Are you all sitting still and paying attention? The familiar injunction of the schoolmistress has become the watchword of the new economy. If the notion of economy is based on the management of scarce resources, attention in a media-saturated world has become the most precious resource of all. Already in the mid-1990s Michael Goldhaber was arguing that with the emergence of digital technologies, traditional factors of production would decline in importance relative to that of attention. ((Michael Goldhaber, “Some Attention Apothegms,” The Well (1996): http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/apoth.html; Goldhaber, “Principles of the New Economy,” The Well (1996): http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/principles.html; “The Attention Economy and the Net,” First Monday 7.2 (1997): http://firstmonday.org/article/view/519/440; “Attention Shoppers!” Wired, 12, 5 (1997): http://www.wired.com/1997/12/es-attention/. )) Thomas Davenport and John Beck in the The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Economy of Business predicted the monetization of attention where the attention of consumers would be so sought after that they would be supplied with services free of charge in exchange for a few moments of their attention. ((John Beck and Thomas Davenport, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business (Cambridge: Harvard Business School, 2001), 213.)) We would be paid to pay attention. This is, in a sense, what has happened with Google where users can use extremely powerful search engines seemingly free of charge.
From the point of view of an economics of attention, two challenges immediately present themselves. The first is how to protect attention from information overload to ensure an optimal allocation of this scarce resource (the vogue for time management courses) and the second is how to extract the maximum amount of profit from the capture of this scarce resource. ((Emmanuel Kessous, Kevin Mellet and Moustafa Zouinar, “L’économie de l’attention. Entre protection des ressources cognitives et extraction de la valour,” Sociologie du travail 52.3 (2010): 366.)) It is in the second sense, of course, that search engines come at a price. For Google, the user is the product and her attention span has a lucrative exchange value. The more she pays attention, the more Google gets paid for her to pay attention. What these developments highlight is a fundamental shift in economic emphasis from production to promotion. In information-rich environments, a series of media gates exist to filter information to potential users or consumers. Not all of these media gates have the same power co-efficient. An advert in a local college newspaper will not reach the same audience as an advert on prime time television. If the absolute cost of diffusing information has fallen dramatically over the centuries – it is substantially cheaper to post a blog in the 21st century than to print a book in the 16th – the cost of getting past the filters of pre-selection has risen exponentially. ((Josef Falkinger, “Attention Economies,” Journal of Economic Theory 133 (2007): 267.)) In other words, as societies are more and more heavily invested in various forms of mediation, from the rise of the audiovisual industries to the emergence of digital technologies, it is less the production of goods and services than the production of demand through the capture of attention that absorbs increasing amounts of resources. Getting people to take notice is the main income generator for what McKenzie Wark has famously dubbed the “vectorialist class.” ((McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).)) Contrary to a popular misconception, Wark argues that information is never immaterial. It must always be embodied at some level. The vectors are the hard drives, the disks, the servers, the cables, the routers but also the companies and investment funds that are needed for information to be stored, archived, retrieved and to circulate between humans in space and time. The importance of this class in the United States is borne out by the figures cited by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their Race Against the Machine where they point out that the share of income held by equipment owners continues to rise as opposed to income going to labour. While payrolls have remained flat in recent years in the US, expenditure on equipment and software has increased by an average 26%. ((McKenzie Wark, Telesthesia: Communication, Culture and Class (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 143, 45.))
There is a sense, of course, in which gaining people’s attention may be a central feature of the new economy but is not necessarily novel in human experience. People have been trying to get others to sit up and take notice for millennia. As Richard Lanham points out in The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, the central thrust of the art and science of rhetoric for more than two millennia has been to find ways of soliciting the attention of audiences. ((Richard Lanham, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).)) Lanham argues that much of what has been debated under the heading of “style” in literary criticism, art history, aesthetics has largely been a matter of how writers and artists have sought to corner the attention of their readers or viewers in a field of competing media or stimuli. That the late moderns have not been the first to deal with the consequences of information overload is clear from the experience of Renaissance humanists and 17th century philosophers who were both excited and bewildered by the informational munificence of the printing press. One such scholar, Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy detailed this media invasion:
I hear news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Russia, Poland &c., daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms […] New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy and religion &c. ((Richard Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, eds. F. Dell and P. Jordan-Smith (New York: Tudor, 1927), 14.))
Tables of content, indices, references, bibliographies were among the devices employed at a textual level to filter this informational excess and at an epistemological level, an interest in Cartesian style methods came from a wish to make sense of this abundant “news.” ((Ann Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). )) Any attention to regimes of attention will necessarily have to relativise its arguments in the light of previous historical experiences but it is nonetheless evident that the advent of digital technologies have added a significant new dimension to what Davenport and Beck call the “attentionscape” of late modernity. ((Beck and Davenport, The Attention Economy, 49.))
A problem not mentioned by Burton, but implicit in the spread of his interests, is language. There is no way to make sense of the “towns taken” and the “cities besieged” in France, Germany, Turkey, Poland and Russia if there are no means of obtaining and translating the information from the cities and towns that have fallen or that remain under siege. In other words, you can only pay meaningful attention to what you can understand and translation in a multilingual world is central to the task of language mediation. That translation is a constituent part of information-rich environments is borne out by the exponential growth of the localization industry. ((Miguel Jimenez-Crespo, Translation and Web Localization (London: Routledge, 2013.)) The demands for translated data in globalised markets are apparently insatiable. In 2012, Common Sense Advisory estimated the size of the translation service industry to be $33.5 billion and a report by IbisWorld claimed that translation services are expected to keep on growing and reach $37 billion in 2018. These predictions tally with the forecast by the US Bureau of Statistics that the translation industry is likely to grow by 42% between 2010 and 2020. The translation service provider Pangeanic concluded that, “[g]lobalization and an increase in immigration will keep the industry in demand for the coming years despite downwards costs pressures on the services.” ((Pangeanic, “What is the Size of the Translation Industry,” 1-2: http://pangeanic.com/knowledge_center/size-translation-industry/#.)) Of course, a central rationale for investment in translation is the shift in emphasis, that we mentioned earlier, from production to promotion. In globalised markets, with attention an increasingly scarce resource, one way to make people sit up and pay attention is to offer them products in their own language. “Legibility” of supply encourages expansion of demand. This is the rationale behind the typical sales pitch from a web localisation company such as Language Scientific:
Website localization or website translation is the process of modifying an existing website to make it accessible, usable and culturally suitable to a target audience. More than 1/3 of all internet users are non-native English speakers, and according to Forrester Research, visitors stay for twice as long (site stickiness) if the website is in their own language. As companies look to expand into new markets, reach a global audience and increase international sales, the benefits of website localization are clear. ((Language Scientific, “Website Localization and Website Translation – What Is Involved?” 2015: http://www.languagescientific.com/translation-services/website-localization-services.html.))
One of the consequences of this upward shift in translation demand on the foot of attention capture in globalized markets is the emergence of a new kind of scarcity, not only of attention but of translators. The response of the language services sector to growing demands for translation has been the accelerated interest in the technologization of the word. As Pangeanic put it in their promotional literature, “[t]he advent of machine translation technologies should partly address the lack of qualified, professional translators coping with ever increasing amounts of data.” ((Pangeanic, “What is the Size of the Translation Industry, 2.)) Computer-assisted translation, machine translation, translation memories, wiki-translation, all in their various ways invoke technology in dealing with the ever expanding demand for translated text. Indeed, already in 2006, Alan Melby made a prediction that he himself admitted was “a bit scary”, namely, that “in the future, the only kind of non-literary translator who will be in demand is one who can craft coherent texts that, when appropriate, override the blind suggestions of the computer.” ((Alan Melby, “MT+TM+QA: The Future is Ours.” Revista Tradumática, 4 (2006).))
The move towards translation automation in the global attentionscape raises the question of attentional asymmetry, one that has already been identified in our experiences of existing audiovisual media. As the German theorist Georg Franck points out, there is a strict asymmetry between the attention the media offer and the attention they receive. The media use the tools of technical reproduction to diffuse information while users pay for every piece of information they receive with live attention, an attention guaranteed by the “artisanal” and cognitively laborious sensory apparatus of our ears, eyes and brains. The standardised, industrialised media product can be delivered by means of automated technology on a scale that allows for the capture of a substantial attention “mass” (typically quantified by TAM ratings). ((Georg Franck, “L’économie de l’attention” in L’Économie de l’attention ed. Yves Citton (Paris: La Découverte, 2014), 61.)) A less dramatic and more banal example is the time it takes to write an e-mail message which is automatically distributed across a mailing list and the amount of time cumulatively that will be spent either reading or discarding it. It is this discrepancy between automated and live attention that leads Yves Citton to posit a notion of “attentional capital gain”:
En collectant de gigantesques masses d’attention à l’aide d’une petite quantité d’attention multipliée par des dispositifs techniques d’automatisation, les industries culturelles bénéficient d’une énorme PLUS-VALUE ATTENTIONNELLE, résultant de la différence entre l’attention prêtée et l’attention reçue. ((Yves Citton, Pour une écologie de l’attention (Paris: Seuil, 2014), 97.))
[Collecting enormous quantities of information through a small amount of attention being multiplied by the technical devices of automation, cultural industries benefit from an enormous capital gain which results from the difference between attention given and attention received.]
Implicit in the offer by Systran, the noted architects of machine translation systems for the European Union, is the exchange of the automated translation of the system in exchange for the “live” attention of the user, “Instantly understand foreign language content or make your message understood in languages other than English. How? With SYSTRAN products.” ((Systran, “Quick translation.” Accessed 1 March 2015.This attentional capital gain that results from the difference between the dead attention of technical reproduction and the live attention of legibility or reading through translation to make sense of the foreign message is, of course, a key generator of (advertising) income in the informational economy. Are there, however, different ways of construing the notion of translation, legibility and attention in late modernity? In particular, is there a way of thinking through the relationship between translation and legibility against the backdrop of automation that is not beholden to a scenario of repeated expropriation and disenfranchisement?
Focusing on the economics of attention inevitably implies a certain set of assumptions, notably the maximisation of profits through the minimisation of costs in the context (real or imagined) of market competition. In the standard neo-classical paradigm, the economy is primarily concerned with the optimal management of scarce resources. The ends to which these resources are employed are normally outside its area of competence. However, a notion of attention which is solely concerned with means and not ends is scarcely viable as a theory of attention because attention is invariably bound up with value. William James in his Principles of Psychology pointed out how a notion of attention that was purely passive was unable to account for the ways humans pay attention. James is critical of the British school of Empiricism (Locke, Hume, Hartley, the Mills, and Spencer) for not treating of the notion of “selective attention.” He argues that because their main concern is showing that “the higher faculties of the mind are pure products of ‘experience’,” experience itself must be thought of as “something simply given” (his emphasis). James goes on to claim:
Attention, implying a degree of reactive spontaneity, would seem to break through the circle of pure receptivity which constitutes “experience,” and hence must not be spoken of under penalty of interfering with the smoothness of the tale.
But the moment one thinks of the matter, one sees how false a notion of experience that is which would make it tantamount to the mere presence to the senses of an outward order. Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind – without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground – intelligible perspective, in a word. It varies in every creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive. ((William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1890),402-403.))
Out of the “[m]illions of items of the outward order” we choose to pay attention to certain items and not to others. Attention inescapably involves value as attention itself implies a choice determined by particular ends (safety, sanity, satisfaction) that are believed to be important. In the circular relationship of attention and value, subjects value that to which they pay attention and pay attention to that which they value. Ends cannot, therefore, be discounted in any credible attentionscape. The purely economistic representation of attention prevents us from asking the most basic question, to what ends are directed the attention that will decide our future, or put another way, if our future is strongly determined by those things to which we might pay attention to in the present (for example, public transportation in our cities), then must not the underlying value systems of our “selective attention” be a matter of explicit and sustained public debate?
If the making legible of a text or an environment (or both) demands at the very least a deployment of our attention, an “experience that I agree to attend to,” then this attention is only intelligible in terms of present or future-oriented values. For this reason, Aurélien Gamboni, has proposed the idea of an “ecology of attention” as opposed to an economy of attention. ((Aurélien Gamboni, “L’Escamoteur: économie de l’illusion et écologie de l’attention,” in Angela Braito and Yves Citton, Technologies de l’enchantement. Pour une histoire multidisciplinaire de l’illusion (Grenoble: ELLUG, 2014).)) From the point of view of an ecology of attention, attention is always a form of interaction and these forms of interaction are, by definition, relational. That is to say, attention implies a relation between attending subjects and the objects or persons to which they attend. This idea of relation can be linked to the ecosophical notion of relationism advanced by Arne Naess which posits that individuals do not pre-exist their relationships. Peoples and organisms cannot be isolated from their environment. Speaking about the interaction between organisms and their environment is a fallacy because the organism is already an interaction. ((Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy, tr. David Rothenberg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 78; see also Citton, Pour une écologie de l’attention, 45.)) Articulating attention within the ecosophical notion of relationsim means taking seriously the new forms of economic practice detailed by the economics of attention but embedding these more broadly in an ecology of attention that discusses questions of values, ends and sustainability. More specifically, for theorists like Citton, the notion of an ecology of attention brings together different forms of ecology:
L’écologie biophysique de nos ressources environnementales, l’écologie géopolitique de nos relations transnationales, l’écologie socio-politique de nos rapports de classes, l’écologie psychique de nos ressources mentales dépendent toutes de l’écologie médiatique qui conditionne nos modes de communication. ((Citton, Pour une écologie de l’attention, 46.))
[The biophysical ecology of our environmental resources, the geopolitical ecology of our transnational relations, the socio-political ecology of our class system, the psychic ecology of our mental resources all depend on the media ecology which determines our modes of communication.]
At one level media ecology could be considered to be the most superficial of the different forms, merely the reflection of the four others (superstructural), yet at another level, it is can be construed as the most fundamental (infrastructural) because it decides to what we will (or will not) pay attention. How is translation to be conceived of in this ecology of attention and what are the implications for reading the (culturally, socially, politically) illegible?
In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), the heroine Olanna wonders how the friends of her new partner Odenigbo are reacting to her. In particular, she is not sure what Miss Adebayo thinks of her:
Neither was she sure of Miss Adebayo. It would have been easier if Miss Adebayo showed jealousy, but it was if Miss Adebayo thought her to be unworthy of competition, with her unintellectual ways and her too-pretty face and her mimicking-the-oppressor English accent. She found herself talking more when Miss Adebayo was there, desperately giving opinions with a need to impress. ((Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (New York: Harper, 2006), 51.))
Olanna is caught between how she is perceived and how she wants to be perceived. She battles against false perceptions that she feels betray who she actually is. In a sense, what Olanna is articulating to herself is a notion of authenticity running from Rousseau to the Romantics to Sartrean existentialism which views appearances as deceptive and as irrelevant to any proper or authentic sense of self. ((Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: the Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.)) In the economy of attention, however, visibility is everything. If attention is the hard currency of cyberspace then, Michael Goldhaber argues, attention flows do not simply anticipate flows of money but eventually end up replacing them. In attentional capitalism, attention is fast becoming the hegemonic form of capital. ((Goldhaber, “The Attention Economy and the Net.”)) For Yves Citton the ontology of this attentional capitalism is the ontology of visibility which measures the “degré d’existence d’un être à la quantité et à la qualité des perceptions dont il fait l’objet de la part d’autrui.” ((Citton, Pour une écologie de l’attention, 75.)) From the quantity of YouTube hits to the number of Twitter followers, value is heavily invested in forms of visibility that accrue attention capital. On the website for the State government of Victoria in Australia, future entrepreneurs are encouraged to think of social media as fundamental to their very existence, “your business can now use social media to tell your story, and demonstrate your expertise on a global scale in real time with very little cost.” ((Business Victoria, “Use Social Media for Business.” Accessed 13 May 2015. http://www.business.vic.gov.au/marketing-sales-and-online/online-business-and-technology/social-media-for-business/using-social-media-to-boost-business. )) Young graduates are repeatedly reminded of the importance of having a strong web profile and getting onto virtual networks like LinkedIn. If attention is the currency of “semiocapitalism” ((Franco Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation (London: Minor Composition, 2010.)) then what are implications for translation? How is the ontological status of translation affected by new regimes of visibility?
The title of Lawrence Venuti’s 1995 work The Translator’s Invisibility articulates a long-standing concern with the marginal or peripheral situation of the translator. Venuti’s contention was that “translation continues to be a largely misunderstood and relatively neglected practice, and the working conditions of translators, whether they translate into English or into other languages, have not undergone any significant transformation.” ((Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge, 2006), ii.)) He explicitly used the term “visibility” to capture the historical and contemporary predicament of the translator:
“Invisibility” is the term I will use to describe the translator’s situation and activity in contemporary British and American cultures. It refers to at least two mutually determining phenomena: one is an illusionistic effect of discourse, of the translator’s own manipulation of the translating language, English, in this case; the other is the practice of reading and evaluating translations that has long prevailed in the United Kingdom and the United States, among other cultures, both Anglophone and foreign-language. ((Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility, 1.))
Venuti’s examples are primarily situated within print culture and within the cognitive economy of the post-Gutenberg world. However, the notion of visibility for translation has gained rather than lost traction as we consider translation in the context of post-print or digital culture. If we consider the earlier contention that a significant shift in economic activity has been from production to promotion, then translation products must, by definition, become part of an attentional arms race wherefore more and more resources are devoted to capturing the attention of readers in the crowded virtual agora of “world literature.” The pressures are all the greater in that, as Franco Berardi has pointed out, there is a fundamental tension between cyberspace and cybertime.
If cyberspace is potentially unlimited, as even the humble memory stick increases exponentially in capacity, cybertime is not. Cybertime – the finite, organic, physical elaboration of information – is bound by real limits. The temporality demanded by this elaboration slows down the operations of our mind as it seeks to invest information with effective forms of meaning. ((Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody, 44, 71.)) The digital has opened up vast possibilities for the dissemination of translated literature in cyberspace but the difficulty is contending with the attentional economy of cybertime, the making visible of a writer or a literature in translation that must compete in the electronic agora. The anxiety around visibility becomes manifest in the language of promotion itself. In January 2013 the Flemish Literature Fund which supports the funding of translations of Belgian Dutch-language literature co-organised an event in the United Kingdom under the heading “High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries” which was described as follows:
From 14 till 19 January 2013, Flanders House London and the Netherlands Embassy in the United Kingdom present “High Impact,” six top writers from the Low Countries on tour to six cities for six nights of readings and debates to showcase the best “High Impact” literature from Flanders and the Netherlands in English translation. The tour end with a final gala gathering in London of authors from both the UK and the Low Countries.
The authors are the Low Countries literati: all prize-winners and best-sellers back home, all writing in Dutch but from two different countries – Belgium and the Netherlands. Two of England’s closest neighbours producing some of the most exciting literature in Europe, but about whom the English public knows too little and they too little about each other. Now for the first time, and in a unique collaboration, six of the best Dutch-language storytellers are coming together for a rock star-style tour of six English cities – to perform for the English public and to discover what they may (or may not!) have in common. ((Flemish Literature Fund, “High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries.” Accessed 13 May 2015. http://buitenland.vfl.be/en/196/collections/34/high-impact.html.))
The language of institutional ranking (“high impact”) with the implicit background of the metrics of visibility (the optics of hits, citations, visits) is fused with the more conventional politics of spectacle (“a rock star-style tour of six English cities”). If the “English public knows too little about” its Dutch-speaking neighbours, then resources must be mobilised to achieve the maximum visibility in the crowded Anglophone attentionscape. Translation is the indispensable ally in the viability of the operation as both the literature itself and associated promotional activities on the website or elsewhere will be met with puzzlement, or worse, indifference, if audiences have no idea of what is going on. Put differently, what the Flemish Literature Fund is attempting to do is to create zones of legibility, in both a literal and metaphorical sense, for Dutch-language literature in the English-language literary landscape. This politics of legibility is, as I have argued elsewhere, part of the incorporation of literary translation into forms of brand nationalism, where state-funded agencies seek to promote positive images of cultural capital as part of a soft power strategy in international relations. ((Michael Cronin, Translation in the Digital Age (London: Routledge, 2013), 111-3.)) In the widespread culturalisation of economic advantage in everything from tourism to high-end consumer goods, capturing the scarce resource of attention through various forms of cultural performance is seen to guarantee more tangible forms of economic reward thus justifying public expenditure on the activities in the first place. ((See Finnbarr Bradley and James Kennelly, Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference: Innovation, Learning and Sense of Place in Globalising Ireland (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009).)) Cultural legibility shadows forms of economic accountability and vice versa. As the British Council argues in its public rationale for global involvement in English-language education and the arts, “In these ways, the British Council builds links between UK people and institutions and those around the world, helping to create trust and lay foundations for prosperity and security around the world.” ((British Council, “Our Organisation.” Accessed 18 May 2015. http://www.britishcouncil.org/organisation.))
There is a paradox, however, that haunts translation in this new political economy of attention and that is the attention that is or is not paid to translation itself. If translation as made explicit by the localisation industry is essential to attention-gathering in the global age, what kind of translation is envisaged? If in the time-space compression of global competitiveness, economic advantage consists in taking the waiting out of wanting, then how will translation be configured? One place the answers to these questions can be found is in A Strategy for American Innovation: Driving towards Sustainable Growth and Quality Jobs (2009) issued by the Office of the President in the United States. At the end of document under the heading “Catalyze Breakthroughs for National Priorities”, there is an explicit recommendation for investment in “automatic, highly accurate and real-time translation between the major languages of the world – greatly lowering the barriers to international commerce and communication.” ((Office of the President, A Strategy for American Innovation: Driving towards Sustainable Growth and Quality Jobs, 2009. Accessed May 18, 2015.This first statement of commitment to developing to fully operational MT systems, that has been reiterated subsequently, presupposes a notion of translation as invisible, automatic and instantaneous. In the de-regulation of language (“lowering barriers to international commerce”), translation becomes the Invisible Hand in the market of communication. In order to consider the deeper implications of this conceptualisation we want to briefly consider the distinction the anthropologist Tim Ingold establishes between “transport” and “wayfaring.” Ingold argues that human existence is not fundamentally place-bound but place-binding:
It unfolds not in places but along paths. Proceeding along a path, every inhabitant lays a trail. Where inhabitants meet, trails are entwined, as the life of each becomes bound up with the other. Every entwining is a knot, and the more that lifelines are entwined, the greater the density of the knot.
Places, then, are like knots, and the threads from which they are tied are lines of wayfaring. A house, for example, is a place where the lines of its residents are tightly knotted together. But these lines are no more contained within the house than are threads contained within a knot. Rather, they trail beyond it, only to become caught up with other lines in other places, as are threads in other knots. Together they make up what I have called the meshwork. ((Timothy Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (London: Routledge, 2011), 149 (his emphasis). ))
Transport is primarily concerned with destination. If wayfaring is a development along a way of life, transport is primarily about carrying people or goods across, from location to location, leaving their basic natures unchanged, “for in transport, the traveller does not himself move.” Only when travellers reach their destination do they begin to move. One consequence of the privileging in the contemporary moment of transport over wayfaring is what Ingold terms the “logic of inversion.” ((Ingold, Being Alive, 150, 69.)) This is the procedure whereby movement is reduced to a static point in space. If, for example, I draw a circle on a piece of paper, there are two ways of conceiving of this circle. One is to consider it as the trace of a trail, the story of a movement with a pencil. The other is to see the circle as a bounded point with an inside and an outside. The pathway in this view becomes a place in space. The inversion lies in the folding of the object in upon itself so that it is delineated and contained within a perimeter, set off against the surrounding world, with which it is destined to eventually interact. The memory of the continuous movement of the line in the world that brought it into being is lost. What becomes illegible in Google’s “Translate this page” is the continuous movement of language in the world that produces one or the other translation option. Translation is conceived of as a form of transport rather than as wayfaring, as primarily destination-oriented, a process of straight information transfer from point A (language A) to point B (language B) in networks of international communication.
It is precisely this logic of inversion that an ecology of translation must set out to challenge. A major critique of an economics of attention has been that it privileged means at the expense of ends without which the notion of attention is meaningless. Similarly, to see language as purely instrumental without considering the ends to which it isemployed is to allow strategies of legibility to be employed in ways that may be deeply damaging to human flourishing. Mary Louise Pratt and Vicente L. Rafael have detailed how the “weaponization” of language in contemporary forms of warfare, notably in counterinsurgency practices, is rooted in instrumentalist concepts of translation and foreign language learning. ((Mary Louise Pratt, “Harm’s Way: Language and the Contemporary Arts of War,” PMLA 124.5, (2009): 1515-1531. Vicente L. Rafael, “Targeting Translation: US Counterinsurgency and the Politics of Language,” Social Text 113.30.4 (2012): 55-80.))
More broadly, it can be argued that what an ecology of translation must seek to do is to make available or communicable the commons of language itself. In his 12 axioms of attentional ecosophy, Yves Citton lists as axiom number 12, Apprendre à valoriser les propriétés de fond [Learn to value background properties]. ((Citton, Pour une écologie de l’attention, 260.)) Part of the project of political ecology has been to make subjects aware of the importance of the ‘commons’, the water, air, climate, traditional knowledge and know-how. These things are shared and because they are shared, they are ‘grounds’ rather than ‘figures’ in individualistic regimes of value. They are not the focus of attention because in neo-classical or neo-liberal regimes of thought they do not “figure.” Paying attention to what is in the background is re-calibrating attentiveness to produce new regimes of value that prize what we have in common if only because it is these things that ensure our common survival.
Language is one of those things that humans hold in common and although or because it is what humans use to speak about the figures of their attention (every time we open our mouth it is talk about what, for some reason or another, has caught our attention) its role can too often be perceived to be the neutral, background medium that facilitates the plain speaking of information exchange. The logic of inversion which feeds the automated, instantaneous paradigm of language transfer keeps language firmly in the background. Recovering the Language Commons is about developing an ecology of translational attention that brings the wayfaring of language and cultural movement to the fore. In other words, in the contemporary digital moment, it is about exploring translation practices in everything from translators’ blogs to fansubbing to see how attention is drawn to the processual complexity of language and culture as they move across global attentionscapes. This ecology of translational attention is also concerned with how routinized, unreflective or narrowly utilitarian notions of language impoverish the Language Commons and deplete the expressive resources of future generations. It is high time to figure out, at last, what we are leaving behind.