Translation as Structural Violence, Translation as Remedy

On September 20, 2019, Eulalia Books released Jeannine Marie Pitas’ translation of Echo of the Park by Romina Freschi. On September 26, Pitas visited Saint Vincent College for a book launch, reading, and discussion about poetry and translation, facilitated by Eulalia’s editor, Michelle Gil-Montero.

Merriam-Webster defines translation as “an act, process, or instance of translating: such as a rendering from one language into another” or “a change to a different substance, form, or appearance: CONVERSION.” Changing a poetic text into a “different substance” may seem sacrilegious, especially in the context of translation. Pitas and Gil-Montero discussed the idea faithfulness to the original text in translation, with the conclusion that translation is as much about “having faith” that translation is possible as it is about being faithful to the original text. The purpose of translation is to make a text available to readers of a language different from that of the original text. Motives for doing so, especially for English readers, might include the desire to expand readers’ horizons and provide a platform to marginalized voices.

However, proponents of translation into English must be careful to avoid the pitfall of the white savior narrative. As Annie Windholz explains in an article on Medium, “The term ‘white saviorism’ refers to an idea in which a white person, or white culture, rescues people of color from their own situation.” White saviorism perpetuates a cycle of structural violence within marginalized communities, including the non-English poetry community.

According to anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, anthropologists identify structural violence by studying “the larger social matrix in which [individual experience] is embedded in order to see how various social processes and event come to be translated into personal distress,” i.e., suffering (30). In the context of the poetry community, structural violence encompasses the marginalization of voices that are not part of the mainstream narrative. These voices are unknown, ignored, and denied dignity as a representation of the human experience. And the white savior narrative exacerbates the problem by validating existing power structures instead of questioning them.

Extricating literary translation from the white savior narrative that maintains structural violence involves more than just good intentions. It requires a community-participatory approach that enables marginalized voices to direct the means of their own empowerment. Getting literature into the hands of readers should not come at the cost its creators. Instead, poets should have the power to decide who needs to read their work and how. Only then will literary translation be able to accomplish the work of cultural enrichment.

Work Cited
Farmer, Paul. Pathologies of Power. University of California Press, 2003.

2 thoughts on “Translation as Structural Violence, Translation as Remedy”

  1. I am happy that you brought up Paul Farmer! We discussed Farmer a few times in my Medical Anthropology course last Spring! I also like how you refer to the promotion of white works as structural violence in the poetry community.

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  2. Julia – Yes: “In the context of the poetry community, structural violence encompasses the marginalization of voices that are not part of the mainstream narrative.” Your application of this anthropological concept to the context of poetry is apt, and useful. As we at Eulalia continue to think hard about the many ways that translation solves the very problem that it participates in (…I love your title), I will return to this framework that you have presented. Good intentions are important but–you are right–not enough. (I do think that having a defined “intention” IS a very important first step.) For now, yes: “it requires a community-participatory approach that enables marginalized voices to direct the means of their own empowerment.” What will that approach look like, through the editorial process–and after, when promoting/selling/teaching/discussing the work? What is the role of the editor, and how much falls to the translator? How much to the reader? Thank you for this thoughtful reflection!

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