© Anthony Pym 1998
Writings on translation differ in accordance with the publics they address. This text is addressed to researchers mainly concerned with intercultural relations, since its first aim as an essay-as a largely speculative attempt to make sense of a vast and confused domain-is to suggest ways in which translation, seen as a form of intercultural communication, could connect with wider international problematics. I have not set out to tell anyone how to translate; I would be upset if the principles proposed were regarded as a definitive theory of all forms of intercultural communication; I have been happy to write about my subject from along the mostly unstable borders between several social sciences.
Writings on translation also differ according to their points of departure. Epistemological priority might be accorded to authors, tongues, discourses, source texts, target texts, translators, readers, clients, purposes, cultures, or anything else deemed vaguely pertinent to what translators do. The principles drawn from the point of departure then usually determine the way all other elements are seen. In this essay, in keeping with my declared aim and targeted public, I have given epistemological priority to text transfer, understood as the simple moving of inscribed material from one place and time to another place and time. Text transfer might be seen as similar to the movement of merchandise as the material part of trade, or it could be approached through the model of technology transfer or even expertise transfer. I believe all these associations form a materialist semantic field of extreme interest to the epistemology of translation. Although often ignored or considered banal, the principles of material transfer in fact concern many of the processes and conditions to which translators respond. Some of these principles might thus be expected to open the way for a dialogue between the study of translation and the study of more general intercultural relations, especially those integrating the hard historical realities of economics. Moreover, dialogue of this kind will hopefully show that even the most abstract concepts of translation also concern very down-to-earth problems like having enough to eat, or indeed knowing what you are eating.
In an attempt to promote a broad interdisciplinarity, I have worked from a basic dichotomy between transfer as material movement and translation as a semiotic activity, with the two related in such a way that translation not only responds to transfer but can also represent or misrepresent its materiality. This complex relation between the material and semiotic levels runs through several theoretical registers. Any originality in the project lies in repeated insistence on transfer as a fact of the material economy, where things really do move, and my suspicion of the semiotic realm, where movement and distance are habitually eclipsed (the pure signifier indicates only the absence of the referent, not its distance). Texts are transferred from place and time to place and time; their values change; but most translations are semiotically consumed without their receivers ever knowing the difference.
Although the models required for the study of translation have traditionally been excluded or overlooked by the social sciences, I believe they deserve to become more crucial as we approach the end of the twentieth century. Each reference to "a given culture" as a naturally discrete unit presupposes a form of closed sovereignty now of limited heuristic value. As increasing interdependence incorporates nation states into wider cultural networks, individual countries are becoming more and more multicultural within themselves, and revived nationalisms are markedly international phenomena. Wholly systemic categories are no longer able critically to address these processes, quite simply because what is happening concerns non-systemic passages across frontiers and not a rationality that can be arranged around centres. Translation has always been a fact of frontiers. Its data and models might thus help the social sciences to address the history and ethics of intercultural relations.
These basic ideas were first presented in dissertation form in Australia in 1980, at a time when linguistics was still a dominant social science, albeit at a post-structuralist avatar. To talk about transfer was a way of making language move; to write about translation was a way of developing the conceptual geometry appropriate to movement in a peripheral culture; and to insist that translation was an activity working across space and time, to insist on an unfashionable materiality, was to reflect upon the historical "tyranny of distance" Blainey perceived as characteristic of Australian culture. This peculiarly localised background means that my ideas have not been developed in any substantial contact with the translation research published in the 1980s. I have nevertheless tried to indicate some points of agreement and disagreement with more recent approaches, mostly through a series of lengthy asides, commentaries and notes added to the original train of thought.
I should also mention that I have survived for several years as a professional translator and university teacher of translation in Spain. There is thus a certain practice at the base of my theorisation; these propositions are not merely daydreams filling in the before and after of my humble salaried existence. Although I work in apparent calm, I know the texts in front of me are really moving and are destined to escape from my control. Although I mostly work alone, I can feel my linguistic choices struggling with the forces by which transfer creates distance and cultures create belonging. And although the translation decisions I must take are apparently minor, always too hurried and never adequately remunerated, it is perhaps not entirely false to say that each of them should be made for all humanity. These propositions are no doubt terribly academic, but they have helped me to see translation as a purposeful activity in which fidelity is ethical, economic, and ultimately to a profession, beyond the criteria of any immediate sender, receiver, client or country.
The original dissertation "Divagations for a Political Economy of Translation" (Murdoch University, Western Australia, 1980) was completed under the direction of Didier Coste. The final version has been helped by comments from Christiane Nord and Monique Caminade. To all of whom, my sincere thanks.
Parts of Chapter 1 have been published as "Paraphrase and Distance in Translation" in Parallèles: Cahiers de l'Ecole de Traduction de Genève 8 (1987). Chapter 2 is a version of "An Economic Model of Translational Equivalence", also published in Parallèles 12 (1990). Chapter 3 is mostly from "Discursive Persons and Distance in Translation", published in Translation and Meaning, Part 2, ed. Marcel Thelen and Barbara Lewandowska Tomaszczyk, Maastricht: Rijkhogeschool, 1992, 159-167.