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La traduction dans les cultures plurilingues

Francis Mus
Karen Vandemeulebroucke
Lieven D’Hulst
et al.

Espaces plurilingues

The invention of a “Habsburg culture”: multilingualism and cultural translation – two sides of the same coin?

Michaela Wolf

Texte intégral

1The discussion of pluralities, of heterogeneities, of differences, of individual and collective fragmentations has become a performative criterion of argumentation in the postmodern era. This corresponds to current life experiences in an era of globalisation which implies changes in terms of political transformation, social break-ups and an accelerating circulation of economic and cultural products. The reflection of such transformations was at the basis of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition as early as 1979. According to Lyotard, “les grands récits” or “master narratives”, that is holistic concepts which helped to legitimize the construction of individual and collective identities, have come to an end. They have been gradually replaced by the delegitimization of old patterns and continuously changing, renewed constitution of references.

2Yet it seems that the processes described by Lyotard are not only symptoms of the era of postmodernism, or “second modernisms” as Ulrich Beck called them (2000), but also of other historical periods whose disintegrating forces operated on value patterns and referential Systems. I refer here to examples like the Ottoman or the Habsburg Empire at the end of the 19thand the beginning of the 20th century, when these processes were experienced in a particularly deep and controversial way, mainly due to the regions’ specific cultural, linguistic and religious heterogeneity.

3This paper will focus on the pluricultural situation in the Habsburg Monarchy. It will investigate the features which make up the construction of a “Habsburg culture”, and it will be argued that in its most multifaceted forms, translation and interpreting as practiced in the late Habsburg Empire contributed greatly to such a construction. Furthermore, the analysis of translational practices adopted in the Habsburg Monarchy challenges traditional notions of translation, so that broader concepts like “cultural translation” seem to be needed. Finally, the political implications of such a view and their potential of handling multilingual settings like the European Union will be discussed.

1. Babel and its consequences in the Habsburg Empire

4In history and the present, the “language confusion” of Babel calls to mind intricate strategies of communication and requires us to characterize the culturally and socially highly complex structure of the societies involved. To describe pluricultural States like the Habsburg Monarchy, the term “multiculturalism” has often been adopted. Multiculturalism as it is known, is an ambiguous notion. If multiculturalism is more than the “competent adoption of various linguistic and cultural codes in a situation of communication marked by plurality” (Strutz & Zima 1996: 89), our view is opened up to the realities of heterogeneous cultural practices which run in parallel and, in everyday life, do not always meet. The ambivalent handling of the concept of multiculturalism may not be surprising, as

multiculturalism is simply an ironic turn of the same history. Secure in their singular cultural identity, nation-states created colonial subjects, whose descendants then joined them as immigrants, thus jeopardizing the cultural unity which had helped to make empire possible in the first place (Eagleton 2000: 62).

5As a consequence, recognizing the “multicultural” feature of societies like the Habsburg Monarchy implies that we need to take into account the “cultural Other” in the context of asymmetrical power relations of the cultures involved. It was the issue of migration which explicitly challenged existing cultural conceptions and ultimately revealed the “exoticism of multiculturalism”, as Homi Bhabha has called it (1994: 38). Thus, the idea of multicultural tolerance became a main focus of Cultural Studies and of specifically political debates. The concern with the “Other” was also practiced in the wake of various forms of migration in the Habsburg Empire and, in the process, contributed to the formation of the myth of multicultural tolerance. The question arises whether this concern may not imply the opposite of reciprocal tolerance, as the multiple cultural encounters entailed constructions of the “Other” which apparently granted permission to behave like the “Other”. This permissiveness can also serve as a pretext for exclusion having to be tolerated – precisely on the grounds of this alterity. The logic of multiculturalism thus unfortunately does not overcome the dialectics of inclusion and exclusion. As a consequence, the right to alterity and difference does not necessarily imply the actual basic – should I say universal? – right to equality (Weibel 1997: 12).

6A glance at the statistics of the Habsburg Monarchy’s nationalities shows its “Babelian” cultural and linguistic diversity: the German speaking and the Hungarian nationalities are the largest groups, followed by Czechs, Polish, Ukrainians, Romanians, Croatians, Serbs, Slovaks, and Slovenes; finally the Italians, and Ladins. The census of 1910 gives us the figure of 51.356.465 inhabitants (Österreichische Statistik 1912: 34):

Figure 1: The nationalities in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1910 (Rumpler 1997: 557, Wolf 2005: 133)

Figure 1: The nationalities in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1910 (Rumpler 1997: 557, Wolf 2005: 133)

2. “Culture” and the effects of hybridization in the Habsburg Monarchy

7A more detailed analysis of this diversity of cultures under the Habsburg “umbrella” and their location within the larger Empire’s space requires the conceptualization of a dynamic notion of culture. Homi Bhabha, for instance, regards the production of symbols and meaning as a basis for the constitution of cultures, therefore viewing cultures as “symbol-forming and subject-constituting, interpellative practices” (Bhabha 1990: 210). These practices constantly produce new meaning with an enduring potential for change and are open to the creation and adoption of new symbols. In such a view, culture can no longer be seen as an agency securing tradition and identity, but is characterized by the confluence of plural codes and different discourse practices, thus constituting a network of symbols and meaning. The notion of hybridity as one of the ingredients of Bhabha’s culture concept helps us to better understand the features underlying the cultural construction process in the context of the Habsburg Monarchy. This is particularly true as in Bhabha’s culture concept, the moment of encounter through migration is a central theorem, which generates permanent discontinuities, fractures and differences and results in hybrid constellations.

8The effects of hybridization processes can be observed at various social levels in the Habsburg Empire, where the factor of migration is particularly relevant especially in the last 60 or 70 years of the Empire’s existence. Migration was practiced on different levels. On the one hand, large quantifies of people migrated to the big cities in search of work. These population shifts are best documented in the population figures of Vienna: between 1880 and 1900 the population grew by 130 percent, while 20 years before, the rate of increase was only 25 percent (Glettler 1972: 25). On the other hand, civil servants, who were moved to a post somewhere in the vast area of the Monarchy, were also important carriers of transfer processes. Similar to other geographical spaces of the same period, the cultures in the Monarchy were affected by de-centred social, literary, philosophical and other discourses, which can also be attributed to polyglossia and the resulting varieties of contextualization.

9In order to shed light on the various transfer processes in the Habsburg Empire, in what follows a rough translation typology will be sketched, which – against the background of the Monarchy’s multilingual situation – will discuss in detail translation practices in the Monarchy, and more particularly those facets which helped to construct a “Habsburg culture”.

3. Translating and interpreting in the Habsburg Monarchy

10My research on the translation phenomenon in the late Habsburg Monarchy has shown that there can be distinguished between three different types: “polycultural communication”, “polycultural translation”, and “transcultural translation”.

11With “polycultural communication” those techniques of communication are meant which used the bi- and multilingualism of great parts of Habsburg citizens as their basis for everyday communication in the Monarchy. Usually these techniques did not need an agency of mediation to produce this type of communication. First, “habitualized translation” is primarily practiced by domestic servants, craftsmen, grooms, midwives, (mostly female) cooks, and others. These people migrated to the big cities from the eighteen-sixties onwards. The reasons for their continuous change of cultural context and daily linguistic re-contextualization were to be found in the varying social, professional and personal environments in which they lived and worked. Most of them came from rural areas of Bohemia, Upper Italy, and Hungary, and flocked to the urban centres, mostly Vienna, in search of work and a better life. The people who practiced “habitualized translation” were mostly asked to do so by forces dominant in the Habsburg society for the sake of handling all sorts of everyday communication problems; thus, these people were, for the most part, active in hierarchically inferior labour domains.

12What I call “institutionalized translation” (Wolf 2005: 164) was a type of translation carried out in order to handle the Empire’s multitude of languages in a way which was based on legislation and which required differentiated methods in order to balance or at least appease nationalistic claims enacted through language questions. It was practiced in the army, in schools and in central and local governments – fields in which the requirements of the multi-ethnic State were met on an institutionalized basis.

13An example should illustrate the complexity of these requirements. Most regiments were composed of more than two nationalities, and there was a continuous shift between commando language, service language and regiment language. As a rule, an officer had to shout his order first in German, before he repeated it in the other languages used by the recruits in the specific regiment (Déak 1991: 122). In order to meet the requirements of a “supranational” army, the techniques of language use were regulated in every detail, and the officers were given access to various materials to aid their translation, that is brochures, terminology lists, and others (see e.g. Sangeorzanu 1883).

14“Polycultural translation” comprises all forms of translation between the languages of the monarchy, and which for their performance need an agency of mediation. Various laws in the wake of the 1848 revolutions (Fischel 1910) decreed a smooth communication between the parties involved in public authorities, a task which involved an increasing adoption of translation and interpreting activities.

15In the realm of legal translation, for instance, the standardization of legal terminology was of major relevance. It started already in the wake of the 1848 revolutions which, among others, brought about the call for the legal establishment of equal rights for all the Empire’s nationalities. In 1849, a “terminology commission” was established with very renowned intellectuals of the time who sat together in Vienna for four months with the aim of working out a terminology of legal terms with comments and translation examples for the Slavic languages spoken in the Monarchy. The outcome was quite surprisingly extensive, with one edition for the terminology in Czech, and one collective édition for the Serbian, Croatian and Slovene terminology. But what seems particularly revealing is the process of negotiation underlying the work of this “terminology commission”. It is in the moments of negotiation that cultural stereotypes and traditional views are challenged, thus contributing to the construction of a culture which, at least in the legal context, tended to be based on consensus and understanding (see in detail Hebenstreit/Wolf 2001).

16It is also worth mentioning that the work of the terminology commission was directly adopted by the newly established “Bureau of Redaction of the Imperial Law Gazette”. This meant that after 1849, ail laws which were approved by the Reichstag, had to be translated into ail the Empire’s languages and be published the same day. Consequently, a large number of “language experts” were engaged as civil servants in the ministry and were working on this huge translation project, some of them for decades.

17“Transcultural translation” comprises all translation activities which were involved in interactions with cultures outside the Monarchy. It includes translation and interpreting in the narrower sense practiced in the diplomatic service and also in international business affairs. By far the biggest portion, however, concerns the translation of literary and pragmatic texts. According to the study I conducted on the translation field in the Habsburg Monarchy between 1848 and 1918 about 3200 translations were published in the Habsburg Monarchy from most European languages:

Figure 2: Total numbers of translations into German, 1848-1918 (Wolf 2005: 378)

Figure 2: Total numbers of translations into German, 1848-1918 (Wolf 2005: 378)

18The percentage of the various translations also reflects the intensity of the contacts between the Monarchy and the other cultures involved.

19We can see from these few examples that as a determining feature in the constitution of a “Habsburg culture”, multilingualism was tackled mainly through the institutionalization of the translation and interpreting activity. At the same time, however, the requirements of this activity were closely related to the pertinent legislation: the post-1848 call for equal rights for all the Empire’s nationalities led to a clear decrease of multilingual practice and consequently to an increase of language mediation in the form of translation and interpreting. This demonstrates among other things, that multilingualism, as well as monolingualism, is the result of social, political and ideological orders. In this context, Reine Meylaerts is right when she claims that “as an institutional phenomenon, translation has a very ambivalent function in multilingual societies: it both allows and annihilates multilingualism” (Meylaerts 2006: 3). The following section will discuss this claim in more detail on behalf of a broadened concept of translation, and especially the notion of “cultural translation”.

4. The metamorphosis of “cultural translation”

20The presentation of the various translatorial practices adopted in the Habsburg Monarchy demonstrates that traditional notions of translation are no longer sufficient to cover the whole range of activities necessary when members of multilingual cultures transcend geographical, ethnic, linguistic, political and national borders. These subjects make up a culture we can conceive of as a web which is constantly spun anew, a “labour of translation” from generation to generation (Weibel 1998: 76). For the description of these long-term processes the concept of “cultural translation” has been widely used in various disciplines. As will be shown, the concept has a great potential to meet some of the constraints inherent in tackling cultural difference.

21In her book Cultural Turns. Neuorientierungen in den Kulturwissenschaften, Doris Bachmann-Medick initiates the discussion of the “translational turn” in Cultural Studies with the following words:

It is no longer possible to ignore how crucial processes of cultural translation and their analysis have become, whether for cultural contact or interreligious relations and conflicts, for integration strategies in multicultural societies, or for the exploration of productive interfaces between humanities and the naturel sciences. The globalization of world society, in particular, demands increased attention to mediation processes and problems of transfer, in terms both of the circulation of global representations and “travelling concepts” and of the interactions that make up cultural encounters. (Bachmann-Medick 2009: 2)

22These lines describe “cultural translation” as a sort of panacea with a quite inexhaustible potential to solve those problems which result from cultural conflicts or constraints on thinking and acting in both practice and theory. What is instead needed is a sound framework for the concept that can allow us to better distinguish between its essentialist and its constructivist understanding, that is to distinguish between its adoption either to arrange relations between different cultures or to subvert the very idea of an original cultural identity.

23The notion has been used both metaphorically – in order to describe varions transfer processes, interpretations, transmissions between different living spaces – and also in a more narrow sense, to make the cultural implications of translation more visible and to show that translation is a cultural technique. Concepts of “cultural translation” were developed by, among others, anthropology and ethnography, and from there found their way into Translation Studies. As early as the 1930s, Bronislaw Malinowski spoke of a two-sided translational process between observers and observed in the context of ethnography, where the observera made interpretive use of their observations on the basis of the evidential force of their eye-witness status; it was the authority of the author that transformed subjectivity into “objective knowledge” (​transversal/​0608/​wolf/​en/​ – _ftn26#_ftn26). The responses to this claim were multiple, ranging (for example in the wake of the Writing Culture debate, see Clifford & Marcus 1986) from the call for consideration of the asymmetrical circumstances under which this cultural translation was realized to the demand for inclusion of the overlaps, internal conflicts, blending and especially the historical processes of colonialism which brought about this translation and the ignoring of which ultimately triggered the “crisis of representation” (Berg & Fuchs 1993).

24Some Cultural Studies scholars see “cultural translation” parallel with hybrid processes. Bhabha’s endeavour to develop a new concept of translation can serve as a basis for this view. In the context of the debate on centre/ periphery and cultural overlaps, Bhabha proposes a “translational culture” as a new point of departure for the study of cultural encounter, thus revealing translation’s potential to construct culture:

Culture [...] is both transnational and translational. [...] The transnational dimension of cultural transformation – migration, diaspora, displacement, relocation – makes the process of cultural translation a complex form of signification. The natural (ized), unifying discourse [...] cannot be readily referenced. The great, though unsettling, advantage of this position is that it makes you increasingly aware of the construction of culture and the invention of tradition. (Bhabha 1994: 172)

25Bhabha developed his concept of cultural translation on the basis of his claim to deliver a counterconcept to multiculturalist ideology and its essentialist contentions, which often resuit in nationalisms and social exclusion.

26An approach that draws partly on Bhabha’s notion of “cultural translation” has been elaborated by Boris Buden and Stefan Nowotny. In a recent essay, they amply reflect the notion’s contradictory usage in the service of both the contradictory paradigms of postmodem theory and postmodern political visions: essentialist multiculturalism and its counterpart, deconstructionism (Buden & Nowotny 2009). They claim that the concept of cultural translation has arisen not out of traditional translation theory, but out of its radical criticism as articulated for the first time by Walter Benjamin. Especially Buden warns, however, that there is also a multiculturalist concept of cultural translation which aims at stabilizing the liberal order (see Buden 2006). In fact the notion understood in this sense is a metaphor for different sorts of successful – respectful, tolerant, inclusive – cultural interaction between individuals and communities assumed to belong to different, clearly distinguishable cultures. Such an understanding leaves us stuck in the “deadlock” of identitarian politics (Buden & Nowotny 2009: 201) and neglects the negotiating force of translation.

5. Emancipatory daims of translation in multilingual societies

27At this point the question arises what contribution a broadened translation category and its adoption ultimately make to a reorientation of Translation Studies along emancipatory lines, also allowing for the inclusion of the multilingual dimension. An expansion of the concept of translation, which above all has articulated a clear rejection of ethnocentric or national-culture variants of “translation” has been accompanied by a stronger attribution of socio-political relevance to the agents involved in the translation process, first and foremost the translators themselves. This has given translation and translators more sharply drawn, politically marked features. The notion of “cultural translation” has meant more recognition of translation’s significance for a deeper understanding of the power relationships and relations of alterity that form the basis of every translation. In addition, the application of such a notion in Translation Studies means expanding the perspectives of the field of research and elaborating transcultural viewpoints that also encompass self-reflexive elements.

28Yet it is precisely here that we find deficits. Although recent approaches such as those coming from postcolonial studies have brought radical changes in perspective and cast doubt on dominant models marked by ethnocentrism, the potential of “cultural translation” for an emancipatory view and its lasting application to translation have not been sufficiently pursued. A broadened concept of translation entails specific questions which, among other things, relate to the ethical, social and political responsibility of the agents involved in the translation process. If these questions are pursued, it is paramount to take account of the shilling meanings attributed to the concept of translation as adopted within Translation Studies but also in other disciplines. Once it is realized that students in Translation Studies are not to be educated for the market – as several sectors in the discipline claim – but primarily for society, with all the implications of that, we also realize that such education has far-reaching consequences. One is precisely the effect on the concept of translation, as already discussed, the other the effect on the research domain.

29This last section aims to focus on the political and social relevance of a broadened translation concept, and, in such a context, will discuss the European Union’s engagement in multilingualism and its concept of translation.

  • 1 This claim is also prominently posited on Leonard Orban’s webpage “Multilingualism. Many people spe (...)

30A recent “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament” carries the title “Multilingualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment” (Europe 2008). The communication opens with the noble words: “The harmonious co-existence of many languages in Europe is a powerful symbol of the European Union’s aspiration to be united in diversity, one of the cornerstones of the European project. Languages define personal identities, but are also part of a shared inheritance. They can serve as a bridge to other people and open access to other countries and cultures, promoting mutual understanding”. Within this challenging project, the European Union has undoubtedly achieved some progress in terms of minority languages over the last few years or even decades. For the purpose of the translation’s rôle in building this “bridge to other people” it seems revealing to examine this text. Surprisingly, the term “translation” is primarily used in the chapter “languages and competitiveness” where it is meant to foster business relations, and secondly in the context of new technologies and media: “The media, new technologies and human and automatic translation services can bring the increasing number of languages and cultures in the EU closer to citizens and provide the means to cross language barriers”1. When the chapter closes with the words: “Finally, human translation is also of course a major way of accessing other cultures. As Umberto Eco said, ‘The language of Europe is translation’”, the reader gets the impression that translation is one of the main assets of every day’s communication in the European Union.

31What translation concept is meant here? Translation “for the better understanding” between the EU citizens, of course – but how can this be handled when translation is seen as a mere instrument to guarantee communication from an obviously objective, unbiased perspective? Who translates what, for what purpose, using what strategies? Such papers – and we can find many similar ones on the European Union’s websites – create a mythical concept of translation, as the ultimate means to achieve a congruous co-existence of people with equal social and political rights. The everyday situation of migrants in the European Union is one of the shameful proofs of the failure of this translation concept (see in detail Nghi Ha 2008).

32Language as a medium of communication and the role ascribed to it in multilingual societies in any case is a prerequisite for a broad understanding of translation in such a context. This is emphasized by Étienne Balibar in terms of a common democratic European public:

The “language of Europe” is not a code but rather a constantly changing System of linguistic customs encountering each other; in other words: it is a translation. Or better, it is the reality of social translation practices on various levels, the medium of communication, of which all others are dependent [...]. (Balibar 2004: 289, original emphasis)

33In practice, multilingualism and translation imply different encounters with the “Other”. Even if multilingualism at its best contributes to the understanding of the “Other”, it creates or fosters difference and separation: on the one hand, the “Other” will remain outside the reach of the Self, and, on the other, translation will be less necessary and less practiced if more and more people in a “polyglot Europe” – to use Umberto Eco’s words – talk many languages, even though not in a perfect way, but with the “ability to receive the spirit, to taste or savor the aroma” of the other language (Eco 1995: 351). As long as such a “polyglot Europe” – to quote just one example – remains utopian, translation will have the upper hand. However, there should not be created a divide between societies which privilege – if they ever do so – either multilingualism or translation; what counts is rather the politics underlying its promotion or hindrance, and its use in general. Not least in view of the social and political implications of translation, this implies for multilingual societies like the Habsburg Monarchy, Europe or others, that in any case translation has the task of breaking the deadlock of identitarian différences and the political practices based on them. Within this claim, multilingualism and cultural translation can be viewed as two sides of the same coin – yet, in order to foster their interaction, the amalgam that joins them must be continuously renewed.



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1 This claim is also prominently posited on Leonard Orban’s webpage “Multilingualism. Many people speaking many languages” (Orban 2009).

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: The nationalities in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1910 (Rumpler 1997: 557, Wolf 2005: 133)
Fichier image/jpeg, 22k
Titre Figure 2: Total numbers of translations into German, 1848-1918 (Wolf 2005: 378)
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k

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