Translation Theory for Anime Fans: Postcolonialism, Feminism and all the other scary Tumblr words

In the 1980s and 1990s, translation theorists discovered social justice. It became very popular to talk about what it means to be an “activist translator” and the ways we can use translation to make marginalised minorities more visible. We call this the “cultural turn” of translation studies.

Sociology is still the dominant paradigm for translation theories today. This should come as no surprise if you think about it. Translation is an act of cross-cultural communication, so all the major sociological theories are a natural fit. In fact, I took up translation studies after majoring in Japanese language and cultural studies, and I’ve also taken courses in history and sociology. Postcolonialism and feminism are not new concepts to me.

Feminism… well, everyone knows what that is. (Or, at least, everyone thinks they know what that is.) I don’t want to get into any internet arguments about it so I’ll just say that feminism is about women’s rights and leave it at that.


Postcolonialism doesn’t get talked about so much in pop culture, but it’s just as important when it comes to social justice. Postcolonialism is the study of the cultural legacy of colonialism. As we know, there was a period in time when European powers colonised much of the known world, and the ongoing effects of racism and imperialism are still felt today.

This post is a short compilation of some of the more detailed essays and reflections I’ve written about the subjects. I did them for my translation theory class so the language is pretty academic. But I do talk about a lot of my personal experiences as well, so I hope you find them interesting.

The links open to pastebin in a new window.

Thoughts on the gap between theory and practice: I talk about how most people just don’t get what translation is all about. Translation theory is confusing, and that’s because translation itself is confusing! If only everyone could become more informed. Considering how inherently political translation is, it’s dangerous when people don’t ask what translations are for or what they’re trying to achieve.

Thoughts on translation and (post)colonialism: I linked to this essay on a while back, and it’s related to my thoughts on cultural appropriation. The history of translation is one of subjugation. Dominant cultures have always been spreading their ideas through translation, a process which has helped stifle indigenous languages and culture. How can this trend be reversed?

Translation and ideology: Why do I translate illegally?: This essay talks in general about how ideology influences translation, with reference to the Irish language revivalist movement. I also talk about why I am a fan translator and a filthy pirate. It has something to do with the fact that I AM SECRETLY A COMMUNIST.













(Disclaimer: I am not actually a Communist.)

None of these essays talk specifically about feminism, so let me spare a few words to address the elephant in the room.

Historically, translation has always been compared – negatively – to women. You might have heard the saying: “Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.” This is not true about women or translations, but hey, it’s a catchy saying.

Obviously, feminist translators do their best to reverse such debilitating stereotypes, because they’re partly responsible for why translation is still regarded as a rather unprofessional occupation, despite how intensely difficult it is. Translators don’t get paid much, generally speaking. They’re also not expected to leave any of their personality in their work. That’s because translations are held to an unreasonable standard of “faithfulness” despite the fact that translation is inherently subjective. Translation will only be regarded as an art in its own right when the world at large recognises that faithfulness is not the entire goal of translation.

The other thing that feminist translators do is point out all the awesome female translators in history. For example, did you know that the person single-handedly responsible for introducing classics such as War and Peace to the English-speaking world was a woman? Constance Garnett produced a whopping 71 volumes of translated Russian literature, including all of Dostoevsky and Turgenev’s novels. She also did hundreds of Chekhov’s stories. This woman worked like a machine. But of course, pretty much nobody knows who she is because she was a translator and a woman. And those who do know her make fun of her for being the Google Translate of her time. It’s hard to win in this world.

Constance Garnett
Constance Garnett











There are some controversial feminist theories, though. Some feminists object so strongly to the whole “translations should be faithful” thing that they advocate rewriting the texts altogether, just to make them more feminist-friendly. To quote Sherry Simon, one of the prominent feminist translation theorists:

For feminist translation, fidelity is to be directed toward neither the author nor the reader, but toward the writing project – a project in which both writer and translator participate. (pg. 2)

– From Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission (1996)

In theory, this sounds quite nice, but it does lead to ethical problems, especially if the translator changes the intent of the original without taking the audience or the author into account. For example, if a translator removes sexist language in a text, aren’t they white washing its problems instead of opening it up to critique?

That said, I am generally okay with a translation making changes, even major ones. I would just prefer it if this process was transparent, so that the audience is also aware of what is happening.

Even more controversial (in my eyes, at least) is the contention that only women should translate texts written by women. This is related to the idea that for a very long time, translation has been done by people who didn’t actually understand the context of the works they’re translating. For example, back in the colonial era, we had lots of racist white guys translating Indian texts and not representing them very well. Feminists are right in saying that, assuming every translator was equally fluent in both languages, some translators are still more qualified to translate a particular text than others because of the experiences they’ve had. But the idea that only women can translate for other women is still problematic because not all women share the same cultural experiences.

Not to mention that discouraging men from translating women’s texts is a stupid idea to begin with. It only risks encouraging the kind of gender essentialist nonsense that feminists go out of their way to avoid. To say that only women can translate for women is like saying that only women can write female characters. I would urge people (particularly privileged folks) to do the proper research and be sensitive about culture/gender differences when they translate, but that is NOT the same thing as excluding them or devaluing their work.

So there you have it. As you might be able to see from this post, translation theorists can disagree with each other very strongly about things. There are no easy answers when it comes to translation, so all I can do is state my views as honestly as I can.

Do you agree with the ideas in this post and in my essays? Do you disagree?



  1. I do enjoy the irony of the Cross Ange screenshot you used. I never really followed it, but I loved the 1st Mizuki Nana OP (#2 behind Valvrave’s OPs). Did you actively follow Ange?

    I see what you mean about translation and colonialism. I’ve heard early translations of foreign texts by Europeans, far from trying to adhere to the native tongue and tone, end up bastardizing it using European terms to fit their tone and ideas on that foreign culture.
    That said, one thing I’ve truly enjoyed about postcolonial legacies in culture are the buildings they left behind. Now those were truly art, especially snce no one builds them that way anymore. (Also a sucker for old architecture, btw. :p)

    How are you finding the rest of the anime season? If you’re still following Noragami, I’d suggest checking out OVA 2, originally sold together with limited editions of the manga. OVA 2 provides a more conclusive and humourous finale to the Bishamon arc, where Yato and Bishamon make a sort-of peace with each other.

    Also, highly suggest you listen to this anime ED. Classy as fark.

    • No I didn’t watch Ange, but some of the derpy screenshots are too much to resist.

      And yeah, I’ve seen the Noragami OVAs. They’re quite nice. I think I’ll rewatch them once I’ve finished S2 of the anime.

      As for the rest of the anime season… still not watching much, but I’ll see if I can pick up a few shows once I get some deadlines out of the way. Looks like an interesting season.

  2. Reblogged this on Medieval Otaku and commented:
    This article discusses some interesting theories about translation. If these theories have a wide following, we ought to compel students to master 3 or 4 languages before graduating high school.

  3. I wish there had been more folks like you in my seminars. It’s always a pleasure to read your thought-provoking posts.

    The chief virtue of post(colonial) approaches to translation appears (to me, at least) to be to preach awareness. As in most fields, there will likely never be a consensus as to the rightful purpose of translation or the proper means to achieve it. However, given the knowledge that some of these goals and practices can be problematic or outright damaging (e.g. cultural appropriation, complicity in national propaganda, etc.), the surest way to mitigate their effects is to make reflection on them an integral part of the production and consumption of translated works.

    While I can appreciate your feeling that “the onus should [not] lie solely on translators to read translations critically,” I don’t think it realistic to expect readers to act as catalysts or even as equal parters in this endeavour. Non-academic readers will likely only approach a translation critically if they are prompted to do so by the translator. Even then, many will undoubtedly just skim through the preface or pay no heed to footnotes. We all read for different reasons, and I wouldn’t hold the above against anyone. Regardless, making personal biases, uncertainties, and limitations a subject of discussion can only be good for translators (professional and non-professional alike), as well as for those members of their readership who are curious enough to engage with these issues. In other words, it’s a net gain, even if it doesn’t lead to a critical revolution.

    With respect to translation as a practice, I wonder if certain recent approaches you mentioned, in their (admittedly laudable) efforts to exorcise Western translation of its demons, run the risk of marginalizing the voices of the very people who make translation relevant in the first place: authors. I am all for bringing postcolonial theory and social justice to bear on translation, but as tools of analysis rather than as a set of overriding moral standards. Similarly, while I agree that part of the task of translators is to mediate between cultures, I think it questionable when culture (as informed by a grab-bag of academic concepts) becomes the main prism through which the text is approached at the expense of the author’s own perspective–not to mention their style, tone, and other idiosyncrasies. “Faithfulness” to the author may, in absolute terms, be an unreasonable standard, but it is not a useless one: fundamentally, translation is the art of rendering meaning in another language. A work of translation that deliberately departs from that meaning is no longer translation. Fortunately, semantics and intentionality in language are fluid enough to allow for a multitude of interpretations, which accounts at least in part for the richness of both literary criticism and translation. It is this latitude that ensures that translation will never be a definitive art, as successive generations will always have occasion to revise the biases implicit (or explicit) in the work of previous ones. “Dostoievsky is so obscure and so careless a writer that one can scarcely help clarifying him,” once wrote Constance Garnett, paving the way for others to argue that it was precisely the unvarnished and cacophonous quality of Dostoievsky’s prose that defined him as a writer. By the same token (and as your post and essays themselves demonstrate), we currently have much to rethink about postcolonial approaches to translation. I nevertheless suspect that the ideal of “faithfulness”–however quixotic and contested–will continue to serve as the crux around which debates about translation revolve.

    • Wow, great comment! Gave me lots to think about.

      The thing which I dislike about postcolonialist translation theory is that it’s still applied almost solely to literary translation. In my opinion, translation theorists need to take a broader approach to postcolonialism rather than just advocating for changing things in the text. A big issue with translation is the matter of what texts get translated at all, which is also related to the matter of who reads translations. If a work gets translated and no one reads it, does it make a sound?

      In other words, we need to look outside the texts and critique how translation is operating at a macro level. It’s not a pretty picture when you actually put things into perspective. There’s the overwhelming dominance of English, for a start. And then we get to translations of news reports, which is the type of translation most people encounter in daily life, and most of the time we don’t even know where they’re coming from, how accurate they are or who is translating them. Translation is inextricably tied up with the way information is distributed across the world, but hardly anyone stops for a moment to think about the power and politics behind it.

      Other issues which are relevant to translators: rewriting intellectual property laws so that they’re not legally subordinate to the original creator, open access on the internet, how can translators make a living translating unpopular languages and obscure texts, etc.

      More and more it becomes obvious to me that these are not battles that translators can win alone. So yes, even if it is unreasonable to expect readers to become critical and self-aware, it’s still important to keep trying to engage them. These issues affect everyone.

      As for what you say about fidelity… well, I agree, which is why I don’t advocate for changing things around unless the readers are aware. Otherwise, it’s dishonest. People read translations because they expect it to reflect the original, if not exactly then close enough to understand the author’s intent. So yes, it’s reasonable to worry about accuracy, it’s just not the be all, end all of translation discussions.

      • You make a good point about the issue of *what* gets translated. I know I’ve certainly been guilty of succumbing to a capitalist fallacy in assuming that if something isn’t available in my native tongue, it simply means that there isn’t sufficient demand for it (ergo, it ~probably~ isn’t worthwhile). While this is, to a certain degree, true (the part about demand, not the value judgement), it fails to take into account the process through which demand is created and sustained. In a world in which, as you pointed out, “global culture” bears the heavy imprint of English (and Anglo-Saxon influences more generally), this certainly has dire implications for any cultural products that emerge from–and by virtue of this fact are often confined to–the linguistic periphery. How to practically address these imbalances in a big and meaningful way, I don’t know.

        I didn’t mean to say I think it’s unreasonable to expect readers to become critical, merely that most won’t get there on their own without some gentle prodding. Without significant reform in the way reading and languages are taught in school, though, I suspect any such change would be slow and piecemeal.

        Not that I’m much more enlightened myself. In fact, I’m a suuuuuper complacent reader/watcher (especially when it comes to anime and manga). I don’t doubt that this is, in large part, due to the privilege I enjoy as an English-speaking consumer of cultural goods. Specifically with regard to foreign-language works, someone has nearly always done all of the legwork for me, and I’m blissfully ignorant of most of the great things out there that haven’t been made available to an English-speaking audience (because, well, existing power dynamics are such that they didn’t have much of a fighting chance to be noticed by a transnational audience in the first place). So in many ways, I epitomize the unengaged readership you lament. If it weren’t for your post, I probably wouldn’t have reflected on any of this.

        Which is why you win, in a manner of speaking. I didn’t think about this issue or care about it much, and now I do. Looking at the other replies, I’m clearly not the only one. At any rate, I sincerely hope that you’ll one day be able to make a decent living translating Japanese works into English, if that’s what you choose to do.

  4. While I agree that an “objective” translation is a mirage (just like an objective anything, really), I guess I tend to expect from a translator something similar to what I expect from an actor – that they apply their own personality to a job that is fundamentally of identification with what they’re saying. So I’d argue that if you’re translating a sexist text, and it CLEARLY comes off as sexist, then you have to speak as you would perceive a sexist person to speak. Anything other than that reinforces an echo chamber and is infantilizing and counter-productive – how would anyone developed the feeling there WAS sexism around anyway, had they only had access to material edited in such a way that it hides its original intentions? In fact, what’s the difference between changing entirely something in translation for the sake of editing out things you find unpleasant and simply censoring texts?

    Then again, in an ideal world, copyright would be short lived and there would be plenty of leeway to fair use, so people could circulate their own “edited” versions of stuff they otherwise like, their names on the cover next to the author’s. As long as it’s titled something like “X without the sexism”. I still feel like we really really don’t need more echo chambers and navel-gazing inside ever smaller and more ideologically separated groups of people, but at least that’s a fully personal and informed choice.

    • ^ THIS, pretty much

      It’s quite telling that the best translations (I use the word quite loosely, but… you know what I mean) come from classic literature – that is, works that aren’t copyrighted. As it turns out, translation is just like any other form of artistic pursuit in that people get better at it when they can build on each other’s work. Whoulda thunk?

      • Frankly, if it was for me, I wouldn’t be against people literally picking apart existing works and rewriting them in their own ways. It can lead to actual improvements. And this whole silly idea of “originality” is modern and overrated anyway – we keep telling the same stories we’ve told since when we used to listen to them while sitting around a fire in the savannah, but God forbid them actually having the same names or circumstantial details! Originality is good and all but mostly when you’ve found a way to be TRULY original. Most of times it’s just lip-service. The ancients were onto something when they thought re-doing the same stories over and over was actually a way of improving and polishing them, while giving them multiple different spins. I wouldn’t want the norm to be to NEVER INVENT ANYTHING NEW either, of course, but it would be nice to not be considered morally equivalent to a thief for just heaping up a bit of your creativity on an already existing mound.

        • But there, we get into the differences between translation, adaptation, and inspiration. Rewriting to suit your own thematic purposes is more of the latter than the former.

          • Yeah, obviously. And I wouldn’t call it a translation of course. That was my original point – I am not against people doing it, just don’t call it a translation. Multiple pianists can play the same suite and it will sound different because they all pour into it their different style and feelings; but if someone actually starts changing the notes that goes beyond sheer interpretation and becomes personal work. Which is fine, just tell me you’re doing it beforehand though.

  5. I always enjoy your posts about translation theory. It’s something I’ve always had an interest in, but I’ve never really persued, because I found other things more interesting at the time. Context: I’ve studied sociology and English at university in the late nineties/early naughties, at an Austrian University (where I also took a two-hour-per-week course in Japanese for two semesters, not to learn the language, but to understand more about grammar in general – linguistics is what I’m mostly interested in). So what you’re talking about seems familiar, but not so familiar that I get all the references in your articles. I’ve read the first one; Bassnett sounds familiar – and I think I might have heard of Pym, but I’m not sure. I’ll be reading the other articles when I have the time.

    I identify this as a key sentence from your first article: “Translation theories often seem torn between describing what translation is and what it should be like.” I’m wondering how else it could be? You read a text in one language and produce another text in another language. To do so, you need to know what’s important, and importance is always context-bound. To some extent, describing what translation is amounts to describing what translation should be, because every translator necessarily has notions of what a translation should be or going to work would not be possible.

    As an example: you reference Nida, whom I don’t know, who works off Chomsky, whom I do know. I could easily see how describing translation with respect to Chomskyan theory would work out (though I don’t know how Nida did it). I’m improvising here: To grammar, there’s a deep structure that all humans share, and every grammar has transformation rules, that is surface grammars that you arrive at through modifying the deep structure. So translating could be seen as a process to go back to the essentials, and then come out again in another language. That is: reduce the text to its deep version and then recreate it in another language with different transformation rules.

    That’s all very theoretical sounding, but these folks have a fairly elaborate range of techniques for grammar (and there’s also generative semantics etc.). And to some extent, I do think that’s a workable of describing how things work. Example: When watching anime, a situation I rutinely run into is that of addressing people: “onii chan”, “sempai”, “[last name] [null honorific]” etc. all get replaced by “[first name]”. That’s not grammar; that’s pragmatics, but the principle is the same: we all adress people, so we look at the underlying principle and see how people do it in another language.

    Now I’ve found that Chomskyan linguistics have given us great tools to look at language, but I never really clicked with the underlying philosophy. When you assume there are universals that you can access, and that every text has a deep meaning that you can find by reducing it to its essence, you have a basically a tool that assumes common ground and underestimates difference. (I was, for example, never convinced that even two speakers of the same language share the same “deep structure” – to use that metaphor.)

    You cannot talk about language at all without at least somehow talking about “should”, because speaking a language comes with correctness conditions, and those conditions are usually negotiable. And this is where post-colonialism comes in: if you assume that a text is understandable in the same way in two languages, you’ll come up with a different text than if you assume that only contact with the original language can give you full appreciation of the original text. (The words you used in your article were domestication vs. foreignisation. Generally, Chomsky always seemed more of a domesticator to me.)

    Finally, describing what translation is isn’t easy, because what two translators are doing isn’t necessarily the same thing, and the reason we call both activities “translation” might have little to do with the texts themselves. I’d imagine copyright law has a lot to say about what you can and can’t do; and you could try to get away with producing a, say, feminist version under the mantle of “translation”, because (not) getting accepted as translation has legal consequences. (Are changes made to, say, British books for the American market acts of translation? Adaption?)

    Basically, what should count as a translation is already a should-question. Ideology comes in at the definition stage. You need to know what translations should be to resolve even the problem of definition. And without a clear definition, you can’t really describe your subject matter. (What people perceive as “tranlsation” would be an interesting question for a cognitive linguist, I think.)

    I hope I made some sort of sense. This was a highly theoretical post…

    • Gosh, thanks for the comment! I really appreciate all the time and effort you put in this. I have to say ontological discussions have never interested me much (I guess the question of how translation works in context has always interested me more than straight-up definitions), but it’s really interesting to see a linguistic perspective on this. Ideology does get mixed in with the definitions, there’s no doubt about that. Part of the reason why definitions of translation that emphasised the science-linguistics aspect of it were so popular back in the 50s and 60s was because lots of linguists were optimistic about creating a fully workable machine translation system, The fact that definitions of translation now emphasise culture and communication these days is a reflection of the limitations of universal grammar.

      As a matter of fact, Chomsky disapproved of how his linguistic theories were applied to translation. Chomsky was more interested in the deep structures of grammar, not semantics, so his theories could only capture one half of the equation. There’s also a difference between “natural” equivalences between language (the more universal similarities Chomsky was talking about) and “directional” equivalences, which are the connections translators make in context, and which don’t mean the same thing when back-translated. For example, “slow” and “ralentir” are natural equivalences, while “otaku” -> “anime fan” would be a directional equivalence. Generative-transformational grammar doesn’t really take these complexities into account, and Chomsky was perfectly aware of that.

      Still, linguistic theories of translation were quite popular because they helped establish translation as a legitimate academic discipline. So, again, ideology comes into it.

      • Heh, yes, my post stayed more abstract than I would have liked. The original plan was to work up to address this:

        I am under a lot of pressure to foreignise the material and retain as many of the original Japanese cultural elements as possible. Sometimes, the expectation is even to sprinkle the translation with arbitrary Japanese words for decorative effect. I cannot help but wonder at times if, by catering to the demands of my target audience, I am being complicit in an orientalist project.

        But I got sidetracked and ran out of time.

        To summarise my position (because I have no time right now) is that people learn through play, but play doesn’t always lead to learning. Sometimes the use of gratuitious Japanese terms will be a form of connecting, and sometimes it will be a form of exoticising, and you have little influence on how people use your translations, other than talking about it on your blog, for example. Basically it becomes a question of which strain dominates, and I’m not sure it’s easy to tell for any of us which way the coin falls most often (it’s not a heads-or-tales situation because connecting and exoticising aren’t really mutually exclusive, but as I said, I don’t have the time right now.)

        • Mmm, to an extent, the moral dilemma I posed in my essays is a false dichotomy. In reality, I don’t see my translations being used for nefarious purposes. All I can do is talk about worst case scenarios and hope it doesn’t come to that. At the very least, I would like people be aware of the bigger picture, because we all get exposed to translations every day, especially if you read the news.

  6. After reading this, I was reminded of my own worries and fears going through my master’s thesis. There were some other great answers here, much better than I would write, but I do remember when I was putting together my thesis how at times I felt like I was just spouting utter balderdash and trying to pass myself off as someone who is supposed to know what they are doing.

    All I can say is keep moving forward. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it isn’t a freight train. ^_^

  7. “I’ll just say that feminism is about women’s rights”
    Correction, feminism is about GENDER EQUALITY, something some modern feminists often forget and hence feminism has gained a questionable reputation for misandry. This means any argument that tries to elevate women as ‘more equal’ than men (i.e. only women can translate other women’s works) is little more than reversing the direction of sexism, putting its proponents on the same playing ground as misogynists.

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