The slip of a philosopher and the sinking of the ship: Translation, protest, and the Iranian travails of learned politics

Milad Odabaei


This article examines the politics of translation in Iran in order to contribute to a debate in anthropology around cultural difference and epistemic violence. It does so through a critical exposition of the forced confession of an Iranian politician, Saeed Hajjarian, who testified that his translation of European concepts into an Islamic idiom was responsible for unrest in Iran. It locates Hajjarian’s confession within Iranian histories of anti-Western politics and an Islamic discourse of learned judgement. It argues that the enactment of the Islamic state is mediated by the translation of the West and proposes that protests manifest as a problem of incommensurability for the Islamic state analogous to the problem of incommensurability in cultural anthropology. In attempting to sequester the Islamic Republic from the West, state officials reproduce sectarianism domestically. Anthropology risks the same when it attempts to insulate the non-West from Western epistemologies and ontologies.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/709964