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Translation in anthropology: theoretical assumptions and practical cases

Updated: May 31


The relationship between translation theory and anthropology has been very important since the beginning of the anthropological discipline, even before, when travelers and missionaries were doing ethnology without being aware of it. But these relationships have been hidden, or have been discussed in small circles, so that nothing that has been discussed or concluded has left the academic environment. However, for some years now, specifically from the seventies onwards, the situation has changed in the study of culture. This change offers new perspectives for the analysis of translation in its most general aspect, as cultural translation, while at the same time it highlights a wide range of problems that anthropologists face when they have to carry out their research work, since they work with indigenous languages, most of them unsystematized in terms of grammar and with highly fluctuating vocabularies and great geographical variation. The reflections presented below do not attempt to solve any problematic points, but rather to highlight some of the complex aspects of anthropological cultural translation. As we have commented before, since the seventies a situation of trial and error has become widespread in the anthropology, affecting both the methods and the objectives of the discipline, with greater or lesser success. This situation has provoked the inevitable concern on the part of anthropologists and has created a certain insecurity that is considered negative, but there is also a positive aspect since, among all these cracks that are opening up, some new concepts and categories are appearing that come from other fields of knowledge and other disciplines. One of these new concepts is the notion of cultural translation, the basic axis of anthropological research, that is, the interpretation of anthropological work as if it were an act of translation. First of all, there is a clear similarity between the work of the translator and the work of the anthropologist, since both leave their own fields of reference, whether linguistic or cultural, to enter, more or less painfully, into another system of references that is completely different. In this sense, the change made by the anthropologist has a more radical dimension. Although both have to master a new language, the linguistic translator can enter the other reality by means of historical, literary or other texts the anthropologist has to enter into direct contact with the speakers themselves. Both activities agree, therefore, on the object of their activity, which is always the intelligible transmission of "the other", "the linguistically and culturally distinct". This traditional similarity has not really been taken seriously until quite recently. For all anthropologists it was clear that their daily task was to translate, and to be translating constantly until your own references are diluted in the new cultural reality, but it is then that you have to communicate this different cultural reality by writing an ethnography, which is also a process of translation. As you can see, then, they are always translating in some way or another. It is also clear to translators that they are in some way anthropologists, since they are very aware that behind every literary, technical or any other translation there was always a culture that produced that text. Without stretching the comparison too far we also knew that the differences were few but significant, some translate texts, and others, the anthropologists, translate cultures. But the new revolutions in the field of anthropology have dynamited these differences, especially after Clifford Geertz's reflections on anthropological genres. Thus, the new panorama offered to us is a progressive approach by anthropology towards the humanities, together with a discrediting of anthropology as an objective science. This moment of rapprochement between linguistic translation and the cultural translation of anthropology can be perceived in some footnotes of one of the most important anthropological studies on culture - The interpretation of cultures, by Geertz. It is clear there that what an anthropologist does primarily is to write, so that anthropological research has then become part of the subjective genre of fiction, and has lost much of its scientific character. Another important idea that has been developed in this American movement is the interpretation of cultures as if they were texts that must be analysed, therefore, with instruments of literary criticism. It is at this point that, from my point of view, there is a greater rapprochement between the work of the anthropologist and that of the translator, since one analyses culture as if it were a complex text, in another language, which hides a long and complex historical perspective of meaning formation, and which responds to a different mentality and which must be translated as faithfully as possible, and the other, in which the translator works with a text that has similar characteristics. The support of the theory of linguistic translation for anthropology in this case is very important, provided that the culture is understood as if it were a text to be translated and interpreted. To this first step of a theoretical nature, it should be added that cultures are not a set of symbols or values, but a set of texts that are fixed on paper, created subjectively and, therefore, are almost texts of fiction. The important thing is not the analysis of culture as if it were a text, but the analysis of the texts written about that culture by anthropologists who become, and are understood as, true literary critics. In this way, cultures are artificially constructed from ethnographic texts, and in this sense cultural translation, with broad presuppositions of objectivity in the previous interpretation, becomes something merely subjective and without any validity, only the creative capacity of the author and the capacity of the interpreter stand out. But do the texts then say something about cultural reality, or has cultural translation created a different and new reality than that objectively studied by the anthropologist? These are some of the many contradictions presented by this post-modern anthropological movement. Leaving aside this last movement of interpretation of anthropology as a subjective cultural translation, we are going to focus on the approach that, from interpretive anthropology, is carried out by the functions of the anthropologist and the translator.

Once the scholar of culture begins her research work in a given place, she is already performing the functions of a translator. The first and most important, and also the most traditional, is to engage in direct conversations with the locals to learn what they do and how they interpret their actions. All these conversations must be in the native language. This is the basic starting point for any serious anthropological work, but this requires the linguistic training of the ethnographer, which involves an additional effort, especially if the scholar's interests are not directly related to language, and have to do with aspects of material culture or technology. Along with this added effort there is also a strong obstacle to overcome, such as the possible lack of sources to study grammar and vocabulary, as well as a significant lack of written texts where the indigenous language is fixed. Many anthropologists have had to use interpreters from the native culture who are bilingual, since they have not studied the native language with dedication, and in this way the first step into the foreign culture is avoided without difficulty. But this is nothing more than looking at the other side of the problem and not taking the bull by the horns, since, in this way, it breaks with one of the principles of objectivity in anthropology such as the balanced use of informants, since if they are chosen for their bilingual capacity, and this is the variable that has the most influence, other variables such as belonging to such a caste, or the relevant role within the social group or other anthropologically relevant variables are not taken into consideration. If the informant is taken exclusively as an interpreter, our vision is already translated, so that the terms or categories that we analyse will be based on the native culture, and this then does not interest anthropology either. In the interviews that are the beginning of any research work, written notes are usually taken, but the most usual and practical thing is to record the interview on tape and then translate it. From my point of view, this exercise has two problems that are very important and very difficult to solve. On the one hand, translation from one language to another from the recording has little similarity, since the separation and difference between cultures offers greater rigour to anthropology, and therefore the context has to play a determining role in understanding the informant's words. Something like the gestures of the face, the movements of the arms, the expression, etc., and all of this is lost in purely sound recordings. The second complicated issue is the translation of some of the native terms that designate unique and interchangeable aspects of the source culture being studied. In this sense the solutions are very varied, there are those who adopt a more objective position and leave the native term between quotes written in the original language, and there are those who choose to translate the term completely trying to get as close as possible to some aspect or situation that occurs in the culture of the anthropologist, and there are still others who decide to explain the cultural sense of the term. This seems to me to be the most correct position, but if a culture has to be culturally translated for each of its concepts, the work would be endless.

All these practical problems have been kept within the academic sphere of specialists in different cultures, but the increase in emigration from less developed countries to powerful countries, as well as ethnic conflicts and many other historical facts are making ethnography no longer for the specialised public, but for the general public, and not only for the metropolis as it was before in colonial times, but now it is of interest to the globalised world. Together with these problems that we have previously mentioned, we find another one, which already places us on a second level of translation, as is the translation of ethnographies, or detailed descriptions of the different cultures, that is, passing to Spanish, German, Japanese etc. the ethnographies written in English, or other languages. At this second level, translation is relatively less difficult since languages are usually well established both syntactically and semantically, so that in this case linguistic translation predominates over the cultural translation that we have seen in the first moment of anthropological work. In spite of the fact that translation in this case does not represent a great difficulty, it has to be done by anthropologists and, in the Spanish case, this specialisation within the discipline is very limited. I would like to mention one of the great translators that has existed in Spain in the field of anthropology, Alberto Cardín. There are innumerable translations of his anthropological works, so he must be considered as the most important Spanish anthropological translator. One of his most significant translations has been Malinowski's diaries, a work that forms part of the origin of these changes of perspective in anthropology that we have mentioned. Alberto Cardín has translated from English, French and Italian the greatest works of world anthropology, and the most radical novelties such as Hocart's study entitled Myth, Ritual and Custom, as well as the monumental History of Religions, Godelier's study on Economic Institutions was also translated by Cardin from the French, as well as Malinowski's Field Diary in Melanesia, and John Gumpez's study on Language and Culture, translated from English. Among the latest publications and books translated by him before his death, The Anthropologist as Author, is the study on anthropological writing by Clifford Geertz, as well as Frazer's classic Myths about the Origin of Fire. Since the death of Alberto Cardín, anthropological translation in Spain has been empty, and the pace of arrival of new ethnography and studies has been slowed down by the roots.

As the similarities between anthropological and translation work are increasingly closer, it would not be out of place to continue researching those aspects that from the analysis of culture can help translation, and it would be very interesting to highlight some of the aspects that, thought out and applied in translation theories, can serve to improve anthropological research, as well as serve to refine the analysis of cultures as if they were texts. Within this line of research, I hope that these reflections can serve as a starting point for further, more concrete analyses. Although not directly related to our work on certified translation, it is interesting to see the many areas that translation has a direct relation to. Anthropology has always fascinated me, and I continue to read the subject where I can for please, but professionally speaking, our specialisation is definitely in the certified translation, so, whatever you need, just let us know and we'll get you the best quote around, guarateed. Thanks for reading.

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