24 June 2010

TSR: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

What to make of an article ("The Politics of Translation") that begins with this laziness:
The idea for this title comes from Michele Barrett's feeling that the politics of translation takes on a massive life of its own if you see language as the process of meaning construction.
I think she means "the process of constructing meaning", so why leave in the irrelevant and confusing ambiguity?

The whole piece varies between lazy writing, which is often impenetrable, and bizarrely low-register phrases. Here's a sentence where they're mixed:
When you hang out and with [sic] a language away from your own (Mitwegsein) so that you want to use that language by preference, sometimes, when you discuss something complicated, then you are on the way to making a dimension of the text accessible to the reader, with a light and easy touch, to which she does not accede in her everyday.

[That's my "sic", not hers.] Whose is the "light and easy touch"? Does it really help to say "Mitwegsein"? Actually, what does "a light and easy touch" actually mean?

And there's a failure to expand on some references. On page 373 she talks about a discussion of "Sudhir Kakar's The Inner World, [in which] a song about Kali written by the late nineteenth-century monk Vivekananda is cited as part of the proof of the 'archaic narcissism' of the Indian [sic] male." That's her "sic", not mine. I presume it means that Indian is being used here to mean South Asian, or subcontinental, or even is a mistake and should be Bengali. The point is that the vast majority of readers won't know what all this is about: it needs more explanation.

After two slow readings, I'm closer to understanding the meaning of the whole piece. It is a subtle argument about the need to submit to the source text in order to translate it. She suggests, strongly, that you need an intimate knowledge of the source language (that's what the above quotation means) and of the culture. The article is predominantly about translating third world women's writing, and Spivak argues that the translator has to understand the social and cultural framework around the source text, especially to avoid assumptions of an orientalist kind. It also challenges one-size-fits-all models of feminism, and in that sense it's a vigorous hybrid of post-colonial and feminist thinking.

She's writing from an active feminist perspective: one of the aims of translation is to expose and thereby change women's experiences. Which raises the question - a much bigger question - of whether actions and choices must always be explicitly grounded in praxis. She's taking it for granted that they must be, and while I can understand that, I haven't worked it through completely enough to feel exclusively driven by it.

There's a lot of good stuff here but oh my word how badly it needs an editor.

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