Can translators help save the Earth?

A report on Michael Cronin’s thought-provoking ideas on the role of translators in environmental sustainability.

Have you ever considered how translation may be contributing to climate change? How translation workflows exploit natural and human resources? Or how translators may be able to help humankind understand and interact with the natural environment? These were some of the questions that Professor Michael Cronin explored in his keynote presentation at the 2017 FIT Congress, entitled “Why Translation Should Not Cost the Earth – Towards Geocentric Translation Studies”.

Translation cyborgs and the use of resources

Cronin began by proposing that, as climate change and environmental sustainability are the most pressing issues of this century, it is essential that we consider translation in terms of its effects on the Earth. For example, we should be aware that translation impacts the environment through the resources used in order to create the translation. After all, our computers contain many precious metals that are extracted and disposed of in ways that are toxic to the environment. But not only that – our devices are also increasingly energy-hungry. Cronin asserted that our energy dependency is unsustainable, and challenged us to consider our use of technology, given that we live on a planet with limited resources. However, while he advocates for low-tech translation, he concedes that we cannot translate entirely without technology. On the contrary, he agrees with translation theorist Douglas Robinson that “all translators are cyborgs”.

Cronin also touched briefly on the inextricable interconnectedness of translation, globalisation and the unsustainable concept of infinite growth. Clearly, the development of international markets is simply not possible without translation. This maximising of markets is dependent on maximising translation growth, with the accompanying exploitation of both physical and human resources.

Human resource extractivism

In this context, Cronin discussed the concept of human resource extractivism and gave the example of crowdsourcing translation, such as via Luis von Ahn’s DuoLingo app. The aim of Duolingo is to translate all web content into all languages, using the human resource of translation, but with no remuneration for the translators – a model that is ultimately unsustainable. As well as the human resources involved, data exchange also comes at a cost. Land is taken up by data centres, resources are used to create them and energy is required to cool the systems. As it is essential for the environment that we reduce resource extractivism of this kind, Cronin questions whether we really need to translate everything on the web.

Understanding the environment

Cronin also touched on a possible future role for translators in the relationship between humans and the environment. He noted that the intercultural skills that translators and interpreters possess will be ideally suited to helping humans understand and interact with the other species that inhabit the Earth. In his view, translation can encompass more than just human languages. He also went beyond this and asked whether translation could help us understand other entities – weather systems, rocks, the Earth itself – drawing on translation’s role of overcoming difference to enable communication, understanding and respect. Cronin sees translation as being vital in moving towards a post-anthropocentric relationship between humans and the Earth, which is essential for the sustainability of life itself.

I found Cronin’s views inspiring and was heartened to see the issue of climate change being addressed at an international translation conference. At the same time, I would have liked to hear more from him about the practical application of these ideas. I also think Cronin’s presentation would have had more impact if he had challenged the audience to consider how their own processes might need to change as they apply these considerations to their own practice. We all have a role to play in ensuring the future of our planet, so let’s spread the word, and take action.

About Michael Cronin

Michael Cronin is Professor of Translation Studies at Dublin City University. His most recent book, Eco-Translation – Translation and ecology in the age of the Anthropocene, was published in early 2017. He is a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Academia Europeae/Academy of Europe, an Officer in the Ordre des Palmes Académiques and an Honorary Member of the Irish Translators and Interpreters Association. He is also co-editor of the Routledge series New Perspectives in Translation Studies and is Editor-in-Chief of the journal MTM.

By Jayne Fox

Photo of Michael Cronin © Olga Raevskaya for AUSIT Institute via Flickr

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