Babel's Standing Stones: Language, Translation and the Exosomatic

Michael Cronin
Centre for Translation Studies
Dublin City University

Abstract. This essay explores the position of translation in the context of the relationship between technology and culture. The tendency to see translation as primarily a matter of translators and texts is challenged, and the author argues for a fundamental re-examination of the relationship between translators and their tools. This relationship is seen as bound up with the construction of the humanity of human beings as basically an exosomatic phenomenon, that is, the technical environment of human beings is crucial to the emergence of a particular conception of humanity. The transmissive dimension to translation is also stressed, taking the specific example of post-apartheid South Africa. Finally, the author explores the situation of translation as part of both the generalising drive of technology and the particularising drive of culture.

There are few cities which do not owe their prestige to mythical investiture by the presence of departed deities, emperors, saints or spirits. Régis Debray sees sepulchres as primordial mnemonics, an early stage in the elaboration of a symbolic dimension to human experience:

L'os, notre point fixe. Toute civilisation débute par des restes. ‘Tu es Pierre et sur cette pierre . . .’ Martyr, tu seras réduit à l'os; cet os sera mis en châsse; ce réliquaire attirera les pèlerins, qui bâtiront une église par-dessus; et toute une ville va grandir alentour [3, p.25].*

The standing stone links the past, present and future. It reminds those who are of those who were before and indicates a future time when they will no longer be but others will be there in their place contemplating the same stone. In linking a tangible presence to an intelligible absence, the stone or tomb or reliquary is performing a primary symbolic operation. The monument as physical trace also makes the existence of individual human beings transindividual through objectification. It is the materialisation of the inscription as monument which allows the subject to emerge for other subjects. Humanity, in other words, is not constructed as an idealist antithesis between subjects and objects with freedom lying in the realm of the subjective mind and necessity resting in the realm of objects. It is the object which allows the subject to emerge and it is in and through objects that our subjectivity is constructed and endures.

Human societies have been variously distinguished from animal societies throughout history by their capacity to exercise reason or to possess a soul or to manipulate tools. In the case of tools, the argument is no longer held to be valid in an absolute sense as certain classes of primates do use tools in particular ways [1, pp.126-129]. A distinguishing feature of human society is not so much the existence of society as the existence of culture. As Régis Debray points out, Homo sapiens sapiens appears to be the only species capable of transmitting new modes of behaviour and original intuitions from one generation to the next. The social organisation of specific groups of primates may be complex, but there is no evidence to suggest that there is a significant advance in cultural sophistication over time. It is the ability of humans to internalise and learn from experiences they have not personally witnessed and to benefit from ideas they have not directly produced which constitutes in a sense their anthropological singularity [3, pp.16-17]. The tools produced by humans become the inert form of living memory that allows particular forms of knowledge to be transmitted across time. One can only transmit what one can, in a sense, conserve. Crucially, however, this knowledge mutates, and the blades, the flints, the primitive hammers change to incorporate new advances in the manipulation of these tools. For Dominique Bourg, this cumulative advance in material complexity is indissociable from the function of language which allows humans to report on events, behaviours, ideas that are distant in time and place [1, pp.125-138]. In addition, changes in human use and manufacture of tools relate not only to the adaptive pressures of the present but also to anticipated needs of the future and the ability to be able to stand outside the immediate lifeworld and to be able to conceive the world differently. Foresight and imagination are of course two attributes of human language that make this evolution possible. Thus, in human evolution there is an indissociable link between language and tools that not only does not disappear with the advent of technical complexity [10] but is in fact strengthened by the phenomenon as Bourg points out:

la sophisication technologique accroît la dépendance vis-à-vis du langage et de l'organisation sociale complexe qu'il permet. On peut en effet imaginer la transmission muette, par simple imitation, de savoir-faire élémentaires comme l'épluchage d'une patate douce. De telles transmissions sont attestées chez les primates. Mais lorsqu'on passe à quelque chose de plus complexe, faisant appel à une séquence relativement longue et précise de gestes comme par exemple la technique levalloisienne de la taille au silex au paléolithique inférieur, l'apprentissage sans langage devient difficilement imaginable [1, p.124].**

We argued at the beginning of this paper that it is the object which allows the subject to emerge and it is in and through objects that our subjectivity is constructed and persists. Developing this thesis in the context of the preceding arguments on the fundamental complicity between language and the technical in human development, it is possible to see the construction of the humanity of human beings as a basically exosomatic phenomenon [9, p.188; 1, p.118]. In other words, the technical environment of human beings is consubstantial with our ability as speaking subjects to conceive of ourselves as human beings or beings of a particular kind in the biosphere. Anthropogenesis is bound up with technogenesis if only because the internal is made external through material media that allow human beings to externalise their memory in a social space [3, p.53].

Therefore, any attempt to discuss translation and its role in human society and culture must take into account the essential relationship between techne and cultural development. For this reason, conventional moves to separate literary from non-literary (predominantly scientific, technical and commercial) translation has a number of unfortunate consequences. First, the exosomatic dimension to human development is ignored, and there is a tendency to privilege excessively idealist accounts of human engagements with language and culture. Second, the role of tools in the practice of literary and religious translation down through the centuries is either marginalised or wholly disregarded. Third, the tendency to view tools almost exclusively in the domain of new technology leads to predominantly descriptive readings of their use (what they do) and a subsequent neglect of the wider implications of their presence in the world of translation (what they represent). One of these implications is that irrespective of the domain of translation activity, translators are engaged with a technosphere, whether that be the chirographic technosphere of pen and parchment or the digital technosphere of terminal and internet connection. The point here is not to promote a purely instrumentalist view of translation and language or to promote a naïve form of technological determinism but to see current developments in the context of a long translatorial involvement with technologies external to the human body. If this is the case, then we can see the relationship between translators and new technology in the informational society less as a schismatic break with a venerable craft tradition than as a further stage in the development of an exosomatic dimension to human engagement with translation.

An emphasis on the relationship between translators and objects is not to fetishise the objects per se, but to explore the relations that exist. Industry publications may describe at length the capacities or attributes of new pieces of software, and this will be useful instrumental knowledge for the translator, but such writing tells us little about the connection between translators and the technical environment they inhabit. In this respect, Debray makes a useful distinction between organised matter (matière organisée) and material organisation (organisation matérialisée). Organised matter in the form of a building (e.g., a church) can only last if it is supported by a material organisation in the shape of a socially constituted body committed to transmitting a particular set of values (e.g., an institutional religion). When one material organisation goes into a decline, the survival of organised matter, of the physical object, may be ensured by another material organisation (e.g., the State), carrier of a different set of values (national memory, aesthetic pride, economic self-interest (heritage industry)) [3, p.29]. Translations as organised matter, text objects, have depended throughout history for their preservation and transmission on the material organisations of church, army, academy, company, state or supra-national entity, which are socially constituted bodies with the express aim of enduring beyond the present moment, even if their specific temporalities vary widely [4]. Concentration on translation objects alone, whether they be texts or tools, will not tell us a great deal about the role of translation in society or why particular forms of translation endure and not others. In a properly integrated approach to translation, it is necessary to consider not only the general symbolic system (human language), the specific code (the language(s) translated), the physical support (stone, papyrus, CD-ROM), the means of transmission (manuscript, printing, digital communication) but also how translations are carried through societies over time by particular groups.

The significance of considering translation in the context of sets of relationships between translation, tools and material organisations is borne out by the experience of post-apartheid South Africa. Under apartheid, the nine African languages spoken by the majority of the population did not have official status [11, p.276]. Conversely, the 1996 South African Constitution specifies that the Republic of South Africa has eleven official languages. Provision is also made for three minority indigenous languages, languages used for religious purposes (Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit), ‘heritage’ languages (German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi) and sign language (reference). In South Africa itself, the language that is most widely spoken is Zulu (22.9 per cent), followed by Xhosa (17.9 per cent), Afrikaans (14.4 per cent), Sepedi (9.2 per cent), English (8.6 per cent), Setswana (8.2 per cent) and Sesotho (7.7 per cent) [5, p.35]. The commitment to a multilingual South Africa is a core value of post-apartheid politics with clear implications for translation. These implications however would have no substantive reality were it not for a set of material organisations committed to the preservation and development of South Africa's multilingual heritage. These organisations are first, the State itself which enacts laws to create insititutions entrusted with the development of the Republic's various languages, second, the institutions which both formulate and implement language policy in South Africa and third, the universities which train translators and carry out research into language and translation issues specific to South Africa. The second category of organisation includes the National Language Service (part of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology), which draws up language policy for various levels of government and monitors the implementation of language rights. The category also includes the Pan South African Language Board established in 1995 whose main task is to promote the development of disadvantaged indigenous languages and sign language and ensure adequate protection and appropriate respect for the religious and heritage languages [5, p.36]. The third group includes universities such as Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, the University of South Africa in Pretoria, the University of the Orange Free State in Bloemfontein and the University of Plotchefstroom and the researchers working in these universities [8, pp.119-126].

When apartheid was in force in South Africa, interpreting took the form of consecutive and bilateral interpreting with the sole exception of international conferences where simultaneous interpreting was used. The advent of a genuinely democratic parliament in 1994 led to an immediate demand for simultaneous interpreting in the parliament. Similarly in 1996 when the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee was established, the University of the Orange Free State provided around 35 simultaneous interpreters for the hearings of the Committee [5, p.37]. It was also decided to extend a system of simultaneous interpreting gradually to the provincial legislatures in South Africa. In a sense, the enhanced status of indigenous languages is bound up not only with their promotion through official bodies and legislation but with their incorporation into a specific technical environment, namely that of simultaneous interpreting systems. Another example is the combined use of radio and television so that the television can show the event broadcast in the original language while various radio channels simultaneously broadcast the event in different languages [5, pp.37-38]. Viewers can either watch the event in the original language or mute the sound and listen to the language of their choice.

Less important in this context is the level of sophistication of the technology used than the connection between symbolic status and technical implication. It is customary in the history of languages to conceive of the particular role and prestige of languages in terms of their ability or willingness to translate canonic texts into a language. Imperial Rome, Classical France, Tudor England, Romantic Germany will accord translation a privileged role in their literary polysystem as a means of bolstering the position and standing of the vernacular [4, pp.67-97]. The emphasis on the nature of the texts translated, be they literary, religious or scientific, can obscure an equally important dimension to translation's engagement with power, which is the exosomatic dimension. In other words, it is not simply the enfolding of culturally reputable texts into a language through translation that accounts for the improved status of a language but it is the extent to which a language is implicated in a technosphere with distributive and transmissive possibilities. Indeed, it is possible to argue that it is the relationship between translators and tools rather than the connection between translators and texts per se which is the decisive factor in the evolution of translation. The canonic status of certain texts may be contested over time for reasons of ethnicity, race, gender, class but less likely to change is the centrality of a technology of production and reception of translated work with related consequences for the languages in play. Though it is clear that changed political circumstances will shape translation policy in a country, it is not always made explicit how the use of particular tools is in itself status-enhancing.

There is a recurrent dilemma at work in the relationship between translation and technology which mirrors an older antagonism between culture and science [6]. There are over 3,000 languages in the world but only two systems of voltage and one universal time [7]. Technology unites where culture divides. Irrespective of location, the same model of car, computer or mobile phone will work the same way. As Debray remarks:

Il n'y a pas pour l'ingénieur ou l'informaticien de lieu saint, ni de frontière sacrée, ni d'ombilic du monde – automobiles, ordinateurs et centrales électriques sont partout chez eux; leur fonctionnement n'étant pas liés à une terre, langue, ou religion particulière, ils peuvent se frayer leur voie aux quatre coins du monde [3, p.56].***

Cultures and languages are still largely associated with particular spatially defined areas of the globe even if, of course, the international status of certain languages and the rise of globalised consumerism have challenged the ready equation between culture, language and place [2]. On the one hand, there is the evolutionary logic of the tool, which dictates the standardised, the normative, the homogenised and the universal, and on the other, the claims of the cultural, which point to the specific, the anomalous, the exceptional and the local. Translation occupies a very particular space in this set of conflicting aspirations. At one level, translation's raison d'être is its implicit ability to universalise, its capacity to take a text from one spatially-bound language and culture and transplant it into a different language and culture. At another, it is translation which makes readers even more aware of the specific nature and depth of a particular culture either by displaying unknown riches in outward translation or revealing hidden potential in inward translation. Translation partakes then arguably of the generalising drive of techne and of the particularising drive of culture. The result is that its relationship to tools often runs the risk of being doubly misunderstood. For those committed to a technocratic view of human culture and efficiency, the tendency will be to underscore the generalising role of translation and ignore translation's commitment to particularity. Translation will be conflated with its tools so that the instantaneous, borderless use of translation will be seen as concomitant with the universality of the application of the tools. On the other hand, for those who champion cultural difference, the particularising role of, say, literary translation can be asserted as being irreducibly distinct from the technophile universalism of technical and commercial translation, ignoring the fundamental exosomatic contribution to the development of human culture and sidelining basic questions of mediation and transmission in the elaboration of specific literary polysystems.

Firstly, the primary conception of the global march of technology and of the role of consumer/users within it was fundamentally mistaken. In common with cyberhype and the more utopian academic speculation on new technology, the vision which is often presented is that of the free-floating, global consumer roaming through the global digital infosphere, picking and choosing items from a planetary menu for private, ahistorical consumption. If IT allows us to surf to the ends of the earth (Earth is our market), then it is technology not culture which dictates the image of the end user. In other words, although there are over 3,600 languages on the planet, there are only two systems of voltage, three railway gauges and one language for addressing air traffic control. Technology unites where culture separates. From this perspective, the instrumental capacity of the IT systems leads to representations of a world with placeless, instantaneous flows. And, in part, when we consider the speed, quantity and nature of financial transactions on the planet, the vision appears plausible. However, cultures and places are resistant, and even in their persona as end users of advanced technology, human beings are very much of a time and place. Cultures in a sense enact the therapy of distance that is at the heart of the medieval practice of translatio (the transfer of a saint's relics from one site to another) and translation in more ways than one becomes a meditation on the pilgrim's progress.


The bone, our fixed point. Every civilisation begins with remains. ‘You are Peter and on this rock . . .’ Martyr, you will be reduced to bones, and these bones will be placed in a reliquary and the reliquary will attract pilgrims who will build a church over it and a whole city will grow up around it.

Technological sophistication increases dependency on language and on the complex social organisation allowed by language. It is possible to imagine how basic skills such as peeling a potato might be transmitted silently through simple imitation. There is evidence for this kind of transmission among primates. But when one deals with something more complex, involving a fairly long and precise sequence of gestures such as for example Levallois's description of cutting with a flint in the early Paleolithic period, it becomes difficult to imagine learning without language.

For the engineer or the computer scientist there is neither holy place nor sacred frontier nor centre of the world – cars, computers and electricity generating stations are at home everywhere. Their operations are not linked to a specific territory, language or religion and they can make their way to anywhere in the world.


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About the Author

Michael Cronin is Director of the Centre for Translation Studies at Dublin City University. He is author of Translating Ireland: Translation, Languages, Identities (Cork University Press, 1996) and Across the Lines: Travel, Language and Translation (Cork University Press, 2000). He has co-edited Unity in Diversity: Current Trends in Translation Studies (St. Jerome, 1998) and Reinventing Ireland: Culture, Society and the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2002).

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