Translating Cultures: Perspectives on Translation and Anthropology

By Paula G. Rubel (Editor) and Abraham Rosman (Editor)
Oxford, New York, 2004
ISBN 185973-740-4

Twelve American professors examine the roots and methods of translation and its effects on the relatively new science that is anthropology. There are twelve chapters over 282 pages, each chapter a different essay complete with long footnotes and generous bibliography. In their introduction editors Rubel and Rosman posit that the central goal of anthropology has been to understand cultures other than one's own. With this objective in mind, the problem that anthropologists in the United States are only just now coming to grips with, is that the translation of an observed people's language may not be that secure, or reliable a tool to begin to understand the subject culture with.

Field workers and anthropologists, the editors continue, discovered that they ought perhaps to use the locals' language instead of the "lingua franca" they came equipped with, and that the interpreters and translations in use by what the editors call the hegemonic colonial governments should perhaps be set aside if any sort of understanding - in the deeper sense of the word - was to be achieved. This epiphany of modern anthropologists thus gave birth to an actual Code of Conduct for field workers and researchers to revert to and use when conducting their studies.

Rubel and Rosman seem surprised or even reluctant to admit what is a fairly obvious historical tenet by now, namely that the concepts the anthropologists travel with when they begin their philosophical and value-centered inquiries into other people's lives are more or less imposed on the "Third World" -- whatever that means -- thus compromising the specificity of the cultural concepts being observed. Unfortunately, beyond identifying this relatively mundane and old problem, the editors provide neither new solution nor fresh directive for cross-cultural workers in the field. Indeed, beyond stating straightforward platitudes such this one -- "Translations should, in the final analysis, negotiate the linguistic and cultural differences between the source language and culture and that of the target audience for the translation" -- this rather self-involved collection of essays is more an academic exercise in navel-gazing than a practical guide for those involved in cross-cultural work.

The following essays are culture-specific case studies that set out some of the difficulties encountered by workers in the field as they try to translate or transliterate such languages as Arabic, Hebrew, and Indonesian.

Four essays in particular do stand out as potentially useful case studies of the quandaries and the solutions that the cultural worker and translator may find in the field. In Chapter 8 Benson Saler examines the history and conquering methods of the Spanish vis--vis the Inkas. One can only wonder at the magnitude of the task that the conquistadors faced when trying to explain the mystery of the Trinity or the Virgin Mary to the local population. In one case, Saler relates, the interlocutor took the three personae of the Holy Trinity and added God to come up with a god population of four. The polite reader smiles. But what Saler and his academic counterparts do not seem to realize is that very humor they seek to stimulate in the reader here and elsewhere is also part of the hegemonic intellectual system that is used to classify the Incas - or others -- as a "funny" bunch who could not even understand the Trinity. More importantly, none of the writers in this collection make a reference to their own cultural inhibitors, including, inter alia, the interpretation of English-written history into a perfectly linear, written doctrine, somehow written by others than the victors is not approached by any of the professors.

Nonetheless Benson is far more delicate in his raking of the historical and intellectual leaves because he stoops low enough at times to recognize and pick up some of the hindrances in our own cultures: " of all the commandments that humanity has saddled itself with, perhaps the most difficult to obey is the Delphic Imperative., "Know Thyself" Such difficulties in understanding may help explain why even persons accounted to be non-religious sometimes avail themselves of priests."

The other three more stimulating essays are on the translation or transliteration of Arabic, the translation of souls as evidenced by those who wrote Biblical texts, by Brinkley Messick and Alan F. Segal respectively, as well as an essay on Indonesia and language.

Messick is most convincing in his descriptions of the arduous work that translators and trans-literators of Arabic texts have struggled with. In the mid 1900, Messick explains, when anthropologist began to make a more systematic attempt to understand Arabic, countless methodology mistakes were made, including in the classification of various Arabic dialects. For instance, Messick notes, there existed no transliteration system for any form of spoken Arabic, and when field workers shifted this basket of tools and knowledge to try to render Arabic from the written texts into West European written texts, the evident errors betrayed the "translators"' ignorance of the written Arabic itself. An interpreter or a transcriber does not a translator make. In turn, this perverted "knowledge" led to an under representation or complete omission of certain aspects of Arabic language, literature and culture: "The skill and precision with which a given [translation] system is used may be an index of knowledge of the foreign language, which is [itself] a basic ingredient in judging scholarly achievement, " Messick concludes.

Segal's essay is more for the specialist spiritualist who requires clear distinctions between "dream" and "vision" and who must use these types of linguistic tools to further differentiate between religiously altered states of consciousness and religiously interpreted states of consciousness. These two implements Segal uses in their short form RASC and RISC to draw conclusions about how the Bible speaks to its readers today with the voices of spiritual astronauts, or, more generally the speaking of people then who were different from us now. Like Saler, Segal is deeply involved in the religious harvests that anthropologists may reap from the texts they work in, but unlike Saler, Segal also passes judgments and draws conclusions on the "normality" of the brain and its functions.

© 2004 Pluri Vox Media Corp.

close this window to return to Pluri Vox Book Excerpts page