Thursday, 12 December 2013

Translation and Resistance

Translation can be a wonderful means of resistance in all sorts of ways. One of the most recent and prominent forms of resistance through translation has resulted from the issue concerning feminist punk rock group ‘Pussy Riot’. Pussy Riot staged a provocative performance of their song ‘Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!’ in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and were venomously charged and imprisoned by the Russian government for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.
Many of their speeches and court hearings have been translated, raising their profile in the West and perhaps hopefully, with the whole world watching, ensuring a certain amount of their safety in Russia. The translation of Pussy Riot has meant that both the western and Russian governments’ actions have become more visible to the general public and thus arguably, more accountable. Recently, correspondence between the only member of Pussy Riot to remain in prison, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and the famous Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, was translated into English and featured in The Guardian. Interestingly Nadezhda states:
“Here in Russia I have a strong sense of the cynicism of so-called first-world countries towards poorer nations. In my humble opinion, "developed" countries display an exaggerated loyalty towards governments that oppress their citizens and violate their rights”.
Through translation, we have an opportunity to bring such views to the world stage, and potentially as a result to constrain our own government to take action. It is important that we continue to support these brave actions and to keep them in the spotlight. It is however necessary to try to understand why Pussy Riot has become so widely recognised and someone like Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who dedicated her life to human rights and because of her actions was assassinated in her own apartment, barely acknowledged.
In ‘The Invisibility of the Translator’ Venuti criticises the idea of Simpatico; the way in which a translator may empathise with an author s/he is translating in order to ‘improve’ the translation. Venuti posits that simpatico causes the work of literature to be centred on the ‘poetic I’, he states that: “Here it becomes clear that the translator’s feeling of simpatico is no more than a projection, that the object of the translator’s identification is ultimately himself, the “private associations” he inscribes in the foreign text in the hope of producing a similarly narcissistic experience in the English language reader.” In other words, Simpatico can lead us to impose a predominantly Anglo-American style of writing onto a foreign text and to recognize ourselves within it. Simpatico will therefore also lead us to choose to translate works of foreign literature that embody this particular style.
Perhaps, then, our overwhelming recognition of Pussy Riot stems from their mode; first of all the band name ‘Pussy Riot’ is not a translation, the name was originally in English and is therefore easily recognisable for an English-speaking audience. Secondly, as a feminist punk-rock group, Pussy Riot appeals to many young individualistic adults and teenagers in the West. We may conclude then, that through translation and the close analysis it requires, we can come to recognise how we relate to other cultures, and in turn we can learn to pay attention to narratives which do not necessarily have an initial impact on us, to recognise a plurality of outlooks and world-views, rather than ones which instantly appeal to our own.
Hannah Collins studied Russian and French at the University of Nottingham. She works as a freelance translator and is currently studying on the Literary Translation MA at the UEA. Her email address is

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