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Involuntary AssociationsPostcolonial Studies and World Englishes$

David Huddart

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781781380253

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781380253.001.0001

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Grammars of Living Break their Tense: World Englishes and Cultural Translation

Grammars of Living Break their Tense: World Englishes and Cultural Translation

(p.32) Chapter 2 Grammars of Living Break their Tense: World Englishes and Cultural Translation
Involuntary Associations

David Huddart

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores how World Englishes can be understood as instances of cultural translation, focusing ultimately on the example of Singapore. It begins by considering the extent to which cultural translation is a problematic because imperialist concept and practice. Arguing against a translation based on the transparency of a demanding and Western globalization, the chapter focuses on different examples of language use in Singapore that can be interpreted in terms of the performative. This stress on the performative draws on both World Englishes studies and postcolonial studies, for example the work of Homi K. Bhabha.

Keywords:   Translation, Transparency, Singapore, Performativity, Homi K. Bhabha

It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.

Salman Rushdie, ‘Imaginary Homelands’


When we consider the ‘official’ cultural translation demanded as part of immigration or naturalization, we can readily gauge the difficulties obscured by certain concepts of cultural translation. Consider the example of Singapore. Recent government projections suggest that Singapore’s population will need to expand considerably in order to maintain economic growth. If that argument were to be accepted, the question would then become one of managing the necessary immigration, helping to produce the target identity ‘Singaporean’. Unsurprisingly, one aspect of debates concerning this immigration has been the possibility of a language requirement, with the proposed language most often being English. For example, Vasu and Phua recall English’s importance in the making of Singapore, and argue that it will continue to contribute to an inclusive vision of Singaporean identity. Indeed, they note that ‘The argument that citizenship requires English competency is not novel’ (2008, 34). Their comparisons are Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. It is no surprise that the UK is not on their list, partly because of colonial history, but also because of the facts of contemporary language policy. For if we switch our attention to UK immigration and naturalization requirements we do indeed find already existing language requirements (knowledge of English, Welsh, or Scottish Gaelic) that are often in the process of being fine-tuned. As part of those requirements, there is an exemption list for majority Anglophone nations, (p.33) a notable absence from which is Singapore. So, one nation debating the possibility of introducing an English language requirement is pointedly if implicitly not an English-owning nation, according to another. How should we respond to this curious mismatch of perception and self-perception? Tempting as it may be simply to blame the ignorance and racism of those who devised UK language requirements, there are more interesting possibilities here. While I earlier mentioned a target identity, by analogy with target languages, intuitively English cannot work with that kind of model of success, which is both the one presupposed by Singaporean language policy, and something resisted by Singlish. That deliberate and instrumental language policies explicitly aimed for forms of cultural translation both within the apparently separate ‘racial’ communities of Singapore and within the broader Singaporean community is not in question. That these forms of officially sanctioned cultural translation have also been resisted, to some extent, is also I think not in question. Singlish, in common with other examples of World Englishes, seems to exemplify a very different and more open logic of cultural translation. However, as that latter category can be problematic, this chapter seeks to explore it both in the abstract and through the example of Singapore.

Of course, it is postcolonial studies that places much the greater rhetorical emphasis on cultural translation, particularly in its theories of hybridity, third space, and so on. World Englishes, however, certainly appear to be forms of cultural translation, but to argue this is not necessarily to celebrate it, not least because cultural translation is itself controversial. Objections to this concept are numerous, even when focusing solely on its English language form. For example, it might be argued that its mechanisms are left so vague, or described in such broad terms, that it is not meaningfully a concept at all. In the general and explicitly metaphorical terms employed by Salman Rushdie in the well-worn opening quotation, ‘translation’ becomes highly suggestive but also problematically open. Even in narrower terms, in the context of a discipline such as anthropology, the idea that the scholar was translating one culture into terms familiar to another was extremely complex and fraught (see Asad 1986). It might further be argued that in ‘culture’ the term foregrounds a troublesome word, as implied by Raymond Williams (1976), who famously calls it one of the three most complex words in the English language. A further and related objection is that in borrowing ‘translation’ thinkers of cultural translation arrogate translation’s precarious magic without fulfilling any of the latter’s responsibilities. These objections will be considered later, and have some justice. Principally, however, this chapter focuses on the ways in which the spread of English has resulted in forms of cultural translation leading to different forms of World Englishes. This chapter argues that there are important ways in which World Englishes exemplify processes of cultural translation, demonstrating the positive potential of those processes as well as possible pitfalls. Following Pennycook, it assumes that, ‘English is always a language in translation, a language of translingual use’ (2008, 34). However, this chapter also suggests that applying cultural translation to World Englishes (p.34) forces us to consider both the concept’s own potential and its problems. The focus on World Englishes makes them examples of cultural translation, partly as a response to the perception that, as Pratt suggests, when the concept is discussed it is frequently without specific examples (2010, 94). Especially for a concept as expansive as cultural translation it is necessary to ground speculation in actually existing processes and phenomena, and to that end this chapter considers the example of Singaporean English. However, it is also the case that examples of World Englishes might confirm the limitations of cultural translation as a concept, and responding to that possibility is a major focus of this chapter.

Before embarking on that discussion it is necessary to make further specific comments concerning the connection between World Englishes and cultural translation. As we have seen, World Englishes as a term emphasizes that the spread of English should not be described in terms of a monolithic global or world English, however much we might qualify such a term with recognitions of the diversity of English. The spread of English leads to a jarring but also exciting diversity of Englishes due to the different languages with which it is code-switched and mixed, and with which it jostles for attention. World Englishes are not reducible to one phenomenon, although their evident hybridity is a basis for shared discussion. If we discuss them on this shared basis, however, we see problems in the actual phenomenon of cultural translation, not least deriving from the ways in which English can overwhelm the languages with which it is brought into contact. Furthermore, thinking about these processes of contact in terms of cultural translation can itself be problematic, as it is not clear that World Englishes involve translation at all, given that non-Anglophone cultures again seem to be responding to the linguistic demands of economically and politically ‘central’ cultures. Accordingly, there are two potential issues here: that World Englishes are themselves somewhat problematic, and that cultural translation is a problematic concept in itself. One way of making the connection between World Englishes and cultural translation is to think about World Englishes in relation to bi-and multilingualism. Yet fears about the spread of English focus our attention on that other implicit term, monolingualism. That term is important because the spread of English seems to introduce a kind of monolingual imperialism in different languages and at different speeds (whether local, international, or transnational); cultural translation produces a cultural black hole, even if World Englishes do not overtly coerce monolingualism. Of course, in fact this chapter assumes that there is a certain bi-or multilingualism within English ‘itself’. There are multiple versions of standard English, multiple standards within each standard, numerous dialect forms, and so on. Furthermore, World Englishes also introduce new multiplicities. Next, the idea of cultural translation might be an aspect of an outmoded research paradigm; BrajKachru suggests that discussion of the spread of English has assumed that,‘monolingualism is the normal communicative behavior in which the mother tongue has a crucial function’ (1996, 141). Finally, and more narrowly, thinking (p.35) about monolingualism reminds us of Jacques Derrida, whose work can be fundamental to the understanding of linguistic imperialism; Derrida’s enigmatic assertions (1998) on the original ‘coloniality’ of all culture remind us of the moment of stabilization necessary to the production of cultures. Rey Chow brings together these three emphases concerning monolingualism when discussing Derrida; she writes that in contemporary debates about language ‘monolingualism often tends to be invoked pejoratively, with the implication that it can only be a parochial, impoverished, and shameful opposite to a sophisticated, cosmopolitan multilingualism’ (2008, 226). This pejorative emphasis is understandable, although we should follow Chow in criticizing smug counting of languages spoken. If cultural translation is an aspect of monolingual stasis, then it is hardly a translation worth the name; as Pratt suggests, critics can be forgiven for seeing discussion of cultural translation as ‘another plumed display of intellectual authority by privileged metropolitans who don’t know any languages and still want to uphold their monopoly on ideas’ (2010, 94). This chapter will consider this possibility by using World Englishes as examples of another cultural translation.

The Transparency of Global English

While the global spread of English appears an extension of linguistic imperialism, with both other languages and translation marginalized, World Englishes studies as a discipline is proof of increased interest in studying varieties of Englishes. These varieties show evidence of the complex and transversal movements of globalized culture. Indeed, World Englishes appear another example of the uneven magic of cultural translation. Of course, the promise of that latter term, as Boris Buden and Stefan Nowotny (2009) would suggest, is dangerously celebratory. This dangerously seductive promise should prompt us to pay attention to the uneven quality of the translation, especially when no ‘translation proper’ takes place, and English is reconfigured to meet the needs of a local population. As Kachru observes, ‘the impact of World Englishes is Janus-like’ (1996, 138), working on the English language as well as the other languages with which it is in daily contact. Under the influence of other languages, English undergoes processes of localization, acculturation, and sometimes indigenization. Meanwhile, other languages undergo processes of Englishization. Each of these processes is an aspect of a more general cultural translation, and in World Englishes such translation regularly occurs when no actual translation takes place.

Of course, the use of ‘translation’ in this context is problematic, and has been severely criticized. Furthermore, the term’s limitations frequently disappear in the celebration of World Englishes that coincides with the basic assumptions of postcolonial theory (a central theoretical site in the discussion of that translation, as will be discussed later). Postcolonial theory has long been questioned for its apparent bias towards old imperial centres (p.36) that it is theoretically opposing. For example, Graham Huggan highlights a neo-imperialist quality to postcolonialism as a ‘critical industry’; he suggests that ‘English is, almost exclusively, the language of this critical industry, reinforcing the view that postcolonialism is a discourse of translation, rerouting cultural products regarded as emanating from the periphery toward audiences who see themselves as coming from the centre’ (2001, 4). Globalization and global English coincide with a consumerism bent on making cultural ‘products’ accessible to old imperial centres. Cultural translation is unidirectional, in this scenario, with the translation we see fundamentally governed by the demand of global English, and so ultimately by the desires, motivations, and assumptions of native speakers of English. Relatedly, we might argue that cultural translation functions as a kind of demand; as Harish Trivedi suggests, ‘cultural translation is not so much the need of the migrant, as [Homi] Bhabha makes it out to be, but rather more a requirement of the society and culture to which he has migrated; it is a hegemonic Western demand and necessity’ (2007, 284). This translation is assimilationist, and would most likely be inimical to the creativity of bi or multilingual reality seen in so many cultures. Kachru is known for his emphasis on the significance of bilingual creativity, particularly in the context of outer circle countries like India or Singapore. It is Kachru’s contention that creative vitality in English today is to be most readily found in such contexts; through this argument, he outlines a position familiar from various traditions in postcolonial studies, which tend towards a critical view of monolingualism as connected with imperialism. Comparative literature scholar Michael Holquist writes that ‘Monolingualism has at its heart a passion for wholeness, a desire for unity, a lust for order in a world in which variety and contingency seem to rule’ (2003, 24–25). From Holquist’s position, which is shared by many postcolonial commentators, monolingualism represents a tyranny of the same that must be countered by a philosophy and politics of difference: let variety and contingency rule. Of course, it is not necessarily the case that bi-or multilingual expressiveness simply frees us all from any desire for wholeness, and nor will it necessarily produce a chaotic Babel. As Radhakrishnan suggests, the world is simultaneously ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, its languages pulling together and flying apart; he continues that this conflict characterizes, ‘a world trying to understand itself through its one own cacophonous, contradictory, and unorchestrated modalities’ (2003, 85). English is only one aspect of this cacophony, and in becoming Englishes is perhaps all the more characteristic of a world trying to understand itself.

While difficult to summarize opinion on the controversial issue of global English’s investment in cultural translation, it is clear that overall the commentary is divided, and seeks either the (actually) negative or (potentially) positive in the global spread of English. One example of each position will be useful here. To begin with the negative consequences, Michael Cronin has argued that ‘The fulsome rhetoric of global communications bringing us all closer together in the global village is in effect a form of bad faith if there (p.37) is a failure to recognize that connectedness has as a necessary prerequisite the identification and maintenance of separateness’ (2006, 121). The difficult question of balancing distinctiveness and connectedness will be discussed later. It is a question that touches upon fundamental philosophical questions about identity and difference, as well as on practical questions of policy and politics. Even in terms of policy, however, the question of balance is frequently raised, as it is difficult to argue that there is an ongoing linguistic conspiracy at work, implying instead that we focus our critical interest on the ways in which English’s spread has happened ‘naturally’ (even if the discourse of the ‘natural’ is a dubious one that is a central issue). Of course, it could be argued that language policies have simply been too limited in scope to come to terms with the spread of English. In almost all cases, such policies operate on a national scale, when something supplementary and global in scale is now necessary. Proposing such a supplement, Jacques Maurais and Michael A. Morris write the following: ‘A global linguistic strategy is needed which balances the ongoing spread of English with maintenance of linguistic diversity’ (2003, 9). Interdependence deriving from globalization produces the danger of a creeping monolingualism that will continue to undermine linguistic ecology. Yet, at the same time, this danger partly derives from a lack of adaptation to changed contexts: it is necessary to make decisions on a different scale, and implement global language policy. English might well be an aspect of globalization’s negative consequences, but it is also one that needs managing.

Alternatively, depending on our investment in the idea of a global citizenship, English as Englishes could instead be entirely appropriate linguistic markers and producers of the simultaneous belonging and non-belonging necessary for such a citizenship to function. For example, Tom McArthur, accepting the relevance of a limited Whorfianism, suggests the following:

if anything can reduce the Sapir-Whorfian separateness of mind across languages it could be the flowing together of elements and structures from several languages into one language. If this is so, and if the world must have a single medium available to all, then it could be beneficial if that language is itself traditionally a hybrid and open to further hybridization. (McArthur 2002, 15)

One way to approach McArthur’s suggestion is to reduce it to two fundamental assumptions: the disadvantages of separateness, and a sense of English as (actually, although not intrinsically or necessarily) hospitable. Cronin, then, stresses that separateness should not be cancelled in the name of connect-edness or what postcolonial theory tends to call hybridity, and this stress derives from reasons of politics, policy, philosophy, and pragmatism. McArthur, meanwhile, advances the possibility that connectedness is an important step to more global understanding if not necessarily shared citizenship. McArthur, I would argue, envisages the processes through which World Englishes come about and continue to change to be processes of cultural translation. Of course (p.38) if we understand cultural translation as a fundamentally Anglophone demand placed on other linguistic cultures, we might then see World Englishes as only further forms of the linguistic imperialism fundamental to the global spread of English. There is simply not a big enough difference between global English and World Englishes, from that perspective. As we will now see, even critics sympathetic to the idea of cultural translation suggest that in practice it often enacts a kind of violence.

The Routine Violence of Linguistic Imperialism

It might be thought that the spread of English around the world, despite beginning with British imperial domination and extending through American power, is a process that can be at least adapted if not accepted. At the same time, however, the apparent ‘historical accident’ of English’s spread clearly has ongoing negative consequences. As perhaps the key thinker on the ongoing domination exerted by the English language, Phillipson analyses different aspects of the spread of English in terms of ‘linguistic imperialism’, through which he suggests, ‘the dominance of English is asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages’ (1992, 47). As already discussed, for Phillipson, the British empire gave way to the empire of English. Linguistic imperialism serves to support foreign policy objectives, economic domination, and other features of a contemporary globalization that is little more than an extension of earlier international inequalities. While, as I mentioned earlier, it would be possible to counter this argument by citing changes in relative economic and cultural power since 1992, when Phillipson’s argument was given its fullest expression (changes relating to apparent American decline, or to the continued rise of the BRIC countries), that would be to miss the point that English’s imperialism can function quite independently from the core countries with which it is associated. Beyond any real cultural, economic, or political influence, English is arguably a threat to linguistic ecologies across the world. Its threat is all the more potent for being detached from any directed or intentional manipulation, and has been normalized or naturalized: it is, as we will see, a form of routine violence (on that term, see Taussig 1992; Pandey 2006). Communication and the English language appear to go hand in hand in the global context. Accordingly, insofar as it seems to be mandatory to speak English in order to communicate most readily (indeed, transparently) in international contexts, we appear to be in a situation in which culturally linguistic violence has been internalized and accepted.

Phillipson is explicit in using hegemony as a concept that holds open the possibility of resistance to this violence: in needing consent, hegemony implies dissent, at least potentially. As he notes, ‘Analyzing English linguistic imperialism in a context of hegemony, with its reproduction under continuous (p.39) contestation and with its own internal contradictions, holds open the possibility of change’ (1992, 76). Accordingly, while the brute reality of English domination seems insurmountable, in itself it implies resistance. Indeed, that resistance was evident throughout the colonial period and has been evident through to the globalized present. While much of that resistance is pedagogical or political, some of it is also aesthetic, in, for example, literary or cinematic form. Attempts have been made to theorize how English can be simultaneously used and not used, we might say, and a key term in this effort has been cultural translation. One example is the theorist and filmmaker Mieke Bal; in theorizing a version of cultural translation in terms of the remainder and accent, Bal addresses the question of global English’s apparent unavoidability. She seeks ‘a de-naturalization of translation into English as a world language’ (2007, 111). Even advances in machine translation that have become facts of daily life, such as Google Translate, can resort to translation from one language through English into a third language. In that sense, even if people ceased feeling the need to learn English, its utility has found its way into mechanical and impersonal procedures, and so again it has been naturalized. In addressing this apparently unavoidability, Bal utilizes the concept of linguistic imperialism; she begins by asking, ‘How can we work with, yet resist, the linguistic imperialism of English in the contem-porary world?’ (2007, 109). In other words, recognizing that there is indeed a certain necessity to using English, how can people for whom it is not a first language install a sense of difference within it? What Bal desires to retain is ‘the precious promise of untranslatability’ (2007, 110), something marked by accent, that which is ‘the trace, the remainder, of the language the subject cannot speak’, and also ‘an extra, an unexpected resource’ (2007, 110). When someone speaks a language that is apparently not their own, speaking with an accent is usually seen negatively. Bal explores what happens if we reverse this assumption: ‘Instead of being a deviation of a smooth self-evident mainstream […] accents that remind us of the translated quality of the words spoken can also be seen as cultural, specifically linguistic, enrichments’ (2007, 111). Of course, the idea of non-accent is a kind of myth, as LippiGreen (1997) argues; all native speakers speak with accents too, and Bal also seeks to defamiliarize the native voice. In fact, she goes on to discuss some specific examples of her own filmmaking that use editing techniques to lessen the routine violence of English, believing that the moving image is well placed to make the necessary cultural translation to challenge the violence of imposed global English. This kind of translation marks a resistance to the smooth translation (usually into English) expected by a globalization that operates in terms of units of equivalence; it is a translation that marks a resistance to reading. In discussing her film Lost in Space (2005), Bal emphasizes the ways its aesthetic registers the experience that the film theorizes: ‘the dissociative nature of language in the realm of global English’ (2007, 113). Here it is the lack of linguistic ownership that is felt most deeply, and it is felt as problem rather than potential.

In theorizing cultural translation, Bal draws on specific work from (p.40) translation studies. One translator she cites is Lawrence Venuti, specifically for his exploration of the lack of translation in this realm of global English. Venuti is particularly interesting when he describes some of the political motivations underlying his translation practice. Describing his desire to ‘shake the regime of English’, he analyses his own choice of texts to translate. In a Deleuzian manner, he is interested in literature that will be ‘useful in minoritizing the standard dialect and dominant cultural forms in American English’. He explains his preference through the following observation: ‘This preference stems partly from a political agenda that is broadly democratic: an opposition to the global hegemony of English. The economic and political ascendancy of the United States has reduced foreign languages and cultures to minorities in relation to its language and culture’ (1998, 10). Certain kinds of text offer possibilities for translations that make this apparent monolith foreign to itself; however, of course, Venuti acknowledges that even global English is not monolithic. Venuti’s translations accord with Bal’s interest in maintaining accent; through retaining or even exaggerating accent one resists being subsumed in the fluency of a monolingual globalization. Again this emphasis accords with her goal of defamiliarizing the native voice, mentioned earlier. Accent operates as a kind of solution to the problem of all cultures appearing instantly accessible to Anglo hegemony; through it Bal insists on actual labour in cultural translation, rather than ‘smooth transparency’. Yet this emphasis raises certain questions. In Bal’s example, a movie she made in which two non-native speakers (Bal and an asylum seeker fluent in Farsi and Greek) were forced to use English, it is certainly arguable that she ‘becomes’ the native speaker, in that the category is relative rather than absolute, and mobile rather than fixed (clearly, this mobility is structural, and no choice of Bal’s). Such a possibility is a logical extension of Kingsley Bolton’s (2008) suggestion that by using the category for speakers of, for example, Indian or Philippine English, we may better understand it as applied to speakers of American or British English. As already mentioned, such a shift in emphasis helps remind us that all native speakers have accents anyway, which is something that native speakers themselves can lose sight of, and something that global English underplays. It is also something that the diversity of World Englishes forces on our consciousness, as will now be explored.

The Translation of World Englishes

World Englishes introduce a clear difficulty in categorizing all forms of English as ‘imperialist’. While it may be possible to think of the native speaker Englishes as fundamentally equivalent, and then identify these Englishes with a hegemonic global English, it is rather more difficult to equate that linguistically imperialist English with phenomena such as Hinglish or Singlish. Of course, as we will see, in a location such as Singapore there are also people who insist upon the importance of an exonormative standard English, associated (p.41) once with British English, now perhaps with American English. However, there is something else in process and progress, something irreducible to yet more instances of linguistic imperialism, even if that imperialism remains a constant presence, to be reckoned with and guarded against. It is not just that English is now spoken by so many communities that the association of the language with a distinct community breaks down; it is also that English itself translates and is translated, being both a medium through which cultures are forced and one that is thereby made other to itself. These forms of translation derive from the frequently proclaimed need for a lingua franca to serve globalization. A lingua franca, through its use for exchange beyond native speakers, seems like a language that cannot be owned by any one national community; indeed, Nicholas Ostler sees the history of English as a challenge to the easy association of languages with communities: ‘for the world’s leading lingua franca, the whole concept of a language community begins to break down’ (2005, 24). The reasons why English no longer defines a community are some of the same reasons that globalization is not simply Americanization, or Westernization. While we have been globalized before, we discuss globalization as something relatively recent to the extent that new technologies have introduced a qualitative change in experience.

These changes will be discussed in greater detail later, but are obviously potentially relevant to the study of World Englishes. Sociologist John Urry (2003) isolates five distinct elements of globalization: structure, flow, ideology, performance, and complexity. Structure refers to increasing (largely corporate) global and international interaction. Flows prompt us to understand individuals, corporations, etc. as nodes in the series of scapes, along which flow objects, people, images, etc. Ideology refers in particular to neo-liberal assumptions about the natural qualities of global capital’s organization. Performance sees globalization as less a state of affairs and more of an enactment or process. Complexity, finally, helps us to understand globalization as system or series of systems, characterized by their overlapping and disjunctive organization. The most pertinent of these elements for the study of World Englishes are flows, performance, and complexity. We can no longer assume that information is all flowing in one direction. The so-called global system was often imagined to be polarized between centres and peripheries, with the centres dominating the peripheries, and the peripheries dependent on the centres; this model operates explicitly in Phillipson’s analysis of linguistic imperialism. However, of course there are centres and peripheries within nations, such as the US or China; indeed, there are disproportionately powerful financial centres that function much the same way as countries (as in the case of London). In such a changed situation, it is necessary to rethink our paradigm when it comes to English. The term World Englishes introduces significant new assumptions about the state of the language, and moves us beyond paradigms stressing a stable distinction between native and non-native speakers. In examples from across both formerly colonized countries and locations that have never been formally colonized, it is possible to see new instances of agency and cultural (p.42) identity in World Englishes. In particular, it could be argued that the study of World Englishes assumes the necessity of the theory of the performative(although such a theory may well be impossible), given that Englishes are not expressions of pre-existing identities, but instead are part of processes that produce new identities characterized by the complex flows of globalization.

While routine linguistic violence can still be a major aspect of these complex flows, it is becoming more difficult to ascribe blame to a centred linguistic power, or to claim (for example) that the spread of English serves the foreign policy aims of Anglophone nations. Increasingly, the diagnosis of linguistic imperialism has been refused by those apparently subject to that imperialism. To take one example, Nigeria, Joseph Bisong responds directly to Phillipson by arguing that, ‘Arguments that carry the implication that the users of [English] do not know what is in their interest should not be seen simply as patronizing. They reveal a monolingual failure to grasp the complex nature of a multilingual and multicultural society’ (1995, 131). Nigeria cannot be grasped or indeed defended from a rapacious Anglophone monolingualism from a perspective that assumes monolingualism as norm (although it should be noted that Phillipson does not assume that). The Nigerian context is one in which translation happens all the time and which is also in cultural translation, to the extent that we might find it difficult to be sure of the bounds of the languages we find in that space. This question of counting languages (for example, in a national space such as Singapore, we might officially count four: English plus Mandarin plus Malay plus Tamil) gets to the heart of the question of cultural translation. Naoki Sakai raises this question when he wonders about differentiating Japanese and English as clearly bounded linguistic entities; he asks, ‘Can the multiplicity of languages without which translation seems unnecessary be measured numerically, so that one can assume that languages are countable? What constitutes the unitary unit of a language that is not implicated in another language or other languages?’ (1997, 3). In asking these questions, Sakai is again raising the difficult question of connectedness and separateness. In her commentary, Rey Chow writes that ‘[For Sakai] translation is not simply an act of transfer between units of two self-contained languages which exist regardless of whether translation takes place. Rather, he sees translation as the a priori condition, the very ground that enables linguistic exchange to proceed as though languages were autonomous, individuated phenomena’ (2012, 133). Such frameworks operate with the same assumptions informing many (but not all) postcolonial theories of hybridity. As we will see, Homi K. Bhabha’s understanding of cultures is that they are effects of processes of stabilization, rather as Sakai imagines languages. It is important to grasp this if we are to understand cultural translation as a concept, and how it might relate to discussion of World Englishes. World Englishes globalize and make explicit the contact zone out of which stabilization eventually comes, while raising questions about future stabilizations or codifications, given changed technological conditions.

According to postcolonial theory, perhaps the most important aspect of (p.43) this contact zone is its agonistic quality. It is not that it is oppositional exactly, more that there is necessary conflict rather than non-political harmonious hybridization. Cultural translation often seems to be a neutral process with broadly positive outcomes. However, it occurs without guarantees, and is anything but neutral. Cronin raises this issue explicitly; referring to a ‘tyranny of compliance’ (2009, 218), he argues that cultural translation is evidence of a tendency to avoid confrontation: ‘the notion of cultural translation highlights an even more fundamental feature of contemporary societies than the oft-repeated lingering hegemony of nation states, namely an intolerance of conflict’ (2009, 217). One aspect of this intolerance is found in contemporary media, whose very form implies ‘balance’, but through which a pithily reduced and reproduced symmetry forms: ‘in reality, points of view are irreducible, as speakers are situated very differently, both materially and structurally, but the false symmetrization of the media sphere conceals the very genuine conflict of interests through the irenic fiction of the representative soundbite’ (2009, 218). Of course, this symmetrization is false in the specific sense that the symmetry is something that has to be achieved rather than being something that pre-exists, but also to the extent that the implied translatability or accessibility is unidirectional, when it would have to be multidirectional to avoid recurrent structures of linguistic and cultural domination. While conflict is fundamental, Cronin argues that translation grants us insights into how to convert conflict into engagement. In this, he is writing against the oppositional theory of translation, insisting as he does that, ‘translation is not confrontation; it is conflict as engagement with the multidimensionality of texts, languages and cultures’ (2009, 218). Developing his argument in this way, Cronin himself seems to be extending translation into a concept of cultural translation.

Indeed, in the work just cited Cronin is participating in explicit discussion of cultural translation; this work is his response to the discussion of the concept by Boris Buden and Stefan Nowotny in the journal Translation Studies. Buden and Nowotny take a balanced view of the concept; indeed, they make the point that cultural translation is a concept that has no necessary meaning: ‘the concept of cultural translation can be generally understood and applied in the service of both the contradictory paradigms of postmodern theory and postmodern political visions: essentialist multiculturalism and its counterpart, deconstructionism’ (2009, 198). They give the example of a citizenship test in which one is translated into being German through demonstrating knowledge of a quite openly arbitrary selection of cultural details (the name of a particular art exhibition, etc.). Cultural translation can operate as a demand to which one must respond and acquiesce in order to be translated. Accordingly, they argue, theorists such as Judith Butler and Bhabha are unable to avoid the possibility that cultural translation is part of a fixing process through which occurs ‘the transmutation of translational processes into yes-or-no questions’ (2009, 203). One might wonder if this other cultural translation that makes demands is still worthy of the name, and yet it is clear (p.44) that Buden and Nowotny are raising an important objection in that the idea of translating across cultures implies a steadiness if not fixedness of cultural identity. Responses to Buden and Nowotny, such as that of Robert J.C. Young (see Ha, Lieven, and Young 2010), question their presentation of Derrida and the ideas of cultural translation that derive from his work, for example, in Bhabha. Accordingly, it is now time to discuss Bhabha’s work in terms of one specific example, and the theory of hybridity that coalesces around it. Bhabha’s understanding of cultural translation raises the issue of how and why cultures are brought to a ‘halt’, and asks the same questions as Buden and Nowotny, if in a different way.

As we have seen, cultural translation is a contested concept, if it can be considered a coherent concept at all. Critics argue that its metaphorical appropriation of ‘translation’ serves to undermine actual translation and multilingualism, or at least can serve to undermine them. Furthermore, it appears that the concept derives at least partly from a school of thought, postcolonialism, that ought to be central and unambiguous in its opposition to English linguistic imperialism. In order to think through this apparent paradox it is helpful to consider the very example that Harish Trivedi mentions in his criticism of cultural translation: Bhabha. Buden and Nowotny, as we have already seen, discuss Bhabha as an example of a critic whose theories of cultural translation appear incapable of facing its darker possibilities, and whose personal history implies a particularly narrow framework from which the idea springs. They suggest that, ‘cultural translation may not only be a vehicle of progressive development, but also a means of exclusion that finally turns its promise of liberation into oppression’ (2009, 201). Like Trivedi, they see the over-emphasis on cultural translation’s promise as deriving from a privileged diasporic perspective that is unable to face the truth of its rarefied cosmopolitanism. You can only unreservedly desire the prolif-eration of hybridity if that proliferation is already part of the cultural and intellectual milieus in which you participate. To some extent, Bhabha, and by extension postcolonialism, is understood to be utopian. If we understand World Englishes as themselves examples of cultural translation, then again we might be responding to an understandable but regrettable utopianism, one that ignores the routine violence of English as the assumed and transparently communicative linguistic norm.

However, there are other ways to understand Bhabha, in particular his arguments concerning the constitution of cultures, and his development of a specific and important notion of cultural translation. In order to understand the important connection between postcolonial theory and World Englishes, it is then necessary to begin with Bhabha’s understanding of how cultures come into being. Instead of conceiving them as discrete objects of theoretical contemplation, Bhabha views them as consequent on stabilizing processes that act upon a flux of hybridity. It is well known that he develops many ways of describing this flux, but a particularly striking one is the notion of ‘third space’: ‘[T]he importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two (p.45) original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity to me is the “third space” which enables other positions to emerge. This third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom’ (1994, 211). Such a sense of hybridity is connected to Cronin’s attempts to think the combination of separateness and connect-edness. Hybridity is fundamental, undermining claims to absolute cultural identities, and yet such identities are real effects enabled by hybridity. Bhabha puts emphasis on how hybridity enables us to imagine different positions, or different cultural identities, distinct from the ones that arose during the colonial period. Flux might be just what exists, linguistically speaking, and it can be difficult to resist attempting to maintain that flux or hybridity (see Pennycook 2008).

Returning to Bhabha’s arguments concerning culture, it is arguable that Cronin’s position regarding the irreducibility of conflict is suggestively reminiscent of postcolonial theoretical assumptions. For example, in delineating cultural difference as opposed to cultural diversity (e.g., 1994, 34–36), Bhabha argues that models of multiculturalism follow a logic of cultural translation even when they explicitly resist ideologies of assimilation. That is because they imagine contexts (usually national) accommodating harmonious accumulations of cultural forms. His logic of cultural translation, by contrast, insists on the point of conflict; Bhabha stresses agonism without necessarily imagining resulting progress as we might unthinkingly use that word. Accordingly, what is required is a form of cultural negotiation, without which cultural translation can lapse into coercion or unthinking repetition of cultural coexistence. We can understand Bhabha to be arguing, like Cronin, for translation as something that forces us to rethink our models of multidirectional engagement. Indeed, this engagement is fundamental to the postcolonial paradigm, a paradigm that assumes a fundamental level of difference, hybridity, or cultural translation. Hybridity goes ‘all the way down’, and cultural translation (e.g., translation of ‘the English book’ in diverse and unpredictable forms (1994, 161)) is inevitable. Accordingly, Bhabha’s position is that we cannot imagine cultures as entities that exist and would then later be translated; instead, cultures are the effect of processes of stabilization. Difference is what there is, and its denial, or rather its resolution into distinct self-same cultural identities, produces colonial authority. That authority, however, must be produced and therefore is never a final achievement (e.g., 1994, 326). It is unsurprising that Bhabha uses the concept of the performative to explain this cultural translation, because of the influence of Derrida’s work, some of which concerned J.L. Austin (e.g., Derrida 1988). As already mentioned, studies of World Englishes have also adapted Austin’s concept in order to analyse the distinctiveness of World Englishes speech acts (e.g., Nelson 1991; Y. Kachru 1998) or to celebrate the difference-in-adaptation of English (e.g., Pennycook 2008). It should be noted that a writer such as Pennycook is rather more interested in Derrida’s sense of the performative than writers such as (p.46) Nelson and Kachru, who are more interested in how linguists have taken up the work of Austin as well as Grice and John Searle. The postcolonial sense of the performative, derived by Bhabha from Derrida’s work, is illustrated in the many forms of World Englishes, but the next section returns to the famously vibrant example of Singapore, partly because its language policy has been so clearly based on a model that distinguishes desirable and undesirable forms of cultural translation.

My Neighbour is Another Language: English in Singapore

Writing on shifts in Chinese language policy in Singapore, specifically those planned by its government since 2004, Charlene Tan (2006) outlines a fascinating example of the accumulative version and vision of cultural diversity. Recognizing that educational materials were outdated and inadequate in light of China’s recent transformation, the Singaporean government developed plans for the creation of a ‘bicultural elite’ that would be best placed to engage with the reality of China today. This elite would exemplify, exaggerate, and make explicit the logic implied by Mandarin being the mandated language of the Singaporean Chinese community. The education system would translate them for a very specific purpose, and would offer some fairly clear rewards for students who could excel (scholarships, employment, etc.). This example is contrary to Bhabha’s understanding of cultures in some clear ways, but its interest lies in what it demonstrates about the official attitude towards language and policy; there is little left to the imagination here, but what Singapore reveals is relevant to broader questions in the study of World Englishes, as this section will explore. Much of this chapter has outlined connections between cultural translation and World Englishes at a theoretical level, running the risk identified by Pratt of continuing to assert dominion over otherness. Accordingly, it is important to stress again the importance of discussing examples of cultural translation, and to focus on something other than a theoretical example, however important Bhabha may be. The utility of ideas of third space and hybridity has been questioned, tested, and demonstrated on numerous occasions in diverse postcolonial contexts, and it is intuitively a useful category for understanding World Englishes.

The specific example on which this section focuses is Singlish, recognized for a long time as something that elicits often wildly different reactions (e.g., McCrum Cran, and MacNeil 1986, 370–371). The Singaporean government’s Speak Good English Campaign gives a clear sense of what is at stake in its ‘translations’ of Singlish into a standard English. For example, ‘You ask me I ask who’ becomes ‘I don’t know’, while ‘Off your handphone, lah’ is corrected to (the poster switching from cross to tick) ‘Please turn off your mobile phone’. The National University of Singapore, meanwhile, urges the Promotion of Standard English (PROSE), with its own set of translations; ‘Why you never bring come?’ becomes ‘Why didn’t you bring it?’, and ‘He take go already’ (p.47) becomes ‘He has taken it with him’. The extent to which this prescriptive drive is a public issue is clear from the case of the comedy show Phua Chu Kang (19972007), whose main character (PCK) became so closely identified with Singlish that people began to refer to ‘Phua Chu Kanglish’ (as implied by a brief reference in Jack Neo’s (2002) movie I Not Stupid). As Selvaraj Velayutham notes, government comments on the dangers of the show’s influence were followed by actual interventions (2007, 134). Following these interventions, the show developed rather playful storylines incorporating PCK’s attempts to rid himself of Singlish (‘I haven’t said “lah” for three weeks’, he wistfully remarks), including the appearance (in season 3 episode 1) of a British Council teacher who seems alarmingly laissez-faire in his attitudes (he corrects the pronunciation of ‘Aloysisus’ (and is corrected back), and gently informs PCK that ‘Arsenal’ is not a place, but is rather relaxed about Singlish). Ultimately, PCK comes to the depressing realization (in season 5 episode 9) that he is maybe no longer a ‘Beng’ (a particular stereotypical identity associated with young Chinese men), which seems to indicate that he has been translated out of his identity, an identity expressed by and also partly produced by speaking Singlish. According to Velayutham, government intervention on this matter, in common with others relating to Singaporean culture and memory, seeks, ‘to undermine the sorts of organic “we-ness” that emerges with hybrid cultural products such as Singlish’ (2007, 150). The vitality of Singlish indicates the need to balance perspectives with a more descriptive response, through which it might be seen as promoting inter-ethnic exchange, or (more persua-sively and fundamentally) as functioning as an insider language.

The linguistic conditions leading to this vital and controversial form of English are complex. Of course, it is certainly arguable that (for good or ill) it is not recognizably a form of English at all. Positively, we might argue that to continue to think of Singlish as a form of English, to judge it by standards that are either ‘colonialist’ or ‘international’, is to misunderstand the processes of creative adaptation that have produced it. Negatively, we might argue instead that Singlish has lost its status as a form of English, and now stands as an obstacle between Singaporeans and international intelligibility. That, of course, has been the Singaporean government’s position, given clear expression on numerous occasions (see Bruthiaux 2010). This position reminds us just how closely connected are theories of language identity with practices of language policy in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew, recalling the moment of the split from the Federation of Malaysia, asks, ‘How were we to create a nation out of a polyglot collection of migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other parts of Asia?’ (1998, 22). What a collection of translated men and women the inhabitants of Singapore, 1965, must have seemed, cut off from their neighbours and requiring dynamic leadership. That leadership was provided by a somewhat smaller collection of translated men, led by Lee, and a key aspect of their leadership was specifically linguistic. In his memoir, Singapore’s first prime minister recalls his linguistic context growing up in the 1920s, reflecting that he spoke English to his parents, pidgin Malay (p.48) mixed with Chinese to his grandparents, and Malay mixed with Hokkien to his own friends. ‘Mandarin was totally alien to me, and unconnected with my life’ (1998, 35). In reflections on learning Mandarin, he reminds us of the purpose of this language for Singapore’s Chinese community: ‘it is very important that we keep Chinese, not just for economic reasons, but for reasons of identity, sense of self, and pride in our own culture and civilization’ (2005, 42). These comments give a clear sense of how Lee imagines his story to be the Singapore story, and demonstrate exactly why personal linguistic experience was translated into political linguistic policy. Keeping ‘his’ Mandarin ‘alive’ is basically a matter of learning it (at the age of 32), and its transformation from the language of 1 per cent of Singapore’s Chinese population into the language that ‘unites’ it is a very clear example of the force of political will Singapore has shown in language policies that both insist on cultural translation (making everyone ‘Singaporean’) and yet resist it (to the extent that English might become Singlish).

Language policy has evolved from being integral to a ‘melting pot’ perspective to being an aspect of an idea of Singapore based on ‘overlapping circles’. Singaporean ‘multiracialism’ defines three fundamental identities that are kept distinct and identified with single languages: Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Other languages are not encouraged, and are not officially part of these identities. For example, although Hokkien is the home language of around 75 per cent of the Chinese community, it is understood to be a ‘dialect’. Mandarin is, as already mentioned, the language that unites the Chinese community, even if the Speak Mandarin Campaign, launched in 1979, continues to give official credibility to the fear that the language is often not spoken well (the campaign’s English name is notable in what is omitted when compared with the Speak Good English Campaign). The other ‘racial’ communities are also united around their languages, which provide what is referred to as cultural ‘ballast’, helping to maintain ‘Asian Values’ and guard against the potential corruption that attends English (see Lee 2000; Han 2011). English, the language policy insists, is both essential for giving access to ‘new knowledge’ (technological and economic power) and dangerously decadent in its threat to ‘old knowledge’ (traditional cultural values). Singlish, it would seem, is evidence that the dangers of English have blurred the boundaries of the other languages which it is supposed to be only alongside in Singapore. While Edgar Schneider, summarizing a common perspective, discusses Singaporean English (including Singlish) as ‘the means of expression of [a] newly emerging Asian-cum-Western culture’ (2007, 156), other commentators are less positive in their interpretations. Debbie G.E. Ho (2006) argues that Singlish is evidence that Singaporeans are stuck in a form of ‘cultural limbo’, translated men and women who never quite finished the process of translation. That understanding of translation is, of course, the issue. It suggests that there are two or more pre-existing cultures that come together, leading to a form of ‘bad’ hybridity from which they are then unable to escape. But, as is quite explicitly the case in Singapore, the identity of ‘Chinese (p.49) Singaporean’ as produced through linguistic policy (alongside other policies) is an effect. It is obviously then difficult to see that identity as simply being corrupted or undermined through linguistic exposure to English, Hokkien, and so on (indeed, it might seem that Hokkien and other Chinese languages were violently thrust aside in favour of Mandarin).

Objectively, it might seem striking that such a situation arose, and that such linguistic policies were implemented; as Annaliese Kramer-Dahl puts it,

That cultural decisions of such enormity could be made unilaterally by the minority English-educated Chinese elite of the time and could be so successfully implemented that 20 years later local native languages and cultures have been eradicated attests to the fact that most Singaporeans had willingly accepted the inherent legitimacy of particular languages, as well as the legitimacy of those who had determined which languages count. (Kramer-Dahl 2003, 187)

It might also seem that anxiety concerning the use of Singlish, surely one of the most famous of the World Englishes and a clear example of cultural translation, marks the unnecessarily long-standing influence of that small elite. Nonetheless, the first category of cultural translation (a form of ‘either–or’, as Buden and Nowotny might put it) was clearly accepted as fundamental, as least for a time. That the debate over Singlish continues to function in terms of that model of cultural translation is more regrettable. Wendy BokhorstHeng, indeed, argues that the different discursive constructions of Singlish (a language form that is necessarily impossible to demarcate) demonstrate that ‘the debate unfolds within the more general socio-political processes of the imagining of the nation’ (2005, 205). This again brings to mind Benedict Anderson’s work, but also specifically Bhabha’s comments on the ways in which there is a tension between the pedagogical and performative in the work of imagining the nation (e.g., 1994, 145). The extent to which Singaporean language policy attempts to remain on the side of the pedagogical, whilst having been from the beginning explicitly performative, demonstrates the great difficulty involved, but also perhaps the impossibility of such work remaining the sole responsibility of a restricted group of decision-makers.

What kind of cultural translation actually happens as and through Singlish? Cultural translation in Singapore, as embodied in code-mixing and code-switching, has a specific set of functions, it appears. As Alsagoff argues, ‘such shifts are more saliently used to establish, represent, negotiate and signal identity, group membership and cultural orientations’ (2010a, 336). But these are shifts not between two clearly defined language forms, as in diglossia; instead, they are movements within a zone of cultural translation that is complex and diverse, as Alsagoff suggests: ‘In a move towards a more holistic understanding of the indigenization of English in a context such as Singapore, it is imperative that language be seen as a means of identity formation and representation, where local appropriations of global forms by (p.50) speakers to construct and represent their thought, practices and culture are realized as fluid variations in a multidimensional discursive space’ (2010b, 126). Singaporean cultural translation seems to retain this fluidity, at least for now, in terms of what we might call glocalization-from-below. While that might sound as though it verges on the tautological, it is clear that glocalization is sometimes imposed by authorities within a local context. Of course, ‘from below’ stereotypically appears to be something that the Singaporean context discourages. Indeed, government policy first encouraged and then halted this translation. Initially it worked to stabilize so-called racial identities through linguistic and other processes of translation, then it sought to guard against further translations away from ‘Asian values’. However, in the development of Singlish, we find a further form of cultural translation away from the fixities of ‘Asian’ and ‘Western’ cultures. Only in the most pessimistic of diagnoses could this further cultural translation be understood as loss rather than gain.


It is important to remain cautious in discussing World Englishes as cultural translation, as, by contrast with the dynamism of Singapore, other examples are still both imposed and imperialist. It is also worth remembering that no theory could account for every aspect of all the Englishes that have developed, given the diversity of political, economic, and cultural contexts in which they have gained their different degrees of prominence. Indeed, it might appear that while we can differentiate real translation from cultural translation, it is also necessary to differentiate forms of cultural translation themselves, if we are to find value in the latter concept. The principal ways to differentiate these forms would be, first, to acknowledge that there is a form of cultural translation that implies only translation of cultures and subjects according to the demand of monolingual Anglophone cultures. Such a cultural translation through English would remain an aspect of linguistic imperialism. In other disciplines, such as anthropology, this charge has been levelled at processes of cultural translation that seek to translate one culture into the terms of another, principally because it is so difficult to salvage this translation practice from its evidently unequal power relations. In postmodern ethnography, one of the strategies adopted to foreground the power relations in cultural translation is to open texts to their apparent objects, i.e., to stress the agency of the culture studied, and to allow the observed to become observers. It should then be stressed that cultural translation as an aspect of World Englishes is unavoidably bound up with the agency of speakers of World Englishes. Accordingly, this form of cultural translation needs to be described distinctly.

Second, differentiation of useful forms of cultural translation also requires acknowledgment that Englishes and Englishization (i.e., other languages affecting English and English affecting other languages) are evidence of a bi-or multilingualism within English. Indeed, Tom McArthur refers to a ‘bilingualism (p.51) within world English’ (1998, 32), while Edmund Weiner suggests that, ‘The English vocabulary is now federated rather than centralized. No one person’s English is all English, but each English speaker is to some extent “multilingual” within English. We are competent in varieties of English in which we do not perform’ (1980, 501). Weiner is discussing the dictionary, hence the emphasis on vocabulary, but we are implicitly invited to extend the argument. The fact is, however, that while cultural translation can be found in so many examples from World Englishes, and speakers of World Englishes might indeed be both the translated and translators, there is a danger that the study of World Englishes remains an instance of an Anglophone academic imperialism. Indeed, without some exploration of the heterolingual address, as delineated by Sakai and extended by Buden and Nowonty, we (that ‘we’ already being undermined by Sakai’s heterolingualism) risk being the ‘monolingual’ Anglophone academic subjects studying others in all their gloriously accessible and translatable object-hood. Further, being bilingual within English might seem to imply that no other bilingualism is as important, when of course the stronger versions of bilingualism within English derive from and occur within multilingual contexts such as those in which World Englishes thrive. Moreover, as Ashok Bery reminds us, ‘The culturally translated are translating even as they are being translated –they are not just being observed, they are observing’ (2009, 215). That applies to researchers as well, who would do well to explore processes by which they might translate and transform their own paradigms. In any case, as has been widely noted, scholarly interest in English and Englishes is now a worldwide phenomenon, which is all the more reason to situate our interventions in cultural translation. If all of us are indeed global citizens, with some kind of access to Englishes, it will become increasingly important to insist upon internal differentiation, as the next chapter will explore.