Words and worlds: Ethnography and theories of translation

John Leavitt


If different languages orient the speaker toward different aspects of experience, then translation can be seen as a passage between lived worlds. This paper traces out some key moments in the history of translation theory in the modern West and argues that translation and ethnography require each other. Free of the constraint that professional translators produce easily digestible texts for the target audience, anthropologists are particularly well placed to carry out translations that take context seriously into account, as well as ethnographies centered on texts. Such "ugly" translations (Ortega y Gasset) can force the reader to work to reorient him- or herself, to cross a boundary into what is potentially another world, initially another language-world. Through the history, we seek to distinguish the translation of referential content, something that is always possible, and translating stylistic and indexical (contextual) elements, something that has often been declared impossible. The paper draws some of the implications of these arguments on the basis of text-artifacts constructed from Central Himalayan oral traditions.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.009