Translation in ethnography
Representing Latin American studies in English
Ethnography refers to in-depth participant observation research and to the written report that results, and is often described metaphorically as a type of “cultural translation.” Little attention has been paid, however, to the actual linguistic translation that occurs in the process of research and writing, even in the interdisciplinary field of Latin American Studies, in which research is often conducted in a language other than English and written up in English. The privileging of academic Standard English in ethnographic texts creates dilemmas for ethnographers whose research participants speak “foreign” languages. These dilemmas are rarely discussed in the ethnographic texts or the literature on ethnographic methodology. Based on content analysis of 47 book-length ethnographies on Latin Americans, we investigate how ethnographers typically deal with language difference in their texts and why language matters. Language is intimately connected to power dynamics in the field, and ethnographers’ decisions about how to represent language can indicate rigor and thoughtfulness about their position vis-à-vis participants, yet such linguistic reflexivity is rare.
Keywords: ethnography, translation, Latin American Studies
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