo y del sentido de su devenir. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2009. Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide. New York: Routledge, 2016.