How do translations reflect the contemporary political landscape and transnational relations and what role do translations play in recording history? Kathryn Batchelor’s lecture, Translation as Microhistory, part of the 2019/20 series for UCL’s Faculty of Arts & Humanities and Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences, tackled these questions and drew our attention to the historical and political significance of literary translation.
1. Microhistory draws attention to elements of history often ignored by conventional methods of historical research
Batchelor highlighted the importance of studying the parts of history that are too often forgotten about, describing this as ‘history from below’. Arguing that translators and translation history belong to the sphere of the ‘below’, Batchelor drew our attention to the problems faced by historians when researching translation history due to the lack of records of both translations and the translators themselves.
2. Translations are crucial components of ‘histoire croisée’
Translated directly from the French, ‘histoire croisée’ means ‘crossing history’. ‘Histoire croisée’ is concerned with transnational history and with examining the processes involved in transnational exchanges. Batchelor argues that translation and translation activity are crucial components of such crossing processes and, therefore, the study of these can inform our understanding of history.
3. China and Africa’s relations provide a contemporary example of the significance of translations in understanding political history
Batchelor’s research indicates that 68 African literary works were translated into Chinese between 2000 and 2015. The majority of the books appeared to have been selected based on the author’s success. However, Batchelor notes some exceptions, with Muammar Gadaffi’s Escape to Hell and Other Stories being one of three translations of works by Libyan authors carried out between 2000 and 2002. Batchelor’s research found no obvious motivation for these translations, with none of the authors being highly acclaimed. What is more interesting is that all three texts were published by the same publishing house and no other Libyan literature had previously been translated into Chinese. Batchelor draws the connection between the commission of these translations and the warm period of relations between China and Libya in the early 2000s, making the argument that these translations were politically rather than commercially motivated.
4. Constance Farrington’s translation of Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre is evidence of the power translators have in determining the reception of texts
Translations are not innocent objects and no language perfectly maps onto another. This leaves the translator with the responsibility of making decisions when translating the original text. Constance Farrington makes the decision to replace philosophical terms with everyday language in her translation of Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre. She also intensifies and simplifies Fanon’s statements on violence. Does this make Farrington partly responsible for the synonymy of Fanon’s name with violence?
5. The study of translations as pieces of microhistory is crucial to our understanding of the social, political and cultural landscape of historical periods
Concluding her lecture, Batchelor makes the argument that the study of translations as pieces of microhistory helps us to understand how ideas travel around the world and how they change as they travel. It reveals previously unobserved factors in international relations, and helps us to dig beneath official discourses.
Responding to the lecture, Geraldine Brodie, an associate professor in Translation Theory and Theatre Translation, drew our attention back to Kathryn extensive research in the field of translation and how her particular knowledge of translations involving Africa supports her work.
Our thanks must be given to Kathryn Batchelor for providing us with an insightful and engaging lecture that sent us home with a greater understanding of translation’s role as a powerful tool in understanding transnational relations and history.