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  • AutorenbildRebekah Olson

Ideology in Translation - an Essay

The ideology of a translation is determined only partially by the content of the source text, and the translation may in turn affect the ideological value of the source text (Tymoczko, 2003:182)

Defining Ideology

Ideologies exist as an inevitable facet of humanity. Much like Toury’s system of norms, they can be dictated by various factors from society to religion. They affect how people view things as well as how those views are translated across cultural gaps. Unlike norms, however, ideologies are an egocentric value and thus change at a much more rapid and unpredictable rate. While taking the norms of the target culture into account is necessary for producing a good translation (e.g. predicting market trends to know what a target audience [TA] is going to want to read next,) taking ideologies into account is equally as important but exponentially less predictable.

In reading any translated work, the translator is the one to decide how the reader will react. In the first stage, words are translated based on the translator’s assessment of the ST author’s intended response. Next, the translator must determine the responses each possible word might elicit in their TA. In his final decision, he must be sure not to forgo the original intent, but also not to evoke the wrong response in his readership. Several things may alter this process: the translator may be wrong in his analysis of the ST author’s ideology, he may be wrong in his interpretation of the target audience’s ideology, and he may be subconsciously blinded by his own ideology.

There are three ways ideology must be accounted for when dealing with a translation. The ideology of the ST is marked in the subtle connotations, the word choices, the phraseology, and the syntax of the ST, which are based on the ideologies of either just one or a combination of the source author, censorship, agency, or culture. The translator must account for the ideology of the target culture when trying to understand how a piece will be received by the audience (e.g. how Americans were handling texts written about Islam after the September 11th terrorist attacks). The translator is responsible for analyzing and understanding the ideologies of an ST in order to recreate a text as similar to the original as possible, but with the purpose of adhering to the completely different ideologies of another culture. However, the ideology of the translator also comes into effect.

Ideology of the ST

Censorship can be present in an ST. As long as the translator is able to be aware of the time and place his ST was written, and consequently the reasons for its censorship, he should be able to translate the ST as written, with paratext accounting for cases where the ST author appears to have been censored. Unfortunately, as censorship can be difficult to account for, the translator would most likely be unable to point out exact examples in the text and thus need to write a forward explaining the situation for the new reader. Like with censorship, the translator is equally responsible for understanding the culture of the ST author and would again need to write paratext highlighting evidence of cultural input for the reader. Agency input would be less discernable for the translator, lest he knew the ST author personally, and therefore not much could be done to account for it. A note on the publisher is always at the front of a book, and that information would have to be sufficient for the reader. Ideologies of the source text can also be abused by the translator, who may be selective in which texts he translates – this will be discussed later on.

Ideology of the target culture

The ideology of a target culture can affect the dissemination of an ST before it has even been translated. While Toury refers to this as preliminary norms, which “govern the choice of text types […] to be imported through translation into a particular culture/language at a particular point in time,” (1995:54), it is also possible to refer to this as the target culture ideologies dictating how the translator works. Should the target audience be craving certain ideologies, these will be the ideologies that get translated. Retrospectively, it may leave people to judge an era as having a particular literary flavor, which may have in actuality only been present in a dominant language, and because of that, it was made sure that only similar works of minor languages were translated and published. In modern times translators are able to go back and translate older works that prove the existence of varying genres during times otherwise labeled. Translations can be dominated by the ideological perspective of the time in which they are produced, too. In fact, with the current status of Western imperialism, it is estimated that when it comes to books being translated from or into English, the scale is grossly tipped toward the former. While in Slovenia 70% of books are translated and in France, 27% are, in Britain and America combined, it’s less than 2%. This is an example of how a target culture’s ideology vastly affects the translation process at its earliest step.

One may have heard that Muslims worship Allah. One may think this is what Muslims have named their God, or one may know that the Arabic word الله [Allah] translates into English as the word God. When sentences such as Muslims worship Allah, or Islamists pray to God are read, what are the reactions that transpire? In Arabic, those two sentences end in the same word, so the English sentences vary because the translator has made it so. It is possible the translator will choose words based on the ideology of the target culture. Any translator of Arabic texts in post-9/11 America would have had difficult decisions in word choices and phraseology, similar to the situation presented by Jeremy Munday in his article, ‘Encounters and Clashes: Introduction to Translation and Ideology.’ Munday writes about the translation into English of Spanish texts concerning Chavez during his time of severe unpopularity with the American people. ‘The terminology in the translation (American) has the effect of making Chavez speak with the voice of his enemy; the ideological voice underpinning the lexical choices is that of the North,’ (2007:144). Munday is referencing the translation of the Spanish word norteamericano [North American] to the English word American. The translator has not technically erred, as the word in the ST is indeed meant to refer to Americans. However, the use of the word American in the TT alludes that Chavez himself used that word, which though he very well could have done (Spanish: Americano [American]) he did not. The misfortune is that the reader more than likely will not be able to interpret a misrepresentation, lest the translator write a footnote every time decisions such as this are made.

Another way the translator may try to account for the ideology of the TC is by translating calques, borrowings, or proper nouns. In some TCs, foreign things are often associated with lesser things. It is clear that most American English translators prefer to take this into account – a theory that can be evidenced by American English’s taking of foreign words and instantaneous deforeignization of them. Words such as hero from the French héro, slalom skiing from the Norwegian word slalåm, or kiosk from the Russian word киоск [kiosk], are all evidence of how American English removes accents, changes letters, or modifies from one alphabet to its own. At one time these words were not American English vernacular, and when a translator first translated them, he had to determine whether or not to leave the evidence of being foreign. In some circumstances a translator might leave the word foreign, say to romanticize a couple’s outing to a French crêperie; a translator might want to strip the foreignness, perhaps by trying to get a young boy to relate with a Russian book’s main character named Alex, and not Алексей [Aleksey]. Munday talks about the importance of this decision when translating the names of politicians. “The domestication of the name, without the diacritic (Chavez rather than Chávez), additionally serves to subsume him into the world view of the target audience, reducing his foreignness and perhaps also thereby suggesting that he is understood by the writer, less likely to threaten or surprise,” (2007:146). The decision to leave or forgo the diacritic will most likely be based not on the translator’s personal ideology, but on the ideology of the target culture in order to elicit a desired reaction. While sometimes this is a choice on the translator’s or publisher’s part, sometimes it is also unavoidable. In the case of foreign alphabets, such as Thai or Russian Cyrillic, deforeignizing has to occur. Depending on the levels of foreignness the translator wanted to retain, he would have several options – for example, with the Russian word борщ [borscht], the translator could translate to beet-soup, transliterate to borscht, could write both борщ [borscht], or could even gloss with borscht, a Russian beet-soup. Each of these possibilities would inspire different reactions in the target audience and thus each serves a different purpose from the translator’s point of view.

Ideology of the translator

Álvarez and Vidal (1996:05) argue that behind each of the translator’s decisions marks a “voluntary act that reveals his history and the [surrounding] socio-political milieu; in other words, his own culture and ideology.”

Translators are also individuals possessing unique experiences with the world and interactions with its languages, words, and ideas. This individuality makes accounting for ideology unlike accounting for norms because it is simply far too unique to each circumstance. Even the same translator translating the same work may have different reactions to words when translating years apart: translators will often retrospect years later on work they’ve done and come up with a different translation. This can be easily witnessed in any translation class: 14 students walk into a classroom and are given the exact same sentence to translate, they each come up with a different version. Machine translators don’t do this – one word equals another word, sometimes varying based on the surrounding words. A computer is incapable of producing other words, while 14 students can each come up with unique suggestions. This is evidence of the role the translator’s ideology plays, whether or not it is wanted.

When uninhibited this ideology will dictate the outcome of a TT. It is important for a translator to be as aware of his own ideologies as possible and not to forsake altogether the ST’s or TC’s ideologies. Doing either would produce a misrepresentation of the ST and thus, a bad translation. However, it would be impossible to expect a translator to be capable of being entirely mindful of their ideologies, as some are unnoticeable and subconscious. Because of this, one would hope the reader would be able to understand the piece not as an exact replication of the ST ideologies.

Unfortunately, the language a text is disseminated in can sometimes outweigh the proliferation of the original. While this gets the ST out, it simultaneously hides it since the more fame the translation gathers, the less people will see purpose in reading the original. Though it may not be the intention of the translator, their ideology can become wrongfully viewed as the ideology of the ST, which is particularly harmful to minor cultures whose works may be less often translated. Apart from the process of translating and the simultaneous inputting of one’s ideologies into a text, the translator can also be seen to have acted on his ideology from the start.

Schäffner claims that all translations are ideological as ‘the very choice of what to translate and how the target text (TT) will be used are both determined by the interests, aims, and objectives of social agents,’ (2003:23).

Some choices of work may be seen as activism on the part of the translator. The proliferation of one text-type over another can be a huge problem with lesser-known cultures. If a translator were to translate only Sami feminist literature, people not otherwise aware of Sami culture might believe they are all feminists, or even people somewhat aware might believe there to be a sudden surge in feminism. While the translator has not committed activism by changing the ideology of the piece from misogynistic to feminist, he has consequently propagated a misinterpretation of an entire people.

While some translators do choose which texts to translate and not translate, many translate texts they are assigned (by agencies, companies, etc.). There are also exterior factors, which govern a translation regardless of whether the translator chose it himself. Having translated a text, a translator may still have to alter their work at the behest of agents, governments, or the source author. Censorship is also a real factor in many situations, limiting what the translator can write and even forcing the translator to alter ideology of the ST. Though how a translator’s and a source author’s ideologies may be accounted for will be discussed at this paper’s end, it would be near impossible to account for the ideologies of all of the above-mentioned third-party external factors (especially censorship, as attempts to make the reader aware of the censoring, would probably be censored out).

Roles the translator can play and how to enlighten the reader

The translator is a variable in any equation. There is no full-proof way to account for this without inundating the reader in paratext. Including biographies of the translator might help the reader understand the interpretation of the ST he is about to read. It would be beneficial for the translator to be accountable, not anonymous so the reader, knowing where the translator is coming from, might be less likely to be angered or confused by translational choices. Further, in cases where third-parties try to dictate the translator, he may act as defender of the source text by refusing to overtly alter the ST’s ideology. Or the translator can give in to target norms, and translate specifically to sell/disseminate a text by filtering certain aspects, ridding content, or adding paratext that places the reader in a particular frame of mind before engaging with a text.


An ideological approach can be found in some of the earliest examples of translation known to us (Fawcett, 1998, p.107)

Contrary to what seems logical, approaches to studying translation have focused majorly on linguistics and have failed to thoroughly account for the concept of ideology at all. Theorists have “remain[ed] reluctant to take into account the social values that enter into translating as well as the study of them,” (Venuti, 1998: 1), even though Critical Discourse Analysis developed in the early 1970s as an approach to studying discourse with the focus being to expose the underlying ideological forces of communication. This might be due to the inevitability of ideology in translation – why study and discuss what cannot be avoided?

The most important takeaway is the need to make the reader as aware of ideologies as possible with biographies of the translator (not only biographies of the author) and paratext. A biography would be placed in the peritext with the forward, acting as a preliminary to the TT. This way the reader would have the ability to understand who the translator is. While in the forward, translators often make note of general overarching choices they’ve made throughout the text, and their reasons for doing so, they cannot allude to their personal backgrounds and reasons for making minute textual choices. In fact, minute choices will go unnoticed to the reader who most likely does not have a copy of the ST in hand whilst reading the TT. Understanding where the translator is coming from may allow the reader a small, but unobtrusive as, say, an overload of footnotes might be, note to keep in the back of the mind about the text with which he is about to engage.


Álvarez, Roman and Maria Carmen-Africa Vidal. 1966. “Introduction” Roman Álvarez and Maria Carmen-Africa Vidal (eds.). Translation, Power, Subversion, (Clevedon and Philadelphia, PA: Multilingual Matters). 05.

Fawcett, Peter. 1998. ‘Ideology and translation’. Mona Baker (ed.) Routledge Encyclopedia Of Translation Studies. (London: Routledge), 106-111.

Munday, Jeremy and Sonia Cunico. 2007. ‘Encounters and Clashes: Introduction to Translation and Ideology’, The Translator. (Manchester: St. Jerome), 13(2). 141 – 149.

Schäffner, Christina. 2003. ‘Third ways and new centres: Ideological unity or difference?’, Maria Calzada-Pérez (ed.). Apropos of ideology, (Manchester: St. Jerome). 23-42.

Toury, Gideon. 1995. ‘The Nature and Role of Norms in Translation’, Mona Baker (ed.). Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond. (Amsterdam-Philadelphia: John Benjamins). 53-69.

Tymoczko, Maria (2003): ‘Ideology and the Position of the Translator: in What Sense is a Translator “In Between”?’, in Maria Calzada Pérez (ed.), Apropos of Ideology: Translation Studies on Ideology – Ideologies in Translation Studies, (Manchester: St Jerome), 181–201.

Venuti, Lawrence. 1998. ‘The scandals of translation: Towards an ethics of difference’. (London: Routledge)

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