Powers of incomprehension: Linguistic otherness, translators, and political structure in New Guinea tourism encounters

Rupert Stasch


Meetings between Korowai of Papua and foreign tourists are an example of the historically common phenomenon of transient but close interaction between people lacking any shared language. This article contributes to a comparative anthropology of such contact communities of mutual incomprehension by exploring how Korowai and tourists take translation and incomprehension as sites for defining their relation, particularly in its evaluative and political dimensions. One main pattern I examine is that linguistic interactions are focused on linguistic otherness as such, with each side taking up the other’s difference of language as a figure around which to define what they are to each other more broadly. Another main pattern is that participants in the encounters actively value linguistic incomprehension as a resource for staying separate. Finally, I also address the pattern that the limited cross-language comprehension which does occur is mostly mediated by "guides." For Korowai, these translation specialists embody a model of authoritative speakerhood that is an important point of new commensuration between their political ethos of egalitarianism and the hierarchical social logics of markets and states.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.004