On translation and anti-intellectualism


Chandler: “You didn’t read Lord of the Rings in high school?”

Joey: “No, I had sex in high school.”

…and the audience laughed.

I get why it’s a good comeback. But I also get why that, in itself, is a problem.

Don’t take me wrong, Friends was one of my favorite shows in the mid to late nineties. Back then I was a teenager with a lot to learn about life, yet even then I knew (at least intuitively) that there was something fundamentally wrong with the world as Friends portrayed it (starting with its lack of ethnic diversity). I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I came across this thought provoking post by David Hopkins where he makes a compelling case against Friends and what the show’s success says about us as viewers. While the initial premise that a single American sitcom triggered the downfall of western civilization is a gross oversimplification of a much more complex phenomenon (which is obviously not meant to be taken literally), Mr. Hopkins’ description and critique of American anti-intellectualism is not only spot on, but easily applicable to other cultures and walks of life.

When a fellow university professor found out the Ethics course I teach involves actually reading Plato, he looked perplexed and asked “why not make them read more modern authors like Putnam?” (as if modern authors and classics were mutually exclusive). “Can’t my students appreciate both Plato and Putnam?” “Sure, but can they really understand the classics?”

There it was, the assumption I feared most coming from a fellow professor: that our students are too ignorant to fully grasp complex philosophical works. And, yes, as education continues to decline, every batch of new students has a harder time understanding these works than the last. Yes, I often find myself teaching my students things they should have learned in high school. Yes, at first they are reluctant to read because reading is no longer cultivated in school or at home. And, yes, it terrifies me because, as a law professor, I am educating the next generation of legal and political leaders. The fate of my country is in the hands of these young men and women in my class who have been raised in a culture that embraces harsh anti-intellectualism. And, yes, we are indeed “at a low point — where social media interaction has replaced genuine debate and political discourse, where politicians are judged by whether we’d want to have a beer with them, where scientific consensus is rejected, where scientific research is underfunded, where journalism is drowning in celebrity gossip.”

What’s even scarier to me, as someone who is also a professional translator, is seeing this anti-intellectualism invade a profession that was once intellectual par excellence. This is, in part, what caused my long silence and retreat from the online world. While attending various translation conferences in Europe a while back, the anti-intellectual tendency in translation hit me like a ton of bricks and it’s taken me months to recover.

It wasn’t the insta-gurus using scare tactics to get people to buy their products or the presentation that was so poorly researched it was hijacked by the audience. In fact, it wasn’t even the 50-minutes of social torture where I politely listened to a fellow translator blab on incessantly about why she not only evades taxes, but also uses her tax evasion as a “clever marketing strategy.” No, it wasn’t any of that. What terrified me in Europe was the mortifying unquestioning acceptance of what is becoming a dominant narrative that reeks of BS. It was that moment when a self-proclaimed big fish of some sort jokingly compared those of us who don’t feel threatened by “changes in the translation industry” to ostriches hiding our heads in the sand… and the audience laughed.

But here’s the thing with the ethics of humor as illustrated in this brilliant article by sinologist, philosopher, and editor of Philosophy Now, Anja Steinbauer:

“At first glance it seems that there is little work for ethicists to do. It is great to laugh: Humour can help you deal with the often inevitable awfulness of life.[…]

[However, t]he very definition of humour has been associated with a moral issue. Next to Immanuel Kant’s incongruity theory, the idea that things are funny when something doesn’t quite fit, and Freud’s relief theory, stating that humour is a release of tension mechanism, the so-called superiority theory is prominent among explanations of humour. In fact, it has been so prominent that it has been championed by philosophical heavyweights such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Bergson. Thomas Hobbes’ formulation of the superiority theory is this: “Laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own, formerly.” If he is right, humour becomes a tool for making ourselves feel better by thinking of others or our own past selves as inferior. […]

I would suggest that the two most serious problems […] are these: Firstly, as Plato says, the aesthetic form of a joke form is just so attractive and appealing that we may not pay enough critical attention to the moral content. Secondly, far from having a dialogue function, jokes can be conversation stoppers. As Theodor Adorno says: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof.” In other words, humour is, next to its wonderful properties, also a great potential tool for manipulation. Dress them up as a joke and you can get away with outrageous statements.” (Emphasis added.)

I’m not advocating against laughter and humor. But I do think we need to pay more critical attention to what is being said, more or less jokingly, about the future of translation and about those of us who reject the two equally harmful dominant narratives, which I will be discussing in my next post.

On a lighter note, I would like to thank my friends Mercedes and Ana for encouraging me to come out of my shell and start blogging again. Thank you both for reconnecting me with something I love.

24 thoughts on “On translation and anti-intellectualism

  1. Galina Green says:

    In this day and age where bigotry is disguised as “locker-room banter” (if it’s funny, it’s ethically untouchable right?) your post is wonderfully timely and a wake up call to combat ignorance and the “too streetwise to read books”-style attitude wherever we meet it, whether in our professional lives as translators or on the street. Thank you so much for continuing to write, Paula!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Victoria Patience says:

    I am also glad you’ve returned to your blog and am dying to read part 2 of this. I am one of many people I know who was saved by (good) books as a teenager (and continue to be saved by them today), and none of the shiny crap everyone seems set on selling us via fb/twitter/blogs/conferences is ever going to be a banner to rally behind or a path to follow or something that will keep you up all night or, who knows, save the world. The great writers, on the other hand…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, Victoria! I can totally relate to the notion of being “saved” by books. I remember when I was a kid my mother used to tell me that an education is like a magical key that can open any doors. And, boy, was she right!


  3. Good to see you back here Paula! While I obviously agree with the main throust of your post, I’m afraid I must pull you up on one point in your argument.

    As well as being a chemist and translator, I am also a trained high-school teacher. I can vividly remember one, thankfully short internship during my teaher training in France. I was in the smokers’ staffroom (they still had them in those days) and a colleague was moaning along the classic lines of “of course the kids of today are not as talented as our generation”. So I pulled her up: “teachers” I told her, “have been complaining about their lazy and unintelligent pupils since at least the time of Socrates!” [*] A sizable minority of the teachers in that school cold-shouldered me for the rest of my internship for daring to challenge their “idées reçues” about their pupils.

    I feel strongly that it is important to recognise that today’s young people are not, as a group, the intellectual inferiors of our generation orour parents’ generation. Quite the opposite, in fact, there’s every reason to believe that improvements in teacher training and access to education and reductions in abject poverty and malnutrition are leading to an improvement in educational levels when averaged across a year-group. But each generationof young people comes into a world that is different to the one their elders grew up in, and herein lies the inevitable conflict of the generations, especially when it comes to the academic field that must always involve some element of judgment.

    So yeah, get your students to read Plato, and Justinian, and Kant if you’re feeling cruel, as well as more modren authors like Bergson (I can’t claim to have read Putnam, or even know who he/she is). You’ll be doing them a favour: not all of their teachers will treat them as if they are young adults keen to learn about their subject. And if they’re not treated like that, why would they act like that!

    [*] Before anyone pulls me up on it, I know that Socrates probably never made the complaint that is attributed to him by Aristophanes. But my classically trained colleague didn’t😉


    • I absolutely agree, Nigel! I don’t think our students are intellectual inferiors of prior generations either. However, I live in the developing world. Here in Argentina, we are facing a very real and very serious education crisis that, coupled with poverty, deficient government policies, corruption, etc. is “dumbing down” our kids.

      First, elementary and high school teachers are not required to be college or university graduates. They go to a special teacher training school after high school where they barely learn the fundamental information they will have to pass down to their students. In some areas of the country, school teachers actually struggle to read and write. Second, schools are underfunded and overcrowded. Therefore, many schools hire teachers who have not yet completed their teacher training because they are cheaper than trained teachers. My mom (retired rural school teacher), for example, is currently volunteering at a school where none of the teachers have finished their teacher training, one of them has not even finished high school but intends to sign up for teacher training next year, and all of the teachers have difficulty reading. My mom volunteers to teach teachers how to read and solve math problems! Third, although Argentina has a literacy rate of 97%, poverty rates are still so high that schools in some parts of the country focus more serving as “comedores” (food kitchens) and “hogares” (shelters), than on educating their students. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Only 48% of our students finish high school and, while 33% of them sign up for university, only 10 to 12% actually graduate.

      Now, I know I teach at a law school and my students all belong to the middle class or higher, so they haven’t had to face many of these struggles, but they were still educated in a highly deficient system. Therefore, they are unable to answer basic questions such as: Who was the first president of Argentina? When did we gain our independence from Spain? More importantly, why did we fight a war for our independence? Some professors argue that we should’t worry about “general culture” and we should just teach them to read the Civil and Criminal Code. But I believe our job is teach them to think critically and question the world they know, because our only hope of making better political decisions that will help us overcome this problem is by educating the next generation of judicial and political leaders.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What exactly was wrong with Friends and the way it portrayed the world? It dealt with adoption, homosexuality, same sex marriage, obesity, interracial couples, surrogacy, and the list goes on. Blaming the downfall of Western civilisation on Friends is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I understand it’s a generalisation, but I’d invite Mr Hopkins not to publish outlandish claims just for the sake of publishing them.

    In my view, American anti-intellectualism started decades earlier with planned obsolescence. It ingrained anti-intellectualism in U.S. culture and turned most people into a Matrix-style purchasing battery, feeding the machine, i.e. 1%. Now that we’re seeing the consequences, ”social media interaction has replaced genuine debate and political discourse” because the only power people feel they have is on social media. ”Politicians are judged by whether we’d want to have a beer with them” (see Farage, Trump) because they play the I’m not part of the 1% card well, but if peopled bothered to do their research, they’d know better. ”Scientific consensus is rejected” because studies can be bought and skewed to fit any agenda. ”Journalism is drowning in celebrity gossip” because newspapers are biased and skew figures to fit their parties’ agendas as well, not to mention that journalists are mere puppets these days. Many causes these days are fought and won on social media only and that I think says a lot about the current state of affairs regarding human rights and access to fundamental services for many citizens. And anti-intellectualism is not the issue in any of these cases.

    My point is that people choose ignorance because it suits them. The insta-gurus you mention and the anti-intellectual tendency in translation is of our own doing. We’ve been eating up the I’m holier-than-thou attitudes displayed in blog, Twitter and Facebook posts for years now. Whether it’s the MT, CPD or LSP agenda; whether it’s online courses from 20-year-olds or 50-year-olds; whether it’s ”don’t badmouth agencies online ’cause, you know, they’re watching you” or all the bickering between the insta-gurus themselves. It’s all of our own doing and we got what we wished for.


    • Thank you for your comment and for sharing your point of view, Diana!

      I think a little hermeneutic generosity goes a long way; if not for ourselves (and, paraphrasing Aristotle, for the sake of training our minds to entertain thoughts without necessarily accepting them) at least for being more effective when refuting arguments with which we disagree. We cannot effectively refute something we haven’t taken the time to understand. Your initial question “What exactly was wrong with Friends and the way it portrayed the world?” is easily answered by reading Mr. Hopkins’ post in its best light and not just limiting ourselves to the parts I quoted because they happened to resonate with me. And, while it is true that Friends dealt with all the issues you listed (at least superficially), that doesn’t really invalidate any of the points Mr. Hopkins’ makes, because you’re basically comparing apples to oranges. Mr. Hopkins’post is about the way the intellectual character was treated by the rest (and by viewers) and what that says about our values. It’s worth reading, regardless of whether or not one agrees with it.

      I’m afraid when it comes to the more political part of your comment, we may have to agree to disagree. But I value your perspective and appreciate that you took the time to comment and join the conversation.


  5. Paula, you criticised (somewhat) the state of our profession and I agreed with you.

    You also agree with what Hopkins is saying and here is where we disagree. Please do not tell people who’ve watched Friends a million times that they do not understand what Hopkins is talking about. I’ve refuted his whole article with specific examples, exactly because I know Friends very well and because his claims are bonkers. I’m afraid it’s him who’s comparing apples with oranges, not me.

    The way each character was treated, whether by the writers or by the viewers, was fully deserved: Joey was mocked for his intellectual inferiority, Rachel for her superficiality, Monika for being a control freak, Chandler for his sarcasm and fear of commitment, Phoebe for her don’t-even-know-what-to-call-it. Ross felt superior to all the rest of them and that’s about the worst personality trait of them all.

    Please note that the only character who in the last episode was left at the same level we found him in the first episode was Joey ”I had sex in high-school” himself. Everyone else matured and improved on an intellectual, professional and financial level. Don’t you think Mr Hopkins should have concentrated on this lesson instead?

    I’m afraid I don’t quite understand which intellectual characters are being treated badly in our community. But I’d be happy to find out and continue the debate on what that says about us.


    • Diana, it’s true that each character had unique and distinct traits that were mocked for comedic purposes. Those traits were what made them likable and funny at the same time. But Mr. Hopkins’ point appears to go a bit deeper than that, it’s more of a critical view on the ethics of humor than a critique about Friends itself. The show is secondary to the argument.

      Mr. Hopkins’ argument would still stand even if he’d chosen Modern Family (via Alex or Manny) or Bones (via “the squints”) or any show where the joke *is* that the intellectual character is intellectual. Thus, being a fan of Friends or having seen the show a million times (figuratively, I hope), is not a prerequisite for understanding Mr. Hopkins’ arguments. The argument itself requires seeing beyond which TV show he just happened to pick for his critique.

      Perhaps I’m mistaken, but you don’t strike me as anti-intellectual at all. Is it possible that your objection isn’t the critique itself, but simply the fact that the critique revolved around a show that you obviously love? Because if that is the case, then I think perhaps you, Mr. Hopkins, and I actually agree on a lot more than it seems.

      Lastly, you wrote: “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand which intellectual characters are being treated badly in our community. But I’d be happy to find out and continue the debate on what that says about us.” I didn’t mean to imply that specific intellectual characters are being treated badly in the translation community. My point, like Mr. Hopkins’, was more about the ethics of humor and more in the lines of Plato’s view on the need to pay critical attention to the moral content of what we are saying, regardless of the attractiveness of its aesthetic form.


  6. Pingback: On Narratives |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s