This column appears in The Times today.
ALL SCHOLARLY disciplines have jargon. Specialist terms are mocked by populists, but they can be a useful shorthand. They are not a target of this series on buzzwords.
Deliberate obscurity cultivated for the appearance of profundity is another matter. The attractions of obscurity are beautifully depicted in Malcolm Bradbury’s comic novel The History Man. Annie Callendar, lecturer in English literature, explains to the radical sociologist Howard Kirk how she approaches her subject.
“I read books and talk to people about them,” she says. “Without a method?” asks Howard. “That’s right,” she says. “It doesn’t sound very convincing,” says Howard.
I thought of this exchange when considering an international symposium to be held next April at the University of Montreal under the felicitous title For a Proactive Translatology.
Translatology is the study of translation. Proactive is a gruesome synonym for anticipatory. Of this pseudoscholarly gobbledegook, one leading literary translator remarked despairingly that her own work required no proactive translatology beyond the aim of serving foreign authors and English-language readers as well as possible.
On the evidence of this symposium at least, proactive translatology is less about translation than the proffering of political opinions by those whose training is in languages. As the conference organisers declare ominously: “Discoursal practice implies social commitment. Can/should translatology and terminology be considered in abstraction? How should this commitment be addressed?”
“Discoursal practice” (ie, talking) of course reflects the world in which it takes place, where politics is ubiquitous. It is because we all have our own social assumptions that the study of language, as with all other fields of scholarship, must not imply social commitment. It should instead be a field of disinterested critical inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge independent of the political assumptions of its practitioners. Academic fields in which almost everyone holds the same political views are notorious for allowing the politics to supersede the scholarship.
Proactive translatology is promoted in Britain by Mona Baker, editor of a journal called The Translator. A couple of years ago Professor Baker peremptorily sacked two left-wing Israeli academics from the board of her publication on the sole ground of their nationality. Her perplexity at the outrage she generated was unforced, even understandable. An academic boycott of Israel is a vogue cause; Professor Baker merely demonstrated its arbitrarily persecutory character by pursuing it consistently. If you propose your field of study as a vehicle for ideological warfare, academic gobbledegook is quite useful for disguising the fact.
UPDATE: This one, I'm gratified to report, hit the spot. Professor Baker sent round a message to members of her 'Translation' mailing list on the morning of publication with the text of the column and her annotation:
This is a hilarious example of the political and scholarly sophistication of the media. Naturally, unlike those horrible scholars of translation, they themselves are totally unbiased! And of course very very accurate in their description of the issues!!!
While I don't share Professor Baker's predilection for redundant exclamation marks, I must say I find myself entirely in agreement with her remarks.