the Invisible Hand
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,
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
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
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
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
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