Menu Close

The Dark Side of Translation: A Review

By Holly Gustafson

“We tend to consider translation as something good, virtuous and bright,” says Federico Italiano, in the introduction to his newly published book, The Dark Side of Translation. And isn’t it? Translation broadens communication, breaks down barriers, makes language more universally accessible. It is, ultimately, an act of inclusivity.

Except when it’s not.

The virtuous act of translation, Italiano suggests, can have a dark side, too. It can be an instrument of concealment, silencing, and propaganda; it can mislead and misinform. It can be a tool of welcome and inclusion, or a weapon of manipulation.

This was the topic of exploration for a group of linguists, translators, researchers, and anthropologists at an international conference in Vienna in 2017, and The Dark Side of Translation is a collection of the considerations, conversations, and conclusions that resulted.

The nine essays featured in the book span a wide range of disciplines, including philosophy, translation studies, literary theory, history, ecology, political science, and even game studies, and while they are academic in nature, they are fascinating, accessible, and only a little technical. Although marketed to “researchers, scholars, and advanced students of translation studies,” The Dark Side of Translation is of interest to anyone who has ever considered the “most unpleasant and murky configurations” of translation, and especially to those who never have.

Some of the intriguing topics include the ambiguity of translation in Nazi concentration camps, translation as a form of discrimination towards refugees, and the translation of political anxiety throughout the zombie genre (in an article appropriately titled “MmmRRRrr UrrRrRRrr!!”). But the essay that hit the closest to home was Alexa von Mossner’s “Climate Change and the Dark Side of Translating Science into Popular Culture.”

Mossner posits that scientists and the general public speak two different languages, so when scientists want and need to communicate information about something as important as climate change [or a global pandemic, in our current case], what is needed is some “major acts of translation” from one language (science) to another (popular culture):

“Scientists often express their findings in a language that is not easily accessible to the general public. This is a problem because many of these findings have far-reaching implications for individuals, groups, or whole societies, which is why institutions and journalists have tried to translate scientific findings into a language that can be more widely understood, appreciated and applied…. The acts of translations involved have, in fact, important implications for ‘the welfare of individuals, organizations, and nations’ and, in some cases, they even have consequences for the survival of a species, an ecosystem, or the planet as a whole.”

The problem with the act of translation from science to the populace should be all too clear to anyone who spends any amount of time scrolling through their general news feed these days: scientific communication is less about the exchange of knowledge from those who know to those who don’t, and more about the framing of data in a certain way in order to give it meaning within a specific context. And whenever the scientific language gets converted into text and images that are accessible to the language of the general public, something is bound to get lost in the translation; parts of the information are simplified, left out, or even misunderstood – and therefore misrepresented – by the one doing the translating.

And then there’s the problem of appeal. Journalists, authors, and producers are faced with the need to generate content that titillates the public and holds our interest, and this is usually done by emphasizing the dangerous and the catastrophic over the moderate and optimistic. “Gaining people’s attention is one of the most crucial and most difficult tasks for any communicator in our day and age,” explains Mossner, and it often leads to mistranslation through the overstatement of scientific language in order to incite a strong emotional response. And this “dark storytelling” often does elicit the desired response. Mossner describes an experiment where participants watched a fictionalized documentary about climate change – the majority of respondents came away from the apocalyptic film motivated to take action, while only 10% expressed a “sense of depression.”

This idea that mistranslation from science to the people is of particular relevance today, when the majority of us are finding ourselves with more knowledge of virology and epidemiology than we ever thought we’d need. And while the “doom and gloom messaging” we have become accustomed to consuming while living through a global pandemic may actually be effective at effecting change (like the acceptance and adoption of social-distancing and masking practices), Mossner asserts that such “dark translations” must be at least somewhat faithful to scientific facts, and grounded in rigorous science.

“We know only very little about how emotional responses to climate change evolve over time or how those changes prospectively predict shifts in beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour,” says Mossner (and we know even less in regard to modern global pandemics). “Some people might respond well to pleasant fear cued by dystopian or apocalyptic storytelling, and others might be inspired by more positive emotions such as wonder and hope.” (After nine months of doom-scrolling COVID statistics, I place myself decidedly in the latter category.)

Mossner, then, is calling for scientific translations that are more nuanced, more authentic, and, ultimately, more human, than the overly bleak picture the media often paints. “Translating the science of climate change [or a global pandemic] for a lay audience may mean helping people acknowledge the dark side of its insights without extinguishing the light.” I couldn’t agree more.

Italiano, Federico, editor. (2020) The Dark Side of Translation. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Get more interesting language and linguistics content in our magazine. You can subscribe below

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.