Quantifying cultural change literary translation in Mexican periodicals (1894-1931)

1. Abstract

More than the mere transposition of words from one language to another, the practice of translation is widely seen by scholars as an instance of cultural mediation and a force that contributes to shaping culture in various ways, as translators introduce new texts and ideas, adapting them to the target literary field.[1] Thus, translation sits at the intersection of cultures and of societies; no literature or culture exists in isolation, and the interaction between different literary systems is key to their evolution in time.[2]

Although this appears as common sense, it is a fact rarely acknowledged in literary histories, which still focus for the most part on national or, at least, linguistically homogeneous units of analysis. Taking into account the international dimension of literature and culture fosters a better understanding of the processes of cultural change, as translation is instrumental in the import of new ways of both thinking about literature and writing.[3] This kind of approach is not uncommon in Translation Studies, however, it rarely focuses on mid to long-term patterns of change. Moreover, the underlying analysis is generally of a qualitative nature, focusing on literary agents and above all on the specific elements of repertoire that are being transferred and appropriated.[4] Indeed, textual analysis is an indispensable component of such a study, and it yields fundamental insight into the particulars of the process of cultural change. It is, however, not the only tool at our disposal.

Based on a corpus of translated texts published in Mexican cultural periodicals from 1894 to 1931, this paper assesses the contribution of quantitative methods to such an analysis. It stems from my doctoral research, which outlines the evolution of the functions and uses of translation in said corpus, seeking to examine Mexican literary history from a transnational perspective. More specifically, I argue that a data-driven approach can help identify broad trends in the production of translation, which can in turn help us substantiate or challenge conclusions drawn on the basis of particular case studies, and, as such, characterise cultural change over time.

Periodical publications are fundamental for this kind of endeavour, as they are often considered as the most immediate format for intervention in public debate, including discussions around the concepts of literature and art.[5] The fact that the magazines contain competing aesthetics and ideologies make them an ideal source for the study of cultural change. This is currently being addressed in what might become a new subfield of Translation Studies, as attested by the recent special issue of Translation and Interpreting Studies titled “Translation and/in Periodical Publications” and the Translation in Periodical Publications Conference organised by the MapModern project last year.[6] Various of the pieces presented in those instances contemplate diachronic evolutions (although not necessarily focusing on literary content), and some of them rely on a data-driven approach. However, this kind of research is very incipient, and we are still facing a lack of published studies on its methodological implications and possible results.

In this context, I offer a comprehensive framework in which to approach literary translation published in periodicals, as well as a discussion of the usefulness of examining certain variables and challenges in doing so. This corresponds to the computational component of my doctoral research, which is nearing its completion. I believe that this kind of method can bring about important re-assessments and developments in literary history, especially in the Latin American context, in which these topics are hardly being addressed.

The analysis itself consists of a variety of descriptive statistics run on a database which contains metadata for each of the translations published in a corpus of nearly 20 magazines between 1894 and 1931. The variables include the issue in which each text was published, its date, title, author, translator, genre, original publication date, original language, as well as its length, starting page, and the format of its signature, in an effort to consider both the symbolic and material aspects of the publication of translations. Information about the authors and translators (such as their gender, nationality and dates of birth and death) are also recorded.

These different variables allow us to explore a considerable amount of questions, among which I have chosen to focus on the evolution of the original language of translated texts, as well as their author’s nationality, and original date of publication in order to outline the cultural geography and temporality of each periodical. It is indeed telling what the cultural references are at a given moment in time, and their proximity or distance in time is an important factor when assessing the role of translation as a source of innovation. One of the most expected evolutions, to give just one example, is that of the balance between translations from French and English, which progressively shifts from the predominance of the former to the latter during the studied time period, in a process of increased hemispheric dialogue and cultural exchange. Of course, such conclusions can (and should) then be refined by considering other variables in conjunction (e.g. is this evolution shared by various literary genres or not, does it go hand in hand with a change in temporality or no, etc).

In these different areas, my paper will emphasize the key role played by both data exploration and visualisation, and the usefulness of such an approach for literary history and Translation Studies alike.

[1] Susan Bassnett, “The Translation Turn in Cultural Studies.” In Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation. Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere (eds.). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1998. 123-140; Jean-Marc Gouanvic, “A Bourdieusian Theory of Translation, or the Coincidence of Practical Instances.” The Translator 11.2 (2005): 147-166; Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere (eds.). Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1998; André Lefevere, “Why Waste our Time on Rewrites? The Trouble with Interpretation and the Role of Rewriting in an Alternative Paradigm.” In Theo Hermans (ed.). The Manipulation of Literature. Studies in Literary Translation. London; Syndey: Croom Helm, 1985. 215-243.

[2] Itamar Even-Zohar, “Polysystem Studies.” Special issue of Poetics Today 11:1 (1990); Pascale Casanova, “Consécration et accumulation de capital littéraire. La traduction comme échange inégal.” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 144 (2002): 7-20; Pascale Casanova, La république mondiale des lettres. Paris: Seuil, 2008.

[3]   Itamar Even-Zohar, “Polysystem Studies.” Special issue of Poetics Today 11:1 (1990).

[4] Jean-Marc Gouanvic, “Pour une sociologie de la traduction: le cas de la littérature américaine traduite en France après la Seconde Guerre mondiale (1945-1960).” In Mary Snell-Hornby, Zuzana Jettmarová and Klaus Kaindl (eds.). Translation as Intercultural Communication. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1997. 33-44; André Lefevere, “Translation Practice(s) and the Circulation of Cultural Capital: Some Aeneids in English.” In Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere (eds.). Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1998. 41-56.

[5] Beatriz Sarlo, “Intelectuales y revistas: razones de una práctica.” América: Cahiers du CRICCAL 9-10 (1992): 9-16.

[6]   María Constanza Guzmán (ed.), “Translation and/in Periodical Publications.” Special issue of Translation and Interpreting Studies 14:2 (2019), https://mapmodern.wordpress.com/

Marina Popea (marina.popea@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk), University of Oxford, United Kingdom

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