Archival dea(r)th: tracing the afterlives of translation memory

Keynote: Hephzibah Israel

University of Edinburgh


My starting point is a conundrum that scholars working with history often encounter: the kind of history they reconstruct depends on the archival research undertaken but the kind of archive(s) historians have access to will have been created as the result of a specific line of historical imagination and argument. This close epistemic interpellation of ‘history’ and ‘archive’ challenges us as translation historians to evaluate the nature of archives for translation research and how we work with them. To compound matters, archives do not yield materials relating to translation or interpreting easily. There is a dearth of readymade translation-focused archives in most languages. What kinds of translation memory do archives disclose? And how can the translation historian re-construct a past when translation trails fade away in archives? Such questions prompt us to critically reflect on the governing principles underlying the order of things comprising an archive—texts, objects, images and languages—apparently ‘representing’ an aspect of human history.

I argue that placing the translation historian in a central and actively interpretative position begins to address some of these issues. As historians working with translation, we recognize that we do not re-construct translation history as a consequence of working with stable and reliable archives but that we may well first need to assemble an archive for the translation history we choose to write. We use our focus on translation as a pivot to refract rather than extract evidence to re-construct a history that was always, already there. We interpret the deafening silences of the archive on matters relating to translation. I will draw on my experience of working with archives relating to South Asia to comment on the construction and circulation of ‘translatables’ and ‘non-translatables’ and the trajectory of specific historical narratives.

I suggest that interpretative engagements with archival materials through the lens of translation can yield valuable insights for the historian who may not have hitherto paid attention to the transformative role of translation or languages, as well as for scholars of translation who may be tempted to treat history as a mere backdrop to the translation protagonist.