Distorted Translations

“Scholars in the philosophy of language have understood incommensurability to refer to a state in which an undistorted translation cannot be produced between two or more denotational texts.” (Povinelli, 2001, 320)

So the question would be, why do scholars think that any “undistorted translation” could be produced? It seems pretty clear that that’s beyond the realm of possibility. It is feasible that some translation have more distortions that others, and that in some cases translation is altogether inaccessible, but the translation as such is a process that consists of selections of admissible distortions in order to combine them into the unity that would still be identifiable as a source text but anyone familiar with the language in question.

“How could the Hawaiians have understood James Cook, or Cook the Hawaiians, without producing serious distortions (Sahlins 1995, Obeyesekere 1997)?” (Povinelli, 2001, 321)

The dispute on Cook’s regrettable end involved the conversation about colonial discourse, the Western inevitable enthnocentrism, the researcher’s positionality, and glocal ecologies of language and communication. Whereas translation is impossible without distortions, it functions as a distorted reflection quite effectively. And as Foucault remarked that starting from a certain point, the question of authorship is not about the author’s romantic subjectivities, but about the contexts, intentions, power dynamics, contested discourses and such, in the discussion of which the author is not a point of departure, similarly in the circulation of translated communication the question of “distortions” is not of fatal significance. Perhaps the essence of communication is happening on a less linguistic-heavy level as we came to suggest. Perhaps sub-, overly-, nearly- and paralinguistic means of communication are the gist of it, which if not nullifies the problem of distortion, then at least makes it far less ominous.

The interpretational endeavors in which we engage, is the series of “passing theories” (Davidson quoted by Povinelli), which are generated, come to appear veritable, fade out and die as communication unfolds.

The perfect illustration of the inevitable ethnocentrism is the famous Quine’s example illustrating the inaccessibility of the true meaning of the utterances based on the sounds and the connection of said sounds with the established by the anthropologist meaning. How do we know that gavagai is a rabbit and not the rabbit’s sudden appearance?

“A rabbit scurries by, the native says “Gavagai,” and our jungle linguist notes down the sentence “Rabbit” (or “Lo, a rabbit”) as tentative translation.” (Quine, 2000, 94)

Of course native people would say “lo, a rabbit.” That is just what should be expected. They might also say “lo and behold, the rabbit.” That would be more like it.

Not so much the impossibility to establish the correspondence between rabbit and the word supposedly meaning it, is the case of difficulty, as the fact that properly established rabbit is woven into the text written by the anthropologist, in all the poetics and politics of the text, reaffirming the politics of subjugation by means of studying, or enlightenment, or educating.

To return to Cook’s end conundrum, Marshall Sahlins’s piece (Sahlins, 1985) opens up not only the question “What really happened to Cook?” as the question, akin to Quine’s wonder, “How do we ever know what has ever really happened?” And although Sahlins is extremely persuasive given the intricacies of his writing style, he indulges into Roman-style mythologies only Western mind is capable of producing, and in this divide I am rather on the side of Gannanath Obeyeskere who stated: “I doubt that the natives created their European god; the Europeans created him for them.” (Obeyeskere, 3). Not to suggest that something that might be described as “the natives creating the god” did not happen, but the way it was framed and became stitched into the political imaginary, was inescapably fraught with “distortions of translation.”



Marshall Sahlins. (1985) “Captain James Cook; or, The Dying God.” in Island of History. University of Chicago Press.

Obeyesekere, Ganannath. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook. Pp.3-22.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2001. “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability” Annual Review of Anthropology, 30: 319-334.

Quine, Willard V.O. (2000) “Meaning and Translation” in L. Venuti (editor) “The Translation Studies Reader”

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