Justice in Translation: From the Material to the Cultural

by Loc Pham

Translation is often viewed as a bridge-building exercise, as a form of mediation among languages and cultures. In this paper, I complicate this notion of translation as a bridge, which often provokes a sense of connection and understanding. This image of the bridge is also interesting as it connotes a flow of material and ideal exchanges. In a sense, translation makes possible the flow of material goods, particularly in today’s world where the just redistribution of material has become a political concern. This paper explores the interface between translation and justice. Starting with Nancy Fraser’s model of justice, I discuss a case of translation whereby material distribution is privileged over cultural recognition. I argue that material justice should not be taken for granted as universally accepted. In many cases, the material itself needs to go through a process of cultural translation before it can reach the target community. I also suggest that the bridging itself must be sensitive to the different cultural frameworks and that the translator must first of all unlearn the privilege and knowledge that informs her translation. To fail to do this, the translator, despite her good will of bringing in justice, may do more harm than good. In the same light, the paper also recounts some cases of translation in which a particular concept of the material is imposed on different cultures for imperialist exploitative purposes.

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