Authority & Ability

Nick Green
Jun 29, 2019 · 7 min read

Translation kerfuffles show up in the Anime Discourse™ like clockwork, or a bad rash. Though the details change, a few core items remain the same each and every time. One of these is a conflation between ability to translate and authority to translate. What do I mean by that? Take a look at this chart.

This is a matrix diagram, used to show the possible combinations between two variables. The X-axis shows authority, the Y-axis shows ability. What we can see from the diagram is that, with two binary variables, there are four possible combinations.

A person can possess both the ability and the authority to translate, shown in purple.

A person can possess the ability to translate, but lack the authority, shown in blue.

A person can possess the authority to translate, but lack the ability, shown in red.

A person can lack both the ability and the authority to translate, shown in white.

The ability to translate is precisely that, the capability to do so. The authority, on the other hand, is the permission to translate, something that only arises under the concept of intellectual property, such as in a capitalist system. What I see pretty much every time there’s some stink being raised about translations, these two variables are conflated to be related in a way that they simply are not. There is an assumption being made, an assumption that the only two fields that are possible are the upper left (purple) and the lower right (white). Far too many people conflate having the authority to translate with having the ability to translate and vice versa, resulting in the other two combinations being ignored as if they don’t even exist.

What does this mean? It means that people are assuming that only those with the authority to translate have the ability to do so. Conversely, they also assume that lacking the authority also means lacking the ability. But these are only related in the slimmest of ways, and only because of the monopoly that capitalism places on intellectual property. Ability is not dependent on authority, nor is authority dependent on ability. Capitalism tries to force a relationship, but what occurs is only the faintest shadow of one.

This is where items like fan translations come into play. There is an assumption that every fan translation sits in the lower right (white) quadrant, and every official release sits in the upper left (purple) quadrant. This simply is not true, and even when a particular item does fall into those quadrants, it’s not because the two variables are intertwined. Possessing or lacking authority does not automatically grant ability. They are two different things. While fan translations lack authority, they do not necessarily lack ability. And by that same notion, an official release possesses the authority, but may lack the ability and turn out to be poor in quality.

That latter case is frequently where kerfuffles arise. People become irritated when an official authorized release turns out to be of poor quality, while defenders go around demanding that people accept it because “you’re lucky to get any release at all.” That is the exact place where the conflation occurs, when people expect a relationship between authority and ability where one does not and will never exist. Those two axes simply do not have a natural relationship.

The conflation arises because there is an assumption that is primarily driven by capitalist processes. The assumption is that possessing an ability like translation can only be granted authority when placed within a capitalist role, like working for a company. Basically, only translators who work for companies are real translators. People who don’t translate for a company aren’t real translators. That is the assumption being made.

This assumption is often pushed by those employed translators, for reasons that are a mixture of what goes on inside their heads — which would be inappropriate to attempt to delve into — and for reasons enforced by capitalist monopolies that are inseparable from the concept of intellectual property. For example, people protecting the monopoly so they can keep being employed, so they can keep the, “I’m the one and only being allowed to translate so unless you know the native language yourself, you have to go through me. Anyone else making a translation is unauthorized and therefore illegitimate and shall not be permitted to exist.”

It’s an assumption that has been disproven time and time again, most evidently in the field of FOSS, aka free and open source software. Thousands of people have put millions of hours into creating software on their own time, outside of the capitalist model, specifically to be disseminated freely. Examples include Blender, Inkscape, Apache, and FFmpeg. Frequently this software can even surpass what is created by employees of companies. Why would translation be any different? Why would any field be different? Ability is ability. Authority wants to accumulate and absorb ability, but it does not grant it. It merely uses its power to hoard it.

Depending on where the assumption of the two being conflated is coming from changes the reasoning. But much of the time this assumption is expressed by employees of companies, be they translators or not. There is a mix of arrogance and propaganda in their assumptions that arises specifically from the criteria of being an employee.

The arrogance comes from believing that only those people employed for a particular ability — in this case translation — are worthy. That they’re the best, not by merit of their demonstrated ability, but by merit of being employed. That the state of employment is the determinant factor of proving ability. The arrogance of believing that only employment by a company can grant legitimacy aids in accumulating power in the hands of the powerful. The assumption goes like this, “if you’re good at something, it should be your job, you should be using that ability to make money (for the company, with you getting a fraction of it as compensation for the labor you sell in the market).”

It’s an arrogance that assumes that if someone has an ability that they aren’t being put to use within a model of capitalist employment, that ability is lesser than someone whose ability is engaged in such a model. It’s the arrogance of the capitalist system transmitted through the vector of the employee. It’s one of the ways in which capitalist Entities dehumanize people, using employees as shield and sword to protect itself against critics. It pits employees against customers, leaving them to tear each other to pieces while it sits above the fray and reaps the rewards, all the time knowing and worrying that if those groups realized what was happening, they could band together and overthrow the Entity with very little effort at all.

This feeds into capitalist propaganda that only capitalist Entities like companies have the right to grant ability, through their monopoly over granting authority. They don’t want the system to be undermined because it would reveal the house of cards upon which they stand. Breaking through the illusion of the conflation of authority and ability undermines their monopoly.

For example, a couple of years ago, The Odyssey received a new translation, the first by a woman, Emily Wilson. This new translation drastically reinterpreted Homer’s work because it was able to be looked at by a different translator than those who had come before her. It was only possible because The Odyssey is in the public domain, not tied up in some company’s IP. By contrast, the anime and manga being translated today is owned by companies and receives only one ‘official’ translation. But as Wilson proved, every translator that comes to a work will interpret it in their own way, adding depth to the work. That is impossible when companies own IP, when they act as the sole arbiters of authority. The assumption that only translators employed by companies — possessing the authority — also are the only ones possessing ability results in the notion that only capitalist Entities can possess ability. That anyone acting outside the capitalist model lacks not only authority, but also lacks ability.

That’s horse piss.

It’s a weapon used by Entities to capture everything within the capitalist model. That model demands that everything be transformed into a commodity that can then be traded in a marketplace. IP only exists because it’s a form of private property that capitalist entities can take advantage of for their own gain. And in this particular category, it’s trying to transform language itself into IP that only companies have the right to use.

IP is the tool by which capitalist Entities conflate authority and ability. They seek to capture what ability they can within their monopoly, and then render all ability outside their authority as illegitimate. IP is a form of private property that enables rent seeking behavior on the part of the Entities owning the IP. They can sell it over and over again, collecting profits on something that they only paid workers for once. For example, a translator gets paid once for their work, but once the translation exists, the Entity can sell it over and over again nonstop. It’s heinous, and one of the causes of the conflation between authority and ability.

At the end of the day, ability comes from people’s hard work, while authority is granted to people on a contingent basis by non-human Entities looking out for their own interests. The two aren’t naturally related in the slightest, maintaining only a shallow appearance of being related due to how IP functions. In order to get past having translation kerfuffles occur over and over again, we have to break through the illusion of their relationship and eventually break the concept of IP itself into pieces. When that is broken, there can be as many translations as there are people to translate, unbound by any arrogant authority as to who gets granted permission. There will no longer be kerfuffles because no one will be bound to accept the “one true translation.” People will be empowered to make changes for themselves and not have to kowtow to an authority’s decision on who gets permission to perform a translation. All that horse piss will vanish like a puddle in the sun.

Nick Green

Written by

Founder of the doujin circle Sasuga Studios // sasugastudios.com //

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