Anthropology and translation

Antonio Lavieri
Table of contents

Until recently, the role assigned to translation in ethno-anthropological studies has remained controversial and/or marginal. After the famous debate on British social anthropology at the turn of the 1960s (Asad 1986), the many and diverse approaches to translation – especially by the American linguistic anthropology and ethnopoetics – are still affected by epistemological, semantic, and ontological challenges: the impossibility to define language unequivocally (is it a concept, a text or a statement?), the inscrutability of reference (as in Willard Quine’s terms) and the methodological oscillation between universalist, ethnographic and pragmatic models. Rodney Needham devoted his Belief, Language and Experience (1972) to the translatability of concepts, indicating the act of translation as a constitutive moment of anthropological knowledge, while Dennis Tedlock, a prominent figure in ethnopoetics, applied new translation strategies to Amerindian myths. Studying several versions of Zuni tales and the Mayan Popul Vuh, Tedlock remarked that in the transition from orality to writing the suppression of oral markers irreversibly conditions the translation process. Thus, in his translation practice, he began using typographic devices that could incorporate the specificity of the oral dimension into the text; in a few instances, he even provided the recordings of oral performances along with the transcriptions (Tedlock 1983). More recently, Dell Hymes’ ethnopoetic research has focused on the retranscription and critical retranslation of some texts of the Amerindian tradition previously published by Edward Sapir and Melville Jacobs. Hymes has shown that the performances of oral traditions are deeply connected with the communicative competence understood as the ability to produce voice, and are thereby linked to the specific modalities in which reality is experienced, be they linguistic-poetic, cognitive, cultural, or emotional: “ethnopoetics involves not only translation but also transformation, transformation of modality, the presentation of something heard as something seen. The eye is an instrument of understanding” (Hymes 2003: 40).

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Further essential reading

Duranti, Alessandro
2001Linguistic Anthropology. A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Maranhão, Tullio, and Bernhard Streck
(eds) 2003Translation and ethnography. The Anthropological Challenge of Intercultural Understanding. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Google Scholar
Rubel, Paula, and Abraham Rosman
(eds) 2003Translating cultures. Perspectives on translation and anthropology. Oxford: Berg. Google Scholar
Sammons, Kay, and Joel Sherzer
(eds) 2000Translating Native American Verbal Art. Ethnopoetics and Etnhography of Speaking. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.Google Scholar
Sturge, Kate
2007Representing Others: Translation, Ethnography and the Museum. Manchester: St. Jerome.Google Scholar