“Making Sense of the Chaos”

(A Fool’s Errand, Maybe, But It’s the Only One I’ve Got)

Doug Robinson

A response to Anthony Pym’s “Guiding the Guiding Hand,” which was his response to my paper “The Invisible Hands that Control Translation.”

Pym divides his response up into four points, and I want to deal with them in order: (1) this conception of Adam Smith’s Guiding Hand as spirit-channeling is just a metaphor, and just one metaphor among many; (2) the spirit-channeling metaphor is pure theory and doesn’t change the way translators translate; (3) Smith’s Guiding Hand was really about the social relationships of economic agents, not authors speaking through translators; (4) the Guiding Hand as a metaphor for translation makes more sense in an economic context when applied to interrelations among translators and other economic agents in the target context.

To which I’ll be responding: (1) it may be just another metaphor, but it’s an incredibly important one to me personally, and I think (but maybe I’m biased) to the field as a whole; (2) I never claimed to want to change the way translators translate; (3) this critique has nothing whatever to do with what I actually said; Pym is shadow-boxing; (4) this is exactly what I’m doing.

1. It’s just a metaphor

Pym’s right: it is just another metaphor, just one among many. Translation is taking the clothes off one body and putting them on another. Translation is like a woman: the more beautiful she is, the less faithful. And the translator surrenders his or her will or intentionality to the speaking of another. But it does seem to me that this last notion, that translators are by definition subject to the will of another, is one of the most central and indeed organizing notions in the long history of translation theory. Translators don’t just make things up; they convey the messages of other people. Translators empty themselves of intentionality, at least in some pragmatic sense, in order to become the vehicles of another writer’s intentions.

“We can pick any simile we like,” Pym says, “and follow it through as far as we want to go.” Well, yes. For whatever reason, though, this notion of control is one of great importance to me personally. Just how much control do I have over the act of translation? Just how submissive do I have to be? Historically this issue is steeped in politics, economics, culture, gender ideologies, etc., all of which can be usefully (if simplistically) reduced to the question: Who controls translation? Who controls the translator’s loyalty? To whom, and in what circumstances, and in what ways, and to what extent, must we as translators submit to the various external forces that “guide” us?

When I started writing The Translator’s Turn in the autumn of 1987, this was one of the most pressing issues on my mind. Who controls translation? Must we really yield to the traditional wisdom that translation is utterly other-directed? Translation-as-equivalence seemed to me to mean translation-as-surrender. Meaning is all. The source author “creates” the meaning ex nihilo , like God, and the translator channels it, becomes its neutral instrument or vehicle. The main idea in translation is to carry that meaning across to the other side intact. Translation is not about people-people writing, people translating, people editing, people living social and economic lives, people making ethical decisions, etc. Translation is about meaning-meaning treated as some kind of fetish object that must not be sullied. This bothered me, and I wrote that book in part to demolish that sort of thinking as thoroughly as I could.

The issue still bothers me, but not in the same way as it did then. The Translator’s Turn was a kind of declaration of independence: the translator does it all! It’s all the translator’s creativity! Even when the translator seems most submissive, s/he is really troping creatively on the source text, turning from it toward a target language and culture which s/he is also actively recreating in the process of translating into it. I’m now increasingly willing to recognize that submission to external forces is a much more important and irreducible part of translation than I then could admit … and this new book I’m working on is my most recent attempt to deal with the new complexities I see.

So maybe it is just another metaphor. But it’s a pretty big one. At least to me.

Another question altogether, however, is whether the metaphor that Pym sees as just one among many, just another way of thinking, and thus “undermotivated” as my topic in the book and this colloquium, really is what I’m talking about. “The Guiding Hand as ‘spirit channeling’,” he writes, “seems to be insufficiently motivated.” Do I really say I want to deal with “The Guiding Hand as ‘spirit channeling'”? I don’t think so. I certainly didn’t mean to. I started the project wanting to study the claim that so many translators have made that their work is controlled from the outside. Could that really be true? Who or what controls it? Instead of equating economic forces and spirits, I was looking for historical instantiations of this experience, which to many (maybe even most) seemed basic, central, even essential to the act of translation. Some translators have said they were guided by spirits. Others have said they are guided by economic forces. There is a force, or rather there is a perceived force, which comes from outside the translator him- or herself. This force is then identified or “thematized” as this or that-spirit, ideology, economic agency, or whatever else.

I am not, in other words, claiming that the economic forces guide that translators’ work are spirits, or that operating as an economic agent in a complex marketplace is spirit-channeling. My basic claims are that it might be useful:

to see spirit-channeling, ideology, and economic agencies in terms of their analogies, their ideological isomorphisms, as “explanations” of the sense that translators speak of that their work is externally guided; and to set up a historical argument or narrative according to which, in Pym’s accurate summary of my position, “the more powerful myths of the past leave their traces in the practices of the present,” so that our sense of being guided by ideology or economic forces may be mythically overshadowed by ancient conceptions of spirit-channeling.

Two more points in this first category.

(a) “Classical unfalsifiability”

This is a topic Pym and I have gone around on before. He operates on the assumption, borrowed from empiricist philosophy (Karl Popper), that all effective arguments must be falsifiable in the empirical sense. Any claim that cannot be falsified, proven wrong with the methods of empirical science, is a pseudoclaim; any science based on such claims is a pseudoscience. Such sciences would include not only astrology but all metaphysics, presumably including spirit-channeling; but also Marxist history and Freudian psychoanalysis.

What this means is that in accusing me of classical unfalsifiability, Pym is accusing me of being a non-Popperian. This is an accusation I find I can live with quite comfortably. Popper’s empiricism is a narrow and epistemologically naive position that basically amounts to shaking a stick at anything that doesn’t meet reigning standards of empirical proof-a nervous and repressive celebration of conservatism, or what Thomas Kuhn calls “normal science.” Big deal.

No empiricist, certainly no normal scientist, and more or less content to let future generations decide whether what I’m doing is “revolutionary science” (whatever crazy new theories eventually succeed in becoming the new “normal science”) or bullshit (whatever fails to achieve that lofty status), I’m much more inclined to speculate. I like to start with a problem and try to convince my readers that it’s a real one, one that has some significant bearing on things they care about; adduce whatever evidence (however problematic epistemologically) is available; and then start speculating, using what Wittgenstein called “perspicuous examples.” Calling this “classical unfalsifiability” is just so much howling at the moon.

(b) “The Guiding Hand as spirit channeling seems insufficiently motivated as a general translation theory.”

Who ever said I was interested in building a general translation theory?

2. The metaphor doesn’t change the way translators translate

“While the metaphors allow us to tinker around in meta-translational space,” as Pym puts it, “they ultimately leave the practice of translation intact, unchanged, and just as bad or as good as it was before our endeavours.” Fair enough. I suppose if you take as your goal the shaping of translation practice-for the better, improving it, which is what I assume Pym means by the “bad or good” contrast-then meta-theoretical tinkering is kind of silly, a waste of time. The thing is, I’ve never set myself that goal. Even in my most interventionist book, The Translator’s Turn , I was seeking to intervene in translation theory , not practice. I think there are some things that theorists can offer translators, notably the ability to justify a translation when it is challenged by clients, agencies, endusers, and perhaps a broadened repertoire of methods and skills. But I consider it a bit condescending to assume that translators need us “to address very practical problems like knowing when to translate or how to translate in a particular situation,” and more than a little grandiose to believe that translation theory can have any sort of transformative impact on the translation marketplace.

In my work I’m much more interested in bringing practice to bear on theory than the other way around. My practical experience as a translator has opened my eyes to untheorized problems, which I’ve then sought to theorize; or to badly theorized problems, to established (often fossilized) theoretical positions that were once derived deductively from Christian theology or Plato and Aristotle or whatever other social ideology rather than from actual translation practice. These latter I’ve then sought to retheorize. “Robinson manipulates the theories but ultimately seems to leave the practice untouched” isn’t much of an accusation in my view. If you want to dismiss my work and sink me into the slough of despond, tell me that I manipulate the practice but seem to leave the theories untouched.

3. The Guiding Hand as about social interrelationships, cooperation

“The Guiding Hand that belongs to classical and neoclassical political economics does not strictly concern ‘spirit channeling’.”

Well, as it happens, I never mentioned a “Guiding Hand” at all. I discussed invisible-hand and hidden-hand theories. Presumably both would be considered “guiding-hand” theories, in Pym’s term. Of the two, invisible hands and hidden hands, I’m only really interested in the former; hidden-hand theories are specifically theories of the ruling class, intrigues, conspiracies, and the like. Not my cup of tea. Because it doesn’t distinguish between the two, the notion of a “guiding hand” seems too vague to me.

And as I say, the connection with spirit-channeling is analogical first and historical second if at all: there are interesting ideological isomorphisms between the two. The historical connection is, as Pym says, tenuous, though perhaps not quite as tenuous as he claims: Smith does (as I show in my paper) use the invisible hand metaphor first in a specifically spiritualistic context, to describe pagan superstitions of human lives being controlled by the invisible hand of Jupiter; only later does he bend the metaphor to the economic use for which it is most famous.

“It is about,” Pym tells us, “what happens when economic actors interrelate; it is about the exchange situation. It says, crudely, that when two or more actors pursue their individual interests in the exchange situation, the outcome can/will be beneficial for them all. As such, the Guiding Hand involves a massive vote of confidence in social relationships; it could be the foundation of historical optimism; it certainly underlies liberalism (in the economic sense of the term).”

Well, actually, no. That’s one influential interpretation of Smith, but it ain’t what Smith said. Pym added “in the exchange situation” and “massive vote of confidence in social relationships.” What Smith said was: “They are led by an invisible hand to … without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society” and “he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which is no part of his intention.” See any exchange situations there? See any social interrelations? Smith never specified how the invisible hand worked; the great puzzle for later economic theorists is to figure out just what kind of “hand” we’re talking about here. Some, especially through the nineteenth century, said it was God. Others, the liberals Pym is following, said it was rational exchanges among individual economic agents (nothing supernatural). Because this is the one that Pym likes best, he just sort of assumes that it’s the one Smith meant. In my paper I discuss (and adopt) a counterinterpretation, Emma Rothschild’s, which is based not on what liberal economists have made of Smith but on close attention to Smith’s words in the historical context of his other beliefs and pronouncements on similar subjects: Smith didn’t like the invisible hand, it was too spiritualistic for his tastes, he was attacking it specifically as something from outside the realm of social relationships. Did Pym read this part of my paper? If so, it seems rather sloppy of him to ignore these claims as if I’d never made them and to assume he knows better what “The Guiding Hand” is or is not.

“That particular Guiding Hand, Adam Smith’s, has very little to do with unidirectional relationships between authors and translators. It should more properly make us think about communication participants and the ways translators can operate between other participants. Robinson, it seems, has invited us to forget about the entire target side. ”

Not to harp on this or anything, but once again: “That particular Guiding Hand” wasn’t Adam Smith’s, both because he never referred to a Guiding Hand and because he specifically did not  ground it in the exchange situation or social relationships. That he meant  to but for whatever reason neglected to is a plausible interpretation, but it isn’t the only one.

And the more important quibble: I never said it had anything to do with unidirectional relationships between authors and translators. In fact my concern in the “invisible hand” chapter of the book I’m just finishing does deal, as the material I put on-line makes very clear, with “communication participants and the ways translators can operate between other participants”: namely, translators working in the marketplace with clients, agency people, endusers, expert helpers, editors, project managers, etc. My whole discussion at the end of the paper is about “the entire target side.” Pym is engaged here in a bit of shadow-boxing; either he didn’t read to the end of my paper, or he got it into his head early on that I was talking about translators channeling the spirits of dead authors and never quite made the argumentative leap with me into the totally different world of the marketplace. (He made it, but not with me-thinking, I suppose, that I was still back in a seance somewhere.) My idea: translators feel that their work is guided by forces outside themselves. In certain circumstances they have felt that it is guided by the source author; this belief is still alive today, albeit in secularized forms. (I think foreignism and the reputation of Lawrence Venuti owe a lot to secular survivals of that belief.) In the professional translation marketplace it is guided by other forces, not the author at all but various target-cultural economic agents.

Wait; I’m going to go check. Maybe I just hallucinated writing about those economic agents; maybe Pym is right, and I was writing about the author speaking through the translator all along. Okay, I’m back. Sorry, Tony; here’s one of the passages I found: “imagine the relevant economic agent as an individual translator (say, a freelancer or an in-house person) or as a group of people who make a variety of contributions to the final translation product (say, an agency, including freelance translators, the translator’s expert helpers, freelance editors, in-house editors and project managers, even in many cases the end-users themselves).” It’s there. But of course, it was  in the next-to-last paragraph of my main screen; maybe I should have said it earlier?

“There it is,” he writes: “In my practice, in my optimism, in my problematic manipulations of authority, I’m using this damn Guiding Hand all the time. But it’s not the one where authors speak though translators!” Come on, Tony. Read the paper. Don’t just imagine you already know what I’m talking about.

4. Guiding the Guiding Hand

Having said all that, I really don’t think Pym and I are all that far apart. Pym is quite distant from a shadow-Robinson that he has now dispatched handily; but he and I are talking about very similar processes in very similar ways. We still have some significant areas of disagreement, and I’m sure we will have plenty to talk about in Barcelona; but the psychomachy between an undermotivated metaphorist lost in some mystical world of dead authors speaking through translators and a hardheaded empirical economic theorist who is realistically concerned with “more explicit consequences for our everyday choices about whether to translate and how to translate” is almost entirely a figment of Pym’s imagination. What we need for the debate to begin, in other words, is not for my remarks on invisible hands to be “adapted in a way that is more clearly motivated,” but for phantomatic readings to be dispersed like a fog in the morning sun.

Where I think the debate might most fruitfully be engaged is on this notion used and defended by Pym of the rationalist subject or ego. I address this notion specifically in my paper, and don’t want to repeat myself here; but this does seem to me to be the area in which Pym and I most substantially disagree. He writes in his response: “[economic] actors should realize that it is in their self-interest to ensure the well-being of the other, and they should privilege the criteria of long-term cooperation. (This is straight neoclassical theory, and in reply to critiques of the ‘rational egoist’ subjectivity I can only refer to the authors cited in the paper.)” Well, yes. But this makes it sound as if “critiques” of that subjectivity were only potential, only hypothetical-as if he really had no idea of what direction those critiques might be coming from. When in fact I specifically developed a critique of that particular brand of rationalism in my paper. Pym wants “motivation” for extending theories of spirit-channeling to the marketplace; this is precisely where (to my own mind, anyway) I provide it, in my exploration of the notion of disaggregated economic agency.

My notion, just briefly, is that the forces that “guide” or control translators are far more complex than Pym’s rationalist model will let him see. If we imagine the “disaggregated economic agency” that creates a translation as a single human being, seeing him or her as a rationalist ego will tend to make us ignore everything else that is going on inside that person, everything that isn’t single-mindedly directed at creating the best possible translation: all the random and unrandom, central and peripheral psychological forces that go to make up a “subject” (especially in unfalsifiable pseudosciences like Freudian psychoanalysis). Pym’s an empirical sociologist, not a psychoanalytical pseudoscientist, so he couldn’t really care less about that stuff, and prefers to pass over it in silence. To this end his rationalist model of subjectivity serves him well.

But if we imagine that agency to be a loose and ephemeral conglomeration of translator(s), editor(s), project manager(s), and so on, Pym’s sociological bent should really make him more interested in the complexity of the translation process as it is performed by that agency. Here, however, his rationalist model starts letting him down, because it must see everything in terms of a single guiding force, whether ethical (which implies but does not require a single subject) or “interventionist,” which seems to imply some sort of official, governmental, or perhaps just theoretical hidden hand (to use the correct technical term from political economics) that steps in to correct the failures of ethical guidance. (Is this where Pym imagines the translation theorist having a salutary impact on practice? Is this the kind of intervention he means? Translation theorists as legislators for the translation marketplace?)

And if, finally, we imagine the disaggregated agency to be a nation, the complexity of the model I’m developing becomes especially important. In “Transferre non semper necesse est,” Pym somewhat caustically tolerates nationalist impulses to translate the Great Books:

Yes, a fair enough criticism: defend and develop where you will, but please don’t confuse nationalist aims with those of intercultural communication or integration; many Romantic ideals will have to be renounced. …

Finally: Literary and philosophical texts, say a row of Schleiermachers, require full command of the rich complexities of a language; they must be translated, and translated fully and faithfully, so that transcendent value can be made available to all; a culture that does not translate the great foreign texts will close in on itself, offering less quality of life to its members, so they say. Reply: Thus do the examination-passing classes pretend to have sole access to universal values, manipulating great texts as a matter of national pride, seeking to control the knowledge and language of their dependents, producing subsidized translations so that monolingual receivers finish up needing subsidized translations. Where a foreign work or culture is the object of an initial or one-off demand, by all means translate, and do so as carefully as you can. If, however, what is at stake is a long-term relation with another language, then teach that language or send your students and children there, so that their quality of life will involve the ability to go out and discover value for themselves.

The problem I see with these formulations is that they remain fragmented, and Pym’s model can’t account for fragmentation. The unitarian impulse behind his rationalist model of single Guiding Hands keeps pushing him to renounce things, or rather to convince other people to renounce what he has already trashed, especially nationalist concerns. Economic rationality doesn’t allow for the Great Books to be translated over and over at great expense; the overblown romantic ideologies that fuel the loving care lavished upon national languages and literatures are incredibly wasteful, we can’t afford them, get rid of them. But then, in an attempt to be fair, he steps back from his own impatience and sees that from another point of view they may have some justification, it might be worthwhile to allow such things to exist, and so he builds an uneasy pluralism into his views, saying only, okay, go ahead and translate the Great Books, but don’t pretend that that’s the main thing; that’s a mere exception to the main thing, which is ongoing intercultural communication.

In other words, Pym seems to me to be struggling toward a disaggregated model of social agency, a model very like the one I offered in my paper-except that, because he still clings to his rationalist model, disaggregation inevitably seems to him a mere failure of economic rationalism, a falling-away from the purity of single unitary Guiding Hands. In an ideal world we wouldn’t have all this Great Books nonsense; but, well, since they’re there, since some people really seem to care about that stuff, let ’em have their fun. My model assumes that there is no reason to assume that such divergent social impulses ever can or even should be reconciled into a single unitary rationality. Some people want to translate for nationalistic reasons; others for economic reasons; those impulses conflict, but in some cases they also overlap; neither should necessarily be wiped out or assimilated to the other.

In fact the major methodological difference between Pym and me would seem to be that, as a neoclassical rationalist, he wants to intervene in practice–to push the translation field toward greater rationality as he sees it, indeed (to put it tendentiously) as the rationalist ideology that he channels guides  him to see it. I’m more interested in the complexities of how it all works. I’m interested in studying  it, which to an activist like Pym apparently seems like complacency or “passivity.” (Pym’s son cut his hand because of such misguided passivity-which his wife called “stupid liberalism.”) From my point of view, though, I’m not passive at all; I too act in the economic and social realm. I just don’t pretend to be acting from a god’s-eye position up above the fray, where I can distinguish rational from irrational impulses and intervene to foster the former and frustrate the latter. I’m just part of a huge disaggregated agency. I do my bit, and my bit is mostly damped out by the vibrations of the rest of the clunky and unreliable machine. All I can do as a translation theorist is try to figure out what’s going on-without any hope of ever really getting it right, or even, for that matter, falsifiably wrong. I just do my best, retell what seem to me to be true stories and invent other plausible ones that seem to me to help make sense of the blooming chaos.

That may be a fool’s errand. But it’s the only one I’ve got.