Friday 21 July 2023

Gaps in translation: Babel, information and colonialism

Recently I've been reading the novel Babel by Rebecca Kuang, and found it both highly enjoyable and thought-provoking. Very much an academic's view of a good fantasy story: set in Oxford, heroes and villains alike are academics, the magic that the book describes only works with a thorough study of language and etymology, and the novel is full of footnotes. 

Moreover, the setting is a very interesting period of history in the 1830s, when the second British Empire was still taking shape, with its rapacious attention shifting from the Americas (fifty years after US independence and with slavery finally abolished) to South and East Asia. The backdrop of the book is the smuggling of opium by British agents linked to the East India Company into China, and the run-up to the first Opium War. At the same time, industrialisation was taking place in large-scale within the UK, with the building of railways as well as factory machinery, and the consequent struggles for jobs and for democracy. Most of the novel presents this history faithfully, but laced with some fantasy elements.

In lots of ways I'd have been quite happy with this as a historical novel - the details are fascinating. When we meet leftwing demonstrators, they talk of the Chartists, of the Luddites, Peterloo and the 1832 uprising in Paris that is the centrepiece of Les Miserables. The effects of industrialisation on people, already working rubbish jobs which they lose due to more technology. The taking-over of subject peoples around the world but the unwillingness to accept people from those places within British society. And the true wickedness of the opium trade, when a supposedly civilized people got a great nation (China) hooked on drugs to make money and to subjugate them further, and when they protested. 

Some of these details led me down fascinating rabbit-holes. At one point the characters travel to Canton to 'negotiate' on behalf of a Mr Jardin and Mr Matheson who are trying to bring opium into China. So I learnt about their story, of becoming rich through drug smuggling, taking on Lot Number 1 in Hong Kong and growing into a company that is still rich today, but wouldn't have started without the creation of drug addicts. Meanwhile at home, James Matheson became an MP, governor of the Bank of England, and bought the island of Lewis from which he cleared large numbers of people to build a castle. Oh, and both were Scottish, as sadly was too often true with the British Empire.

But really all this is background for the book, which is about translation and its issues. The blurb begins with the Italian phrase traductore, tradditore - roughly, translators are traitors, or in the more elegant version of the blurb, "an act of translation is always an act of betrayal". Because in this world, the heart of power in Oxford, fuelling the British Empire, is the Royal Institute of Translation - the eight-floor tower known inevitably as Babel. The focus of much of the book is on a group of undergraduate students entering that institute, as people as the academics who teach them and others who also work in the tower. In that tower, silver bars are endowed with a special form of magic - a word in English (typically) is written on one side, while on the other side is a version of that word in another language. 

The magic comes in the gaps in translation - in the subtleties of meaning that one language captures but another misses. Sometimes the words are similar - the difference between French triacle and English treacle is the basis for healing from cholera in the first few pages. Sometimes they're different in appearance despite the languages being similar, such as German heimlich and English clandestine (used to create secrecy in the home, given that the German shares the same root as the English home). And sometimes the languages are quite different. 

That translation never captures the full meaning, however good the translator, is well-known. How can it, when languages are different in their grammar and syntax, and the words have different histories and implications? 

Any reader of translated fiction knows this. I'm going on holiday to northern Italy next month, and a colleague recommended that I read I promisi sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni, a 19th century classic of Italian fiction though not much known outside Italy, and set in the region where we're going. But at least three translations into English are widely available, all in different styles, and the reading experience varies a lot depending on which I pick. In the same way, I recently read Thomas Mann's celebrated novella Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice), in a 1930 American translation which after reading it I learnt is regarded as somewhat censorial, toning down the homoerotic themes considerably for the American audience.

The same is true in non-fiction. I vividly remember as a PhD student reading German sociologists and philosophers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas, in English translations full of little translators' footnotes on why they'd picked certain readings of words and their full implications in the original. Every Biblical scholar and most preachers spend much of their time explaining the difference between Greek words and their common English renditions (I have myself constructed big chunks of sermons on why 'eternal life' and zoe aionios have very different implications, and heard many on the different possible readings of logos beyond the simple 'word').

It was for this reason that the field of hermeneutics (the study of interpretation) developed initially in Christian theology, before moving to other areas. It can never be neutral - it is deeply dependent on the positionality of the interpreter, as well as their understanding of the text. As the radical Biblical scholar Ched Myers wrote:

Claims that the meaning of the text is ‘obvious’, requiring no interpretation, or that someone interprets without bias, are no longer credible. Hermeneutics takes seriously the burden and responsibility of the interpreter as ‘translator’, trying to bridge two vastly different worlds. Moreover, interpretation is a conversation between text and reader, requiring not detachment but involvement. … [I]f we are genuinely listening to the text, we will allow it to influence how we understand and what we do about our situation (it ‘interprets’ us). Until the circle from context to text and back to context is completed, we cannot be said to have truly interpreted the text.

(Binding the Strong Man, 1988, p.5)

And so to information. These gaps in translation have much to do with the nature of information. Gregory Bateson famously described information as 'the different that makes a difference', and a gap in translation that can be used for magical purposes is surely exactly a difference that makes a difference. 

Gaps in translation are also an illustration of my colleague David Chapman's claim that information is provisional - we can never be certain whether it is accurate or not at any one moment. This is because, as David and I wrote together: "it is impossible to know, with complete certainty for all time, whether something is true, and, according to Floridi’s veridicality thesis of information, information has to be true otherwise it is not information". When our information relies upon translation, it cannot be otherwise than provisional: because its fundamental meaning is always uncertain. 

One further thought on information and translation. When communication technologies are analysed, they often are shown in successive layers within the sender, converting the message into a simple form (such as 1s and 0s on a phone line) which can then be relayed to the recipient where it is built up into a different form. In the paper on information being provisional, David Chapman used this technique to analyse information. However, where translation is concerned, there is no simple form into which the words are first of all converted before being built up in the other language. The spoken or written words go as a whole unit from one individual to another. At best they are held in the same sort of neurones within the brain, but not in a way available to human consciousness. In my view (and maybe others would see this differently), translated words move as a whole from one language to another, without an intermediate form.

And so to return to Babel and betrayal. At some level it is undeniable that translation is betrayal - the meaning behind the words changes, ideas are lost or added. For the most part, this is not a deliberate betrayal. Fascinatingly, in the novel there are further layers of betrayal - because the students that the novel focuses upon have mostly come to Oxford from other countries, chosen for their fluency in other languages to make the translation magic work effectively. And because their work powers the British Empire, they are thus put in a position of choosing either to betray their country of origin, or to betray their fellow-students within Babel. 

Which option they choose would be a spoiler for the novel - but it mirrors the choices that colonised peoples, and their successors as the descendants of colonised peoples (whether or not citizens of post-imperial states such as Britain) have always faced and always continue to face. In the style of early 19th century novels, the book has several subtitles, one of which is 'the necessity of violence', and what it means to do violence in such a situation (even if that violence is to things and institutions rather than human beings). As a pacifist, I found this really troubling, but also thought-provoking in the light of debates on decolonisation but also groups such as Just Stop Oil which use forms of violence against property (though not people) as has been the case for campaigning groups such as the Suffragettes in the past. 

Because ultimately Babel is a book about power; and translation is always an issue of power. The question is who holds the power, and what use they put it to.

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Gaps in translation: Babel, information and colonialism

Recently I've been reading the novel Babel by Rebecca Kuang, and found it both highly enjoyable and thought-provoking. Very much an aca...