Wednesday 29 August 2012

Touching on Translation: Defining Terms

Before we move further into this study of the Global Middle Ages, a brief word needs to be made on the topic of Translation Theory. Suffice it to say, we tend to avoid the term influence here on Beyond Borders, though appropriation may creep in there now and then. Firstly, Translation Theory is born out of the medieval application of Postcolonial Theory. Nadia Altschul describes the postcolonial approach as one that ‘fosters an examination of all sides of a colonial encounter and examines the different pasts that are active in different presents, but it also works towards a resolution of the structural and psychic inequalities inherited from colonial contact’.1 While Postcolonial Theory’s applicability to medieval studies has been debated, Jeffery Cohen describes the benefits of the theory as a means to ‘rethink keywords of postcolonial theory,’ ‘rethink history as effective history,’ ‘destabilize hegemonic identities,’ ‘displace the domination of Christianity,’ and to ‘decenter Europe’’.2 Translation Theory thus develops out of this theoretical model in an effort to describe the movement of artistic models across cultures without forcing a linguistic emphasis on one centre of production over another, thus the use of translation as opposed to influence. Michael Baxandall saw this shift in language as centred on the issue of agency, with one party influencing another, perpetuating an ideology of a one way exchange, which translation seeks to break by acknowledging the hybrid form.
Touching upon this hybridity, a postcolonial term, Catherine Karkov describes the hybridity of Insular art as seen through the Lindisfarne Gospels. Karkov broadly defines hybridity as referring to ‘ the fact that no culture is pure, cultures always show the evidence of contact with other cultures that leads to changes (hybridity) with both cultures’.4 Thus, the Lindisfarne Gospels are not simply the product of one culture, but rather the product of continue exchange, translation, and artistic editing of this information to suit varying and changing need. Additionally, Postcolonial Theory seeks to understand the peoples or objects studied as fluid, changing, active, and full of cultural agency which reaches even into the present, as seen specifically in Siân Jones’s work with the Hilton of Cadboll stone and regional identity.5 The development of the theory of visual translation, of artistic translation of forms and cultural elements into a local visual ‘language’ is still on going, as seen explicitly in the recent publication of the conference Under the Influence in 2007 and in other conferences such as the University of Edinburgh’s ‘From Influence to Translation: Art in the Global Middle Ages’ in May of 2012 as well as in The Courtauld Institute of Art’s ‘Beyond the Western Mediterranean’ in September 2012. Like any methodological model, Translation Theory is still being critiqued, yet it does offer a means of framing the description  of the movement of artistic models and forms from one culture into another through the metaphor of translation, which itself highlights the inherent change which takes place as language is itself translated from one language into another. Through the process of shifting the words into another language, emphasis shifts, meanings alter, and a new hybrid form is created.

1. Altschul, Nadia. 2009. 'The Future of Postcolonial Approaches to Medieval Iberian Studies', Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies, 1.1: 13.
2.  Cohen, Jeffrey. 2000. The Postcolonial Middle Ages (New York, St. Martin's): 6-7.
3. Brown, Michelle. 2007. ‘An Outbreak of ‘Influenza?’: Aspects of Influence, Medieval and Modern’, Under the Influence: The Concept of Influence and the Study of Illuminated Manuscripts (Turnhout, Brepols): 3.
4. Karkov, Catherine. 2011. The Art of Anglo-Saxon England (Rochester, The Boydell Press): 3.
5.Jones, Siân . 2005. ‘’That Stone was Born Here and That’s Where it Belongs’: Hilton of Cadboll and the Negotiations of Identity, Ownership and Belonging’, Able minds and Practiced Hands (Leeds, Maney Publishing): 37-53.

Image: Hilton of Cadboll Stone © National Museum of Scotland


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