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Translation Studies

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Translation Studies Forum: Cultural translation

Mary Louise Pratt , Birgit Wagner , Ovidi Carbonell i Cortés , Andrew

Chesterman & Maria Tymoczko

To cite this article: Mary Louise Pratt , Birgit Wagner , Ovidi Carbonell i Cortés , Andrew
Chesterman & Maria Tymoczko (2010) Translation Studies Forum: Cultural translation, Translation
Studies, 3:1, 94-110, DOI: 10.1080/14781700903338706

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Published online: 02 Dec 2009.

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Translation Studies,
Vol. 3, No. 1, 2010, 94110

Translation Studies Forum: Cultural translation

Editorial note
In the following, we present the second round of responses to the article ‘‘Cultural
translation: An introduction to the problem’’, by Boris Buden and Stefan Nowotny
of the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies in Vienna (Translation
Studies 2, no. 2 (2009): 196208).
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The first round of responses has prompted reactions from a wide range of
perspectives, and we will continue this stimulating discussion in Translation Studies
3, no. 3. We very much welcome further responses (deadline for submission:
February 2010).

Mary Louise Pratt

Department of Social and Cultural Analysis/Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages

and Literatures, New York University, USA

In the growing literature on cultural translation, the dearth of examples is a

symptom that often nags. The thing is referred to as if we already know what we are
talking about; our scholarly ruminations retain a vagueness that the ungenerous
could take for intellectual impoverishment, or languor. When specific examples are
introduced, they are often cited as self-evident instances of a self-evident practice
called cultural translation, not analyzed so as to demonstrate how that concept
actually works, what kind of understanding it enables, what it misses or obscures.1
People could indeed be forgiven for seeing this as another plumed display of
intellectual authority by privileged metropolitans who don’t know any languages and
still want to uphold their monopoly on ideas. People could be forgiven for asking
whether cultural translation serves to configure the traffic in meaning in the image of
the free market.
Boris Buden and Stefan Nowotny do provide an example: some questions from a
German citizenship test. The example is taken as self-evident, yet it raises a rich set
of questions. What makes this an instance of something you would call cultural
translation? What are the reasons for preferring this term over others that would
usefully characterize this scenario? Is the text of the test itself the instance or act of
cultural translation? Initially it seems so, but a few lines later, it appears that the act
of cultural translation is that of the non-German person who takes the test, and in so
doing translates him or herself into a German, or rather seeks to do so well enough
to pass the test. So the ‘‘original’’ in this case of cultural translation, it seems, would
be non-Germanness, a non-Germanness that ‘‘Germany’’ has strategically con-
structed and embedded in the test, marked by features ‘‘Germany’’ associates with
Islamic social mores (attitudes toward women, for instance). The German version of
Islam presupposed by the test is presumably also a cultural translation (of Islam into
ISSN 1478-1700 print/ISSN 1751-2921 online
# 2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/14781700903338706
Translation Studies 95

a German construction of Islam). In other words the test presupposes an original (of
non-Germanness) that it has constructed through a prior act of translation, both
cultural and linguistic (I assume the test is in German). The test converts that non-
German original into something other, namely, the Germanness defined by the test.
Taking the test can be construed as an act of translation in that the person taking it
creates a German version of an ‘‘original’’ (non-German) self, which, presumably,
continues to exist. The test exists solely for the purpose of eliciting this act, and the
translated self exists solely for the purpose of fulfilling this demand  this is an
instance of incitement to discourse. Now, how helpful is it to see this as translation 
as opposed, say, to a negotiation? Or a ritual? A translation metaphor does not so
easily capture the violence of the test: that it requires a subject to affirm values or
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beliefs that may be incompatible with those he or she is known to hold; to affirm the
importance of things she or he neither knows or cares about. Of course, for the
person who is genuinely eager to ‘‘really’’ become German, perhaps to leave behind a
culture he or she finds oppressive or intolerable, the taking of the text involves not
coercion, but affirmation. But is translation the best metaphor for this  or would we
be better talking about conversion? ‘‘The purpose of, say, poetry translation,’’ says
the great literary translator Eliot Weinberger,
is not, as it is usually said, to give the foreign poet a voice in the translation-language. It
is to allow the poem to be heard in the translation language, ideally in many of the same
ways it is heard in the original language. [ . . .] [I]t means that the primary task of a
translator is not merely to get the dictionary meanings right  which is the easiest part 
but rather to invent a new music for the text in the translation-language, one that is
mandated by the original [though not a] technical replication of the original. (Weinberger
2000, 8; emphasis added)
How intriguingly this contrasts, apparently, with the citizenship test. For the test’s
avowed purpose is not at all to enable non-Germanness to be heard within German,
or to create a new (German) music that is mandated by non-Germanness. (One
might argue, however, that it produces these effects unintentionally.) The practices
Weinberger mentions actually are going on in poetry, music, dance and all the arts.
And in a perverse way, they also characterize the vast translation scenarios that have
been unfolding for the last six years in the streets, villages and prisons of Iraq. But
the citizenship test (one of whose questions calls for naming German composers)
would seem to be doing something else. There is of course another Germanness that
is lived on the streets and in institutions, that immigrants traffic and negotiate with
on a daily basis, and that traffics and negotiates with them. The everyday life of
today’s cities unfolds through the continuous negotiation of linguistic, historical and
cultural heterogeneity, carried on through the human meaning machine’s prodigious
powers of comprehension, improvisation and adaptation (see Pratt 2004). German-
ness is going on there, as an unfolding or becoming.
The concept of cultural translation bears the unresolvable contradiction that in
naming itself it preserves the distances/distinctions it works to overcome, as in Nikos
Papastergiadis’s formulation of cultural translation as ‘‘the process by which
communication occurs across boundaries’’ or ‘‘the means by which people with
different cultural histories and practices can form patterns of communication and
establish lines of contact across these differences’’ (2000, 127; see also Pratt 2002).
Because it sustains difference, a translation paradigm is too blunt an instrument to
grasp the heterodox subjectivities and interfaces that come out of entanglements
96 Forum

sustained over time. Here other linguistic operations and metaphors have explanatory
power  pidginization, creolization, lingua franca and multilingualism. I like to say that
multilingualism is translation’s mother but also its definitive other: the multilingual
person is not someone who translates constantly from one language (or cultural
system) into another, though this is something multilinguals are sometimes able to do.
But to be multilingual is, above all, to be one for whom translation is unnecessary
because one lives in more than one language. The image for multilingualism is not
translation, perhaps, but desdoblamiento, a multiplying (unfolding) of the self  as in
the German citizenship test. In his memorable essay on the subject, cited by others here,
Clifford Geertz regards that desdoblamiento as part of ‘‘the social history of the moral
imagination’’ (Geertz 1983). In this humanist account, practicing cultural translation
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means undertaking to grasp as deeply and fully as possible the terms of a radically
different way of life from one’s own, and to communicate it in a way that ‘‘keeps
the music of the original’’, as Weinberger would say. (Geertz’s two exemplary scenarios
are ethnography and literary criticism.) The subject who truly takes on this challenge
experiences ‘‘the growth in range a powerful sensibility gains from an encounter with
another one as powerful or more’’, a growth that ‘‘comes only at the expense of [one’s]
inner ease’’ (ibid., 45). ‘‘Whatever use the imaginative productions of other peoples 
predecessors, ancestors, or distant cousins  can have for our moral lives, then, it
cannot be to simplify them’’ (ibid., 44), says Geertz. Does the stubborn resistance to
serious engagement with ethnography that pervades cultural studies and postcolonial
studies suggest resistance to such growth and its price? The question is worth asking.
As several interlocutors here have observed, any act of translation arises from a
relationship  an entanglement  that preceded it. What is gained by using
translation not only as a referent, but also as a metaphor for characterizing the
transactions, the appropriations, negotiations, migrations, mediations that give rise
to it? Perhaps this question invites us to reflect on the power (not the task) of
the translator, as the ‘‘one who knows’’ both the codes; the one who has the power to
‘‘do justice’’, ‘‘be faithful’’, yet also to ‘‘capture’’, deceive, betray one side to the
other, or betray both to a third. Who wouldn’t want to be the hero Geertz describes,
dedicated to getting straight ‘‘how the massive fact of cultural and historical
particularity comports with the equally massive fact of cross-cultural and cross-
historical accessibility  how the deeply different can be deeply known without
becoming any less different; the enormously distant enormously close without
becoming any less far away’’ (ibid., 48).

1. In Pratt (2002) I analyze a set of Spanish colonial documents surrounding the Andean
uprising of 17801782. See also Pratt 2004 and 2006.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Found in translation. On the social history of the moral imagination. In
Local knowledge: Further essays in interpretive anthropology, ed. Clifford Geertz, 3654.
New York: Basic Books.
Papastergiadis, Nikos. 2000. The turbulence of migration. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.
Pratt, Mary Louise. 2002. The traffic in meaning: Translation, contagion, infiltration.
Profession: 2536.
Translation Studies 97

***. 2004. Planetarity. In Intercultural dialogue, ed. Rosemary Bechler, 1031. London:
British Council.
***. 2006. Afterword: A fax, two moles, a consul, and a judge. In Cultural agency in the
Americas, ed. Doris Sommer, 32633. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Weinberger, Eliot. 2000. Anonymous sources: A talk on translators and translation.
Encuentros (Cultural Center, International Development Bank) 39: 113, http://idbdocs. (accessed 29 July 2009).

Birgit Wagner
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Institut für Romanistik, University of Vienna, Austria

Reading the paper presented by Boris Buden and Stefan Nowotny, I was seduced by
their willingness to search for the right questions, their ability to propose some of
these and their well-informed stroll through decades of theory  which I did, though,
occasionally find rather too light-footed. It is especially the readiness to jump the
metaphorical threshold from translation to cultural translation which I consider
theoretically flawed. In my response I will address separately the two fields of
discussion that Buden and Nowotny’s paper raises in my reading.

Translation as a metaphor: let’s take a step back

Yes, ‘‘one can culturally translate people’’, but this currently overused turn of phrase
does not describe exactly the same type of operation as translating a text from
one language to another. The authors claim that the latter ‘‘always already’’ implies
the former, putting forward valuable arguments to support their thesis. But even so,
any term undergoes a process of shifting its meaning when promoted to a metaphor,
and all the more so when the term has experienced a brilliant career as a ‘‘travelling
concept’’ (Bal 2002) between the disciplines of academic research. When we talk
about cultural translation, we mean much more than the passage from one language
to another: we have to consider the travel of media-bound representations, of values,
patterns of thinking and modes of behaviour from one cultural context into another,
and the various transformation and intermingling processes this implies. To give just
one example, the format of the TV soap opera has undergone culturally diverse
appropriations in our world: ‘‘translations’’ of a media format to match audience
expectations that are shaped by different cultures and religions. The means and
media of cultural translation are not only linguistic, but include audiovisual
representations or creations as well as the practices of men and women in everyday
life and politics. Hence, the tools to analyse cultural translation cannot be exactly the
same ones we use to work on language translation (and Walter Benjamin does
not discuss the same topics, nor share the same epistemological premises, as Homi
K. Bhabha, even if Bhabha relies heavily on quotations of Benjamin; see Wagner
forthcoming). Buden and Nowotny themselves note that an ‘‘analysis of the very
concrete devices of such translation’’ is missing in the debate on cultural translation.
I agree, but I don’t think their paper provides those devices (though it does provide
other useful propositions, as I will argue further below).
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If we take a step back, it becomes evident that translation on its first level of
meaning addresses the differences of languages, and processes to bridge these
differences, and the enrichment that comes into the world through these processes,
and the awareness of the limits of translatability, and training in how to live with
linguistic alterity. With ‘‘cultural translation’’, the term migrates from its original
field to other areas of study where it is no longer an object, but an analytic tool (this
is what Doris Bachmann-Medick identifies as the characteristic of a cultural ‘‘turn’’;
2006, 256). In my opinion, however, this tool has been overused and indeed abused,
perhaps due to the fortunes of Bhabha’s work; currently it is a catchphrase that has
even entered the language of advertising (for instance in publicity material for
scientific journals or business schools). The inflationary use of the term may raise
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suspicion, and asks for further study. What exactly can this tool really help us to
analyse and understand?
Let’s examine the example offered by Buden and Nowotny, the questions in a
German test for migrants applying for citizenship. You might read this test in other
ways than the authors do. It is, of course, about German identity  you could even
consider it a litmus test for what a German bureaucracy considers to be of core
importance for national identity  and it is, of course, as the authors state, an
‘‘instrument of control’’. Yet it offers no means of assessing whether the people tested
undergo a process of cultural translation or not. If they answer ‘‘correctly’’, they make
use of agency in de Certeau’s (1984) sense of individual tactics deployed to parry the
political strategies of powerful institutions.
It is in this example that we might apply Naoki Sakai’s interesting proposals as
presented by Buden and Nowotny. Apart from being a language test (as we see in
Brecht’s poem), such a catalogue of ‘‘strange’’ questions most likely activates the
migrant’s capacity for ‘‘heterolingual address’’: the capacity to anticipate the
addressee’s discursive horizon, wishes and possibilities of understanding, and to
answer in terms of that anticipated horizon of understanding. This implies, apart
from intellectual and linguistic abilities, a confrontation with the values and cultural
stereotypes of the country the migrant wishes to enter (see, for instance, the question
about women being allowed to go out in public or travel alone). But if the question
of cultural translation matters in this case, it does so on the level of tactical use, not
in terms of cultural hybridization.
Thus, Buden and Nowotny’s rhetorical question ‘‘Do migrants really embody the
new transnational ‘elite’ of cultural translators, faithful to the task of hybridity
proliferation and therefore to the mission of emancipatory change?’’ induces
reflection on a vital issue: how the term ‘‘cultural translation’’ can lead intellectuals
to wishful thinking. In this respect, Buden and Nowotny provide the reader with
useful warnings against rash conclusions  and this is actually what an ‘‘introduction
to the problem’’ is meant to do.

Asking the right questions

Why should migrants embody a new transnational ‘‘elite’’? The authors imply, of
course, that the question is absurd, and that migration opens up thousands of
different realities and diverging responses to the encounter with another culture.
They do not specifically address the fact that migrant intellectuals and migrant
workers live through very different experiences, but presumably this is taken for
Translation Studies 99

granted. At the end of their paper, they come to the conclusion that cultural
translation is less an answer ready for multiple use and/or benefit than a way to pose
the right questions. One of those questions seems crucial: ‘‘How can translation
actually be used in order to change given regimes of social relations?’’ At this point,
Buden and Nowotny are speaking of interlingual translation, but again they include
the possibility of extending the question to cultural translation. They lucidly admit
that translation is by no means automatically a political tool that is useful or even
ready-made for those who wish to promote ‘‘hybridity proliferation’’ and ‘‘emanci-
patory change’’; in fact it often  above all in institutional contexts  establishes
regimes of social relations that do not support these goals. So how can we make an
‘‘emancipatory’’ use of cultural translation?
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In a short reading of Brecht’s poem The Democratic Judge, the authors give an
implicit answer: in the poem, cultural translation (the fictitious judge’s consciousness
of the ‘‘heterolingual addressee’’) works by subverting institutionally expected
agency. This is, of course, only one among many possible answers. However, it shows
that cultural translation is not a democratic value per se, not a process that
automatically leads to preconceived results, but that everything depends on the use
you make of it.

Bal, Mieke. 2002. Travelling concepts in the humanities: A rough guide. Toronto: Toronto
University Press.
Bachmann-Medick, Doris. 2006. Cultural Turns. Neuorientierungen in den Kulturwissenschaf-
ten. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.
De Certeau, Michel. 1984. The practice of everyday life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley, CA:
University of California Press.
Wagner, Birgit. Forthcoming. Kulturelle Übersetzung. Erkundungen über ein wanderndes
Konzept. In Dritte Räume. Homi K. Bhabhas Kulturtheorie, ed. Anna Babka, Vienna: Turia
& Kant.

Ovidi Carbonell i Cortés

Faculty of Translation and Documentation, University of Salamanca, Spain

It is by no means easy to answer the question ‘‘what is translation?’’ Does translation

always imply a transfer between languages  between linguistic systems? What is ‘‘a’’
language, anyway? Reflecting on translation entails reflecting about boundaries. And
to acknowledge the existence of a boundary  a boundary between languages, systems,
levels of discourse, text types, or cultures  means to deal with an abstract, metonymic
limit defined from selected properties and framed in cognitive schemata. Accordingly,
Buden and Nowotny hit a raw nerve when they underline ‘‘the fundamental
contradiction of an identitarian discourse: the contradiction between its essentialist
claims and its self-constructed character’’. On the one hand, identities  and their
stereotypes  are part of the symbolic organization of a complex reality which often
shows ambivalent or contradictory aspects; on the other hand, stereotyping gives
legitimacy, ‘‘normalcy’’ and coherence to attitudes and ideologies of acceptance/
100 Forum

rejection of the others, while also, and fundamentally, defining a self, an ethical
stance, a mould with the help of which patterns are shaped. We see this dilemma not
only in traditional, equivalence- or source-oriented approaches, but also in many
proposals of textual subversion in translation: in the ethical arbitrariness of radical
interventionist translations, such as postcolonial reversions of canonical metropolitan
texts or feminist adaptations in literature. The line between adaptation and distortion
is not easy to define, and quite often intervention is done in the name of identitarian,
‘‘feminist’’, ‘‘national’’, ‘‘minority’’, ‘‘ethnic’’, ‘‘multicultural’’ or otherwise ethical
‘‘truths’’ (von Flotow 1997, 24) whose referents remain utopian abstractions.
Any system that has to do with meaning  whether language, belief systems,
stereotypes or cultural orientations  relies to some extent on an ideal of perfect
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containment: the linguistic and epistemological utopias of a controlled space of

signification. Not very long ago, the object of study of linguistics was the system, the
grammar in a restricted, isolated sense. Cultural anthropology focused on culture as
a unique, peculiar specimen, much as history’s aim was the exact knowledge of a
succession of cultural events. The object of all these disciplines, and of many others
in the humanities, was a utopian one. Translation, across these and other disciplines,
also had its own ideal object: mimesis, the exact, perfect reproduction of an original
rendering undesirable and reprehensible any deviation from it. True, the history of
translation theory has witnessed constant shifts as certain abstractions have lost
terrain to others. In fact, translation theory possibly owes its coming of age to the
paradigmatic revolution that took place in the last quarter of the twentieth century
and at whose core lay a questioning of great abstractions  grands récits  across
various disciplines and a relativist focus on the construction of reality that is enacted
through language.
However, as Buden and Nowotny aptly argue, relativism is seldom taken to its
ultimate conclusion. Whereas deconstructionist approaches challenge the essentialist
idea that there is an accessible core to meaning or cultural identity, multiculturalism
is, in their view, ‘‘the ideological background of what we call identitarian politics’’ in
its implication that specific national or ethnic communities have an ‘‘allegedly unique
and original cultural identity’’ that should be protected. Very similarly, we could
argue that the ‘‘cultural’’, deconstructive shift in translation studies subverts
equivalence and communication in the traditional sense. Yet this radical view is
apparently refuted by the fact that communication does take place, that literary and
artistic traditions are cross-fertilized through reinterpretations and translations, that
conventions do change. Or that migrants adapt to their new contexts and acculturate
to some sort of ‘‘identity’’, while contributing to cultural change in the recipient
societies (I use the term ‘‘acculturation’’ to mean the cognitive process of managing
cultural patterns in general at the individual level).
We should also consider a wider dimension to cultural translation, beyond the
referential dimension as a metastatement, a quotation or a mirroring, all of which
invoke the presence of a more or less distant ‘‘model’’. From my constructionist,
pragmatic perspective, a rewriting, just like any intercultural experience, is constantly
in the process of being created. I could not agree more with Buden and Nowotny’s
description of the deconstructive approach as viewing ‘‘culture’’ as ‘‘a narrative
without any historical or physical origin’’, a system of signs ‘‘in relation only with other
sign systems or signs, or else with non-signs  a relation that itself also belongs to the
level of signs’’, only ‘‘traces’’ or ‘‘copies’’ remaining. However, although I acknowledge
Translation Studies 101

this hermeneutic position, I am convinced that textual and ideological analysis may be
seriously hindered unless appropriate (although provisional) means of monitoring
critical interpretations are developed  and by ‘‘monitoring’’ I mean applying
appropriate methodologies to confirm a degree of objectivity in critical analysis and
hold surmise at bay. Translation studies as a working discipline depends upon this
process. Interpretation, far from being cancelled by the deconstructionist approach,
acquires greater importance as the basis for both analysis and the performative use of
that analysis. Buden and Nowotny quote Jakobson’s idea, later adapted by
deconstructionist perspectives, that interpretation is done in terms of ‘‘a system of
signs that is in relation only with other sign systems or signs, or else with non-signs’’.
This Peircean idea of the semiosic nature of meaning does not imply the absence of true
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meanings or the validity of any possible interpretation  but the relationship of

discourse to factual truth is not at all easy to tackle (see Carbonell 2009). Let us say, for
the moment, that meaning is established in a constructive way as negotiation. Clearly,
certain metaphors, such as Third Space or hybridity  or even ‘‘intercultural
translation’’  may acquire ontological status and be used as commodities or as
referents in identitarian politics, creating and parcelling up their own realities and
establishing the illusion of a new presence.
From my own perspective, which is very similar to Buden and Nowotny’s, the
alternative to a metaphysics of presence (national or multi-ethnic) or a metaphysics
of hybridity and dislocation (which may create its own presences) stems from
Benjamin and Bhabha’s heterogeneous fluidity, but acknowledges the role ‘‘mean-
ing’’ has in establishing the performance of language and the inscription of power
through discourse patterns. Discursive patterns are the medium through which
categories, stereotypes and other mechanisms of social control (of ourselves, of
others), however fuzzy, are put into practice, creating the sensation of ‘‘meaning’’. In
the same way, discursive patterns betray cultural patterns  or ‘‘cultures’’, to express
it in a metonymic and catachrestic way.
Cultural translation lends itself well to being compared with the experience of
travel. When travelling  either as a tourist, an occasional visitor engaged in business,
or a migrant planning a more or less long, perhaps definitive sojourn  the framing
ideology of belonging or not belonging (a personal, yet collectively oriented narrative)
may filter and determine a good deal of the sojourner’s experiences in the foreign
land. But the foreign land may cease to have that condition of foreignness  I used to
be English; now, after thirty years, I’m not sure  to a lesser or greater extent depending
on the efficacy and relevance of the ideological framing to everyday experience.
A tourist or occasional sojourner may be attracted by a novelty interpreted in terms
of otherness or exoticism: the cultural ‘‘honeymoon’’ of the first stages of
acculturation which is negotiated over time. Later, acculturation is established as a
psychological adjustment between previous narratives, symbols, beliefs and, espe-
cially, stereotypes (assumptions and inferences about what is not known in precise
detail). A Spaniard living in Spanish Ceuta or Moroccan Tangiers and proficient in
Arabic may reach a level of acculturation in which exoticist claims do not make much
sense, except as a reductive, kitsch representation. To him or her (and especially to
others), the qualifier ‘‘Spaniard’’ may still mean a fundamental ascription to locate
and position themselves in discourse and life, or may be just a provisional tag with not
much significance outside institutional paperwork. Other Spaniards living in the same
cities may reinforce their sense of Spanishness as a contrast.
102 Forum

But do these various encounters always imply that cultural meanings are relayed,
accepted and assimilated? First, the complexities of translation reveal that it is more
and more difficult to talk about stable meanings or complete transmissions. Second,
it is necessary to look at the power relations behind those ‘‘encounters’’ and to note
that acculturation, transculturation and cultural translation processes are anything
but a two-way movement. These processes do not imply a single, permanent
‘‘mould’’  as essentialist theories of assimilation would have it  which imposes
socio-cultural, psychological, behavioural and textual traits. Far from being solid
and fixed, the mould itself is re-shaped: contemporary acculturation theories focus
on the changes that arise following contact between individuals and groups of
different cultural backgrounds; transculturation approaches highlight the dialogical,
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cross-fertilizing nature of cultural interface (Tymoczko 2007, 120); cultural transla-

tion approaches relocate, articulate and make visible difference (Bhabha 1994, 164,
226), highlight the agency of translators and mediators in the process (Tymoczko
2007, 255), and allow for the possibility of assertion, resistance or even subversion.
While acculturation through language and culture is vital, it may be not enough
to prevent essentialist, excluding positions. From cognitive to inter-group, from
textual to legal and institutional aspects of acculturation and naturalization,
processes of identity transformation are very complex. Some are linguistic; all of
them have a textual surface and follow a discursive mechanism. All may be termed
cultural translation processes.
In contrast, we may follow Tymoczko’s elaboration of Fernando Ortiz’s concept
(Tymoczko 2007, 120) to define transculturation as a mode of cultural interface and
exchange by which elements of a source ‘‘culture’’ are taken up or naturalized into a
target ‘‘culture’’ so that these elements lose, wholly or in part, their foreign condition
and cease to be perceived as ‘‘other’’. It is then an integrative process of cultural
acquisition  but also reorganization  that is sometimes overlooked in acculturation
psychology approaches, especially as regards the discursive, rhetorical foundations of
their ascription. Acculturation as transculturation is not only an individual process,
but a collective experience, since losing ‘‘foreignness’’ (i.e., familiarizing) implies a
gain in the target culture as a whole, at least to a certain extent. This perspective
emphasizes the concept of cultures as sum of their members’ models of reality,
patterns of behaviour and, of course, texts. Cultures are not to be seen as models of
totality but as dynamic systems  pattern-based constructions  whose frontiers are
fuzzy and therefore open to hybridizing processes (Lotman 1991, qtd. in Papas-
tergiadis 1995, 13). Thinking and acting is done through the ways opened by
discourses, whose texts constitute the actualization of culture. As Castellà says,
‘‘texts create the paths of thinking and conceiving reality, and our thought moves
along these paths, from which it is only possible to escape through a divergent act of
creativity. Language reflects and adapts contexts because, in fact, it is contributing to
creating them’’ (Castellà 1992, 72; my translation). In this way, cultural translation is
indistinguishable from translation or intercultural communication at large.
Paradoxically enough, the new ideological, obviously culturally oriented shift in
translation studies is acknowledging the need for critical linguistic tools to approach
the many layers of intercultural communication. From an initial focus on ideology as
an ethical explicit positioning in some texts, the perspective has broadened to implicit
narratives and rhetoric devices as key components of all representations of reality
through texts. These are macrological (social and cognitive) and also micrological
Translation Studies 103

(pragmalinguistic). This opens up the area of study: political analysis needs

linguistic, translative tools that account for representation and transfer, as
translation needs to take into account power, politics, identities and transcultural
shifts in different settings. In the end, this is not a very different agenda from the
poststructuralist approach so mistrustful of essentialist narratives.
I am confident that the future of translation studies is ‘‘cultural’’, extended to all
critical approaches to the ways that reality is constructed across cultural and
linguistic manifestations. This may require us to integrate the very questioning of the
nature of equivalence and meaning that results from deconstructive or postcolonial
approaches with a relativist, yet also empirical, analysis of how cultural reality is
built, re-built and implemented through translation  that is, through any
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intercultural experience. Let us concede that, in this integrative view, and fully in
accordance with Buden and Nowotny’s approach, it may also be irrelevant to
distinguish cultural experiences from intercultural ones.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The location of culture. London: Routledge.
Carbonell i Cortés, Ovidi. 2009. In at the deep end. Objectivity, overinterpretation and
ideology patterns in translation. Forum. International Journal of Interpretation and
Translation. Special issue, Coming to terms with ideology: Research and methodology in
translation studies, ed. Myriam Salama-Carr and Ovidi Carbonell i Cortés, 137.
Castellà, Josep M. 1992. De la frase al text. Teories de l’ús lingüı́stic. Barcelona: Empúries.
Papastergiadis, Nikos. 1995. Restless hybrids. Third Text 32: 918.
Tymoczko, Maria. 2007. Enlarging translation, empowering translators. Manchester: St Jerome.
von Flotow, Luise. 1997. Translation and gender. Translating in the ‘‘era of feminism’’.
Manchester: St Jerome.

Andrew Chesterman

Department of General Linguistics, University of Helsinki, Finland

Metaphorical ‘‘translation’’
The metaphorical extension of the concept of translation to cover non-textual modes
of transfer has been, well, extensive in recent years. The term translation is now used
even in chemistry and biology, for instance (see Petrilli 2003). And we can apparently
now talk of culturally ‘‘translating people’’. This may be helpful, in that one notion
(and one term) can reveal interesting affiliations among phenomena of very different
kinds, thus allowing the possibility of cross-disciplinary generalizations or hypoth-
eses. But there is also a down-side to this conceptual extension: the concept itself
becomes so broad that its original sense risks being diluted into nothing. As Simon
writes in her response, if we look at the way translation studies has expanded over
the past decades, the very notion of ‘‘cultural translation’’ becomes tautological (is
there any sense in which translation is not somehow cultural?) (2009, 209). With
respect to ‘‘translation’’ itself: if practically every kind of change or transfer or
metamorphosis can be called translation, we shall soon need a different term to refer
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to what Jakobson (1959), in his well-known semiotic classification  and extension 

of the concept, called ‘‘translation proper’’. Compare the way in which translation
studies long ago adopted the concept of ‘‘equivalence’’, which has since become so
diluted that it can now be used to refer to any relation found to exist between source
and target text (as in, for example, Toury 1995).
Another difficulty is the prevalence of ambiguity, where the reader is required to
slide between sociocultural (e.g. referring to the migration of human beings) and
textual senses of the word, sometimes even within the same sentence, as here in
Bery’s response: ‘‘the translated (in Buden and Nowotny’s example, the people taking
the citizenship test) are not simply being translated, they are also translating’’ (2009,
214). But why not use quite different terms for these different senses? Texts that are
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translated do not suffer in the tangible sense in which human beings may suffer when
they are ‘‘translated’’. To use the identical term thus risks blurring significant ethical
One aspect of this extension problem is the use of the English term ‘‘translation’’
itself. Buden and Nowotny start by claiming that ‘‘etymologically translation
involves an act of moving or carrying across’’. This is true for the English word
and its Indo-European cognates, yes: these metaphorically highlight the transfer of
something that is assumed to remain essentially unchanged, across a boundary. But
it is not true of the words in many other languages that appear to refer to the same
activity or its product. The corresponding terms in some other languages (such as
Finnish, Turkish, Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Tamil) do not foreground
the notion of carrying something across, but rather notions of difference or
mediation (for some examples, see Chesterman 2006). The priority given to
equivalence in many Indo-European theories of translation may perhaps be only
due to the etymology of a small set of words denoting this activity. To base a theory
of cultural translation on such a restricted etymology seems somewhat Eurocentric.

‘‘Culture’’, idem and ipse

Other problematic terms are ‘‘culture’’ and ‘‘identity’’. They are notoriously complex,
and we seem to have led ourselves astray in our traditional attempts to reify these
ideas as classical concepts. We should instead be trying to develop more fuzzy
concepts which would allow for all kinds of overlaps, hybrids and interference. This is
what Buden and Nowotny aim to do, in their critique of essentialist analyses of
multiculturalism; and also what Sakai does, according to their article. A multi-
culturalist approach does not necessarily entail the idea of cultural essences, however.
We can also see a culture as a loose, more or less fluid repertoire of ideas and
behaviour patterns, more or less permeable via contacts with other repertoires (see e.g.
Even-Zohar’s application and adaption of the repertoire idea, Even-Zohar 1997).
This interpretation is not opposed to the deconstructionist view of culture as a
constructed narrative; on the contrary.
A contribution that might shed some light on the notion of cultural identity is the
work of Paul Ricœur (1990, especially chapters 5 and 6). He makes a distinction
between two senses of identity, which he calls idem and ipse. Idem is the narrative
sense of identity that emerges over time; it denotes that which remains  roughly 
the same; in the personal context that which connects you as you are now to you as a
child. Idem is the ‘‘set of immutable attributes passed from one generation to the
Translation Studies 105

next’’ (Cronin’s response, 2009, 216). Your idem, in Ricœur’s sense, is presumably
what you want to improve if you go for the self-help books Cronin mentions. Your
ipse, on the other hand, is the sense that you are different from others; your ipse-
identity is constructed and defined vis-à-vis the Other. Your ipse reflects the groups
you belong to, to varying degrees, as opposed to the groups you do not belong to: Us
vs. Them. Using Ricœur’s distinction, we could interpret the cultural translation of
people in terms of the clash between the need to preserve a recognizable idem, and
the need to extend the ipse in order to include members of the host society within the
Buden and Nowotny do not accept the notion of multiple identity, although they
do discuss Sakai’s view of translation as a social, heterolingual relation. An
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individual who has lived in different cultures and through different languages,
whether by choice or by force of circumstance, has experienced a wider range of
potential Others, and thus had the chance to develop a more complex sense of ipse,
than someone who has remained within a single culture. At a larger level, nation-
building too involves incorporating aspects of the Other into the nation’s ipse (or
accepting ‘‘contamination by the foreign’’, as Buden and Nowotny put it) as well as
strengthening the national idem via the resurrection of national myths, and
fortressing the national ipse by preserving traditional enmities.

Migrating concepts
Perhaps a reference to memetics, absent from the original article and responses so
far, would be fruitful here. Bery writes of ‘‘mutation’’, but this important notion
could usefully be embedded within its wider memetic framework, in which we can
distinguish mutually beneficial, parasitic and destructive mutants, and so on (see, for
example, Aunger 2000; Chesterman 1997). All cultural transfer involves mutation, of
course; and unlike genetic evolution, memetic evolution moves fast.
There is a comparison to be made here between the emergence of memetics, as a
metaphorical extension of genetics (Dawkins 1976), and that of cultural translation
as academic issues. In memetics, some terms are specific to the domain (such as
meme), while some are borrowed as metaphorical extensions (such as mutation). But
there has been lively debate on the degree to which memetics is justified as a
metaphor, whether it can contribute any added value to what we can already gain
from cultural studies or ethnography or the history of ideas without using fancy new
terms and concepts (for some of this criticism, see Rose and Rose 2001). We could
ask similar questions about cultural translation: How justified is the metaphorical
use here? And what new insights does a translation-based terminology bring to the
study of sociocultural phenomena such as immigration (to take the original example
in Buden and Nowotny’s article)?
The discussion so far seems to be taking place in several conceptual contexts at the
same time, and it is precisely this fact that is obscured by the slippery, polysemous use
of central terms like ‘‘translation’’. Applying terms and concepts from one field to
another may bring unexpected insights, true; but it may only muddy the waters  in
particular by obscuring ethical differences such as those between the ethical status of
human beings of flesh and blood vs. that of inanimate objects, and impeding rather
than enriching communication between disciplines. One way of improving commu-
nication might in fact be to take a step back from the use of metaphor, and instead
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start by keeping different contexts terminologically separate: texts (such as transla-

tions); ideas (memes); cultural/social communities; and individual physical people.
Any correlations between phenomena in different spheres would need to be shown
empirically, and any metaphorical extensions of terminology would have to be
justified pragmatically, as producing more benefits than costs in comparison to some
other terminology. Terms and concepts surely need to earn their places. They too are
memes, competing for semiotic space with other memes.
Interestingly, Cronin’s response does offer just such an argument: he suggests that
thinking in translatorial terms can help us to understand something about ‘‘the
ontological necessity of conflict’’  i.e., real social conflict, not just textual difference.
This is an interesting claim, and his examples are good ones. I look forward to
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further evidence that thinking about cultural change and social conflict in this way is
somehow more productive than thinking about it in some other way. But in our
search for insightful conceptual similarities, let us not overlook significant
differences where they do indeed exist.

Aunger, Robert, ed. 2000. Darwinizing culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bery, Ashok. 2009. Response. Translation Studies Forum: Cultural translation. Translation
Studies 2, no. 2: 2136.
Chesterman, Andrew. 1997. Memes of translation. The spread of ideas in translation theory.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
***. 2006. Interpreting the meaning of translation. In A man of measure. Festschrift in
honour of Fred Karlsson on his 60th birthday, ed. Mickael Suominen, Antti Arppe, Anu
Airola, Orvokki Heinämäki, Matti Miestamo, Urho Määttä, Jussi Niemi, Kari K.
Pitkänen, and Kaius Sinnemäki, 311. Turku: The Linguistic Association of Finland.
Special supplement to SKY Journal of Linguistics 19.
Cronin, Michael. 2009. Response. Translation Studies Forum: Cultural translation. Translation
Studies 2, no. 2: 2169.
Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Even-Zohar, Itamar. 1997. The making of culture repertoire and the role of transfer. Target 9,
no. 2: 35563.
Jakobson, Roman 1959. On linguistic aspects of translation. In On translation, ed. Reuben
Brower, 2329. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Petrilli, Susan, ed. 2003. Translation translation. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Ricœur, Paul. 1990. Soi-même comme un autre. Paris: Seuil.
Rose, Hilary, and Steven Rose, eds. 2001. Alas poor Darwin. London: Vintage.
Simon, Sherry. 2009. Response. Translation Studies Forum: Cultural translation. Translation
Studies 2, no. 2: 20813.
Toury, Gideon. 1995. Descriptive translation studies and beyond. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Maria Tymoczko

Comparative Literature, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA

Writing about the Indian diaspora, Salman Rushdie (1991, 17) says, ‘‘having been
borne across the world, we are translated men’’, using translated here in much the
sense that people talk about ‘‘cultural translation’’. This usage of the term translation
is becoming increasingly popular in academic circles, and Boris Buden and Stefan
Translation Studies 107

Nowotny make some interesting points about the subject. There is, however, a
fundamental problem with their argument, namely that it is inconsistent. In their
first sentence Buden and Nowotny begin by invoking the etymological meaning of
translation, stating that the word (and implicitly similar words in European
languages such as Übersetzung) is to be understood in its literal, etymological sense
of ‘‘moving or carrying across’’ (or ‘‘setting across’’ in the case of Übersetzung). This
gambit is fine: the first meaning of translation in the Oxford English Dictionary is
‘‘removal or conveyance from one person, place, or condition to another’’. In fact
the English word translation seems to have been extended and applied to an
interlingual form of ‘‘carrying across’’ only quite late, probably the fourteenth
century, and the concrete meaning invoked by Buden and Nowotny is still current.
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Then, however, they unfortunately proceed to equate the two types of ‘‘carrying
across’’ (‘‘this does not apply only to the words of different languages, but also to
human beings’’). Ironically, of course, it is people who are more often carried across
in the concrete sense of translation: aside from notable exceptions (such
as borrowings), the whole point of textual translation is to select different words
from the target language rather than carry across the words per se of a source text.
Having pulled this sleight of hand, Buden and Nowotny then appeal to theoretical
work in translation studies about translation as a textual process, in an attempt to
make various points about cultural translation and to garner useful theoretical
grounding for ‘‘cultural translation’’ in their sense of the term.
The trouble with this move is something that any translator will recognize:
namely that despite etymological commonality, one cannot necessarily extrapolate
semantic meaning from one terminal meaning in a semantic tree to another terminal
meaning. That is, one cannot normally move effortlessly within the full semantic
field of a given word, from one branch to another branch, combining insights from
all the meanings, much less apply metalevel theory from one part of the semantic
field to another part. We can cite Eugene Nida’s oft repeated example of the English
word spirit (1964, 1069; cf. Bassnett 2002, 278). Among other things, the meaning
of the word spirit includes a variety of supernatural entities (such as ‘‘angel’’,
‘‘demon’’, ‘‘God’’, ‘‘gods’’, ‘‘gremlins’’, ‘‘fairies’’, ‘‘sprites’’, and ‘‘ghosts’’) and also
the meaning ‘‘alcohol’’. These terminal meanings of spirit have very different fields
of reference, and discourses mixing them arbitrarily would be problematic, to say the
least. Trying to apply the theory of making whiskey to the theory of spirits in a
religious or supernatural sense  or, worse yet, a religious theory of spirit to the
making of whiskey  clearly does not work. It is dubious at best to use the literal
aspect of the term translation to describe diasporic cultural processes, but it is
impossible to justify applying the metalevel of theory about textual translation
(whether intralingual, interlingual, or intersemiotic) on the grounds of shared lexical
Part of what makes it impossible, as I’ve discussed at length in two recent
contributions (Tymoczko forthcoming; 2007, 54106), is that the term translation
applied to textual transposition primarily across languages is a metaphor, and a very
Western metaphor at that; the same can be said of Übersetzung, traduction,
traducción, and similar words in many other European languages. The word
translation metaphorically implies that the semantic meanings of a source text can
be transferred intact to the target text, even when the words of the source text
themselves are not carried across; the metaphor implies that there can be a
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translation practice that meets these criteria. The extension of the concrete sense of
translation as ‘‘carrying across’’ to interlingual textual transposition was achieved
during the late Middle Ages, probably to delineate a standard of translation
promulgated during the period when translation of the Christian scriptures to the
vernacular languages was becoming unstoppable. As metaphors we live by (Lakoff
and Johnson 1980), the metaphors of translation, Übersetzung, traduction, traduc-
ción, and so forth for textual and linguistic translation are entangled with a regime of
Bible translation, the history of Christianity in Western Europe, the history of
Western colonization and imperialism, and other specific facets of Western European
history and culture. Accordingly, these metaphors and their attendant presupposi-
tions are very different from metaphors for (textual) translation in other world
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languages. Thus, appealing to such words for theories of the literal relocation of
people, as Buden and Nowotny attempt to do, enmeshes the authors in the very
limited frameworks of Eurocentric culture and dominance they are trying to
question and challenge.
This has been a fundamental limitation of translation studies and translation
theory as it has developed thus far. Discourse has tended to be framed by and
embedded in Western presuppositions, even the discourse of those who oppose such
frameworks. Until there is a translation theory that includes a wide range of the
words and metaphors for ‘‘translation’’ used in many languages and cultures of the
world  and the histories that tell us how those metaphors have actually played out in
practice  translation theory will be very thin indeed. To extend such a thin
translation theory to the broad cultural questions that Buden and Nowotny address
is to construct the new field on a foundation of sand, to imbricate it from the outset
in the world order and power structures that always already constrain Eurocentric
cultures and much of the rest of the world, and to narrow down the very meanings of
culture, identity and migration. Moreover, the implications of the term translation in
its literal sense undermine the exploration itself: for carrying across entities and their
meanings unaltered semantically and semiotically is precisely what does not happen
when people migrate and change contexts and cultures. Theoretical approaches in
many different fields  as different as relevance theory in linguistics and
intertextuality in literary studies  agree that meaning is context-dependent: very
little can be translated (or ‘‘carried across’’) intact in migration, other than physical
objects. Using the term translation for the movement of people (except in the most
concrete sense) is self-defeating if one wishes to have any real understanding of
migration, diaspora and the result of cultural displacement and interface.
So how to proceed with this question of being ‘‘translated men’’? (Note that even
culture heroes such as Rushdie have problematic presuppositions regarding gender.)
Clearly identity is a performance, and no one performs identity in a single way, as
many have argued, not least Stuart Hall. People usually perform identity one way at
home and another way at work, one way with their mothers and another way with
their children, one way in religious situations and another at parties, and so on.
People self-identify in different ways as well: in my case I can and do self-identify as
Czechoslovak; as Scottish; as a descendant of mountainy Appalachian folks in the
United States; as a person who grew up poor in the ghettos of Cleveland, Ohio; as a
Harvard graduate; as an avid gardener; as a mother of three children; as an erstwhile
politician; as a professor; and so forth, depending on context. This is all old hat: at
Translation Studies 109

this point in time most scholars agree that identity is performative and that it is
multiple and heterogeneous.
The decision of Brecht’s ‘‘democratic’’ judge who finally grants US citizenship to
the poor fellow who knows little English but understands hard work can be framed
in terms of such identity performances. The judge has one identity to perform on the
bench as he makes decisions about citizenship, but he has other identities as well.
These the story leaves silent, but it may be that the judge is motivated to act as he
does because he is the grandson of Italian or Polish immigrants himself and
remembers how devoted his grandmother was to ‘‘America’’ even though her English
was poor. That second identity is perhaps mapped onto the first in his strategy of
questioning his petitioner so that more than one facet of his identity can be
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instrumentalized in a satisfying way. (Note, however, that we never learn how the
judge discovers linguistically that the would-be citizen earns his living by hard work.)
A charitable way to look at the citizenship exam discussed by Buden and
Nowotny is that the state has an interest in knowing that a new citizen can perform a
German identity sufficiently well to avoid breaking the law inadvertently (say, by
denying the Holocaust). Why they want a new citizen to know about cultural events
that happen every five years is less obvious unless there is an unspoken
presupposition in Germany that identity should actually be unitary  that there is
only one way to be culturally German rather than many ways. All naturalization
processes are inevitably ideological, but not all predicate a narrow or unified cultural
identity. For example, in the US the naturalization process requires general
knowledge about US history and familiarity with the twenty-page US Constitution
(which all US children are also drilled in repeatedly in primary and secondary school
because it is the only law of the land that holds uniformly in all 50 states of the
union). These things are certainly ideological, but in the US people being naturalized
aren’t asked about cultural events in New York City and everyone has a great deal of
freedom to perform all sorts of cultural identities (including bizarre and dangerous
ones, as daily news from the United States demonstrates). People seeking citizenship
in the US are currently expected to learn English, but the English language was
added as a naturalization requirement relatively recently. There are in fact many US
citizens who have a language other than English as their primary or even sole
language, and there are all sorts of laws specifying that public documents in the US
be available in multiple languages.
I mention these points about the United States because it is important in
constructing arguments to use examples that result in transferable knowledge, and it
does not seem to me that the German case related to ‘‘cultural translation’’ is fully
transferable worldwide: not all nation states demand that an applicant’s other
identities or languages be set aside or silenced in order to gain citizenship. Thus,
German issues about identity, language, culture and naturalization seem to
constitute a case study with many historical and sociological singularities rather
than one that is widely transferable internationally or that can lead to good theory
about cultural identity, migration or translation in any of its different senses.
One difficulty with attempting to extend translation theory to questions that
involve identity performance is that there actually is very little theory in translation
studies that speaks directly to the performance complexities of identity. Difference
has been a leitmotif of work in translation studies since the field was founded, and
numerous scholars have written about translation as a performative act, but there is
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as yet no theoretical framework in translation studies for addressing the repeated,

multiple, heterogeneous and even contradictory ways that individuals and commu-
nities perform identities. To have transferable theory from translation studies for
those purposes, we would need a much greater understanding of translation in oral
contexts than we currently have: from, say, the investigation in oral cultures of
repeated oral translational performances of religious and secular borrowings from
other languages. Similarly, there is probably much to be learned from the translation
performances of community interpreters and ‘‘natural’’ translators. The important
element of divergence associated with iteration, however, is less apparent in either of
these contexts of language-based translation than it is in contexts related to the
migration of peoples. Some insights could be gleaned from the retranslation of a
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single text over a long span of time and many languages, but translation theory has
not yet synthesized cases of that sort in theoretical directions that address the issues
Buden and Nowotny are interested in.
For scholars investigating diaspora and related complexities resulting from
cultural displacement and cultural interface in this age of population migrations and
globalization, to imagine that ‘‘translation’’ is an obvious phenomenon, or that by
using that term they have defined or delimited the situation they wish to study, or
that their theoretical problems can find an anodyne in the theories developed by
translation studies is all wishful thinking in the extreme, notwithstanding the shared
etymology between ‘‘cultural translation’’ and ‘‘(textual) translation’’. Many fields
have been tempted to latch onto terms meaning ‘‘translation’’ as an ostensibly easy
way out of their theoretical problems, not realizing how complex textual translation
is and how many theoretical problems the subject brings with it. Ethnographers and
anthropologists have already gone down that road and found it a dead end:
attempting to appropriate (textual) translation as a model for their own disciplines
has not substantially illuminated their own processes, nor has it solved theoretical
problems in their own domains.

Bassnett, Susan. 2002. Translation studies. 3rd ed. London: Routledge.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Nida, Eugene A. 1964. Toward a science of translating: With special reference to principles and
procedures involved in Bible translating. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Rushdie, Salman. 1991. Imaginary homelands: Essays and criticism 19811991. London:
Tymoczko, Maria. 2007. Enlarging translation, empowering translators. Manchester: St Jerome.
______. Forthcoming. Western metaphorical discourses implicit in translation studies. The