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Translation and the cultural Cold War

A new special issue on translation and the cultural Cold War sheds light on the understudied and yet important role of translation in cultural transfer.

Esmaeil Haddadian-Moghaddam and Giles Scott-Smith
01 December 2020
Journal page

Translation, in the age of Google Translate, “fake news” and the Internet, is a matter of a click. For most of the end-users, that click masks both the Cold War roots of translation technologies and the complex professional networks that lie behind it. Despite considerable advances in translation technologies, translators are still essential in a global economy that relies on localization industries to adapt products to the needs and cultural specificities of local markets. The click of today is very simple, but in the early decades of the Cold War it was more an ideal than a reality. Translation – not to mention the translator - was a force to be reckoned with.

Back in 1953, one out of every three people living outside the USA was “captive behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains.” This was how the US Department of State saw the rest of the world. The Russians, in their turn, looked at the people in the West as “exploited masses.”

This ideological battle over “hearts and minds”, between rival conceptions of society and competing models of economic development, made use of a variety of methods, ranging from organizing international art exhibitions, music and ballet tours, to publishing journals, books, and broadcasting.

Under the rubric of the cultural Cold War, the study of this campaign has been receiving growing attention, helping us to better understand the hidden hand(s) behind many of these initiatives, for example, the role of the CIA behind the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Translation in its written and spoken (interpreting) forms was, in the parlance of the Cold War, one of the major “weapons” used by the superpowers to reach the “captive peoples” and the “exploited masses.” Despite the importance of translators in “parting the curtain” and the power of interpreters as cultural “gate-keepers,” translation has remained of peripheral concern in the historiographies of the Cold War and cultural diplomacy scholarship. Scholars have rarely considered the field of translation or its significance for determining how ideas and intellectual output are actually transferred across cultural divides.

A new interdisciplinary special issue aims to fill the gap. Guest editors Esmaeil Haddadian-Moghaddam, a scholar of translation studies and a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions research fellow, and Giles Scott-Smith, a Cold War historian, both from the Institute for History, saw a potentially rich space for dialogue, collaboration and interdisciplinary research between their respective fields and broader Cold War history. The project combines expertise from Cold War history, cultural and literary studies, and translation studies in order to investigate in greater detail how the theory and practice of translation were used for cultural/intellectual transfer in West-East and North-South contexts.

The result is a broad range of studies that showcase the depth, diversity and level of detail that an interdisciplinary study of translation and the cultural Cold War can produce. The case studies focus on the former Soviet Union (from the role of Soviet criticism in the cultural Cold War to a study on literary modernism during and after the Thaw period), East Germany (the prolific translators of the Sowjetwissenschaft journal), the former Yugoslavia (backstories of translating into English the writings of Miroslav Krleža and Milovan Djilas), Turkey (interpreting during the Cold War), and the broader Middle East (publishing William Faulkner in Egypt and Iran).

The above studies pinpoint specific areas of interaction where translation represented a key conduit for knowledge transfer. First, they highlight the agency of translators themselves, who undertook the task of transferring meaning “across the blocs” and across competing ideologies. Second, they illustrate the importance of translation training, underscoring the ways in which institutions, be they state or non-state, can shape translations according to their political and economic interests. Third, they highlight the power of the social and political structures within which translators carry out their work and which place specific limits on their agency. Last, they all demonstrate the level of background debate and the search for nuance that is involved in every act of translation during the politically-charged context of the Cold War.

The most significant contribution of these articles is in exposing processes of communication that have so far remained largely hidden in discussions on cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. These processes are even more important today given the speed with which communications, fake news, and modern forms of propaganda circulate. Underlying these processes are various forms of translation, a constant interplay and exchange of words, ideas, and symbols between languages and across geographical and virtual borders. Crossing linguistics borders might have become easier, but a deep concern over quality and authenticity is still real and growing. Translation and translators thus continue to play an important role in how we see, understand and interpret the world around us.

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