Anthony Pym


_Video material

Guiding the Invisible Hand

Anthony Pym 1997

One of a series of position papers written in preparation for the On-Line Translation Colloquium organized by Sean Golden in March 1997. The text has been slightly corrected in the light of Doug Robinson's later comments on it (he wasn't very impressed!)

Just a few paragraphs to guide you between Douglas Robinson's 'Invisible Hands' and my papers 'Translation as a Transaction Cost' and 'Transferre non (semper) necesse est'.  You see, there's a script behind all this, somewhere.

Douglas Robinson proposes that ideas like 'the author speaking through the translator' be related to even more powerful ideas like Adam Smith's Invisible Hand. A metaphor in translation theory can be related to a metaphor in political economics. Let's accept this possible connection, for the sake of argument and at its most general level. After all, when I talk about translation as a 'transaction cost' I'm tapping essentially the same sources in political economics, and the theory of cooperative transactions that I use is little more than a neo-classical version of Smith's Invisible Hand. There are nevertheless three basic problems that I would like to point out with respect to Robinson's treatment of the metaphors:

1. The Invisible Hand as 'spirit channeling' seems to be insufficiently motivated;

2. While the metaphors allow us to tinker around in meta-translational space they ultimately leave the practice of translation intact, unchanged, and just as bad or as good as it was before our endeavours; and

3. A more effective use of the metaphor might focus on the Invisible Hand as the result of two-way interaction between communication participants, since this is the frame within which it could provide the basis for an alternative ethics of translation.

I'll elaborate these points one by one.

1. So what?

Some theories of translation, it seems, suggest the author is like an Invisible Hand that moves through and justifies the translator's actions. Yet other theories say translating is like changing a text's clothes, replacing those of the author with those of the translator. And others insist that a translation is like a woman in that it is historically relegated to a secondary position and accused of either false beauty or infidelity. We can pick any simile we like and follow it through as far as we want to go. In historiographical terms, we might exploit the clothing metaphor to relate translation to the history of hygiene or the demise of national dress. Or we might follow the same history through in terms of the exploitation of women, pointing out amazing parallels between ideas about translation and ideas about gender. The 'clothing' and 'women' theories would at least enable us to bring together a lot of past translation theories; they would also help us say important things about the increasing internationalization of dress codes and the redressing of women's status. Why, then, should anyone prefer to explore the 'Invisible Hand' metaphor? The actual meta-translational pronouncements in this area a little thin on the historical ground (claims to metempsychosis, the Septuagint and Luther's insistence on 'faith' as his only guide). And where is the Invisible Hand theory here and now? Bible translators still mention their faith in God's Word, but there's not much more to be squeezed out of the metaphor. Unless, of course, Robinson wants to argue that the Invisible Hand is really everywhere, but hidden, repressed, pushed deep down into those dark domains that we feel but can't talk about. Thus the very lack of evidence, the lack of full theories elaborated in these terms, might become Robinson's prime piece of evidence: you don't talk about X, therefore you are repressing X. Classical unfalsifiability. But perhaps we don't talk about 'spirit channeling' simply because there are more important or problematic areas of life to talk about. Perhaps other metaphors are more interesting. Like clothes and women (and all the repressed taboos that might link the two in my poor perverted mind). In short, the Invisible Hand as spirit channeling seems insufficiently motivated as a general translation theory.

2. Carry on regardless?

In bringing out and playing with this metaphor, do we actually change anything on the level of translation practice? Sure, Robinson will say, when we question ideas about translation we make translators question what they do; there will inevitably be some kind of consciousness-raising, some kind of greater awareness of the myths that underlie our practice. But this particular metaphor seems unable to address very practical problems like knowing when to translate or how to translate in a particular situation. Nor can it really tell us whether or not there is an Invisible Hand in our practice... or is this only  a metaphor? Since Robinson's wider thesis is that the more powerful myths of the past leave their traces in the practices of the present, perhaps he would have to argue that some kind of Invisible Hand continues to be operative: if it weren't an element of our everyday practice, why would he bother to talk about it? I need clarification on this point. And I need a lot of enlightenment on the ways reference to the metaphor could possibly solve the problems I face when I sit down and translate. Robinson manipulates the theories but ultimately seems to leave the practice untouched.

3. The Invisible Hand as cooperation

The Invisible Hand that belongs to classical and neoclassical political economics does not strictly concern 'spirit channeling'. It is about what happens when economic actors interrelate;  it is about the exchange situation. It says, crudely, that when two or more actors pursue their individual interests in the exchange situation, the outcome can/will be beneficial for them all. As such, the Invisible Hand involves a massive vote of confidence in social relationships; it could be the foundation of historical optimism; it certainly underlies liberalism (in the economic sense of the term). That particular Invisible Hand, Adam Smith's, has very little to do with unidirectional relationships between authors and translators. It should more properly make us think about communication participants and the ways translators can operate between other participants. Robinson, it seems, has invited us to forget about the entire target side.

A little more on the history of the idea: One could say that since Smith equals capitalism and thus imperialism and all sorts of global iniquities, the Invisible Hand should be attacked as the myth that it is; it should be cemented to the religious myths it was originally based on; and the whole lot should be sunk as quickly as possible.

Not so fast: The Invisible Hand is surely also present in the great marxist promise that laws of tendency would bring us to earthly paradise: history was of itself moving in a particular direction (although it really took Althusser to tell us that intellectuals should make that particular Invisible Hand push along a little faster). Should we be surprised that Smith took the idea from the theological age? The same connections operated on the left: the Invisible Hand is, at base, the Dieu caché of Goldmann and the Hegelianism that remains in Marx. (Let me cut this short: someone might be interested in talking about translation).

The Invisible Hand: My two-year-old son wants to cut cheese. I believe in letting children be as free as possible; I believe they will find their own way in the world; I mistrust my own ideas enough not to want to impose myself on future generations; liberalism = knowing we don't have all the answers; we are not infallible guides; so I let him cut. In my translation class I allow students to discuss as much as possible, to propose as many alternatives as they want, to debate. Since I see translation as operating from a position of fundamental doubt, I cannot believe that I have all the best answers. Optimal solutions will come from teacher-student exchange, from some kind of invisible hand that will guide us through, if only we are all free enough to participate in that exchange. And when students disagree with me, when I am convinced they are wrong, dead wrong, I have occasionally said: Fair enough, translate like that if you want, but when you are a professional operating in the market you will learn to do otherwise... I pretend not to be a Guiding Hand; I displace by authority to the Invisible Hand of the market, in the most classical politico-economic sense. There it is: In my practice, in my optimism, in my problematic manipulations of authority, I'm using this damn Invisible Hand all the time. But it's not the one where authors speak though translators!

Of course, my two-year-old son cut his hand. Badly. And as I drove through the night in search of a doctor in the next village, son wailing, blood flowing, my wife accusing me of too much stupid liberalism... Where were you, Adam Smith? What should I have done, Douglas Robinson? Why didn't the Invisible Hand guide us through? But then again, my son no longer insist on trying to cut cheese.

So much for metaphors.

4. Guiding the Invisible Hand

I attach two papers to this discussion. The main one, 'Translation as a Transaction Cost', posits that there may indeed be an Invisible Hand in social communication: people can interact in order to achieve mutually beneficial ends. But there are some constraints guiding that Invisible Hand. One set of constraints is ethical: actors should realize that it is in their self-interest to ensure the well-being of the other, and they should privilege the criteria of long-term cooperation. (This is straight neoclassical theory, and in reply to critiques of the 'rational egoist' subjectivity I can only refer to the authors cited in the paper.) The second set of constraints is perhaps more interesting: translation itself  can be used to promote or inhibit mutually beneficial outcomes. That is, very expensive or very poor translations can block cooperative communication. Further, the use or non-use of translation can affect outcomes in the same way. This means that if you accept the ethical constraints on the first level (the nature of all social communication) you can read off ethical guidelines on the second (the role of translation within specifically cross-cultural communication).

Note carefully: The first level sets up an ethically constrained Invisible Hand; the second level, that of translation, proposes specific pragmatic interventions able to guide the Invisible Hand.

In fact, translation thus becomes a kind of invisible hand itself. It is accorded a properly active and interventionist role, as opposed to the mostly passive role it appears to have in Robinson's use of the metaphor.

The theory also gives a kind of answer to the question of whether or not there really is an Invisible Hand: Well, yes, I would like there to be one, since I remain fundamentally optimistic about the way of the world and profoundly mistrustful of intellectual attempts to control the world. But then again, that Invisible Hand can and should be guided by our practical and intellectual efforts in fields such as translation. Since if that were not so, we would have no reason to be doing translation theory.

The second paper, 'Transferre non (semper) necesse est',  is an argumentative application of this idea to a specific field of intercultural cooperation: the construction of 'Europe'. It posits that the interventionist use of translation should be thought about within the wider frame offered by non-translation. It also posits that too much translation can effectively block cooperative communication, thus misguiding the Invisible Hand.

Together, I hope these two papers indicate how Douglas Robinson's use of the Invisible Hand might be adapted in a way that is more clearly motivated (I think there are real problems to be solved) and with more explicit consequences for our everyday choices about whether  to translate and how to translate.

Let the debate begin!

Return to On-line Colloquium

Go to Translation as a Transaction Cost by Anthony Pym

Go to Transferre non semper necesse est  by Anthony Pym

© Anthony Pym 2014
URV. Av. Catalunya, 35
45002 Tarragona, Spain
Fax: + 34 977 299 488