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Translating voices from the past

Aidan Cross

Saturday, 17 February 2024

History, culture, and language go hand-in-hand, but what role does translation have to play in uncovering the voices of the past?

The link between history and language is not just evident: it’s essential. Not only is the history of a place and its people is intrinsic to every part of society, including the language, but understanding a language gives you a much deeper understanding of the culture and history.


There is a shocking ignorance in the UK about the rich and complex histories and cultures of other countries, informed by our own telling of history. What we think we know about history, our own and others’, is biased by the survival, interpretation, and translation of certain voices being privileged over others. The old adage “history is told by the victors” holds some truth, but translation can play a vital role in bridging this gap. The translation of museum and gallery exhibits, curator’s notes, guidebooks, and websites, as well as the translation of academic texts and published books can only enrich our understanding of history by allowing us access to different perspectives. How often have we seen echoed the old paternalistic, colonial belief that the British Empire, despite its flaws (read: slavery, oppression, and exploitation), brought “modernity” to the people that it subjugated? Is it any surprise that this is a pervasive opinion when for a long time people only looked to the English merchants, government officials, or military personnel, who directly benefitted from this system, to learn its history? Never mind the fact that this imperial, Eurocentric concept of “modernity” uprooted the culture and social structure of the countries where it was introduced. It is our role to question the histories that we’re told and how they have reached us. After all, history is best heard from the voices of those who lived it – and those who had this “modernity” imposed on them would likely have a different story to tell.


This is not a novel concept. Conscious and concerted efforts are being made to recover these lost voices from the past and answer the question: who has been spoken or written over? Translation plays a key part in allowing us to access and fill in these missing voices from the past. Not only this, but history is made in the present day, and we need to ensure that all voices are heard and included. For example, the importance of translators and interpreters in allowing refugees to record their own voices and stories.


Translation is not the answer to all of these problems, however, and in fact can be the cause of them. Just as everything that is recorded is done with a purpose, so too is every translation, with its own intentions and ideals, conscious or unconscious. Those who work with refugee voices, for example, must be careful not to let their own opinions influence or be inserted into the stories that they are recording. Moreover, a lot of what we know of the pre-Columbian civilisations in South America comes from Spanish translations by Christians of native sources, so there is a significant power imbalance underlying each of these texts which prejudices our understanding of them, and by extension the cultures to which they belonged. Although translation is a powerful tool for uncovering the voices of the past, it can also be – and has been – used to erase those voices.

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Translating voices from the past

Aidan Cross

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