Now I am writing a book, or rather a textbook on translation and sociology, primarily for advanced stages of translation theory courses or programmes. The process is engaging in that I have to go through a great deal of special sociological literature and select what I see as applicable to translation studies. Since this is what I’m mostly involved with these days, I would publish here some excerpts in a couple of posts…

Why study
translation sociologically? The answer, after all the developments in TS’ cultural and especially sociological turns, is obvious: because translation is a social activity. It is
never practiced (and therefore, should not be theorized) outside its social
context: it mediates—successfully or not, impartially or partially—between
peoples, nations, interacting groups, and individuals. Translation is a social activity in the social-functionalist sense. It is a profession and can be studied in terms of the sociology of professions.

But also, translators are social beings. They grow up in a society, absorbing a particular
worldview, ethical and aesthetical values. Becoming professionals, they remain socialized individuals—products of their social upbringing.
They learn to be more open-minded to other cultures, they learn not to be rash,
let alone bigoted or biased, in their evaluations of the people for whom they
translate, yet they do not turn into translating machines—they still remain
socialized humans. Their work, their translations, whether written or oral,
bear an imprint of their socialization, sometimes invisible even to translators
themselves. On the surface many decisions translators make appear as their own.
The social underpinnings of their decisions, however, always lurk
behind their individual wills and individual styles, however idiosyncratic. To bring them to the fore,
a meticulous analysis, taking into account the entire social milieu in which
translators work(ed) may be required. This is the second aspect in which translation should be considered sociologically: its practitioners are social beings.

Thus, in sociology , there are two aspects that are relevant to the study of translation: translation is social as an activity and, moreover, as an activity practiced by socialised human beings.

A good example of such analysis
is the conclusions which scholars studying the famous Greek translation of the
Hebrew Bible (also referred to as Torah and Old Testament) Septuagint. Translating a sacred text has always been believed to
require extra-caution on the part of the translators in order to exclude any
interference with the rendered original. Such translations may later be
canonized and treated as highly as their originals, replacing them. This is
what happened to the Septuagint. There are several renderings of the legend
of its creation, some of which claim that the translators worked under the
direct guidance of the Holy Spirit and thereby the guarantee of the supreme
quality was divinely assured. Yet upon a closer inspection, it turns out that
the influence of external socio-cultural traditions upon the translators of the
Septuagint was quite considerable. Scholars find evidence of Jewish exegesis
and legalism (which is only natural, seeing that the translation was made as a
Jewish text). There are also traces of Greek philosophical, Platonic and Stoic,
ideas and stylistic features. At least some of the external data are believed
to have been added by translators inadvertently. It was noted that the
influence of external traditions is especially noticeable whenever there was an
exegetical, textual or theological problem in the original text. Translators had to interpret dubious passages and it is here that
their own assumed values, of which they may have not been fully conscious as
they took these values for granted (as any of us), influenced the translators’
decisions. The social came out from
behind the individual.

What is this social and how
does it come out from behind the individual? Language is a prime example.
Language is a social phenomenon because it is the basis of all things social.
As Anthony Giddens, a leading sociologist, says: “All of us speak languages
which none of us, as individuals, created, although we all use language
creatively.” One the one hand, we learn the language of our language
community, then we learn more languages, none of which we created. Languages are the social in us. That is what the
Russian-American linguist and semiotician Roman Jakobson meant in his classical
article “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation” when he wrote that “[l]anguages differ
essentially in what they must convey
and not in what they may convey.” For example, he explains, in languages where
action is expressed in terms of whether it was completed or not, “naturally the
attention of native speakers and listeners will be constantly focused on such
items as are compulsory in their verbal code.” Note the words Jakobson
uses here: “naturally,” “constantly” and “compulsory.” These words stress the
fact that watching for linguistic characteristics of words we use in our native
languages is natural, that is, something beyond our conscious
control—subconscious (it may not always be so when we speak foreign languages).
Our focusing on grammatical aspects of our language is also constant because whenever
we speak or listen to our mother tongue, we inevitably—although mostly
subconsciously—register all linguistic nuances. All grammatical features are
either compulsory or optional—we must
or may say something (in English we may say ‘a female student’, but in
French we must say ‘étudiante’), but
what is crucial for a sociological interpretation of this phenomenon is that it
is a particular language as a product of a particular society that makes our
choices either compulsory or optional; it is a particular language as a social
phenomenon that makes us naturally and constantly focus on some features of
what and how we speak. (To be cont.)