Review: The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism

The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism is a collection of thirty-one contributions, spread vastly across geographies and time periods, published in June of this year. The contributors address the theme of the handbook by deploying methods ranging from literary analysis, historiography, linguistics, and legal studies, and with styles ranging from the personal and essayistic to the rigorously academic. In the introduction the editors, Rebecca Ruth Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian, invite and guide readers through the staggering and eclectic contributions by focusing on the nuances of the term “activism,” while Paul Bandia’s afterword draws attention to the fact that “the postcolonial condition is highly conducive to situations of activism,” and the undercurrents through the book that address regions and peoples under conditions of subalternity, (post)coloniality, and globalization. In addition to these two broad theoretical umbrellas, the contributors also share influences by a handful of key thinkers who are cited often throughout the individual pieces, most notably Mona Baker, to whom the book is dedicated, as well as Maria Tymoczko and Lawrence Venuti.

Read in its entirety, the volume poses suggestive questions about the extent of activism, and Gould and Tahmasebian emphasize at the outset the expansive understanding they have adopted when it comes to identifying what they call “translational activism.” The editors see potential in this expansiveness, noting that “The importance of the agency/activism distinction lies in its positing the infinite potentiality of translator’s agency, that in turn extends our conception of activism beyond liberal notions of agency.” This breadth is undeniable when considering the activists whose lives are front and center in most of the essays, from the precolonial African interpreters called okyeame to Ayşe Düzkan, a contemporary Turkish translator and activist. These translators, both as contributors and central figures, bring to the collection a deeply personal, familiar, and embodied quality, because it is the facts of their lives on which even the most theoretical of these texts is founded. This openness in the editors’ definition also raises questions of how active the agency of a translator or translation must be before it can be considered activist. Arriving at an answer is left to the readers, who can make their own connections and linkages between the impacts of 20th century activists Antonio Gramsci and Lu Xun, contemporary Bengali Dalit autobiographers, and contributors to refugee cookbooks.

The attention paid to individual activist figures in this book is not, as it might have been, at the expense of offering several productive interventions in translation theory. All of the essays elaborate existing theories in the contexts of their particular subjects, and some reach for new terminology—as Yousif M. Qasmiyeh and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh do with the phrase “travelling lexicon,” which describes language used around to discuss the Sahrawi political situation. However, due to the brevity of some of the contributions and the largeness of their subjects, some of these theoretical interventions seem more like sketches awaiting further development. One such is Hafida Mourad’s discussion of Paul Bowles’ travels and translations as acts of marronage, which in the last few pages draws a quick link between the West Indian former slaves’ departures and escapes into the mountains, and “Bowles’ choice of representing and translating exclusively the marginalized, the poor, … the exotic ‘other’ as resistance and defiance of the confining norms and boundaries of society.” The potential of considering the mobile and resistant aspects of the flight of marronage in the context of translation seems highly productive, and is one of many sites for further development offered in the pages of this handbook.

Finally, a note on the timeliness of the volume’s publication. With the current rise of movements of resistance and abolition, as well as the challenges of living, relating, and organizing under the conditions of a global pandemic, rethinking modes of activism on a transnational scale could not be more relevant. It is encouraging and inspiring to see that activists have for centuries grappled with ways to challenge the status quo in language and across borders, and are continuing to do so in the highly charged present.