Translating Power in the Colonial Context

Essay, 2019

14 Pages

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Table of Contents



Power and ‘truth’/consent

Translation as a mediating practice

The role of the translator as an intellectual

Empowering translation

Disempowering translation


Works Cited


This article revolves around the question of translating power in by laying its focus on power networks. It goes a step further into the mechanisms of translation which power takes over to make its ideological aim attainable in the colonial context. Since translation can never take place without there being two different languages, it is inevitably necessary to note that in the colonial context translation can never operate without relations of power in which who holds power dominates the production of translation. Further, this dual relation, which connects the colonizer with the colonized, remains of flaws without the help of the translator who becomes a very crucial agent of power and paves the way for the empowerment of the colonizer and the disempowerment of the colonized.

Keywords: Colonialism; Colonizer; Colonized; Discourse; Hegemony; Power; Translation.


In its broadest sense, the concept of colonialism most commonly refers to the violent takeover and “economic exploitation” of the land (John McLeod, 6-7), but when one goes further into its deep networks and discursive machinery, colonialism does not only mean this military and imperial act, but also an intriguingly complex set of “discourses of philosophy, history, anthropology, philology, linguistics, and literary interpretation” as well as translation (Tejaswini Niranjana, 1). More important, the operation of translation in the colonial context—and in other contexts as well— is not an innocent and easy task. It involves a huge array of networks of power discourses and relations. Colonial enterprises in their general sense never work in a flat and direct manner. There is always a need for mediation and interpretation, or in Edward Said’s words, “cultural enterprises” (Said, 4) to make colonial projects on the move.

It is useful to note here that translating power before and during colonialism is one of ‘orientalizing’ and colonizing subjects. To put it another way, the relationship that has been known to tie the colonizer with the colonized is purely a “relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (Said, 5), and without translation this domination would not have taken place, because the colonized was first made known by the colonizer (the “representative of all”) as powerless, backward, and savage (ibid., 34-35), and this accumulated knowledge about the colonized gives power in return to the colonizer. In this regard, translation in its functional presence, which it plays in colonialism, serves as “a significant site for raising questions of representation, power, and historicity” and it is by this translation the colonized is “brought into being”, being defined according to the colonizer’s ‘truth’ (Tejaswini Niranjana, 1-3). It is the location of power, where the colonizer forms and transmits his hegemonic power through agents and delegates (translators). In fact, translation is more a tool than a place of power, which raises a plethora of questions and debatable issues about the ‘nature’ of translation and power and what falls between these two concepts. Hence, around these dynamics this paper is indebted to go, probing into the concept of power and translation, bringing into view how translation is regarded as a site and medium of power relations and a mediating device of empowerment and disempowerment.

Power and ‘truth’/consent

The gaps left behind the Marxist analysis of the concept of power were convincing enough to push Michel Foucault to rethink the state and networks of power in relation to institutions and fields of knowledge, such as medicine and psychiatry whose “silence” is a symptom of the subtle presence of power. Although Foucault’s definition of power goes basically around the psychiatric and medical spheres, it is proved that his definition can be generalized, too, in other institutions like prison and school. However, this does not disapprove of generalizing Foucault’s conception of power in so complex a context as this—the context of colonialism.

Power has been for Foucault a matter of an unbalanced possession of knowledge whereby a knowledgeable person becomes powerful, and an ignorant person becomes powerless. He/she is powerful not in the way he/she possesses knowledge, but in the way he/she possesses means of production of knowledge, which is in a sense a subjective knowledge. It is this knowledge which produces power and vice versa. First of all, power must be regarded as an entangled “social network”, not as a force whose aim is to repress, for “what makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse” (119). That is, the State, and so do other forms of representatives of power, including colonial projects, relies more on the ideological networks and techniques than on the violent and repressive ones, because the army and police are not sufficient to maintain control and power over the subjects. So, why do we still have to define power in relation to its discursive and ideological apparatuses?

Simply because power’s subtle presence has made it for centuries “less open to resistance” unlike the violent classical forms of power (ibid., 119). Thus, the ideological networks of power are more important than the concrete violent ones.

Foucault, then, defines the concept of power as a cluster of networks and discourses which guarantee the continuity of obedience and submission. “[P]ower is always already there” (142), but what makes it really “there” is what Foucault calls “truth”. This truth is the leading motive behind power. It is anything “believed in and accepted”. It is “to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution and operation of statements” (133). In other words, it is the production of the regimes of truth such as school, university, church and media, which work together for the production and dissemination of the ‘truth’ statements. To wit, the statements like ‘we must obey power’, ‘the colonizer is above us all’ and ‘submission is as normal as a biological need’ cannot be embraced without the systems of ‘truth’ (131-133).

Besides these systems/regimes, ‘truth’ works in parallel to what Foucault calls “discourse of prohibition”. Power as a kind of ‘truth’ simultaneously makes use of systems and laws of prohibition to circumvent any “transgression” (139-40). Power, in other words, is a law that prohibits transgression and approves of obedience—the taken-for-granted truth.

The truth that regulates and hides the articulations of power, for Antonio Gramsci, is made accepted by education, or more precisely “instruction”, whereby the child is indoctrinated to construct a sense of “consent”. The instruction of this sort is based on the passivity of pupils to make everything related to obedience and consent certain, and “the certain becomes true in the child’s consciousness” (Quintin Hoare & Geoffrey Nowel Smith, 35), and therefore, the collective need for obedience (the need for the truth) stems from the individual’s consciousness.

Gramsci defines power as a twofold mechanism; as a sort of coercion and consent. The most important sort is the latter which makes use of both ideology and hegemonic culture to disseminate its effect: “It is not just through coercion, or even primarily through coercion, that the existing order is maintained, but through the active consent of those over whom power is wielded”, (John Schwrzmantel, 191), meaning that power is assured by consent which paves the way for its existence on the one hand, and its survival on the other, and this helps us infer that consent is an unavoidable sign of power, and resistance a sign of coercion. Force is used only “to protect” hegemonic power so that it remains in its function and effective maneuver (ibid., 192), while “the private organizations, such as the Church, unions, the school, etc.” work in favor of the subtlety of power (ibid., 153). The main problematic that the State is concerned with in the production of ideology/truth “is to incorporate the will of each single individual into the collective will, turning their necessary consent and collaboration from "coercion" to "freedom"”(Asli Daldal, 156), and that is by drawing individuals to each other under belongingness and common fate.

Organizations and institutions are very crucial for the production, circulation, and naturalization of power in the minds of the population. To organize bodies into the belief of obedience, as far as Stewart R. Clegg is concerned, there must be some sort of “disciplinary practices” (191) which are the only contract between power and obedience. In one way or another, these practices are one of power circuits which work in a hierarchical way: “the superordinates” (State/ colonizer), “the subordinates” (agencies/ delegates/ translator) and subjects (bodies/ colonized). The superordinates dictate power to the agencies, and this latter to the bodies, assuring obedience in return (ibid, 201).

What is interesting in Gramsci’s and Foucault’s definition of power is the words ‘true’ and ‘truth’—respectively. The true or truth is the belief that power is a need, and obedience is a need, too. Power is that which is exercised by the colonizer, and obedience is a response to this exercise. Nevertheless, the controversial and intriguing question that colonialism raises is ‘how can power and obedience be exchanged as products through translation?

Translation as a mediating practice

The traditional, or say the linguistic, definition of translation goes often around the assumption that when a set of semiotic and linguistic components change from a language to another, carrying the same meaning as the original must be called ‘translation’. However, Bassnett Susan adds to this view that a translation is both linguistic and cultural, and she stresses on the importance and role of culture in the transfer of meaning, for language is culture bound and to translate a language is to primarily translate the cultural variables that control the use of this language. She points out that “Language, then, is the heart within the body of culture, and it is the interaction between the two that results in the continuation of life-energy” (22-23), and this is what makes translation linguistic and at the same time cultural. This burden of taking into account the presence of a culture while translating a language becomes a cumbersome practice. And if translation is tied to culture as it is tied to language, this defines it as a power-bound translation. To put it another way, since the Gramscian conception of power is based on the civil society where cultural beliefs and values are nurtured, translation as a culture-based act comes into conversation with the power behind culture, and then it becomes more a medium of power to disseminate ideology in the civil society than a medium of culture.

To label translation as a practice and then as a medium is to corroborate that its functions in communication are multiple and countless. To translate is to communicate a set of information, instructions or knowledge from one cultural group to another (Anthony Pym, 138), or from a colonizer to colonized, or from a powerful to powerless and the other way around, and it can affect and be the effect at the same time. That is, translation is a “process” and a “product”: the former is inscribed in its mediatory role of communication, and the latter in the concrete “translation product” (e.g., a translated text) (Basil Hatim and Jeremy Munday, 3). To put it in our context, translation as a role is the process of colonization—to represent and speak for— and translation as a product is the very final production of an obedient, translated colonized—to translate and mould.

Problems faced in the field of translation, like the problematic of collocations and equivalence among others, pushed the practitioners of this activity to rethink translation as a theory-based field. Today “translators are theorizing all the time” whenever they encounter a trouble or difficulty at work. This need for “theory and paradigm” has led translation to build a field for itself (Anthony Pym, 1-3), and therefore, it has grown as a field based on theory featuring its own imprint of ‘scientificity’. However, translation as field of practice triumphs over any definition that defines it as a theory-based field. It is more practical than theoretical, for it is always positioned “between two cultures”, languages, and powers (Harish Trived). It occupies a space of negotiable and opposing powers whose presence relies to some extent on the play of translation and the quintessential role of the translator. In colonial enterprises, for instance, the colonizer represents the colonized through the act of translation, which is again more an action and “strength” than a stagnancy and “isolated instance” (Said, 6). In this vein, translation appears to be “a practice [that] shapes, and takes shapes, within the asymmetrical relations of power that operate under colonialism” (Niranjana, 2, emphasis mine).

Before any act of colonization, there must be a premeditated preparation for it, which makes it very trouble-free and easy for the colonizer to colonize without facing any resistance. To make colonialism land on the place it is chosen to be, this place must be “subdivided into realms previously known, visited, [and then] conquered” (Said, 58). Thus, translation comes to define itself as a necessary medium that brings the unknown into view—making the unknown known. This operation is nothing other than a vital representation of “the nameless into name”, as Walter Benjamin points out,

Translation of the language of things into that of men is not only a translation of the mute into the sonic; it is also the translation of the nameless into name . . . . The language of things can pass into the language of knowledge and name only through translation. (70-72).

It is through translation the unknown can be represented then known and colonized. When a presumably powerless subject (a thing in the colonizer’s eyes) is translated into a known entity—still as powerless as before—the translator claims at first that this subject is nobody; he must be known. And this subjective knowledge does justice to the colonizer alone. Then, translation can be any tool—literary or cultural—whose function is to reconstruct a body of knowledge about the colonized on the one hand, and the colonizer on the other, but this twofold knowledge is produced in such a manner that supports the Western ideology: the Westerner/European is powerful, and the Easterner/Third World resident powerless.

The role of the translator as an intellectual

A translator is obviously known for his/her job; that is, translating texts from a source language into a target one. A translator is an intellectual who creates good settings for “effective communication” and intelligibility between two cultures. He is someone who disseminates “goods, products, services, concepts, ideas, values”, sticking to the mindsets of the two cultures (Daniel Gouadic, 5). However, when this translator is rethought from a postcolonial perspective, he becomes an agent whose agency or duty is to translate cultural practices, values and attitudes from one cultural group to another leading principally to power displacement across space.

Translators as intellectuals in the colonial projects are entitled the right to organize and connect the colonizer with the colonized. At all events, any agent who comes to occupy this “organizational” and “connective” position is an intellectual, be he a linguistic translator, interpreter or anthropologist. Gramsci, in this regard, insists that intellectuals as deputies of hegemony are of paramount importance, for they bridge between two different powers; “superstructure and the base”—in a “gradation of their functions” (Quintin Hoare & Geoffrey Nowel Smith, 12). With the assistance of the translator, hegemonic power finds its detour to reach its destination, moving from the State/colonizer through the translator to the masses/colonizer. As a matter of fact, the role of the translator as an heir of knowledge stands prominently crucial for two reasons. On the one hand, the intellectuals’ duty is to bring the masses closer not to consciousness, but to the ‘truth’; hence, everything they say is taken for granted as natural, true, scientific, etc. (ibid.,133). On the other hand, they are to make power less visible, felt and noticeable. On their journey of translating power from the metropolis to the periphery, they design the best disguise for power to look just like a law that says no and prohibits. In this way law becomes a reducible and masqueraded form of power, and it is by this type of intellectuals, Foucault confirms, can result in control and submission (ibid., 139).

Besides, translators’ roles, in general, go no farther from fidelity which governs the process of translation. It is not merely a loyalty or faithfulness to the source or target language, but a fidelity to the text being translated, be it cultural or linguistic. There must be no difference between the two texts: the original and the translated. In this respect, Walter Benjamin goes as far as to assert that a translator must keep as much originality as possible, focusing much on “the echo of the original”: if the source text is a creative work, the translation must follow the work’s aesthetic and artistic poetics (258-259). Interesting as it is, the originality of the text is still a work of power in the disguise of an innocent innovation. It is just a facet of the ‘truth’ or law that says no and prohibits, and the more a translator clings to originality, the more he adheres to the rules of power. This view finds resonance in Daniel’s, who confirms that

‘Products’ or ‘concepts’ being transferred across cultures must be acceptable or made acceptable within the context of the target culture and grasped by those they are supposed to reach and influence. Transfer is therefore cultural in nature first – which means appropriate adaptations of contents, organisation, and mode of thinking may have to be made by the translator (Daniel Gouadic, 5-6).

The translator finds no way toward transparency other than making himself bound to the rules within this triangular relation that involves the colonizer, the translator and the colonized. When the translator sticks to the power rules dictated to him, which is for him a shame to break, he steps into the interstice between power contestants. He becomes a medium who organizes, appropriates and adapts the contents according to the mindset of their receiver, be they translated from the colonizer to the colonized or the other way around. Then, his role goes nowhere but around this commitment to the text.

“The translator can artificially create the reception context of a given text. He can be the authority who manipulates the culture, politics, literature, and their acceptance (or lack thereof) in the target culture” (Romàn Alvarez & M. Carmen-Africa, 2). His manipulative role, then, is to translate obedience into the language and culture of the colonizer and translate his/her power back through the same cannel to reach the colonized and dictate to him/her in any way how to behave, making him/her believe in and accept the ‘truth’ of power as if it were a natural gift.

Briefly, power relations do not only imply two entities each one of whom occupies a place of varying degrees of power, but also they imply an in-between space (to take Bhabha’s term” where translators are to be found negotiating, connecting and organizing between the opposing powers. Any “enlargement” of power, thus, relies on a third party that assumes responsibility for organizing subjects on the pretext of “delegation” (Stewart R. Clegg, 200).

Empowering translation

Language has been a debatable subject in postcolonial studies, for whenever language is used, discourses are used, too. Language, then, is the only medium for discourse. English, for instance, played a great deal in the enlargement of the British Empire. That is to say, wherever English is used during the colonial period, power and control are put as a priority for this language to serve before anything else. However, after the advent of postcolonial theory which unraveled the way language affects the mind of the colonized, once-colonized writers adopted the language of the center to write back, to affect back and defy the power residing in this language (Bill Ashcroft el al, 38). And there appeared a personal representation of the local culture in a foreign language. Thus, the role of language is very crucial for power, and when language is assigned the task of translating culture, it translates power under the dynamics of representation, and the one who represents becomes in a position of power, while the represented goes nowhere other than to the position of silence and muteness.

Translating the culture of the colonized from his own language into that of the colonizer always involves modes of representation which redefine an already existing entity. Tejaswin Niranjana in this vein confirms that “translation reinforces hegemonic version of the colonized . . . [and] functions as a transparent presentation of something that already exists, although the "original" is actually brought into being through translation.” In other words, translation transcends its rules to be at the service of the colonizer by defining and redefining the colonized, using a set of translational adaptations. The colonized becomes a very empty body that is put subject to a new definition other than the one which already exists. In some way, the colonizer assumes responsibility for redefining the colonized, for the definition which exists does not suit him/her; he/she needs a cultural translation to suit the colonizer’s mode of thinking. For instance, in his Minute On Education, albeit a hackneyed example in such respect, Macauly lays his focus on cultural translation, pointing out that without cultural translation control over British India will be lost, and he confirms that in order to maintain power over the Indian population, there must be a “class” of Indians who translate the power of the Empire (the truth that says “no” and prohibits) into the culture and language of the Indians in question:

We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, -a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population (qtd in Gayatri Spivak, 77).

It is a must not only for Macauly to make use of this kind of class to empower his position vis-à-vis the category which is subject to colonization, but also for the whole British Empire. The colonizer needs translators or interpreters who are English in their mode of thinking—who have grasped the truth or ‘knowledge’ that empowers the colonizer and they relay it to the masses. This knowledge, in the name of science often, if not always, goes hand in hand with the Western discourse. When the mediatory class believe in it, they disseminate it as the ultimate truth ‘that has been thought and said in the world’ (to use Matthew Arnold’s configuration). But this truth, in a Foucauldian sense, is a disguised power. It is a naturalized version of power through the discourses of science and knowledge that veils the real truth and draws subjects into believing in the fake one.

This translation is surely a sort of empowerment and enlargement of the British colonial power which is made very subtle and disguised through the Indian interpreters who implement it in the target culture, assuring its effects on the masses. Moreover, translation does not only empower the colonizer, but also it disempowers the colonized, for when power is present, always in a subtle way, there is always someone who acts it out and someone upon whom it is acted. However, if we do away with the first part of this statement and look into the second part from the colonized’s perspective whose culture is debased for its fabricated contamination and transferred to the language of the colonizer, we find it characterized by disempowerment; it becomes an oppressive machine that is rarely questioned and opposed.

Disempowering translation

Once translating power in the colonial context is thought of from the perspective of the colonizer, it is always regarded as an empowering translation that tells the translated how to behave, think and speak and what religion he/she must believe in. Nevertheless, when it is thought of from the angle of vision of the colonized, it takes another direction. It goes beyond obedience and submission to exploitation and violence.

As mentioned before, Macauly’s must is Foucault’s truth that promises power in return. Macauly’s emphasis on interpreters is to make power as unseen as possible. But when power is at work, we rarely notice who exerts it, and we clearly notice whom it is exerted on, as Foucault confirms, “It is often difficult to say who holds power in a precise sense, but it is easy to see who lacks power.”(Foucault & Deleuze, 213). That is to say, who lacks power is not only seen as an entity deprived of exerting his/her own power, but as an entity over whom the violence of power is wielded. The masses whom Macauly speaks about are in a prominent place where power is exerted. It is obvious that they lack knowledge in his eyes, and this makes sense of the conclusion that if they lack knowledge, therefore they lack power and they are slaves to it.

If these Indians are represented, or say, translated as ignorant as they seem to Macauly, who need education, then the act of translation is an act of savagery, slavery and violence, just like the way Callon and Latour define it:

By “translation” we mean the set of negotiations, intrigues, acts of persuasion, calculations, acts of violence by which an actor or a force accords or allows itself to be accorded the authority to speak or to act in the name of another actor or force: “your interests are our interests,” “do what I want,” “you cannot succeed without me.” As soon as an actor says “we,” he or she translates other actors into a single aspiration [volonté] of which she or he becomes the master or spokesperson (Translated by and quoted in Anthony Pym, 150).

To put another way, colonial translation does not translate the text into another language, but rather it neglects the original, existing, defined text, veiling its characteristics and it blinds, mutes and darkens it completely in terms of representation. What makes Macauly a member of the violent translation is the responsibility that he leaves to the category he is in need of. He does not even involve himself in the act of translation. So to speak, he is in a way a bourgeois father whose daughter’s dog needs a tamer, he is not up to the risk of taming the dog, and if there is a risk of getting bitten, the tamer will be the victim instead. In this respect, Macauly claims, “To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country”; that is, to refine India in relation to ideological beliefs, not language. Language will be only a medium to tame the masses just like taming the class of interpreters who act as mediators and tell the rest of the population, “‘you will not succeed without’ the colonizer.” This translation is violent for it changes the original texts. It does not stick to fidelity and the original text’s echo: “The translation's distance from the original makes the language of translation . . . inadequate, violent and forced, and foreign” (Niranjana, 160).

Colonial translation, thus, is violent for two reasons. The first is that it changes the texts being translated. It modifies them according to the Western ideological frameworks and paradigms. The second is that it mutes and muffles the existence of the colonized, assuming that this category of people is just a thing which must be given a name.

Another point which puts the colonial discourse at risk is that once this class of interpreters are fully translated as Macauly wants them to be—with English morals and mindsets—they start imitating Englishmen. This is a sort of mimicry that weakens the colonial power more than it empowers it. This category of people generates a great menace that hinders the continuity of colonial discourse. In other words, when these ‘anglicized’ strata of translators have access to the English morals, knowledge and language, they come closer to the core of power, and through mimicry they imitate the colonial discourse in a hybrid manner, and this makes the power in the colonial discourse vulnerable to erosion (Homi K. Bhabha, 87-88).


By way of conclusion, the colonizer’s power is to be considered a production of his/her discursive translation which represents the subject being translated as powerless and represents the colonizer as powerful and dominant. It is, then, through this kind of translation the existence of the colonized is modified in the name of knowledge and science. Consent that is made accepted by this translation always works in this context to make the Western knowledge be seen as an absolute truth that says, “no” to transgressing laws and says, “yes” to obedience. Within these dynamics, the translator becomes a very crucial mediator whose practical functionality goes around the fidelity to discourses in the text. If the text being translated is produced by the colonizer, he is obliged and accorded the right to translate its discourses lying behind the lines into the culture of the colonized, and if the text is produced by the colonized, he finds no way to translate it other than to modify it to fit the colonizer’s culture, which is the culture of power. This last premise pushes us to conclude that translation in the colonial context works in a twofold manner. On the one hand, it is an empowering translation which goes from the colonizer to the colonized, imposing the truth on the latter, and on the other hand, it is a disempowering translation which goes from the colonized to the colonizer as a kind of representation that speaks for and mutes the subjects being translated.

Works Cited

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Niranjana, Tejaswini. Siting Translationn: History, Post-structuralism and the Colonial Context. Oxford: University of California Press, 1992.

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Translating Power in the Colonial Context
Sultan Moulay Sliman University
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Translation; Postcolonial Theory; Hegemony; Power.
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Atmane El Amri (Author), 2019, Translating Power in the Colonial Context, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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