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Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337 Contextualization in translator- and interpreter-mediated events Mona Baker Centre
Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337 Contextualization in translator- and interpreter-mediated events Mona Baker Centre

Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337

Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337 Contextualization in translator- and interpreter-mediated events Mona Baker Centre

Contextualization in translator- and interpreter-mediated events

Mona Baker

Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK

Received 10 February 2005; received in revised form 19 April 2005; accepted 19 April 2005


The notion of context has been extensively invoked but rarely critiqued and elaborated in the study of translation and interpreting. This paper first explores recent thinking on the notions of context and contextualization in pragmatics and linguistic anthropology and examines the extent to which these notions have explicitly or implicitly informed current thinking on translation and interpreting. It then argues that closer attention to processes of contextualization in both the production and reception of translated texts and interpreted utterances can tell us much more about the goals and ideological positioning of participants than any static listing of contextual variables, however detailed and comprehensive. The discussion is supported by various examples of the way in which translators and interpreters frame their interaction with others. # 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Translation; Interpreting; Power; Contextualization

Most of the central notions in the study of translation – at least the most illuminating – have always been rather elusive and difficult to pin down. This reflects the highly complex nature of the translation act. Like the very material in which it mostly takes shape, namely language, the act of translation is deeply embedded in wider social and cultural practices. During periods and within scholarly traditions in which researchers focused on the internal mechanisms of language, the analysis of translation and interpreting events seemed relatively straightforward, if not particularly illuminating. The exclusive focus on internal mechanisms could not continue for long, however, and as scholars of both language and translation increasingly acknowledge the dynamic and negotiable aspects of both phenomena, they find that they inevitably have to draw on more fluid notions such as context, culture, power and ideology.

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Many have attempted to address the question of what the concept of culture means and how it impacts on translational behaviour; Katan (1999/2004) is the most recent and extensive treatment of this issue. Others have tried to tackle the notion of ideology in similar ways; the most recent treatment is by Calzada Pe´ rez (2003). Very few have addressed the notion of power, among them Tymoczko (2000:31–34) and Tymoczko and Gentzler (2002). Yet, although the notion of context is routinely invoked in much of the literature on translat ion and interpreting, it is hardly ever subjected to scrutiny in its own right. In fact, no scholarly publication within linguistics or translation studi es has yet attempted to explore the issue of context as it impacts on translational behaviour in any depth. 1 Even Hickey (1998), the only collection dedicated to the interface between translation and pragmati cs, fails to address the issue of context in any detail or theorize it explicitly, except as part of the application of relevance theory in the article by Gutt (1998). Within the limited scope of this paper, I will first outline a range of perspectives on context as elaborated in the recent literature in pragmatics and linguistic anthropology and offer examples of the various ways in which these perspectives relate to translation research and practice. My main interest ultimately lies in describing some of the active processes of contextualization in which translators and interpreters engage or to which they have to respond, and such processes are discussed and exemplified in the second part of the article. Rather than focusing on static descriptions of various components of context, I will argue, it is far more productive to examine contextualization as a dynamic process of negotiation and one that is constrained by the uneven distribution of power which characterizes all exchanges in society, including those that are mediated by translators and interpreters. I start with the following broad distinctions in an attempt to explore the usefulness of various conceptions of context to the study of translation and interpreting: (1) cognitive versus social/interactive definitions of context; (2) static versus dynamic models and the shift from ‘context’ to ‘contextualizatio n’; and finally (3) neutral vers us power-sensitive definitions of context. 2

1. Cognitive versus social/interactive definitions of context

The notion of context has variously been conceptualized as an abstract, psychological construct that exists within rather than outside, or independently of, the mind of the language user, or as a concrete set of entities and parameters in the real world that allow us to make sense of verbal exchanges in actual instances of interaction. Proponents of a cognition-driven approach argue that ‘‘contexts as such are not social situations but mental constructs’’ (Van Dijk, 2001a:582), that they ‘‘are not ‘out there,’ but ‘in here’: They are mental constructs of participants’’ (Van Dijk, 2001b:18). 3 This is the approach

  • 1 There have of course been some excellent attempts at exploring the notion of context in socio-pragmatics, linguistic anthropology and applied linguistics; see, especially, Auer and di Luzio (1992), Duranti and Goodwin (1992), Malmkjær and Williams (1998) and Dilley (1999). But none have addressed the issue in relation to translation and/or interpreting.

  • 2 Needless to say, the literature abounds with other types of distinction. Akman and Bazzanella (2003), for example, distinguish between local and global notions of context, the former relating to the immediate structural environment (context of the ongoing interaction) and the latter to external components of context. This is similar to Schegloff’s (1992) distinction between proximate and distal variables of context. My first distinction between cognitive and social/ interactional definitions of context is closer to Linell’s (1998) distinction between cognitive and situational contexts.

  • 3 Cf. the more anthropological and hermeneutic formulation by Holy (1999:50): ‘‘the context of the phenomenon does not exist out there for us to grasp but is itself, like the meaning, the result of our interpretation’’.

M. Baker / Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337


adopted by the proponents of relevance theory, one of the few theories of pragmatics to have been applied in detail to the study of translation. Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995:15) insist that ‘‘[a] context is a psychological construct, a subset of the hearer’s assumptions about the world. It is

these assumptions


rather than the actual state of the world, that affect the interpretation of

an utterance’’. When Gutt (1990, 1991, 1996, 1998, 2000) applies this conception of context in his writing on translation, what he ultimately takes as a point of departure in his analysis is not

some readily identifiable and sta ble social reality but the assumptions of target readers. These assumptions are not ‘out there’ for transla tors to recover; they are a product of our own cognitive processes, but they do guide us in making decisions about how to render a text from one language and social context into another. Ultimately, the question is one of interpretation, not of verifiable reality against which the tru th or falsehood of a translation may be judged (Gutt, 2000:233):

the focus of relevance-theory based translation is on the comparison of interpretations, not on the reproduction of words, linguistic constructions or textual features.

A cognitive view of context, then, will tend to draw a relatively clear line between what is in the world and what is in the mind of the language user or translator, stressing that it is the language user’s assumptions about what is in the world, rather than what is actually in the world (assuming we have a reliable way of establishing the latter), that influences the way language is used and the kind of inferences that are drawn in a given situation. Thus, cognition-oriented definitions of context encourage us to see translational behaviour as motivated by a series of ultimately unverifiable assumptions on the part of the translator. And in this sense they are fairly similar to postmodern literary approaches which describe translation as ‘‘a process by which the chain of signifiers that constitutes the source-language text is replaced by a chain of signifiers in the target language which the translator provides on the strength of an interpretation’’ (Venuti, 1995:17; emphasis added). The two approaches, however, differ markedly in terms of their resort to the notion of intention. Gutt’s cognitive orientation does not preclude him from speaking of ‘‘the correct, that is, speaker-intended, interpretation of an utterance’’ (1998:49). Venuti and other scholars working within the postmodern literary tradition rarely, if ever, invoke the notion of ‘intention’ in their discussions of translation. Approaches that focus exclusively on social/interactive parameters, on the other hand, traditionally saw context in terms of a series of pre-existing entities and relations in the real world. The best known and one of the most elaborate is Hymes’ SPEAKING model: Situation, Participants, Ends (outcomes and goals), Act sequence (form and content), Key, Instrumentalities (channels & forms of speech), Norms of interaction, and Genres. Hymes’ purpose in elaborating the notion of context in these terms is to stress that the linguistic form on its own supports a whole range of meanings, but in any given context (understood in terms of the SPEAKING model) many of these meanings are eliminated or downplayed (Hymes, 1964). In other words, the context restricts the range of relevant meanings of the form. On the other hand, a given context may support a whole range of meanings, and these in turn are restricted by the form used. Ultimately, Hymes was attempting to illuminate the process by which the actions of participants, including their verbal behaviour, interact in a given situation with social structures such as norms and genres to guide our interpretation of discourse. This type of framework has been drawn on fairly extensively in translation studies, where scholars have sometimes found it useful to draw up a map of the context of situation of the source and target texts to anticipate potential problems in translation. Nord (1991) is a good example of this trend, as is much of the extensive literature on bible translation. House’s (1981, 1997) well-

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324 M. Baker / Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337 Fig. 1. Sample header file from . " id="pdf-obj-3-5" src="pdf-obj-3-5.jpg">

Fig. 1. Sample header file from TEC corpus.

known dimensions of language user and language use, which are employed to assess the quality of translation, offer another variant on this approach. Indeed, the application of systemic functional linguistics with its specific take on the context of situation (in terms of field, tenor and mode), which is ultimately a more elaborate instantiation of Hymes’ model, has informed much work in translation studies, including Bell (1991) and House (1981, 1997). More recently, House (2002 and this volume) specifically described her ‘‘empirically derived’’ modes of translation – covert translation and overt translation – as ‘‘two fundamentally different types of contextualization’’ (2002:97). In another relatively recent development in translation studies, we can see the same general conception of context being applied in corpus-based research. For example, the header files that document extra-linguistic information on individual texts in the Translational English Corpus, 4 as described in Laviosa (1997) and Baker (1999), are in some respects instantiations of Hymes’ SPEAKING model or some variant of it, specifically giving details of situation and participants (see Fig. 1). To my mind, the two approaches – cognitive and social/interactive – are not mutually exclusive but can be applied at the same time, with varying degrees of emphasis, quite productively. For instance, we might want to explore how thinking of translation itself as a genre

4 TEC is the largest computerized collection of translated texts anywhere in the world, currently around 10 million words in size. It consists of contemporary translations into English from a variety of source languages, and is divided into four sub-corpora: fiction, biography, newspapers and inflight magazines. See

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(the last component of Hymes’ SPEAKING model) and situating this conception within a broader social framework may help explain the extent to which readers expect multiple cultural environments and voices to be invoked in a translation—and in turn how translators’ own ‘assumptions’ about such patterns of expectation may guide their decision-making process. Brief references to this potential line of research can be found in the literature, albeit very occasionally and largely only in passing, as in the following statement by Weizman and Blum-Kulka


it seems that the identification of a text as a translation, which is a meta-linguistic process in essence, ‘protects’ the reader, as it were, from misinterpreting the writer’s


intentions. As is well-known, when looking for the implicit or indirect meanings of a text, the reader assumes that the writer indeed intended to convey them. The identification of a text as a translation product implies that deviations from cultural norms are not judged as intentional, and therefore are not assigned any ‘hidden’ meanings. In this respect, the perception of ‘translationese’ plays a significant role in the process of text interpretation.

There is also evidence in the literature (e.g. Shlesinger, 1989) that court interpreters tend to correct witnesses who sound confused, most probably because they believe this confusion may be interpreted by other participants as an in dication of their own incompetence. This type of behaviour, as well as Weizman and Blum-Kulka’s argument above, further support the cognitive view of context in that they suggest that we respond not to the context as it is in the world but to what we perceive as other participants’ intentions as well as assumptions about the world.

2. Static versus dynamic models of context

Thinking of context as a process of interaction between linguistic form and elements of the situation as outlined in Hymes’ model can help a ccount for creativity in language use. It is not the newness of words and structures that make an utterance creative (almost all our utterances are highly repetitive in this respect); creativity in language, and hence in translation, is more a question of the ability of the language user or tra nslator to produce new meanings by extending the resources of language to new contexts of situation. However, defining context as a list of components of the type outlined by Hymes in his SPEAKING model or Scollon and Scollon (1995:22–23) in their ‘grammar of context’ suffers from serious limitations. The most serious weakness is that the components and entities are often treated as static phenomena that exist in a fairly stable environment which the analyst can simply document and use to generate an analysis of events and behaviour. For example, a participant is traditionally assumed to have a stable identity throughout the interaction, whereas more recent approaches in socio-pragmatics and linguistic anthropology would prefer to treat all elements of context as at least having the potential to shift and develop during the course of an event, to both shape and be shaped by the ongoing interaction. Another obvious problem with this approach is that ‘‘such open-ended lists suggest that the components are coordinate and independent, and they leave us with the nagging uncertainty of never knowing whether the list is complete or whether yet more components are needed’’ (Hanks, 1992:47). A third problem concerns the difficulty of deciding which of the components on the list are relevant fo r the interpretation of a particular speech event. This is partly a question of whether we treat the components as static, taking the analyst’s classification of the event as a given, or follow the perspective of the participants and find ways

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of establishing what they see as relevant by paying attention to those features that they themselves seem to attend to. In terms of gender or profession for instance (if we were to consider either or both as aspects of a participant’s profile), neither would be treated as purely a ‘given’ within a dynamic conception of context: we ‘perform’ our gender, we step in and out of professional and other roles numerous times during the course of a single conversation, and therefore, whether a participant behaves and responds as a woman, as a gay person, as a doctor, or as a professional interpreter at any moment depends on a variety of factors and can change during the course of a single interaction. Consider how a community interpreter will often shift back and forth between playing out the role of professional interpreter and other participant roles in a communication. In the following example, a community interpreter clearly switches into a different role – that of a caring adult – as she tries to comfort Clara, a 7-year-old child who is about to receive an injection (Wadensjo¨ ,



I can sit – I can be here. (.) yes. Clara, you know how many children I have seen already. who’ve had it done. and I haven’t seen a single

one that


you know what. there have been those who cried like you.

and afterwards they were so surprised that it was all over. this is what they say. is that all:::?

The ‘required’ norm in interpreting is for the pronoun I to be strictly reserved for the speaker. But the interpreter here speaks in her own voice, not in her professional capacity as interpreter. It is not at all unusual for community interpreters to alternate between their professional and other roles in this way. Similar examples from a different domain can be found in Katan and Straniero-Sergio (2001), who discuss the shifting alignments of media interpreters in the context of talkshows on Italian television. Here are two particularly interesting demonstrations of the way in which an interpreter in this context switches participant roles in response to the unfolding dyn amics of the show. English back-translations are provided in square brackets. In the first example, the interpreter (Olga Fernando) signals the switch in participant roles clearly:


I must say one thing


posso dire una cosa? [May I say something?]


She is very shaken (pointing to Olga Fernando)


io s-

sta dicendo che (.) l’interprete (.) io e` un posconvolta


she’s saying that (.) the interpreter



(Maurizio Costanzo Show, Canale 5, 14.05.1998; adapted from Katan and Straniero-Sergio,


M. Baker / Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337


In the next example, it is not entirely clear whether the interpreter has switched roles or not, and there is some confusion about the referent of the pronoun I. The guest in this case is Asha Philips, the author of Saying No: Why It’s Important for You and Your Child:


but I think culturally (.) because a lot of us I think were (.) young


teenagers in the sixties (.) we find it very difficult (.) to:: ehm agree to and to find a structure and rules that we don’t want to fight against ourselves poiche´ (.) noi eravamo==adolescenti (.) molti di noi erano adolescenti


negli anni sessanta (.) eh parlo anche per me per noi e` difficile immaginarci (.) di strutturare ehm il= [because (.) we were== adolescents (.) many of us were adolescent in the sixties (.) eh I’m speaking also for myself here (.) for us it’s difficult to imagine ourselves (.) structuring ehm the=] beati voi [Lucky you (pl.) – referring to being adolescent in the


sixties; notice in particular the plural ‘you’] =nostro atteggiamento (.) in modo tale da dire no senza sentirci poi a nostra volta ribelli contro questa struttura [= our behaviour (.) in such a way as to say no without becoming rebels against this structure]

(Maurizio Costanzo Show, Canale 5, 30.3.2000; adapted from Katan and Straniero-Sergio,


There are many such examples in the literature and in real life, which highlight the dynamic nature of every aspect of the interpreting event. Translation studies scholars would therefore do well to adapt their methods of analysis to allow for the fact that participants in a translation event can themselves define rather than simply respond to the context that is sometimes assumed to surround them ‘statically’. And of course they can use language itself to do so. Duranti and Goodwin (1992:5) stress that ‘‘the dynamic mutability of context is complicated further by the ability of participants to rapidly invoke within the talk of the moment alternative contextual frames’’. Indeed this is one of the key insights provided by Gumperz’s notion of contextualization cues, which he uses ‘‘to refer to speakers’ and listeners’ use of verbal and non-verbal signs to relate what is said at any one time and in any one place to knowledge acquired through past experience, in order to retrieve the presuppositions they must rely on to maintain conversational involvement and assess what is intended’’ (Gumperz, 1992:230). Contextualiza- tion, within the Gumperzian framework, is achieved by means of cues at the levels of prosody, paralinguistic signs, code choice, and choice of lexical forms or formulaic expressions (1992:231). Other examples include code switching, the use of italics in writing, and discourse markers such as ‘let’s be serious now’. When Venuti describes how at various points in his translation of Tarchetti’s Fosca he alternated between British and American spelling or ‘‘made the combination of various lexicons more jarring to remind the reader that he or she is reading a translation in the present’’ (1998:17), he offers us a good example of the use of code switching as a contextualization cue in translation. According to Gumperz (1992:232), contextualization cues ‘‘serve to highlight, foreground or make salient’’ certain interpretations or aspects of the communicative situation. We can safely assume that translators and interpreters make as much use of this dynamic aspect of interaction as everyone else.

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Other examples of the dynamic process of contextualization include the way in which interpreters sometimes adopt linguistic strategies to redefine the context in which they are delivering their services, to make it clear to other participants – such as defendants and their families in court – that they are not to be held responsible for certain statements, i.e. that these statements do not represent their own views or wishes, perhaps as a way of protecting themselves from potential backlash when a harsh sentence is passed by the judge or an aggressive question posed by an attorney. Thus, as Berk-Seligson (1990:116) points out, when the judge says something like ‘‘I am now remanding you to the authority of the federal marshalls’’, interpreters will tend to render this either as ‘‘Yo, el juez (I, the judge), to make it absolutely clear who the ‘‘I’’ refers to, or alternatively, they will use the noun phrase El juez by itself, thereby referring to the judge entirely in the third person’’. Another example, also from Berk-Seligson (1990:114–115), illustrates the use of different linguistic means to realize the same pragmatic strategy of recontextualizing the utterance to avoid the I of the speaker being confused with the I of the interpreter and hence holding the latter responsible for the utterance:


As I’ve indicated, the defendant has pleaded ‘‘not guilty’’.


Como se ha indicado el defendientee se ha declarado ‘‘no culpable’’ en esas acusaciones. [as has been indicated]

It is worth stressing again that none of the schematic approaches outlined here necessarily rules out the other perspectives. It is ultimately a question of emphasis. Thus, for example, while Basco et al. (2004) focus on elaborating categories of context and in that sense may be seen to approach the issue from a static, taxonomic perspective, they nevertheless embed their description within the dynamic notion of a ‘behaviour game’. Moreover, they clearly inject their description with a dynamic view of context that acknowledges the agency of participants when they argue that

The recognition of the behavior game bid by the speaker does not bind the hearer to play a particular role in the game. On the contrary, the hearer can decide to accept or reject the proposed game, or to propose a different one, or to negotiate a specific one. (2004:471)

Similarly, an approach can be both cognitive and dynamic, as in the work of Van Dijk, who stresses that ‘‘context models are not static mental representations, but dynamic structures. They are ongoingly constructed and reconstructed by each participant in an event’’ (2001b:18). I would therefore argue that adopting a dynamic approach to context in the study of translation and interpreting does not mean that we do not need access to the type of ethnographic/extra-linguistic information documented in the TEC header in Fig. 1, for instance, because in order for the researcher to appreciate whether someone is ‘doing’ or ‘performing’ the role of interpreter or friend or caring adult at any point, he or she first needs to know who the speaker is, in what capacity they are engaged in the interaction, and so on. The idea, then, is not to throw lists of apparently static situational components out altogether but to use them merely as a starting point for analysis, to acknowledge that they are not all necessarily relevant in every context and, more importantly, that every element is open to negotiation in the course of a given interaction.

3. Neutral versus power-sensitive definitions of context

With the exception of more nuanced positions such as Basco et al.’s (2004), the various conceptualizations of context that I have surveyed so far, including the dynamic notion of contextualization cues, suggest a purely speaker-led form of communication as the norm,

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whereas it is of course not up to an individual participant alone to decide what is to count as context at any moment. Hence, Goodwin and Duranti (1992:6), among others, stress that ‘‘in so far as the processes to which context is relevant are social and interactive, one party’s proposals as to what should constitute operative context might fail to achieve ratification by others’’ since ‘‘context is a socially constituted, interactively sustained, time-bound phenomenon’’. A related, and more important point, is that most treatments of context in the literature, including Hymes and even Gumperz, imply that context is a neutral field or framework in which we play out our social roles, and that in order to take control of it and shape it to our advantage all we need to do is learn how to employ the appropriate contextualization cues. 5 Lindstrom (1992:103) explains that ‘‘however plotted, these models of context often grant context an inert neutrality: context is a neutral field for the play of speech events, or is the cumulation of cognitive schemata that are cued to foreground past understanding’’. These models clearly fail to explain much of what goes on in interaction. For example, as Shea (1994) points out, studies have shown that the simple association of an Asian face with standard English speech can be enough to make the speech of the Asian relatively incomprehensible to white US college students, which suggests that, however well the Asian speaker might master the use of contextualization cues, he or she remains seriously restricted in the way they are able to guide their interlocutors’ interpretations of their behavior. In the specific context of translation and interpreting, I would argue that an uncritical application of the notion of contextualization cues risks encouraging analysts and participants in an interaction to use the translator or interpreter as a scapegoat, an easy source of explanations for communication breakdown. The translator or interpreter can always be blamed for failing to adjust contextualization cues to target norms of interaction, when more often than not the failure or derailing of an interaction might lie in the cultural or political outlook of the participants, or in the conflicting agendas they bring to the speech event. Dilley (2003:453) asks ‘‘[a]re the individuals captured in Afghanistan and now held at a US base in Cuba to be identified as ‘prisoners’ in the context of war or as ‘criminals’ in the context of criminal law?’’. His answer underlines the effect of power on determining what counts as context at any moment: ‘‘[t]he ability to define a context in a particular way or to initiate a set of contextualizing moves in a particular direction can be constructed as a political act in the light of other possible definitions or moves that could have been made’’ (2003:453). Part of the power that an interpreter can exert in certain situations derives from the fact that he or she is normally the only participant with access to both languages and can therefore control the discourse to a large extent. This ‘power’ is eroded in situations where monitoring 6 is possible and those doing the monitoring are in a more powerful position than the interpreter (socially, professionally, ethnically, etc.). Here is an example from court interpreting in the US, where many of the jurors and even the judge him- or herself often have some command of Spanish (Berk-Seligson, 1990:213):


I understand the word La Vado – I thought it meant restroom.


She translates it as bar. In the first place, the jurors are not to listen to the Spanish but


to the English. I am a certified interpreter. You’re an idiot.

  • 5 See Shea (1994) for an excellent critique of Gumperz along these lines.

  • 6 I refer specifically here to linguistic monitoring, i.e. situations where one or more of the participants in an event is not linguistically handicapped and can therefore monitor the interpreter’s performance and potentially intervene to ‘correct’ him or her.

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Here, the interpreter’s attempt to shape the context in ways that suit her own understanding of her role fails miserably, mainly because of the imbalance of power between her and other participants in this interaction. Other examples of the power relations encoded in the context of court interpreting concern the way in which court interpreters are prevented from seeing any documents relating to a case prior to the hearings, and the fact that they are normally not allowed to initiate turns or conversational sequences, except for the purpose of clarification—and very sparingly in this case. Turning to another domain of interpreting, a more sinister exercise of power in determining the course of an interaction is evident at various points in Trevor McDonald’s 1990 interview with Saddam Hussein, analysed in Baker (1997). Here, the exercise of power is not as overtly aggressive as in the example from Berk-Seligson above, but in real terms it is much more stressful for the interpreter and restrictive of his ability to participate actively in shaping the emerging context (adapted from Baker, 1997:121; back-translation from Arabic in square brackets) 7 :


Mr. President, these reports of atrocities you see are encouraged by the fact that you have sealed Kuwait off from the rest of the world. Why don’t you let us go in and see for ourselves whether these reports are true?




[You are right in part of what you say.] Yes, you’re right, you’re partly right there.

Saddam (To Int.):

Saddam (To Int.):


[In part of what you say.] Partly right there.

In this excerpt, Saddam corrects the interpreter, making it clear that he expects a literal rendering of what he says. He repeats to the interpreter in Arabic, emphasizing every word: ‘In part of what you say’. The interpreter repeats (presumably to reassure him): ‘Partly right there’. Saddam’s verbal instructions are accompanied by a stern look in the direction of the interpreter (who is not shown on the screen at that point). But power also shapes the context of interpretation in more subtle ways in translation and interpreting, as in all instances of language use. One of its effects is to encourage the translator to evoke narratives that have currency within the dominant target culture in order to give voice to marginalized source-culture participants and enable a process of identification or empathy to ensue. Some of the interventions by the subtitlers of Mohamed Bakri’s documentary Jenin Jenin, released in 2002 following the Israeli ‘incursions’ into the Jenin camp in the West Bank, 8 demonstrate this quite clearly. At one point in the documentary, an old Palestinian man expresses his shock at what happened and the world’s apparent indifference and reluctance to intervene. He ends his contribution by

  • 7 Saddam Hussein seems to have a good command of English and did not need Arabic translations of the questions posed in English during that interview. But he answered in Arabic throughout, and the interpreter therefore only interpreted his answers into English for the benefit of Trevor McDonald and the viewers.

  • 8 And the ensuing international controversy over what happened and the extent of the damage and loss of life in that area. Indeed, the term ‘incursion’ itself was heavily contested in the media and by numerous pro-Palestinian groups.

M. Baker / Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337


saying, literally in Arabic, ‘‘What can I say, by God, by God, our house/home 9 is no longer a house/home’’.

M. Baker / Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337 331 saying, literally in Arabic, ‘‘What can

The subtitle for this frame is:

What can I say? Not even Vietnam was as bad as this.

In order to communicate the gravity of the situation to a world public whose conception of gravity is conditioned by the political dominance of the US, the subtitlers recontextualize the event by evoking a narrative which has moral resonances for those viewers. Indeed, the entire documentary is subtitled in such a way as to improve the chances of American and world public opinion, which is seen as holding the key to change in the area, empathizing with the Palestinian population. The subtitlers, for example, largely avoid translating the Arabic word shaheed and all its derivatives in the speech of Palestinian characters in the documentary into its standard equivalent martyr, presumably to suppress the associations of Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism and suicide bombing that this word readily evokes in the current political context, even though many Arab speakers who use it, including Palestinians interviewed in this documentary, may be totally opposed to any acts of violence on either side. Here is a typical example:

Original speech of Palestinian man:

M. Baker / Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337 331 saying, literally in Arabic, ‘‘What can

[we have mentally retarded people who have been martyred; we have disabled people who have been martyred; we have children who have been martyred; we have women who have been martyred.]

English subtitles:

They killed some mentally disabled people, children and women in the camp.

In another shot, a Palestinian doctor describes how, as his area was being shelled by Israeli planes during the first intifada, he tended to many injured people and managed to save many lives, only to discover when the shelling stopped that his own son had been shot and was lying somewhere nearby bleeding to death. In one frame, he explains that when the shelling stopped he heard some of his neighbours shouting:

M. Baker / Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337 331 saying, literally in Arabic, ‘‘What can

[Ameed [his son] has been martyred, Ameed has been martyred]. The subtitles read as follows:

After the cease-fire the neighbors started shouting that Ameed my son was dead

9 The Arabic word used (beitbeitna ma saar beit) can mean both ‘house’ (in the physical sense) and ‘home’, with all the connotations of the latter. It cannot, however, as in English, index a homeland or country.

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Thus, the effects of power and dominance are always inscribed within processes of (re)contextualization. The dominant party gene rally dictates the terms of contextualization; even when the marginalized participant decides to contest the context as it were, they ultimately do so largely within the terms set by the dominant party. The tragedy of Jenin has to be compared to Vietnam, rather than any of the other tragedies suffered by other parts of the world in the recent past, in order to become meaningful in the context of American political dominance. But participants in most types of interaction are not totally powerless, and dominance is hardly ever absolute. In this context, the subtitlers could have evoked a more recent event which has even more currency among the target viewers, namely 9/11, but in opting for Vietnam they simultaneously identify the dominant political power as aggressor and perpetrator of violence even as the Jenin tragedy is recontextualized in terms that are relevant to that power.

4. Contextualizing translation

Holy (1999:48) states that ‘‘[c]ontext is and always has been the key anthropological

concept’’. The same could be said of translation and interpreting, except that translation scholars have so far largely ignored the obvious centrality of the notion of context to their own discipline and failed to grant it sufficient scholarly attention. The question, of course, is what form this scholarly attention might product ively take. We could, for instance, spend considerable time trying to enumerate all the possible elements that constitute context in any type of translational event and the various ways in which these elements constrain the behavior (linguistic and non-linguistic) of translators and interpreters. But this approach can only take us so far. The problem is that the same complexity which ‘‘makes context a powerful device

both in knowledge and cognition

make[s] context difficult to define and study formally’’

... (Akman and Bazzanella, 2003:322 ). More importantly, as Holy (1999:50) explains, ‘‘[t]he difficulties of specifying precisely what constitutes the relevant context and of marking the context’s boundary, arise from the fact that the s pecification of the context is itself the result of interpretation’’. Instead of treating context as a constraint, a set of restrictions on what we can or cannot achieve in translation and other communicative events, and setting out to specify the numerous facets of that constraint, it might ultimately be more productive to recog- nize context as a resource, something that we selectively and strategically construct as we engage in any act of communication, including the act of translation. This suggests both an emphasis on the dynamic and ever changing nature of context and directing our attention

to the strategic processes of contextualizat ion in which translators and interpreters engage. In terms of the dynamic nature of context, for example, a given source text will often have a ‘thicker’ and possibly very different context in the target culture, partly through the sheer passing of time and the ensuing change in social and political environments. With the passage of time, a literary or scholarly text will have accumulated critical response and resonances, and both it and its translation(s) will be read and i nterpreted in a different context—politically, culturally, socially, aesthetically. Jones (2004) raises a related and important ethical issue. In deciding to translate the work of the Serbian author Vasko Popa during the war against Bosnia

in the 1990s, he was concerned that Popa drew on ‘‘Serbian atavistic images


such as the

Kosovo myth or the figure of the wolf as tribal totem’’ (2004:719). Jones explains that Popa invoked these images positively in order to explore his cultural roots ‘‘in an age (the 1970s)

M. Baker / Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337


when such explorations were relatively untainted’’ (2004:719). The question Jones poses as a translator who has to take an ethical decision is whether a text can ‘‘remain untainted by its social context’’ (2004:723), in this case the racially and ethnically torn Yugoslavia of the 1990s. The answer, I believe, is that it cannot, unless a serious effort is made to recontextualize the text in question. The s uccess or failure of any such attempt at recontextualization will depend on many factors, most of which will be beyond the control of the translator as a single and not particularly powerful participant. I would nevertheless argue that such attempts at (re)contextualization are ultimately what we should be directing our attention to, and that processes of contextual ization are far more revealing than any set of contextual constraints we might want to enumerate and describe in detail. Holy (1999:53) argues that ‘‘meanings are subject to manipulation. And so are contexts because if meanings are intrinsically context-dependent, any manipulation of meaning involves, perforce, manipulation of its contextualization’’. More specifically, Mey (2003:332) draws our attention to the problem of ‘‘an ambiguous utterance being wrongly interpreted in contexts that are decisive for the life or death of the utterer’’ and, I would add, that play an important part in heightening political or r acial tension. A productive engagement with the notions of context and contextualization in the study of translation must be able to address the ‘‘politics of context definition’’ (Dilley, 2003:440) and explain how and why different parties to an interaction contextualize events and expressions in specific ways. A recent example from the so-called ‘war on terror’ demonstrates how such processes of contextualization work in practice. On 29 October 2004, in the thick of the US ele ctions, Al-Jazeera aired a tape from Osama Bin Laden in Arabic. Its translation into Englis h has been widely contested, especially the translation of a keyword used towards the end of the tape. The Arabic word wilaya can, in principle, mean either state in the sense of nation/country or state in the modern day sense of electoral region. Al-Jazeera translators opted broadly for the first sense, while the translators of MEMRI, a neo-conservative media institute which specializes in translating selected Arabic documents for Western consumption, opted for the second sense. Here are the two translations, respectively:

Translation 1 (Al-Jazeera) 10

In conclusion, I tell you in truth, that your security is not in the hands of Kerry, nor Bush, nor al-Qaida. No.

Your security is in your own hands. And every state that doesn’t play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security.

Translation 2 (MEMRI) 11

Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al-Qa’ida. Your security is in your own hands, and any [U.S.] state [wilaya] 12 that does not toy with our security automatically guarantees its own security.

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Shortly after MEMRI posted and publicized its version of the speech, other web sites and news agencies began to circulate this version, without the qualifying brackets and the original Arabic term, as in the following version posted on WorldNetDaily 13 :

Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al-Qa’ida. Your security is in your own hands, and any U.S. state that does not toy with our security automatically guarantees its own security.

MEMRI and other like-minded media outlets insisted that Bin Laden ‘‘threatened each U.S.

state, [and]


offered an election deal to the American voters—a sort of amnesty for states that

don’t vote for Bush’’, and that ‘‘[t]he U.S. media have mistranslated the words ‘‘ay wilaya’’

(which means ‘‘each U.S. state’’) to mean a ‘‘country’’ or ‘‘nation’’ other than the

U.S. ...


in reality bin Laden’s threat was directed specifically at each individual U.S. state’’. 14 Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan and owner of the activist web site Informed Comment ( contested this interpretation 15 :

MEMRI is claiming that the word used for ‘‘state’’ New Jersey.


means state as in Rhode Island and

But while they are right to draw attention to the oddness of the diction, their conclusion is impossible.

Bin Laden says that such a ‘‘state’’ should not trifle with Muslims’ security. He cannot possibly mean that he thinks Rhode Island is in a position to do so. Nor can he be referring to which way a state votes, since he begins by saying that the security of Americans is not in the hands of Bush or Kerry. He has already dismissed them as equivalent and irrelevant, in and of themselves.

In contextualizing their interpretation of the potentially ambiguous word wilaya, MEMRI chose to appeal to the immediate political and temporal context (the elections and timing of Bin Laden’s speech). Juan Cole, whose political views are very different from MEMRI’s, chose to invoke a range of very different aspects of the context. He first posits that there is a logical problem with MEMRI’s interpretation, by appealing partly to the immediate co-text (Bin Laden says that the security of Americans is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush) and partly to our knowledge of the world (a state like Rhode Island cannot possibly influence the security of Muslims, only nation states can). These aspects of the context are not sufficient to support his interpretation, however, since he has already acknowledged that Bin Laden’s use of the word wilaya is unusual, and he goes on to admit that

It is true that in modern standard Arabic, wilayah means ‘‘state’’ or ‘‘province’’ and that al- Wilayaat al-Muttahaddah is the phrase used to translate ‘‘United States.’’ A state in the sense of government or international power would more likely nowadays be dawlah or hukumah.

So he goes on to suggest that there are ‘‘two possible explanations for bin Laden’s diction here’’. The first explanation is that Bin Laden ‘‘is simply using a fundamentalist archaism’’. This explanation invokes religious culture, linguistic culture, and history:

M. Baker / Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006) 321–337


[Bin Laden] regularly uses archaisms. He has steeped himself in ancient, Koranic Arabic and the sayings of the Prophet, and he and his fellow cultists in Kandahar developed a peculiar subculture that rejected much of modernity.


In classical Arabic, a ruler is a wali, who then rules over a wilayah or walayah. Wilayah

can have connotations even in modern Arabic


of sovereignty and it can mean

‘‘government.’’ Bin Laden is attempting to r evive ways of thinking he maintains were common among the first generation of Muslims, and to slough off centuries of accretions.

The second explanation Juan Cole offers relates to aspects of the personal history of the speaker (Bin Laden) and features of language contact, and further appeals to the specific political context of Pakistan to support the argument:

The other possibility is that bin Laden has lived most of the past 25 years in Persian, Pashto, and Urdu-speaking environments and that he occasionally lapses into nonstandard usage. In Hindi-Urdu, I noticed that one meaning of vilayat is ‘‘the metropole.’’ At least in past generations, people going from British India to the UK said they were going to vilayat. More important, there is some evidence for fundamentalist Muslims using the word wilayah or walayah to mean ‘‘country.’’ The Pakistani radical group Hizb al-Tahrir locates itself in ‘‘Walayah Pakistan,’’ i.e., the country of Pakistan.

As can be seen from this example, the same event can be strategically placed in a number of different contexts by different participants, depending on their relevant agendas. No model of contextual components, however detailed and comprehensive, can – on its own – explain what is happening here nor predict which of the two interpretations will be favored by any given participant in an interaction that involves this text. But paying attention to the process of contextualization itself can tell us a great deal about the goals of each participant and what they hope to achieve by appealing to any set of contextual variables, given that contextualizing ‘‘is a form of social action’’ (Dilley, 2003:440). The way people construct contexts for the same phenomenon differs ‘‘because of the differences in roles, interests, purposes and power of those who do the contextualizing’’ (Holy, 1999:57).

5. Conclusion

The past decade or so has witnessed a general shift in scholarly discourse away from static concepts such as that of context and towards active processes of engagement, implied in notions such as contextualization, which underline the fluidity of interaction and the fact that it is socially and jointly constructed, partly in advance but also to a great extent at the point of interaction itself. Similar shifts have been taking place in translation studies, for example away from static concepts of equivalence and norms and towards recognition of the fact that the process of translation does not consist of passive responses to cultural, social and aesthetic conventions but of active negotiation among participants with shifting agendas and unequal levels of control over the interaction. As we move towards a more explicit elaboration of how we engage in contextualizing discourses in and about translation, as well as our ethical and social responsibilities as translators, we would do well to acknowledge, as does Lindstrom (1992:102–103), that ‘‘...

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context is a field of power relations. It is not, however, a frozen

field. ...

People can

occasionally say the unsayable. They can contest the context, by evoking available alternative or competing discourses’’. This fluid, dynami c conceptualization of context should prove empowering for translators and scholars of translation, as well as more responsive to the political and cultural realities of what is prov ing to be one of the most conflictual phases of world history.


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Mona Baker is Professor of Translation Studies at the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies, University of Manchester, UK. She is author of In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation (Routledge, 1992) and Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account (Routledge, in press), Editor of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (1998, 2001), Founding Editor of The Translator: Studies in Intercultural Communication (St. Jerome Publishing, 1995– ), Editor of the forthcoming Critical Concepts: Translation Studies (Routledge, 2006, four volumes) and Editorial Director of St. Jerome Publishing. She is also Vice-President of IATIS (International Association of Translation & Intercultural Studies).