Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Science
Scholars of translation are increasingly preoccupied with questions of untranslatability –of incommensurability of words and worlds, of productive or destructive equivocations, partialities, failures, and impossibilities of translation therein. Attention to untranslatability does not simply highlight difficulties of finding equivalences across distinct languages, or of mediating between divergent world-making practices. It also brings to focus the one-sidedness that is internal to any language, tradition, or culture, and characterizes its universal drive. Un/translatability, in other words, points to the inadequacy of the dichotomy of the universal and the particular, which has been conceived in theological, philosophical, historical, and cultural terms, and has long animated scholarly and political enterprises. Inheriting this dichotomy on the one hand, and reckoning with contemporary political predicaments on the other, anthropologists have sought strategies to come to terms with it, subvert it, and find avenues to move beyond the assimilation of alterity to their habits of thought and ready-made categories. Some, following Talal Asad, have come to thematize the limits of epistemological exploration of difference as the theoretical and political locus of their work. They have questioned, for example, the limitations of the secular public –and liberal politics more generally– as a space of translation where racial, sexual, and religious minorities are cunningly invited to represent themselves in terms of majoritarian politics. Others, in conversation with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, have come to address the epistemological non-transparency of worlds –including human and non-human worlds– by conceptualizing difference in ontological terms. These approaches, despite their differences, bring translation back to the heart of anthropological enterprise at a new key. The challenge is less about the proper cultural contextualization to make sense of the “unfamiliar,” or about the re-articulation of anthropology and ethnography in terms of a dialogical enterprise. Instead their anthropology/translation expresses a willingness to reckon with the “un/familiar” so that difference between and across human/nonhuman worlds can begin to appear as such.
This panel brings together scholars whose work on translation engages recent anthropological debates on religion, magic, secularism, and science. Bringing together a diverse set of epistemological and ontological inquiries, it seeks to foster a conversation around difference and untranslatability in contemporary anthropology. Panelists’ studies address the relationship between translation of European thought and historiography of Islam and politics in Iran; debates on the untranslatability of the Qur’an across Islamic and secular discourses; the work of translation internal to the category of magic in the context of colonial Indonesia and in anthropology; translation of female reproductive body into secular discourses in colonial and postcolonial Morocco; the exchanges between, and the mutual transformation of, humans and non-humans in contemporary scientific enterprise; and lastly, the import of anthropological approach to translation and ontology vis-à-vis reductionist realist metaphysics of our times.