Translating worlds: The epistemological space of translation

William F. Hanks, Carlo Severi


Translation has played an important but equivocal role in the history of anthropology and linguistics. At least since Saussure and Boas, languages have been seen as systems whose differences make precise translation exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. More recently, Quine has argued that, in purely abstract terms, reference is ultimately inscrutable and translation between languages is in principle indeterminate. From a Kuhn-inspired point of view, we argue, on the contrary, that the challenge posed by the constant confrontation of "incommensurable" (yet translated) paradigms may become a field for ethnographical inquiry. This approach can provide a new anthropological way to define translation, not only as a key technique for understanding ethnography, but also as a general epistemological principle. Social anthropology would be thus defined not only as the study of cultural differences, but also and simultaneously as a science of translation: the study of the empirical processes and theoretical principles of cultural translation.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.001