EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Anthropology as translation: working misunderstandings?
Location U6-29
Date and Start Time 23 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Iracema Dulley (Cebrap) email
  • Massimiliano Lacertosa (SOAS University of London) email

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Short Abstract

This panel discusses the processes through which representations are produced in anthropological practice as translation. By focusing on ethnographic writing and visual media, it interrogates translation as a concept and practice in anthropology.

Long Abstract

The analogy between anthropology and translation is not new. Interestingly, it has been posed by authors espousing very different perspectives. If according to this idea anthropology represents in one sociocultural language something that is usually expressed in another, there are many ways in which translational work can be understood. Is translation, and thus anthropology, a working misunderstanding, as Sahlins would have it? To what extent is it possible to claim to represent in one's (sociocultural) language something that it does not contain? And is translation a relevant problem for anthropology or is it an irrelevant one, as affirmed by Lévi-Strauss on the translation of myth? By focusing on the representations produced in anthropological practice, such as ethnographic writing, photography, or film-making, this panel reflects on how the (in)commensurability of translation affects anthropological practice. It interrogates translation as a concept for making sense of anthropology's work of (dis)placement and discusses the implications of such a conceptual choice. Papers dealing with translation in a literal sense are also welcome.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


"Dancing Ethiopia": performances of intangible culture in Addis Abeba's dance scene

Author: Kim Glück (Frobenius-Institute)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines how dance expresses intangible culture in the Ethiopian capital Addis Abeba. Analyzing live performances and video clips, it asks how an ephemeral art form can be captured on paper.

Long Abstract

My research examines how dance conveys cultural identity in multiethnic Addis Abeba. Ethiopia's capital celebrates the nation's cultural diversity - the country is home to around 80 ethnic groups, who speak between 70 and 100 languages - in different performance venues, such as theatres, Clubs, dance schools and Cultural Restaurants. Here, dance is used to express one's identity by displaying a variety of traditional dances from different Ethiopian regions.

Observing these places, interviewing dancers and audience, capturing the atmosphere and the closely-knit relationship between audience and performer by filming the performances, and even taking part in the actual dancing are key elements of ethnographic "participant observation". But how can an anthropologist from abroad translate these dances in words?

How does the researcher's own sociocultural language influence his translation of dance movements, and even his view on movement patterns? Current methods of transcription, such as dance notations (for example Labanotation), are too reliant on personal and cultural facts. Using a video camera might add to the anthropological methods, but does it help in decoding meaning? My paper discusses these and other difficulties in capturing the living cultural expression of Ethiopian dance on paper.

Savimbi's deceptive speech: translation as a political weapon

Author: Ariel Rolim (University of Sao Paulo)  email

Short Abstract

Jonas Savimbi, the rebel leader during the Angolan civil war, often made contrasting statements in different languages, according to his audience. The purpose of this paper is to assess the political use translation can assume and the role discursive regimes play in political processes.

Long Abstract

Jonas Savimbi has become a symbol of the Angolan civil conflict that followed the struggle for independence in that country. As the leader of UNITA, the main organization to face the MPLA-led government already before independence, his image is completely intertwined with that nation's political processes, and its many stances of internationalization. In my doctoral research, I propose a consideration of the Angolan national imaginary during the conflict through an analysis of the changes in the discursive regimes and its turning points. I do so as an attempt to escape recurrent assumptions of the conflict either as a spin-off of the Cold War, or as having its origins on some sort of irreducible ethnic conundrum. In this sense, it is particularly interesting to analyze Savimbi's speeches and taking into account his different audiences, the language they speak and country of origin. Fluent in Portuguese, French, English, and many African languages, Savimbi is known for having skillfully manipulated many of his interlocutors at different stages of the conflict, according to his circumstantial agenda. On the same occasion, he could make completely different statements on a particular subject, but in different languages. In this paper, I propose to address such contrasting narratives having in consideration particular political conjunctures. In doing so, the purpose is to assess the political use translation can assume at specific moments and, more importantly, what this network of apparently contradictory statements can tell us about the role discursive regimes play in political processes lato sensu.

Working misunderstandings and translations of child protection in Colombia

Authors: Susana Borda Carulla (University of Geneva)  email
Karl Hanson (Université de Genève)  email

Short Abstract

The analogy between anthropology and translation is explored in the framework of the policy-making process on child protection in Colombia. Light is shed on working misunderstandings among stakeholders. Translation is seen as a social reality and thus an object of study for the anthropologist.

Long Abstract

In this paper we will explore the analogy between anthropology and translation in the framework of the policy-making process concerning child protection in Colombia. Our analysis will be based on ethnographic data recovered during field-work conducted in the slums of southern Bogotá within one of the Colombian State's major child protection programmes, completed by a study of relevant domestic and international legislation. We will study the divergent logics of two of the social actors concerned by the programme: the Colombian State and the children's care-takers (the "community mothers"). The actors' divergent logics will be theorized as being different translations of the ideas contained within international children's rights legislation. We will thereby highlight a number of "working misunderstandings" (as Sahlins would put it) concerning child protection among international and domestic legislators and community mothers.

"Working misunderstandings" between ideas developed in the framework of human rights concerning what childhood protection is and how it should be dealt with, and national and/or local translations of those ideas are a common social reality in contemporary societies. In this line of thought, we see translation more as an object of study for contemporary childhood anthropology rather than as an epistemological posture. Anthropologists, not only lawyers, thus need to understand the content of law in order to make sense of those misunderstandings. The question is how to observe the content of law at work in social practices: the social regulation theory is one possible answer to this question.

Between reference and différance: translating others in Colonial Angola

Author: Iracema Dulley (Cebrap)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers how interpellation by the colonial state was both juxtaposed with and displaced by vernacular forms of designating oneself and others in the Central Highlands of Angola.

Long Abstract

If naming others was part and parcel of colonialism, names in western and vernacular languages were often entangled in attempts to represent oneself and others in colonial society. In Angola, interpellation by the colonial state, which sought to make legal and racial categories equivalent with social places through the indigenato regime (1926-1961), was both juxtaposed with and displaced by vernacular forms of designating oneself and others. This paper argues that designations in Umbundu, the main language spoken in the Central Highlands of Angola, both challenged and reproduced the racialization and hierarchy that structured colonial society. In so doing, it suggests how a certain reading of "reference as différance," as proposed by Jacques Derrida, might contribute to the theorization of naming, difference, and translation by dwelling on iterational displacement.

Translation and metaphor

Author: Massimiliano Lacertosa (SOAS University of London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper analyses the theoretical implications of translation as interpretation. In particular, the process of translation is considered in its relation with the construction of metaphors.

Long Abstract

This paper argues that a necessary system of translation takes place every time we encounter the other. Here, the other is considered, not only in its narrow sense as the other than self, but also in its broad sense as the other culture than itself. The dialogue between the parts can be more or less problematic depending on the extent of shared common ground. For instance, differences in languages are a familiar issue in anthropology - and in many other disciplines. However, this is just one aspect of a wider problem. In fact, if we accept the idea, perfectly stated by Wilhelm Humboldt, that the differences between languages are not merely differences of sounds and signs but more deeply and originally differences of visions of the world (Weltansichten), then the basic task of a translation is the interpretation and reconstruction of these worldviews. Therefore, a translation is always an interpretation in a broader context than the language's meaning and needs to take into consideration not only the view of the interpreted but also the one of the interpreter. In this respect, the translation is the locus of the encounter and comparison of worldviews.

The paper proposes the concept of metaphor as a useful tool to understand the process of translation in anthropology as well as in other disciplines, drawing attention to the Chinese idea of 道 (dào) and its Heideggerian interpretation.

Semiotic translations I: the ambivalences and potentialities of translation in semiotic and ethnographic theory

Author: Franciscu Sedda (University of Cagliari)  email

Short Abstract

Our contribution aims to compare the developments of the concept of translation in Anthropology with the route that the same concept has taken in Semiotics, hoping that the conceptual outcomes in Semiotics might help clarify and reinforce the centrality of the idea of translation in Anthropology.

Long Abstract

In the contemporary anthropological debate both Geertz and Clifford explicitly place translation at the heart of their anthropological proposals. More recently, Viveiros de Castro has similarly suggested cultural translation as the very task of the discipline, redefining Amerindian perspectivism as a specific form of translation based on controlled equivocation.

That notwithstanding, in a recent issue of Hau, edited by Hanks and Severi, it is asserted that the depth and universality of translation has in fact been so far underestimated, while translation might help overcome both cognitivism and ontologism's limits.

Our contribution aims to compare such developments in Anthropology with the route that the concept of translation has taken in Semiotics, hoping that the conceptual outcomes in Semiotics might help clarify and reinforce the centrality of the idea of translation in Anthropology. From Peirce to Jakobson, from Greimas to Eco, from Lotman up to include the recent upswing of a Semiotics of Cultures, the concept of translation has become internally specified to the degree that we might say that today signification can be likened to the concept of light in Physics. Where in the latter light appears at once undulatory and made of particles, in Semiotics signification appears to be simultaneously constituted by two forms of translation - classically defined as interpretation and correlation - that in order to function must make each other mutually invisible. Something which, besides, would explain the difficult recognition of signification both as the foundation of the semiotic-anthropological disciplines and as the constitutive element of cultures.

Semiotic translations II: translating sūtras, pilgrimages and ethnographic experience in Katsuragi

Author: Tatsuma Padoan (SOAS, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

My paper will explore dynamics of legitimation, conflict and equivocation embedded in translation, by looking at strategies of intersemiotic translation enacted by both ritual practitioners and the ethnographer, through the case of a revivalist group of ascetics in Katsuragi, central Japan.

Long Abstract

In his seminal essay on translation, Jakobson (1959) defined three different ways of translating verbal language, as: (1) intralingual translation, or rewording within the same language; (2) interlingual, or translation from one language to another; (3) intersemiotic, from verbal to nonverbal languages. This last category has been further expanded both in anthropology (Hanks 2014; Rubel and Rosman 2003) and semiotics (Fabbri 2003; Dusi and Nergaard 2000) to also include correlations between nonverbal semiotic systems. This paper intends to address such issues in ethnographic analysis and writing, through an investigation of the equivocal and conflicting value of translation in a contemporary case of mountain asceticism in Japan. Drawing from ethnographic data collected on fieldwork in 2008-2009, and more recently in 2014 and 2015, I will analyse a revivalist group of ascetics from the temple Tenpōrinji on the top of Mt. Kongō (1125 m), belonging to the Shugendō movement or "The Way to Ascetic Powers". This group, in competition with other Shugendō organisations, is trying to restore an ancient pilgrimage across the Katsuragi mountain range, where the twenty-eight chapters of the Buddhist scripture Lotus Sūtra were buried in ancient times, and where the Word of Buddha is, according to the practitioners, transposed into the materiality of the landscape. In this paper I shall explore dynamics of authority, transformation and contestation produced by this intersemiotic translation, looking in particular at the equivocation of values and subjectivities embedded in the transposition of fieldwork experience into ethnographic writing.

Lost in cultural translation

Authors: Dina Pokrajac (Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb)  email
Petar Bujas (Faculty of Philosophy)  email

Short Abstract

While researching almost any cultural phenomenon one faces possible difficulties in its interpretation. Is it possible during this process to be immune to the political and economic implications that cause a glitch in translation? Must we always be lost in cultural translation?

Long Abstract

While researching almost any cultural phenomenon one faces possible difficulties in its interpretation. It is not merely a question of facts which can be successfully or poorly researched. It is the matter of the perspective through which one interprets the phenomenon and which provides us with the premises for our future conclusions. Eliade showed us that in order to understand other, non-European cultures we must break away from our Eurocentrism. Eliade proves that we can translate the cultural phenomena of the Ancients to our European languages and mentalities, but only provided that we respect their raison d'etre and sociocultural perspectives, and never translate literally, solely through the conceptions of the interpreter of these cultures. Said exposed the misconception of Oriental cultures that arose out of the misunderstandings of their content which was the result of the cultural interpretation envisioned in order to accommodate the needs and views of Western Christianity. In light of the Foucauldian analysis of the discourse of power, the question arises whether the understanding of other cultures, however familiar or distant they are, is at all possible? The Orientalist has made a profession out of constantly turning the Orient from one thing into another: he does it for himself, his culture, and in certain occasions, he believes he is doing it for the benefit of the said Oriental. Is it possible during this process to be immune to the political and economic implications that cause a glitch in translation? Must we always be lost in cultural translation?

Could anthropologists also become translation tools in therapeutic relationships?

Authors: Matteo Fano (E.H.E.S.S. Marseille)  email
Carlotta Magnani (EHESS Marseille)  email
Cyril Farnarier (LaSSA)  email

Short Abstract

Ethnographic practice provides anthropologists with tools for understanding the determinants of agents’ behaviours within a therapeutic relationship. Our paper will discuss the use of this knowledge to improve communication between the actors.

Long Abstract

In a therapeutic relationship, both informed consent for treatment and operative compliance may be difficult to achieve. Limits to mutual comprehension between a physician and his/her patient (such as reciprocal interpretations that are unconsciously arbitrary) can explain this difficulty.

Indeed, communication is ostensive-inferential act: the listener has to interpret the message. This cognitive process deals with the part of knowledge that "comes to the (conscious) mind" at the moment of the verbal exchange. This exchange is related to the context of communication and to the listener's aims. When the latter reaches an interpretation that seems coherent with these factors, s/he takes it for true and stops elaborating. This interpretation could be wrong or partial, but something has to make the contradiction manifest for this hiatus to appear.

Through ethnographic practice, one can study everyone's speech from a pragmatic perspective. This approach has different aims than the medical one and allows observing the agents before, during and after the medical consultation. It could thus enable a better understanding of the determinants of actors' behaviours and, of course, lead to translating more effectively one's signifier into the others' signified. Can anthropologists share this knowledge with the actors in order to reach, through collaboration between social and cognitive sciences, a better reciprocal understanding? This is the question we would like to address.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.