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Ryan Schram
September 12, 2018

This is a longer draft version of an article that has been accepted for publication in the International Encyclopedia of Linguistic Anthropology, forthcoming from Wiley Blackwell in the near future.


Unlike many philosophers of language and scholars of translation, linguistic anthropologists see translation practices as both ubiquitous and necessary to communication, and one of many different kinds of metalinguistic capacities that all languages must possess. The anthropological study of translation has attended to what particular societies’ ideas about translation reveal about their ideological conception of linguistic difference and its relation to other kinds of difference. In general, classical conceptions of translation as the conveyance of intended meaning also involve the alienation of language from its speakers and its conditions of use. Such formal translations thus exist in contradiction with the implicit kinds of translations and other metalingual operations found in bilingualism and pidgin languages. Key words: interlingual relations, language contact, language change, bilingualism, pidgins.

Imagine yourself suddenly set down in a community where everyone speaks only one language and this language is absolutely distinct from your own, and from all others. Imagine also that you wish to not merely to learn this exotic language, but be able to interpret statements in that language accurately in your own language for your own fellow speakers. You would need to translate these statements from the indigenous language into your own. Would this be possible given that you have absolutely no common frame of reference except the experiences you share with speakers of the indigenous language? When, for instance, a rabbit appears before you and an indigenous speaker, and this speaker utters “gavagai,” how would know whether this should be translated as “Lo, a rabbit,” or “Here are some undisconnected rabbit parts?”

W. V. O. Quine, a philosopher of language, describes such a hypothetical situation as an example of “radical translation” (Quine 1960, 28–30). He intends it as a thought experiment with which he can show that no translation between two languages can ever be said to be absolutely necessary. Quine says that one could eventually hope to reliably convert statements in one language into the other given enough exposure to various encounters with rabbits and other objects of reference. Yet, another speaker of one’s own language faced with the same challenge would also do the same but in a completely different way. Each translation would be adequate, but inconsistent with each other. Translation is thus “indeterminate;” in any moment of contact between two languages many workable translations are possible, but none can be said to be absolutely right (Quine 1960, 27). Indeed, Quine is one among many people who have regarded translation skeptically. A strict interpretation of linguistic relativity would likewise suggest that because a language determines how people classify the world, then two languages can never be perfectly translatable since each will construct the world in incommensurate ways.

Yet, as Jakobson (1966) points out, this only considers one aspect of the utterance, the referential value of the utterance, in isolation from the other features of language which make communication possible. In Jakobson’s model of communication, a given utterance accomplishes as many as six different functions which are part of the process of communication between a speaker and a hearer. The capacity of an utterance to refer to ideas in a coded form is one of these functions (the referential function). Other formal features of the same utterance can, as needed, draw the attention of hearer (the conative function), establish the stance of the speaker toward the utterance (the emotive function), reinforce the channel between speaker and hearer (the phatic function), and give an aesthetic form to the utterance itself (the poetic function). Finally, Jakobson argues that all modes of communication possess a metalingual function, a capacity to refer to itself as a means to confirm, reinforce, modify, or extend what is communicated. One basic and very common example of the metalingual function in language is the use of the word mean to establish an equivalence between one utterance and another. For example, in reading the statement

  • The word rabbit means a furry, long-eared mammal.

one attends to rabbit as a word, and the message overall informs one that when this word is used referentially, it should have a specific semantic value. It is likewise through the metalingual function that one utterance can be embedded in another one as a quotation, and the quoting phrase can modify the way the hearer interprets the referential content of the quoted phrase. Translation is, Jakobson argues, itself another instance of the metalingual function of communicative action. When Quine’s radical translator says, for instance,

  • When they say “Gavagai!,” they mean rabbit.

the translator is making use of a capacity already present in all modes of communication. Thus, there is no situation which requires a translator to engage in truly radical translation since no utterance will make use of only the referential function of language. The language of the utterance to be translated itself already contains the capacity to translate itself. Specifically, translation can be said to consist of, first, a quotation of a source text and, second, an explicit or implicit equation between the quoted text and another text in the target language that frames it. Indeed, these are capacities that every speaker draws upon automatically in the course of any act of communication. It would not be strange, for example, for two speakers of the same language to say to each other,

  • The word rabbit is a common name for Oryctolagus cuniculus.

In the field of literary translation and to an extent generally in Western culture, however, translation is often conceived as a specialized, skilled craft. While latter-day scholars of translation have come to question this and explore alternatives, it remains the case that many people's idea of an ideal translator is one who strives to be invisible (Venuti 2017). Western cultures teach people to see the work of the translator only in the errors and infelicities of translation. A translated text should appear as though it was originally produced in the target language into which it was translated. It should be both accurate in capturing the original meaning of the author and, if not beautiful, then at least sound natural to readers of the translation. The translator is thus imagined to be a rare expert of the source and target languages who is equally at home in both. Yet the translator is also imagined to be performing a yeoman’s service for the author and the reader without any credit for making their interlingual communication possible. The typical skepticism of translation is arguably engendered by the impossible standards to which translations are held in this model.

More to the point, this model and the skepticism it engenders is quite odd given how people communicate in everyday life. It reflects a particular bias in the Western cultural understanding of how communication works. The Western model of translation emphasizes the referential function of language at the expense of the many other functions that a single utterance or text can perform. It assumes that the text to be translated can be lifted out of the context in which it is produced, and the features of the text which engage with that context can and should be neglected. If a translation fails to be transparent, it is generally because the translator has chosen to emphasize poetic or other features which have significance for audiences of the original. Thus, so-called bad translations are accused of being obscure or sounding unnatural to the critic, because the assumption is that the translator is perfectly fluent in the decoding and encoding of referential signs across languages. Furthermore, this bias toward an invisible translator reveals a contradiction in the way Western cultures have conceptualize communication. In the “standard average European (SAE)” imaginary, a speaker’s words refer directly to things in the world which, moreover, the speaker intends to denote (Silverstein 1998, 142). The linguistic form in which this speaker encodes her intended referential meaning is assumed to be distinct from the meaning itself. Language is assumed to be an abstract, purely symbolic, and entirely rational system. With the right formal knowledge, anyone should be able to produce a translation, even a machine. Yet as much as this is central to the SAE cultural construction of language, Quine’s skepticism is equally important to SAE ideas of linguistic differences. In this ideological frame, linguistic diversity is imagined as many different natural species, perfectly isolated, and each unintelligible to the other. Speakers of a language are expected to be fluent in the sense that it is assumed that speaking the language in a particular way comes naturally and automatically to them, and that a specific variety of the language is not only normative for all speakers, but also inheres in each so-called native speaker as if it were an innate quality. Each act of translation is thus considered to be at some level radical in Quine’s sense. When both of these conditions are posited, the only interlingual relationships that can be possible are those created by expert, perfectly fluent translators. These translators build specific bridges between otherwise isolated linguistic islands across which referential meaning can flow for the benefit of an audience who are all equally monolingual and regard the source language of a text as entirely opaque.

Yet, in fact, most people live in worlds defined by some degree of heteroglossia even if they choose not to see this. Even monolingual speakers must encounter other ways of speaking than their own, if not other languages. In everyday communicative practices, people find many different ways to commensurate the variety of codes available for them to communicate. While none of these equivalences is necessarily better than others, and translations are always indeterminate, there are also no real instances of radical translation either. If there has always been both interlinguistic and intralinguistic diversity, then translation is not only ubiquitous, but the metalinguistic commensuration of one code for another code on some basis is necessary to communication itself (Hanks 2014). We can speak then of an ideology of translation that emerges from a particular linguistic ideology (Gal 2015). Much as linguistic ideologies intervene in and determine the value and efficacy of communicative practices, a translation ideology determines which kinds of equivalences between languages and which kinds of interlingual relationships are recognized as valid bases for making translations. In this sense, if we accept Quine’s argument for the logical indeterminacy of translation, then we are faced with a classic kind of problem in cultural anthropology. Since no one type of translation is necessary, many different ways of creating equivalences across linguistic differences are equally possible, and in different situations people will impose their own ideological distinctions onto these alternatives to establish certain kinds of interlingual relationship as accurate and legitimate. Not only does each culture create its own translation practices, but each culture also determines where and what kind of linguistic otherness people perceive in the varieties of communicative practices, and thus to what certain kinds of communication are translatable. When consider as a form of practice, translation is always governed by one or more translation ideologies. A translation ideology is a representation of other languages which identifies the nature and extent of their otherness, and thus whether, in what what, and how well other people’s messages can be understood.

Consider, for instance, the stigmatized position of bilinguals in multilingual communities. Bilinguals, for instance, are always engaged in many different kinds of “natural translation” (Harris 1977). Because they regularly make use of two or more languages, but also because they are members of a heteroglossic community, they draw upon many different forms of “translanguaging,” or ways of juxtaposing and combining multiple codes (Garcia and Wei 2013). Yet the SAE conceptualization of language obscures these quotidian and practical connections that people make among the languages they speak and hear. Speakers who are bilingual in a dominant and a subordinate code are often assumed to have both failed to acquire the dominant code and have lost the subordinate code (Urciuoli 1996). The dominant culture regards them as possessing an incomplete mixture of both languages, rather than the capacity to translate back and forth between them. In the United States, English is the dominant code, and English monolingualism is also the ideological basis on which people think about the nature of language contact. The assumptions embedded within the dominant code of English constrain people’s use of Spanish when people translate between them in either direction (Hanks 2014). When inevitably SAE speakers are faced with the indeterminate nature of any translation, they attribute the limits of translation imposed by their own linguistic ideology to a deficiency in the speaker of a foreign language (Haviland 2003). These speakers of foreign languages must be, SAE speakers assume, unable to produce the correct forms in their own language and thus stand in the way of translation from this language. Speakers of the subordinate code are responsible for changing the ways in which they speak in order to make possible the kinds of translation which speakers of the dominant code deem to be legitimate. Thus not only does SAE folk linguistics blind people to the myriad of ways people make use of multiple languages in communication, these biases call forth a ranking of languages on a scale of rationality and transparency. More generally, in SAE cultures, translation between two languages is assumed to be a highly rational process led by experts in both languages, because it is also assumed that only correct forms of statements can be fully translated. In this way, the dominant translation ideology of American society reinforces linguistic stratification.

This kind of regime of linguistic otherness can perhaps be seen more clearly in the role of Western translation ideologies in Western imperialism. Translation was crucial to this process of linguistic domination, Errington argues, as a component of a larger plan to appropriate indigenous ways of speaking and transform their use by creating written forms and simplified, standardized varieties that could be used as lingua francae (Errington 2008, 45). By recognizing particular bridges between particular languages as valid, and denying the possibility of correct and complete translation from another language, colonial powers were able to establish a hierarchy of languages in which each was ranked on a scale of generality. Colonial governments, often with the help of Christian missionaries, identify widely spoken languages—“vehicular languages” as the Belgian colonial authorities called them—which they can use as a medium of rule (Fabian 1991, 51). In this new linguistic economy, many more indigenous languages are circumscribed as local, vernacular languages which cannot by definition serve as a medium for agency in the colonial polity. Meanwhile, French, Spanish, and English are monopolized by the rulers and select, privileged indigenous elites and thus enable their users to exercise a supreme authority. Furthermore, by compelling to indigenous speakers to learn to translate themselves from their own languages into more general languages that were controlled by colonial authorities, colonial institutions reshaped how people saw themselves as subjects. Due to the work of Christian missionaries, colonized subjects often became literate in and mastered their own vernacular languages and lingua francae, but through Western schools and forms of literacy (Schieffelin 2007). Hanks (2010) argues that mission converts also acquire a particular subaltern habitus through the acquisition and use such standardized varieties of indigenous languages. Subaltern subjects not only see themselves in the cultural assumptions embedded in dominant codes, but in becoming literate in vernacular languages they must also change their relationship to their own language when it is used as a translation medium for foreign texts. Religious translation takes place within a context of a “colonial linguistics” which not only reflects Western language-ideological biases about the nature of communication but more significantly alienates indigenous languages from its speakers and the social relations and institutional contexts in which it and they are embedded.

Nonetheless, as much as colonial authorities wanted to use translation to control the ways in which languages came into contact, this control was never absolutely secure. In order for any translation to be possible, agents of colonial powers depended on the different kinds of multilingualism and the different kinds of metalinguistic consciousness which colonized people inhabited as multilinguals. Many colonial projects have historically been facilitated by either the existence or spontaneous emergence of pidgin languages. Because pidgins arise when people of different languages work to establish equivalences between them, they can be seen as the product of grassroots translations as well as convenient media for translation among languages. Yet pidgins are adaptable and dynamic interfaces between different vernacular languages (and thus unlike the creole languages that might eventually develop out of them). They are always second languages and and thus serve as media in which no one language necessarily serves as the exclusive metalanguage for regulating the translation (Siegel 1997). While their widespread use may make them convenient vehicular languages of colonial power, they also remain embedded in everyday sociality rather than reified through standardization (Rafael 1988). Any one “translanguage,” as Hanks (2010) calls the standardized, written indigenous languages of mission translations, depends upon and is haunted by the alternative possible forms of interlingual relations (see for example Schram 2016). Or, stated perhaps more positively, because translation implies a specific metalinguistic ideological frame, any one translation is a constitutive act, one among many political choices about how different economies of meaning should be articulated and how different communities should recognize each other. These choices, insofar as they are always shadowed by alternative possible modes of interlingual relationship, are open to critique through alternative translations (Handman 2015).

According to Swaan (2013), a global political economy of language has taken shape along much the same lines as the capitalist world-system. Not only are languages stratified and ranked according to relative prestige, the exchanges between speakers of different languages are always unequal, just as the exchanges between core and periphery in the global capitalist order. English has become the center of a world language system, and serves as a useful example. English has become a form of linguistic capital in a global political economy of language. For instance, taking commercial literary production as an indicator, English is the most common source language for translation. While English is not the most common first language (L1 English), it also has the greatest number of speakers who have acquired it as a second language (L2 English). (English has the greatest number of countries which have it as a national language, and thus it would be reasonable to assume that people who learn English do so in the context of formal schooling.) Unlike speakers of even very common languages, authors working in English can assume that their works will circulate globally in both their original and translated forms. They rely on the invisibilized work of L2 English speakers. Like L2 English bilinguals in the US, they bear the burden of translation on behalf of L1 English speakers. Translation workers in the language world-system are alienated from their own translanguaging practices, and through their translational labor reproduce English as a form of linguistic capital.

In anthropology, discussion of translation always conveys a provocation since anthropologists have often conceptualized ethnographic description and analysis as a kind of translation. Indeed, many have seen this as one of its great virtues insofar as they believe that the task of ethnography is to bring readers to a point where they can understand another culture on its own terms as a worldview (Evans-Pritchard 1956; Leenhardt 1979; see Asad 1986). The ethnographer-qua-translator strives to subordinate her perspective and assumptions to those of the culture-qua-text, letting the people observed—its authors—“speak” through the ethnography. This ethnographic style (or, perhaps more sympathetically, paradigm) moreover wants to create a translation which is as faithful to the original as possible. As many have argued, seeing culture as text in this way involves a reification of a culture’s communicative practices (Silverstein and Urban 1996). We might also add that such an approach positions the ethnographer as the sole intermediary between a culture and its readers. In fact, if as we know that no culture is truly isolated, then no cultural text is ever purely monolingual; there can be no actual encounters with radical translation. In light of the anthropology of translation practices, we should also examine the ways in which people of different cultures appropriate meaning in foreign texts for their own purposes.

In the same way, translation often serves as a metaphor for the double consciousness of people under conditions of cultural and political domination. While translation does always take place between languages of unequal power, making translation into a metaphor for domination implicitly partakes of an epistemology of monolingualism. Throughout human history as well as today, it seems to be far more common for people to be enmeshed in dense and dynamic heteroglossic environments, and make use of many different interfaces between different ways of speaking. When people speak in other languages, the otherness of their communication medium is not necessarily going to be foremost in their minds, and it is only under regimes of national standardization of languages that societies come embrace the ideological representation of linguistic otherness as a problem. It would be better to assume that people make translations of many kinds all the time, but that only some of these are recognized as legitimate, and that in many cases, the burden of facilitating translation falls on those with the least power. Translation is not itself a form of alienation. Rather the contemporary global political economy of language is supported and maintained by many people’s everyday practices of interlinguistic creativity which are treated as uncounted translational labor.


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Urciuoli, Bonnie. 1996. Exposing Prejudice: Puerto Rican Experiences of Language, Race, and Class. Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press.

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translation.txt · Last modified: 2019/03/07 18:48 by ryans