When Words Are not Enough
Human communication, even in one language, always comes with the proviso that we understand and are understood much less than we hope. If language barriers make this challenge even greater, how do people the world over still manage to talk to each other? Translation, as any practitioner will attest, is as much about cultural mediation as it is about finding the right words and putting them in more or less the right order. That is one of the central ideas explored in my recent book, Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History.
Stories of translators succeeding or failing thanks to their grasp of cultural issues, or lack thereof, are as old as multilingual communication itself. They go back to the days of the Ottoman empire, when the job of the translator involved – just as it does today – much more than conveying ready messages. When translating, we inevitably intervene, add or cut, change the meaning or reframe the source, gloss local aspects or contextualise political demands, rephrase the author’s wording or introduce their work. From the Great Game to the West’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, cultural awareness has always been as important as linguistic skills. My own career as a translator and interpreter is full of examples confirming that words alone are rarely enough to establish communication. In this talk, I will share several stories, past and present, to demonstrate that we have to translate not only between languages but, crucially, between cultures.
Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator working from Russian. She writes for the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian and other publications. Her popular history of translation, Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History, is out with Profile Books.
FRIEDRICH BALKE is Professor of Media Studies at the Ruhr-University of Bochum, with a special emphasis on the theory, history, and aesthetics of visual representation. He is the spokesperson of the Research Training Group “Documentary Practices. Excess and Privation,” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). His areas of teaching and research focus on the cultural history of political sovereignty and modern biopolitics, the history and theory of mimetic practices, and media philology. His books include Figuren der Souveränität (Fink, 2009), Mimesis zur Einführung (Junius, 2018) and (with Rupert Gaderer) Medienphilologie. Konturen eines Paradigmas (Wallstein, 2017). Recent publications among others are “‘Speaking-For’ and the Lack of Representation: Advocacy in Hobbes and Rousseau”, Law & Literature (2020) and “Seasteading. Poststaatliche Gründungsszenarien auf dem Meer”, in Roland Borgards et al. (eds.), Die Zukunft der Inseln. Passagen zwischen Literatur und Wissenschaft (2020). Friedrich Balke is currently working on a book on „The Documentary in Light of Kant’s Critique of Judgment“.
About Carte Blanche IV
Exchanges have always been an essential component of the KWI’s activities. We are part of a regional consortium of universities in the Ruhr area and cooperate closely with our local partner institutions. At the same time, our work thrives on an international outlook that taps into debates and developments in the social sciences and humanities abroad. In the new online instalment of our Carte Blanche lecture series, the KWI will provide a platform to bring these two networks into conversation. In each session, an international guest speaker will present original research, which will then be discussed by a scholar from the University Alliance Ruhr.