On the very possibility of mutual intelligibility

G. E. R. Lloyd


This paper acknowledges that the issues of translation and of translatability are general and concern the possibility of mutual intelligibility in many registers and including within a single natural language. Both anthropologists and ancient historians are faced with such problems, where the historians are at a disadvantage in not being able to check their understandings with those whom they are seeking to understand. But faced with seemingly paradoxical statements, beliefs, or practices, we must and can avoid the apparent dilemma (either those statements must be rendered in or reduced to our terms or we must admit they are strictly incomprehensible) by insisting on the revisability of our existing conceptual framework, especially in relation to such key terms as personhood, agency, causation, and nature. Again, instead of insisting on the dichotomy of literal and metaphorical, we should allow that any term may exhibit what is here called semantic stretch. Moreover, if we accept (as is argued here) that the phenomena or realities described are multidimensional, then the goal of a single definitive translation is a mirage. The open-endedness of translation is no threat to mutual intelligibility but its precondition.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.010