How to be a (recognized) translator: Rethinking habitus, norms, and the field of translation

Rakefet Sela-Sheffy
Unit of Culture Research, Tel Aviv University

Focusing on translators as a cultural-professional group, this article mobilizes the Bourdieusian concepts of field and habitus for explaining the tension between the constrained and the versatile nature of translators’ action, as determined by their cultural group-identification and by their position in their specific field of action. Emphasizing the basic parameter of status contests and struggle for symbolic capital, it elaborates on three important aspects of translators’ differentiating self-images and strategies of action, using examples from the field of Hebrew translation in contemporary Israel: (1) the variability of strategies translators employ while playing either conservative or innovative roles, as cultural custodians or cultural importers, in specific historical contexts; (2) the dynamic construction and stratification of the field of translation, which results from the endeavor to establish its autonomous source of prestige, oscillating between impersonal professional status and an artistic-like personal “stardom”; and (3) translators’ preferred models of self-fashioning, according to which they select and signify the facts of their life-conditions and use them for improving their status and terms of work.

Table of contents

Recently, attempts have been made to introduce the Bourdieusian concepts of field and habitus into Translation Studies (e.g., Gouanvic 1995, Simeoni 1998, Inghilleri 2003). From the standpoint of culture research, which is where I am coming from, the strongest point of these attempts lies in approaching the practice of translation as a social activity, which, like any other human activity, [ p. 2 ]is organized and regulated through social forces (Sela-Sheffy 2000). An immediate implication of this approach is that translators can no longer be dispensed with as a transparent medium of textual procedures. Instead, their formation as a cultural group, with its own interests and aspirations, constraints and access to resources, becomes an important object of study. However, this is apparently not the main direction where the mentioned attempts are leading. On the whole, the framework they suggest remains focused on the communicative and linguistic contexts of translation performance per se, rather than on the dynamics of translators as a cultural group. I therefore find it worthwhile to revisit the use of field and habitus analysis in translation research and take it a step further. Since Simeoni’s 1998 contribution in Target presents the most detailed discussion of the subject, I would like to take up in this paper some threads offered by him with respect to the following three main intertwined issues: (a) the relations between translation norms and the habitus of translators; (b) the nature of “the field of translation”, and the question of its autonomy; and (c) the question of the translator’s “personality”. To illustrate my argument I shall use examples from the field of literary translation in contemporary Israel.

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