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Localization from the Perspective of Translation Studies: Overlaps in the Digital Divide?

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Abstract

From the perspective of Translation Studies, localisation processes appear to overlook the full range of effects that can be achieved by translations, at the same time as they offer little that is radically different from a dynamic view of translation practices. Here it is argued that discourses on localisation nevertheless offer a substantially new view of cross-cultural communication. This is mainly because of the central role of internationalisation, which builds on a concept of artificial equivalence in order to centralise decision-making power in a professional interculture, understood as a place created in the overlaps of primary cultures. A brief survey is offered of the ways in which the findings of Translation Studies might help one understand not just the linguistic aspects of localisation, but also the power of localisation to influence the development of languages and cultures. It is argued that complete localisation, of the kind that makes the foreign appear domestic, risks locking cultures into passive consuming positions. Better localisation might use the full resources of translation and non-translation in order to allow consumers eventually to become producers.
Localization from the Perspective of Translation Studies: Overlaps in the Digital
Divide?
Anthony Pym
Intercultural Studies Group
Universitat Rovira i Virgili
Tarragona, Spain
http://www.fut.es/~apym/
Abstract. From the perspective of Translation Studies, localisation processes appear to overlook the full
range of effects that can be achieved by translations, at the same time as they offer little that is radically
different from a dynamic view of translation practices. Here it is argued that discourses on localisation
nevertheless offer a substantially new view of cross-cultural communication. This is mainly because of
the central role of internationalisation, which builds on a concept of artificial equivalence in order to
centralise decision-making power in a professional interculture, understood as a place created in the
overlaps of primary cultures. A brief survey is offered of the ways in which the findings of Translation
Studies might help one understand not just the linguistic aspects of localisation, but also the power of
localisation to influence the development of languages and cultures. It is argued that complete
localisation, of the kind that makes the foreign appear domestic, risks locking cultures into passive
consuming positions. Better localisation might use the full resources of translation and non-translation in
order to allow consumers eventually to become producers.
What is Translation Studies?
Translation Studies is the academic discipline or interdiscipline that studies translation
processes and products. It has undergone spectacular growth since the 1980s, in close
relation with the rising demand for translator training. In this sense, Translation Studies
may be seen as part of a specifically European response to economic globalisation,
stressing the need for multilingualism. The discipline nevertheless remains seriously
underdeveloped in the United States, where there is little translator training and where
debates about translation more often concern literary studies.
Translation Studies and Localization
Translation Studies has met the concepts of localization rather late, starting in the late
1990s. The first encounters were not especially academic, since localization was and
largely remains an industry discourse, with some technical rigour but few humanistic
preoccupations. Translation Studies has instead met localization through the training
institutions, particularly through the need to prepare students for real-world
employment.
From the perspective of Translation Studies, the industry discourse on localization
seems strange, at best, on at least two counts:
- Within localization models, translation is reduced to just one small step in a
larger process. Most theorists of translation, of the other hand, would want to see
localization as just a part of translation. This has given rise to considerable
debate and more than a little discontent (see ISG 2003).
- Localization models mostly recognize two kinds of processes:
internationalisation (for the centralized preparation of products) and localization
proper (for the adaptation of the product to locales). Translation Studies, on the
other hand, has long worked with three spaces for processes: production of the
source text, intervention of the translator, and reception of the target text (or
translation). From that perspective, some things seem to be missing in the
localizer’s view of the world.
The following discussion will deal with these two problems. The first problem will
allow us to explain something more about Translation Studies. The second will lead to a
critique of a particular localization ideology, particularly with respect to easy solutions
to digital divides.
Translation or Localization?
From the mid 1980s, Translation Studies underwent a paradigm shift away from a focus
on the source text (to which a translation had to be equivalent) and towards a focus on
the target purpose or function (since all translations are different from their sources).
This was achieved by two main schools of thought.
German-language Skopostheorie (associated with Vermeer and Holz-Mäntärri) insisted
that the intended function of a translation is generally different from that of its source,
simply because it addresses a new audience and cultural situation. Equivalence
(“functional invariance”) should thus be treated as a special case at best.
In parallel, the branch known as Descriptive Translation Studies (Even-Zohar, Toury,
Lambert, Hermans) drew on the historical study of translations to point out that the
many different ways of translating depend very much on the cultural situation involved.
Different cultures translate in different ways, and we should thus study the actual range
of norms that they use.
Both these developments have seriously challenged and weakened the concept of
translational equivalence. They generally model translation as a large-scale cross-
cultural process of which equivalence is an almost accidental by-product. In short, this
view sees translation as doing so many different things that it might as well be called
localisation.
Now, after some 20 years of study and reflection on these twin fronts, translation
scholars are somewhat bemused to hear that, within localization processes, translation is
just process of equivalence-based language replacement, responsible at worst for
overrunning the frames of dialogue boxes. Localization discourse threatens to annul
those 20 years of academic debate and research.
The theorists of localization, we know, responded to the initial charge that their work
was “just a language problem” (Brooks 2000). They, in turn, seem to have made
translation into “just a language problem”, at a moment when a whole academic
discipline is able to demonstrate that translation is one of the main processes by which
cultures develop and regulate their identities.
This is why many translation scholars now ask whether there is anything really new in
localization. Or is localization just a fancy term for the more technological aspects of
translation, an activity that has actually been going on for millennia?
The Newness of Localization
The terminology of localization brings a few welcome gifts to translation theory.
“Locale”, for example, is a very neat word for what translation theorists have been
calling “linguistic and cultural factors”, “linguaculture”, and similarly unhappy phrases.
But then, if the target places are called locales, what should we call the place that
localization begins from? Localization discourse seems to have no name for it. It simply
says “internationalisation”, which makes no sense because “nations” have nothing to do
with the mode of thought. Sometimes it says “globalisation” for the same thing, which
creates even more of a mess. It should probably be taking about “interlocalisation”
(preparing a product for many locales), or perhaps “delocalisation” (stripping out the
locale-specific features of a product). And it might usefully call the place where this
things are done an “interlocale”, which could be a neat way of naming the sites where
our experts and companies operate. The industry, however, has created its terms in a
hurry, and it seems too late to change them now.
From the perspective of Translation Studies, localization discourses look rather
incoherent. They do nevertheless contain several new features:
The role of the source text has been replaced by “internationalisation”. This in
itself is not a wholly new way of thinking. Since the mid twentieth century,
Bible translations have been carried out not from the original tongues but from
elaborate sets of philological notes, often in English. Hollywood films are often
subtitled and dubbed on the basis of elaborately annotated scripts, not from the
original script used for the first production. Those would be work processes very
similar to internationalisation. Prior to electronic technologies, however, one
struggles to find anything like that. For the ages of parchment, paper and print,
translation was a bilateral process leading from text to text, source to target, no
matter how many times a translation then became the source for a further
translation. Now, in internationalisation, we have something passably new.
Internationalisation in turn produces an apparently new kind of equivalence, or
at least makes us aware that there has long been more than one kind. For as long
as translation was a bilateral affair of sources and targets, privilege was given to
what Nida termed “natural” or “dynamic” equivalents, basically linguistic
structures that existed in the source and target repertoires prior to the moment of
translation. When we no longer have a source, however, equivalents are
artificially determined in the place of internationalisation. The central company
determines what terms will be used, and can do so for all the languages
involved, quite independently of previous usages in the end-locales. Localisation
thus makes artificial equivalence far more visible.
The enhanced role of artificial equivalence has consequences for the very
definition of translation. Within the industry discourse on localisation,
“translation” is for artificial equivalence only, restricted to the replacement of
natural-language strings. All the other adaptation processes (including changes
to layout, various levels of re-engineering, possible simplification, selection of
degrees localization) are called by other names, often “adaptation”. Translators
translate, applying artificial equivalence; the engineers, marketing experts,
publishers, etc. do the rest, in effect seeking substitutes for what translation
theorists might still want to call natural or dynamic equivalence. This separation
of functions would seem to be new, albeit retrograde in terms of the
development of Translation Studies.
Internationalisation means that the producers of discourse are now doing far
more than translators do in traditional bilateral situations. Where mediation was
once modelled in terms of the lone translator (at least in the age of print),
localisation requires extensive teamwork, bringing together various professional
backgrounds. This is not entirely new (extensive interprofessional teams can be
found in medieval translation practices), but does accentuate the role of the
mediating space, for which neither translation theory nor localisation discourse
has an adequate name.
The above features work together. They create a conceptual object that Translation
Studies can now profitably use to revise its own categories. The key difference is
probably the last-mentioned, the importance of the mediating space. From within
Translation Studies, we have proposed that this space be termed a “professional
interculture”, understood as a set of social norms, procedures and expectations that
operate in the overlaps of primary cultures. The “company culture” within which
internationalisation and localisation procedures are carried out might thus be, for us, a
model professional interculture.
From within Translation Studies, we thus see localisation processes working in
professional “intercultures”, a space that localisation has so far left unnamed. This
naming is not without repercussions.
Lessons from Translation Studies
Translation Studies can learn much from localisation. Yet the cake cuts both ways.
Localisation experts might perhaps reflect on their practice in view of the following
proposed lessons from Translation Studies (on which, see Pym 2003):
Translations are usually slightly longer than non-translations.
Translations use a narrower range of words than non-translations (their
type/token ratio is lower).
Semantic values tend to be more explicit in translations than non-translations.
Optional syntactic connectors are used more in translations.
The more expert the translator, the larger the text units they work on.
The smaller the receiving culture (not locale), the more tolerance there is of
foreign language elements.
The less prestigious the sending culture (not locale), the less tolerance there is of
foreign language elements in the receiving culture.
And so on.
These are all findings that concern cultural processes, involving larger stretches of
humanity than the market-defined constraints of locales. Those findings might
nevertheless help localization project managers understand why translators do not
always do what one wants them to do. Translators have their own professional
psychology, and that has effects on their language. Cultures are related in many
different ways, and that also influences translational language.
These findings might alert localisation experts to the rather wide range of effects that
can be achieved with translation. A translation can make a product sound domestic or
foreign, customary or special, and many things in between. When attempting to sell
products or to develop cultures (or better, to do both at the same time), you overlook
translation at your peril.
Localization planners should be especially aware that the range of translation strategies
is restricted by the nature of the target culture involved. To spell out the above findings,
a relatively large culture will not accord translation a central role and will tend to be
intolerant of foreign-sounding language. On the other hand, smaller cultures depend
more vitally on translation and are usually more tolerant of not just foreignised language
but also the presence of several languages at once. Such cultures tend to attribute
prestige to selected foreign cultures, either in the present or in the past, and encourage
movement in the direction of those cultures.
Privilege the wider view
Translation Studies has several millennia of material to look at; localisation counts the
life-cycle of its products in terms of months. That difference, if nothing else, should
enable translation scholars to offer perspectives and considerations that are not normally
found in the localisation industry.
We might, for example, recount the ways in which translation has influenced the
formation and development of cultural identities. My own research has dealt with the
Hispanic field from this perspective (Pym 2000). Here is a potted history: Translation
from Arabic facilitated the development of scientific terms in Latin and Castilian in the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as well as the dialogic narrative forms that became the
novel. Translations from Spanish and then French brought the novel into European
languages. Translations from Latin and Italian subsequently removed much of the
Arabic from Spanish in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Translations from French
introduced political liberalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And
translations from English, of course, are now shortening Spanish sentences and cultural
memories in the interests of technology. The history of the language and its culture is a
history of its translations, or can be seen as such.
It follows that localisation will have its own special effects on the future of our
languages and cultures, and not just on the economies of market-level locales. These
concerns are certainly not entirely absent from discourses on localisation (cf. Hall and
Hudson 1997). Yet there is an occasional tendency to think that all localisation is good
localisation, or that the very act of localisation can help save languages and strengthen
communities. We read, for instance, in the second edition of The Localization Primer
(Fry 2003: 10), that
Localization allows the benefits of globalization to accrue not only to large
companies and powerful nations—localization lets speakers of less common
languages enjoy access to the same products that those in major markets use. In
addition localization allows the flow of products and information to be two-way,
as dominant countries receive goods and services from smaller countries that have
traditionally had no access to their markets. When companies localize their
products and services they help to “level the playing field” and redress economic
inequalities, helping to create a better world in which no one is left out.
Without any statistics or historical perspective, this is a lot of whistling in the dark. It
entirely overlooks the real asymmetries of starting positions. It naïvely assumes that the
goods and services going one way are the same as those going the other (postcolonial
economics suggests that the production centre always stays at least one technological
step ahead of the periphery). And it falsely pretends that access to consumption is the
same thing as power in production. This is the point where translation history might
have something to say.
Adopting the wider view, we see that some cultures remain passive through the use of
certain kinds of translation (thirteenth-century Hispania lost Latin as an intellectual
language by translating everything into the vernacular), and others can remain active
centres of production by refusing translation altogether (as might be said of commerce
in the United States today, which assumes that everyone will learn English). Translation
can restrict a culture; non-translation can extend its reach. More interestingly, cultures
can move between the active and passive roles of translation, to and from the sending
and receiving positions, and can do so through mixes of translation and non-translation.
This is important. Although it is undoubtedly true that complete localization, the giving
of the most “natural” equivalents and procedures, will help a culture accept and adapt to
new technology, such localization might equally keep that culture in a perpetually
passive position. In this, the ideologies of localisation betray a short-sighted view. If
you keep giving people easy translations, they will finish up needing easy translations.
One of the prime lessons of translation history must be that translation can do many
things. It can pretend that the foreign is essentially domestic; it can alternatively lead
users out from the locales of passive consumption and towards the intercultures of
intellectual production.
Our sincere hope is that a greater awareness of translation will enable localisation
planners to balance those alternatives. It is ultimately a question of ethics, as well as
efficiency.
References
Brooks, David. 2000. “What Price Globalization? Managing Costs at Microsoft”.
Robert C. Sprung, ed. Translating into Success. Cutting-edge strategies for going
multilingual in a global age. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins. 43-57.
Fry, Deborah. 2003. The Localization Primer. Second Edition, revised by Arle Lommel.
www.lisa.org/interact/LISAprimer.pdf. Other language versions are available at
www.lisa.org.
Hall, P. A. V. and R. Hudson. 1997. Software without Frontiers. A Multi-Platform,
Multi-Cultural, Multi-Nation Approach. Wiley and Sons.
ISG (Intercultural Studies Group). 2003. Localization and Translator Training. An
Online Conference.
http://www.ice.urv.es/trans/future/localization2/index.htm
.
Pym, Anthony. 2000. Negotiating the Frontier. Translators and Intercultures in
Hispanic History. Manchester: St Jerome.
Pym, Anthony. 2003. “What Localization Models Can Learn from Translation Theory”,
The LISA Newsletter. Globalization Insider 12 2/4.
http://www.lisa.org/archive_domain/newsletters/2003/2.4/pym.html
.
Pym, Anthony. 2004. The Moving Text. Localization, Translation, and Distribution.
Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.
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Localization and Translator Training. An Online Conference
ISG (Intercultural Studies Group). 2003. Localization and Translator Training. An Online Conference. http://www.ice.urv.es/trans/future/localization2/index.htm.
Software without Frontiers. A Multi-Platform, Multi-Cultural, Multi-Nation Approach
  • P A V Hall
  • R Hudson
Hall, P. A. V. and R. Hudson. 1997. Software without Frontiers. A Multi-Platform, Multi-Cultural, Multi-Nation Approach. Wiley and Sons.
The Localization Primer. Second Edition, revised by Arle Lommel
  • Deborah Fry
Fry, Deborah. 2003. The Localization Primer. Second Edition, revised by Arle Lommel. www.lisa.org/interact/LISAprimer.pdf. Other language versions are available at www.lisa.org.