Translators: The merchants of epistemic colonialism

In the effort of engaging the absented Arab-ic translator in the nascent dialogue on feminism and translation (Vassalo, 2003)1 , we shall attempt to question the mainstreamed agent-based model of feminist translation practice by interrogating and investigating the translator’s subjective understanding of their role in the emergent queer and feminist symbolic order. In that regard, the translator is addressed as a worker in the knowledge production industry, a strata of Fanon’s (1996) native intellectual2  and a contemporary position of Trouillot‘s (1995) complacent colonized other.

The focus is the translator, a worker who engages with, and (re)produces intellectual frameworks about, west centric schools of queer and feminist thought through imperial vessels of dissemination. In the translation practice, the translator utilizes their native/local language as the sole embodiment of one’s labor power. The translator is thus a friction3  of an uneven and combined epistemic encounter, and in that uneven amalgamation lies our inevitable need to employ intersectionality as a methodology organizing our understanding of the translator’s relation with the existing symbolic order and the functionalist significance of their skilled labor/practice.

This stratum of workers, not unlike the native intellectual, do not have a static relationship with european legacies and modes of thinking. Nonetheless they maintain peculiar cultural perceptions or explanatory models and carry the ability to be knowingly disturbed and consequently (possibly) actively disturb the rhetoric of European thought. This non-stagnant4  relationality begs a particular understanding of intersectionality that helps us dissect the compounded positions and relations, weaving our research subject not as independently intertwining vectors but as overlapping and unfolding becomings, hence contemplating the muddiness of multiple identities and intellectual directionalities. In this way intersectionality helps us dwell into the question of our subjects’ intentionality, the genealogies of their epistemic (dis)continuum and the building blocks of their industrial performances – an approach that focuses on the conflicts5  residing within and around the translator as a subject of agentic capacities.


In the light of the aforementioned, intersectionality will offer us a narrative of :

  1. The sites in which our subject operates i.e on the margins of a neoliberalized knowledge production market. In that market the translator undergoes a linguistic performance that is shaped by two audiences. The first is the intelligentsia that rests serenely and dominantly in the vicinity of queer theory’s lingua franca (text’s source language), and the other is the middle classes of the Arabic speaking intellectual consumers. The shape and intensity by which the translator receives the source text and accommodate (or otherwise, if at all) the cultural taste of the Arab readership, depends on the translator’s relation with two dimensions of the symbolic order :
    i. The language.
    ii. The political discourse(s) from which the text emanates and in which it is injected.
  2. The nature of their relation with the aforementioned dimensions could be diagnosed only by understanding the socioeconomic background of the translator as a product of their mother tongue societies. This necessitates that we step out of the functionalist approach to translators as a working-class stratum, and dwell into the intricacies of the individual narratives that, compounded, create the stratum and nurture our analytical intention to explore the stratum’s conscientious capacities. This entails looking at the translator’s economic class, institutional educational disciplining, geographic/societal environment, political and ideological standing, and finally the translator’s gender. These identitarian markers guide us to the invisibilized glaring nature of the translator’s relation with the translated text/episteme. Through unraveling the latter relation, we start understanding the conflicts and fights existing within the terrains of language on the one hand and the hierarchies of knowledge production within their operating organizational structures on the other.
  3. Here we smoothly circle back to the question of class and its transient complexity during neoliberal times. The nature of the organizations alongside the choreographies of the demand/supply chains dictates and tame existing conflicts within our research subjects, thus unfolding new ones. On this level the question of exploitation in the epistemic working place will loom and the question of oppression and colonization in the epistemic marketplace could eventually be posed6 .


Intersectionality imposes itself assertively at the moment we ask the foundational question of the research: who is the translator? A whirlpool of personal and meta-narratives will storm to the conversation. Indeed, we venture at delineating the detailed features of an interrupted continuum i.e. an inter-sectionalism in the Arabic etymological sense of the word. تقاطعيّة, from the ternary root of the word (قطع), implies (a) mobile cut (s) actively happening within one continuous body/scene in question, rather than a betweenness of independent sections (intersectionality). It is a contemplation of a mutating body of unfolding and interrupted/ing occurrences guiding us to a trail of micronarratives constituted in an uneven and combined being – a vivacious totality.

  • 1 Vassallo, H. (2003). Translator Studies Intersectional Activism in Translation and Publishing (1st Edition). Routledge
  • 2Fanon, F. (1966). The Wretched of the Earth. 1st Evergreen ed. New York: Grove Press. At this point we mention (without elaborating) the subliminal contrast existent in the translation of the Militant intellectual.
  • 3 I borrow this from Tsing, A.L. (2004). Friction an Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press
  • 4I intend and emphasize the negation rather than the usage of the linguistic antonym “dynamic.”
  • 5I recall here the definitional arguments given in Salem, S (2018). Intersectionality and its Discontents: Intersectionality as a Traveling Theory. European Journal of Women’s Studies 25.
  • 6This distinction between the act of oppression and that of exploitation is derived from Salem’s (2018) text (ibid).