Mis/translation

Traduttore traditore’: s/he who translates betrays. Literally and figuratively. Words are embedded in social and material practices, and often, in the mismatches between languages, there is domination. STS is substantially, perhaps largely, written in English. What does this imply for our discipline, and for how it acts in the world? What is being lost or distorted or repressed in translation?

Here’s a small example to think with. In Bahia in Brazil comer and chupar are words used for eating fruit. Forced into English comer is to eat and to swallow bits of a fruit like an apple. Comer is more or less clean, tends to be formal, and may imply a degree of education. It also is about an orderly movement from outside to inside the body. In English chupar is to suck. Juice may run down your chin, your fingers get messy, and you are likely to pick fibres or pits from your mouth. Chupar happens in more intimate company, the boundary between the inside and the outside of the body is less clear, and it may be childlike in its pleasures. All in all, you might say that chupar fits mangoes better than apples.

This comes from Mattijs van de Port and Annemarie Mol’s ‘Chupar frutas in Salvador da Bahia’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 21 (2015): 165-180. They suggest that the two words evoke two very different ontological, practical, normative and embodied worlds – worlds that also flow into one another. All this gets lost in translation if we simply talk about ‘eating’. Our English word starts – and resonates – with its own somewhat different sets of practices and realities, bodily, socially and normatively. It reproduces the world in its own particular ways. These overlap with comer and chupar, but they are also different.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter, but van de Port and Mol argue that it does. Surely they are right. In which case the question becomes: what is happening when we mis/translate into English? What is it that we don’t know? What realities are we othering? What bodies? What kinds of worlds? To ask these questions is to highlight the problem in a way that is empirical and methodological. It (properly) implies the need for care in translation. But the problem is theoretical and political too. This is because if STS largely does itself in English then it also tends to enact English language realities – including theory realities. So if we have an English language STS of embodiment then this does its embodiments in a range of different ways. However, these are all in English, while alternative embodiments (for instance in Bahia) get othered. And this is a power play. STS is enacting English-languageness in one way or another, perhaps in places where this isn’t appropriate. To put it differently, it is doing particular kinds of social theory in ways that are often invisible to those whose first language is English. But this is a form of hegemony – and also a form of intellectual impoverishment for STS. So what might be done about this?

A more developed sense among monoglot Anglophones that language is a performative power-play would help. But there are other possibilities. We might, for instance, ask what would happen if we were to take non-English terms and their resonating worlds into STS theory. (The anthropologists attempted this with hau, the gift, and Marilyn Strathern has also taken highland Papua New Guinea terms and their resonances into anthropology.) Alternatively, we might imagine differently theoretical STSs working in Portuguese, or Quechua or Mandarin. If we were to do this, then STS would become multiple. It would be turned into a set of different but partially connected linguistic and theoretical worlds. And if we were lucky then those STSs would be able to learn from one another.

I expect to blog again on mis/translation. I really think it’s important. But for the moment I’m trying to collect cases of power-saturated mistranslations. Preferably documented. Please feel free to contact me with suggestions and references.