Last October, Feministing blogger Verónica Bayetti Flores launched a scathing attack on the song “Royals”, one of the biggest hits on US radio in 2013, for lyrics that Bayetti claimed are “deeply racist”. Bayetti’s argument was based on the assertion that the song’s critique of extreme wealth draws specifically on images associated with African-American hip hop stars (“gold teeth”, “Cristal”, “Maybachs”), with no specific references that might conjure up images of white American wealth (why, for example, does the song make no reference to “golf”, “polo” or “Central Park East”?). Bayetti’s argument might have had some validity if it weren’t for one very important fact that she completely elides in her analysis of the song: Lorde, the 16 year-old singer-songwriter responsible for “Royals”, is from New Zealand.
Why is this important? Because it means that the song was written in and for a very different cultural context from the one that Bayetti presumptively insists on framing it in. The associations with African-American culture that she attributes to the song’s images would almost certainly be lost on most New Zealanders, and indeed, if Lorde failed to include a reference to “Central Park East”, it was most probably because such a reference would be about as meaningful to a New Zealander as a reference to “Footrot Flats” would be to an American. On the other hand, Bayetti is clearly oblivious to the fact that in the song’s original cultural context, its title “Royals” instantly conjures up images of the British royal family, an allusion largely lost in translation to the United States, where Britain’s (and New Zealand’s) queen and heirs have no political significance and receive rather less media attention. Within its original cultural context, the song thus equates images of the extreme wealth of US pop stars with that of the British royal family, both of which are representative of the ostentatious opulence of two cultural metropolises equally remote and unreal from the perspective of Lorde’s colonialized periphery.
The great irony of Bayetti’s tirade against the song is that, in spite of her posturing as a champion of the marginalized, she unwittingly reveals herself to be a racist, as her underlying assumption is that the marginalized culture of which the song is a product doesn’t even merit consideration in her analysis. In her unreflecting refusal to take the source culture of “Royals” into account, she is guilty of just the kind of cultural imperialism that the song critiques.
By this point, some of my readers may be wondering what this discussion of a recent pop hit has to do with translation. In fact, Bayetti’s article caught my attention precisely because of its relevance to a widespread and well-documented issue affecting translation into English, as her imperialistic reading of a marginalized cultural product is reflective of the kind of “ethnocentric violence” that translation scholar Lawrence Venuti warns is an all-too-common feature of translation in the US and the UK: an approach that seeks to erase the foreignness of the source text, forcibly domesticating it by inscribing target culture narratives upon it while silencing the source culture narratives that originally framed it. What makes Bayetti’s article particularly interesting is that it highlights the frequently unconscious nature of such ethnocentric violence, as her blunt dismissal of the source culture is (I believe) not intentional: it simply doesn’t occur to her that the narratives of the source culture should be considered. The ethnocentric value system tends to operate by default, as we are so inculcated by the narratives of our own culture that we can easily take them for granted, mistaking them for universal truths. Against this tendency, translators need to develop what I refer to as “intercultural competence”, which entails both a sensitivity to the source culture narratives that have shaped a text, and an awareness of the target culture narratives that may intervene to distort our reading of it.
It is a widely accepted standard in our field that a translation into English should read “naturally”, as if it had been written originally in English. But what constitutes “natural” English? This, of course, is up to the translator to answer, and it is here, I believe that our intercultural competence needs to come into play. In all too many cases, “natural” English seems to be automatically equated with appropriation of the text into the target culture and the elision of the source culture, the product of which may leave the text open to the kind of misreading that Bayetti falls into. Consider, for example, the decision of Alfred MacAdam, in his co-translation of Carlos Fuentes’ classic novel Cristóbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn, 1989), to domesticate the speech of the novel’s characters in order to “make them more American” (MacAdam, “Rebirth of a Novel” in Translating Latin America, 337). Fuentes’ novel is set in Mexico City, and much of the vernacular employed by the characters in the source text is mimetic of Mexico City street slang. To render this vernacular in the English translation, MacAdam listened to exchanges on the New York City subway to develop a mimesis of US Black English. Thus, for example, the common Mexican colloquialism “mano” (a shortening of “hermano”, meaning “brother”) is rendered in the translation as “bro’”, an expression common to US Black slang (ibid. 341). The appropriation by a white Anglo-American translator of African-American English to represent Mexican street slang effectively replaces the foreign cultural context of the source text with a specifically US context, and with obvious racial overtones completely absent from the original, in a manner that is remarkably similar to the way that Verónica Bayetti Flores (mis)translates Lorde. In both cases, the source text (and, by extension, the source culture), has been victim of the “ethnocentric violence” that I believe all translators should seek to avoid, or at least to minimize.
In fairness to MacAdam, it must be acknowledged that the translation of vernacular speech is one of the most difficult challenges that any translator can face. But I would argue that an approach based on the automatic assumption that such speech needs to sound “more American” (as MacAdam himself acknowledges was his intention) is in danger of leading translators to look for solutions that could end up undermining the intercultural exchange that any translation should represent. After all, translation should be a dialogue between cultures, not the replacement of one culture with another. Intercultural competence is essential for such dialogue to take place.