On Cultural Translation

After 1950, the phrase ‘translation of culture’ became so commonly used that it started to occur in almost every distinctive task of social anthropology. So what does that phrase mean and what element of the idea made anthropologists fairly interested? in 1796, the Prussiun linguist Wilhelm Von Humboldt wrote a letter to August Schelegel, a German poet, translator and critic. Where to some point he said that he felt that translation seemed to him as an attempt to solve an impossible task. That every translator was doomed to be done in by one of two stumbling blocks: he would either stay too close to the original, at the cost of taste and the language of his nation, or he would adhere too closely to the characteristics peculiar to his nation, at the cost of the original. The medium between the two is not only difficult, but downright impossible. 

Now lets focus on Wilhelm’s words but change the word ‘translator’ with ‘anthropologist’. And if we are talking about anthropology, what task other than translating we are imagining about? Fieldwork, writing a monograph? Indeed. (Though It’s not the soul job of anthropologists) 

I will in this paper try to describe how I understand  the phrase ‘translation of culture’, and how some of the theorists have described it. 

The Phrase ‘Translation’ of Culture

Anthropology’s one of the centre concerns, studying the other cultures gets to be fulfilled by an expedition, what the anthropologists call ethnography. And to do the fieldwork, as a methodology, (after the death of arm-chair anthropology) participant observation came into the scene. And the tag of ‘Science’ of human beings, demands a level of scientific objectivity. But as all humans are prisoners of their own time and culture, how will the objectivity come? While writing a monograph or doing the fieldwork can a person forget about all the cultural values he grew up with and see every aspect of life by native’s eye? If he can not then isn’t native’s point of view is automatically getting translated by the ethnographer in his own cultural views? And now, to walk down into the road of translation of culture we have to set our eyes on  a certain British man first.

In 1915,  an alone white British man set off to a journey to one of the islands of Melanesia with a mind full of ambitions and a goal to leave his own name in history. For four years his saga continued on that island. He left his comfortable cottage and set up a tent to live among the natives. Being so familiar with them that this white man’s presence stopped being seen as a bother. He would for upcoming years learn the native language, talk, eat, dance and converse with them, risk own life on dangerous voyages on canoe to attend the kula1 and so on. 

He didn’t rely on what people say about themselves as concrete data. As people don’t talk honestly always, there are always lies, boasting, fabricated memories; so he decided to observe native’s life day to day and moved closer. Gradually it became a method where the fieldworker has to participate and observe at the same time to understand the inner essence of every culture and habits of natives. By this method, named participant observation, Malonowski showed that native’s life is not simpler or irrational than any of the industrials2. We do indeed have the same passion, aims, motives, essential way of thinking. From that island to Britain we all have functions in society. As Adam Smith said on an interview to BBC, ‘He was very clever. Because, what he did in a way was- he civilized the savages and savaged the civilized. ‘ 

This white British man was none other than Bronislaw Kaspar Malinowski. The monograph written by him became quite popular which actually set an archetype for later anthropologists, ‘The Argonauts of the West Pacific’. The archetype of a white man doing a lonely fieldwork far from home; as Gupta and Ferguson stated3

Malinowski died a hero. He got the recognition he wanted; fame, money, company, women4…everything he desired. He left the world a new kind of anthropology, a science of humankind analysed through empirical data.  

Bronislaw Kaspar Malinowski.

The archetype set by this man started to raise extreme questions after 1967, when his personal diary was published. Throughout his academic journey he claimed to see the savages as they are, to take their lives as equal as industrials but this same man was someone else in his diary. His frustration, anger, disgust was clear from his personal speech.

‘How dare he talked to me such a manner, how dare he a neggar find something in me to disapprove of.’

‘I often long for culture…. Beethoven’s melodies’

‘I was fed up woth neggars and with my work.’

-Mailnowski, B  1967 

At first these findings were really shocking as Malinowski turned out to be someone what the world never imagined him to be. A man who tried to understand native’s perspective, he himself again was calling them ‘neggar’. His diary indeed raised anxiety about the representation of culture amongst the contemporary anthropologists. And  to top it off, Mead’s work on Samoa started to get criticised as ‘fabricated’. Mead, who was a great follower of Malonowskian archetype of fieldwork.

Perhaps, his diary reveals the truth beneath the surface, the truth sealed in the heart of all kinds of anthropology that he was like everyone else a prisoner of own time and culture, with all it’s prejudices. And as Talal Asad claimed that Malinowski never considered the possibility of translation of culture. If he did maybe he could see the hollowness of the idea of pure objectivity. 

Though the functional fieldworkers believed that anyone can go and observe natives culture as the native, that very thinking was flawed in both ways- 

first, the fieldworker would never could leave his own cultural values and second, the natives would never accept someone from a far land as themselves5. In many cases even put on a tab by suspecting anthropologist’s ‘hidden’ intention. As if it’s a two way pretense of accepting every bit of each other’s values by both the ethnographer and natives6.

And again, how someone be so hopeful to expect to become a proper part of a new social setting in one or two years! The fieldworker is obviously a little distant to the natives. As, John Beattie (1964) stated that a little distance was also  needed. 

And then, the fieldworker who actually did a research has to write his works down. To do this job all he can do is choose his own mother tounge. A language with far more discursive power than the natives. And in the process he would either lose some point on lessening the radical value of native words or being so stiff about the writing that the monograph becomes a jargon.

I mostly see ‘translation of culture’ as an undeniable outcome from pretense of understanding the native’s life properly. Not only me but also many of the theorists before stated that it’s never possible to totally merge with native people. Cause undeniably we all have ideals, values, point of view made only by centering our own culture. But the functional school has popularized the idea of seeing the world from native’s shoes. Now-a-days this stereotype is also being broken. And every theorist has their own reason, not to follow the Malinowskian tradition. The first thing to prevent this is maybe by admitting to own self that, We can’t know and show exactly how native life is just by doing participant observation, living to some remote society for one to two years, learning the language when after returning ‘home’ we are going to write the monograph in our own language what carries own cultural identity. 

From Theorist’s Thought

The concept of translation of culture was freshly presented by Godfrey Lienhardt on a paper of his in 1954. 

“The problem of describing to others how mem­bers of a remote tribe think then begins to appear largely as one of translation, of making the coherence primitive thought has in the lan­ guages it really lives in, as clear as possible in our own” (97)

-Lienhardt, G  1954

After quoting it to one of his writings, Tala Asad7 stated, 

“Here I draw attention briefly to Lienhardt’s use of the word “translation” to refer not to linguistic matter per se, but to “modes of thought” that are embodied in such matter.” 

Again, in his book published in 1964, John Beattie described how in any case of fieldwork, writing monographs in ethnographer’s mother language is a crucial problem. He stated that, First an ethnographer has to learn a new language which by no sense  is something alike of his own language, Rather radically different. 

So, he has to start off from the point of absolute null where he has to convey to people who lacks his own first hand cultural learning and language enough to understand basic uses. And then he again can’t use the native’s language instead of his own language. So, in this point the ethnographer is forced by his logical fiber to be very careful and precise use of language. And the most unfortunate part is, the skill to do this doesn’t combine with the skill of doing good fieldwork. So even if everyone learns about research methodology and gets trained to do fieldwork, with a lack of experience in writing the monograph as close as the native’s words many of the anthropologists fail miserably. As Beattie (1964) expressed,”…Often inadequately explained, and the charybdis of a profusion of sociological jargon (since it is often easier to make up a new word for an unfamiliar concept than it is to find, or adapt, an old one)”

Another British anthropologist to talk about the translation of culture was Edmund Leach. He stated that though the journey of anthropology started from the admission of the fact that cultures are different and there are indeed some ‘other cultures’. But in the way, some sentiments got mixed and the saying like ‘we all are equal’ came into the scene. Even Malinowski himself said Trobiand Islanders were no different than the westerner,  but he himself in his personal diary badmouthed them. So after seeing these, Leach reached the conclusion that “The others remained obstinately other.” 

To this problem, Leach claimed that the essential cause was the translation of culture. Translation is difficult and perfect translation can nowhere to be seen. And social anthropologists should engage in a methodology for the translation of cultural language8.

Shortly after that Max Gluckman also accepted the centrality of the idea of translation of culture. Earnest Gellner’s short text on this topic discloses a lot of different questions but Talal Asad claimed that Gellner failed to answer them. Apart from Gellner, now I would love to introduce Talal Asad’s view on translation of culture as the last resort.

In 1984, a group of anthropologists (strictly 10) decided to sit on an advanced seminar for 10 days. In those days, each of them presented a paper on topics regarding interpretation on cultural writing and ethnography. The seminar tried an attempt to come to terms with the politics and poetics of cultural representation.

Which was later published in a book. Among the anthropologists, Talal Asad specially talked about translation of culture. 

Talal Asad

He attempted to show the translation of culture in various ways. Mostly by reviewing Gellner’s journal. But he mostly focused on inequality of languages. He pointed out that all languages aren’t treated the same. Some languages have the power of putting on a stronger discursive spell. And anthropologists are tend to go to places where languages are too remote and  difficult to even understand the inner essence. And if the anthropologist has a powerful language, this can lead to losing originality of the native language. Like Lienheardt lightly suggested that the process of translation is unconscious. 

‘This inequality in the power of languages, together with the fact that the anthropologist typically writes about an illiterate (or at any rate non-English-speaking) population for a largely academic, English-speaking audience, encourages a tendency I would now like to discuss: the tendency to read the implicit in alien cultures.’

-Clifford, J  Marcus, G.E.  1984

So, Talal Asad attempted to see translation of culture in the light of power relations among societies. He described a reason behind cultural translation what was inequality of languages. 

“I have proposed that the anthropological enterprise of cultural translation may be vitiated by the fact that there are asym­metrical tendencies and pressures in the languages of dominated and dominant societies.”

-Clifford, J  Marcus, G.E.  1984

Problem With This Idea

I have already discussed how problematic the whole idea is on my way to this end. But let me be precise to the point. 

The main problem with the translation is maybe the fact that native’s ideas are disappearing from the monograph when the selling point of the monograph is supposed to be the insight of native life. But the monograph written in a powerful language holds a power to reach a larger audience and it imposes a discourse. And this monograph is literally a record of native life that is ultimately filtered through translation but with a tag of native’s original view. Due to the cultural translation a monograph can’t convey the whole picture. And ultimately the ‘others’ remain the ‘others’, distant and unfamiliar but now, with a false belief that we have actually

know them properly, understand their values.  but in reality we can’t. This misunderstanding can lead to further problems. 


As an aspiring anthropologist I can’t actually mount my conclusion on, so little on knowledge still I am. But I can leave two questions. Why can’t we respect the natives after knowing that we are different, why in a way to respect the natives we have to convince ourselves that we are all the same. And why the archetype of studying the others has to be followed in anthropology? Why not we start studying our own culture with no risk of translations and clash of ideals?



  1.  A Melanesian interisland system of exchange in which prestige items (as necklaces and arm shells) are ceremoniously exchanged with a concomitant trade in useful goods
  2. By this phrase I simply mean people who lives in industrial societies.
  3.  Gupta, A  Ferguson, J (1997)
  4. Malinowski’s diary was an evidence of his fondness towards lady companies and how popular he was among the ladies.
  5.  Europeans have practiced power in many parts of Africa, claiming high status. If not hostile, native community can’t accept someone white into their community with ease.
  6.  Beattie, J  1964
  7.  Clifford, J  Marcus, G.E.  1986
  8.  Leach 1973:772


  1. Beattie, J  (1964) pp:83-89  Other Culture: Aims, Methods, and Achievements in Social Anthropology  Macmillan Publishing Co. 
  2. Cliffotd, J  Marcus, G.E. (1986)  pp:142-164 Writing Culture : The Politics and Phonetics of Ethnography  University of California Press.
  3. Malinowski, B  (1967)  A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term  The Athlone Press

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