Anthropology and Social Nature of Translation

The concept of translation is a concept long ingrained in many disciplines, with a distinctive anthropological contribution that emphasizes the social nature of translation and the multiple nature of meaning.

In the first place, a common metaphor for the anthropologist’s task has become that of a “translation” from one culture to another. However, it is also accepted that this is a problematic and controversial process, in philosophical, practical and ethical or political terms. Thus, there have been as many explicit (and implicit) approaches to “cultural translation” as there have been contrasting theoretical positions throughout the history of anthropology.

Secondly,There is the more literal sense of translating verbal texts from one language (or sometimes dialect) to another – something that most anthropologists practice in practice. This is also not straightforward, and many anthropologists now explicitly acknowledge the complexities of translation, particularly inspired by the work of North American and Scandinavian literary-linguistic anthropologists on verbal art, oral literature, etc. (for a summary see Fin-negan 1992: ch. 9). Many of the themes revolve around different theories about the nature of language and communication, and therefore about what is being “translated.” There is also the question of who is representing their voice, and for what audience. Recent approaches challenge the notion of “literal” translation and often focus on the expressive and Œperformative aspects, arguing, for example, that translation should not be limited to a simple verbal text, but would also attempt to recreate some of the interpretation and contextual features (see Tedlock 1971 for a classic statement). There is also now a growing awareness of the ethical and political dimensions of translation: translators may be in a position of power or take a particular view of controversial views on language use. In the past, some translators have given a very derogatory and “primitive” impression of the original authors,

Finally, the social process of translation may itself be an object of anthropological study (eg Sherzer 1990: 36 ff.): More ethnographic work is needed on this intriguing subject.

by Abdullah Sam
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