Outline for a Sociology of translation:A critical review

Ravi Kumar ModlinguaBy Ravi Kumar, Founder, Modlingua Learning

Heilbron and Sapiro (2007:93-107) in their paper, Outline for a Sociology of translation: Current issues and future prospects”, criticize the interpretive approach to translation that either deals with the “hermeneutic movement” (Steiner 1975), the understanding of texts and comparison of translation with the source text and the creative deviation from the original; or studies translation through the cultural perspective where focus is on “the various modes of appropriating texts, on the instability of their meaning and on the mutual permeability of cultures” (p.94). The writers are of the view that both the approaches ignore the ‘plurality’ of the agents involved in the translation process and that there is a need to study the relationship between the agents (translators, various mediators and the readership) and their historical and social spaces of reception. Similarly, they also present their concern over using the economic approach to translation that only focuses on the economic factors and ignores the cultural values, “the symbolic goods” (Bourdieu 1977, 1993). 

They recognize the works of Holmes, Lambert and Lefevere 1978; Even-Zohar 1990 and Toury 1995, who attempted to deal with the functioning of translations in their contexts of production and reception but did not explain the roles of translators and various other agencies involved in the translation process as social agents. Heilbron and Sapiro place the production and reception of translation within the realm of cultural transfers and call for an investigation of the roles of individuals as well as institutions involved in these exchanges between the countries and explain the transnational cultural transfers in the context of following three factors: international field, principles of differentiation and agents of intermediation.   

While discussing “international field”, based on the program proposed by Pierre Bourdieu (2002) on the social conditions of international circulation of cultural goods, both the writers place transnational transfer of translation within the space of nation states and language groups and analyze translation as embedded within the power relations of national sates and their languages (p.95). They further explain that within the power relations (political, economic and cultural), the means of political, economic and cultural are unequally distributed; therefore, cultural exchanges take place unequally and express relations of domination.  They explain that within the global system of translations, English, German and French enjoy a central position while, the others hold a semi-peripheral or peripheral position respectively. Accordingly, through a careful study of statistics related to production of translated books, they demonstrate that “translation flows are highly uneven, flowing from the center towards the periphery rather than the reverse” (p96).

On the “principles of differentiation”, Heilbron and Saprio identify political relations between the countries and political orientation of respective governments, economic relations and cultural exchanges as the key factors that influence the circulation of texts between the countries. They further explain that in relation to political and economic factors the degree of protection of market and degree to which culture fulfills an ideological purpose, one finds a series of possible configurations, especially with liberalization and GATT agreement of 1986 and its Uruguay Round of negotiations, TRIPS adopted in 1994 within the framework of WTO.

On “the agents of intermediation”, Heilbron and Saprio explain that international exchange of cultural goods takes place through intervention and mediation of individual agents coming from various fields representing political, economic and cultural areas that are interlinked through highly hierarchized relations. They further explain that with the development of the market of cultural goods and liberalization of cultural exchange, the official decision-making power of government run agencies like embassies, cultural institutes, translation institutes and journals has been greatly reduced as there is emergence of specialized agents like literary agents, book importers-exporters and independent bodies. Similarly, with the professionalization of specialized agents and emergence of professional associations, the global system of translation saw a new breed of translators (social agents) in the system characterized by strong individualism and division in terms of gender, ideology, political and social affiliations and that they also compete with each other.

It is also important to note that on one hand, Heilbron and Sapiro derive their theoretical framework of studying translation beyond national boundaries from the works of Pascale Casanova who imported the economic theories of globalization in the literary universe and “rediscovers a lost transnational dimension of literature that for two hundred years has been reduced to the political and linguistic boundaries of nations” (2004:i). On the other hand, they effectively aligned their thoughts with the concept of ‘social turn’ currently discussed in translation studies that derives its theoretical basis in the comprehensive theory of society proposed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). Bourdieu describes power relations between various actors in the society using key concepts like an individual’s habitus, the fields in which various actors interact and the struggle for economic, social, cultural and symbolic power to gain supremacy over others (Jenkins 2002).

By looking at translators within the global framework and studying the power relations of the various agents involved, Heilbron and Sapiro give us the scope to study and analyze the position of the translator in the society. The possibility to study these relations opens new horizons in translation studies. This coincides with the massive growth in the production and circulation of content through the World Wide Web that has created huge opportunities for translators to play different roles in the supply chain of content management processes. Within this context, the study of a translator’s relations with various actors in the supply chain would help in understanding the position of the translator in the given work place as well as within the society where he/she interacts.

Also, by initiating a study of the consumption pattern of translated books and identifying the central and peripheral languages, Heilbron and Sapiro help us in developing an overall understanding of existing power relations between the languages. An in-depth study in this direction would help the respective governments of the countries in developing language policies for promoting their cultures beyond the national boundaries, thus foster the growth of multilingualism and multiculturalism across the globe, and increase profile of translation.

Similarly, it would also help in understating various roles of intermediation played by the translators in the society in translating all possible forms of communication at local, national as well as international level. Nyongwa (2010:54) describes, “by introducing foreign elements into national cultures (literature, terms, etc.), translators become agents of cultural transformation. By always working on the edge of several cultures, translators appear either as cultural facilitators or as agents of cultural expansionism”. Studying the translator’s roles in this direction would further help in addressing the problems of translators (in) visibility discussed by Venuti (1995) or in understating the voluntary servitude of translators as discussed by Simeoni (Munday 2012:235).

It should also be taken into consideration that while studying translators as agents in the literary exchange of any form, we also need to discuss the relationship of the translator with the text (form, content, style) and interpret the social conditions behind translation activities. Heilbron and Sapiro rather develop their theoretical framework in opposition to such interpretation and ignore various translation practices, the most fundamental aspects of study of translation; they explain the social structures of translation and the institutional arrangements but they fail to explain their effects on the translation practices.

Within this context, I find a possible solution in the cultural turn initiated by Bassnett and Lefevere (1990:12) that deals with “the text embedded within its network of both source and target cultural signs” and gives the possibility of studying the interaction of translation with the culture; by incorporating the study of translation and various agencies involved in the translation process as agents of social change within the theoretical framework of cultural turn, perhaps it would be possible to bridge the gap between the two approaches. In this context, Wolf (2007:6) explains that “society and culture are interwoven with each other, and emphasizes on the need to combine the cultural as well as social perspectives of studying translation in order to avoid dichotomization and transcend traditional deterministic views”. The study of points where culture and social meet would further help us know more about translation and translators.



Heilbron, J. &Sapiro, G. (2007) “Outline for a sociology of Translation” in Wolf &Fukari (eds) Constructing a Sociology of Translation. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Steiner, George (2002 [1975]198), “The Hermeneutic Motion”, in Lawrence Venuti (ed.), The Translation Studies Reader, London: Routledge, pp. 193-198.

Casanova, Pascale (2004), The World Republic of Letters, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jenkins, Richard (1992, 2002), Pierre Bourdieu, New York-London, Routledge.

Nyongwa, Moses (2012) “Translation and Nation Building: What a difficult couple” in Kumar (ed.) Role of Translation in Nation Building, New Delhi: Modlingua.

Venuti, L. (1995). The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, London/New York:Routledge.

Bassnett, S. and A. Lefevere (eds) (1990) Translation, History and Culture, London and New York: Pinter.

Wolf, Michaela (2007) “Introduction” in Wolf &Fukari (eds) Constructing a Sociology of Translation. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.



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