KEY READINGS: Talal Asad on ‘Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology’

Cultural Translation and academic appropriation

Talal Asad’s essay, ‘The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology’ is one of the key reference points for contemporary thinking around cultural translation.

In the briefest of terms, Talal’s piece responds to a tendency within social anthropology to explain other cultures in terms the researcher already understands. For example, rather than attending to the very specific nuances in the attitudes an indigenous tribe might hold towards holy days or religious festivals, social anthropologists tended  to spot a ‘hidden pattern’ that told him or her about the tribe’s wider religious attitudes, their belief in a system of gods/God, etc. This might not be a problem if the tribe has an understanding of God that matches the anthropologists’ ideas, or indeed if there is a hidden and connected system of meaning that links an idea of God to a holy day to a festival together, or if there is a religion underlies their activities and cements it together conceived in the way an anthropologist conceives it. But this, in Asad’s view, is often not the case.  By ‘detecting’ a pattern of meaning or correspondence between otherwise discreet elements the anthropologist has imposed  their own frame of reference.

For those familiar with poststructuralist/postmodernist theory, this type of cultural translation, which might also be called cultural appropriation, should be immediately recognisable. Asad was after all writing in the 80s, when French thinkers like Foucault and Derrida started to have an impact on a wide range of disciplines. But interestingly Asad extends the argument I set out above to suggest that, in fact, this essentially reductive practice of cultural translation is institutional.  Scholars, he says, habitually take materials gained in the field and, consciously or unconsciously, translate them into a language they understand – that of their own society and culture, yes, but sometimes even into terms of the academy, academic discourse, the norms and terms of the discipline. In our fictional example, this would be the assumption of a network of meaning that can be unpacked and presented to scholars in the West. In doing so, in finding neat objects of study in other cultures that are ready to be exported in academic papers, monographs, etc, the anthropologists also erase the specificities they encounter. He calls this ‘cultural translation’. Asad holds up a significant paper by Ernest Gellner as emblematic of cultural translation:

‘Although it is now many years since Gellner’s paper was first published, it represents a doctrinal position that is still popular today. I have in mind the sociologism according to which religious ideologies are said to get their real meaning from the political or economic structure, and the self-confirming methodology according to which this reductive semantic principle is evident to the (authoritative) anthropologist and not to the people being written about. This position therefore assumes that it is not only possible but necessary for the anthropologist to act as translator and critic at one and the same time. I regard this position as untenable, and think that it is relations and practices of power that give it a measure of viability.’ (p. 164)

What’s perhaps more damning is the use amongst anthropologists of a certain academic rhetoric intended on giving objectivity and uniformity to the field.

‘What we have here is a style easy to teach, to learn, and to reproduce (in examination answers, assessment essays, and dissertations). It is a style that facilitates the textualization of other cultures, that encourages the construction of diagrammatic answers to complex cultural questions, and that is well suited to arranging foreign cultural concepts in clearly marked heaps of “sense” or “nonsense.” Apart from being easy to teach and to imitate, this style promises visible results that can readily be graded. Such a style must surely be at a premium in an established university discipline that aspires to standards of scientific objectivity. Is the popularity of this style, then not a reflection of the kind of pedagogic institution we inhabit?’ (p. 164)

Asad’s point isn’t simply that some anthropologists code other cultures in terms they understand. It’s that the entire discipline, its conventions, institutional practices, and discursive tendencies, is complicit in the practice.

How is it useful for us?

Cultural translation is handy because it very quickly and clearly describes a wide-spread phenomenon, something that takes place at an institutional level, affects the style and mode by which we as scholars communicate, and is tuned in to power relations. It is easy therefore to see how cultural translation is a manifestation of a more general imperialist tendency in Western culture. Scholars who are interested in culture that travels to and from the West will want to take note.

Asad’s critique also forces us to attend to our own writing. Are there assumptions within the way we write that promote or conceal power relations in some way? What are the assumptions we make as media and culture scholars? Are there ways in which we ‘translate’ the culture we examine back into terms (only) academics understand, and, if we do this, if this is part and parcel of scholarship itself, what are the consequences for those more intimately involved in this culture than us?

The idea of cultural translation as an institutional phenomenon is particularly useful for studies that wish to relate individual practices up to broader structural frameworks (see, for example, work in the Creative Industries). Cultural translation, at least in one of its first formulations, is not something that takes place on the intersubjective level alone. Asad’s approach forces us to consider how institutions, organizations, groups, might practice cultural translation.


Asad, Talal. “The concept of cultural translation in British social anthropology.” Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography 1 (1986): 141-164.

KEY READING: Sarah Maitland’s ‘What is Cultural Translation’ (2017)

In these posts, I’ll set how I understand some of the key texts that explore cultural translation, and why I think they are important for understanding the concept. 

Maitland, Sarah. What is cultural translation? Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

Sarah Maitland’s (Goldsmiths) 2017 book What is Cultural Translation is one of the only monographs that sets out to define cultural translation in precise terms that I have been able to find. Maitland’s background is in translation studies, and as such she attends not only to the state of cultural translation’s usage in wider academia but also to its place within what might be considered ‘traditional’ (inter-textual or interpretative) translation. Her book provides a valuable guide to a complex term that, in her own words, is often theorised in contradictory ways.

In this series of blog posts I want to draw out what I find interesting and useful about Maitland’s work. She conducts a particularly fascinating genealogy of the term ‘cultural translation’ itself, helpful in delineating the key ideas involved in the term. Finally, by locating the topic firmly within translation, I want to use Maitland’s work as a springboard to discuss and develop my own work.

Maitland’s approach

Maitland works within what could very broadly be called a poststructuralist approach to communication, and sets her arguments off with reference to Richard Rorty. In particular, she explores his idea of a ‘liberal ironist’. The liberal ironist is essentially an ethical agent or actor who takes an ironic approach to the complexities of modern life, specifically, someone who both affirms a view that the prevention of cruelty is the highest human endeavour, and, at the same time, understands that all ideas and ethics are shaped by their cultural context. Rorty is a good frame for her arguments, I think, as viewing the cultural translator in terms of a liberal ironist helps the reader get at one of her central points: cultural transition is shaped by attendance to both 1) a transcendent political or ethical concern for the wellbeing of the other, and 2) to the awareness of contingency and context.

This gives cultural translation an ethical/political zest right off the bat. Cultural translation is not simply a description of some nebulous process whereby culture ‘moves’ in some way from one context to another. Rather, it is linked to how a person or a subject interacts with other people, and specifically the ‘other’ person, on a fundamental level. Her approach goes on to raise familiar questions of representation. In processes of (cultural) translation, we  confront the fact that we, as subjects, have no direct access to the other’s mind, their experiences, histories, and so on. How do we speak to and about the other without this access? Mapping the unfamiliar other out in terms we already recognise risks simply reproducing what we know while ignoring their specificities – which, as the On Translations conference was keen to stress, often constitutes an act of (colonial) violence.

But Maitland is also a practicing interpreter and translator and has in my view a practical approach to these question. She uses Paul Ricoeur’s thinking on translation, as well as his ideas on the hermeneutic process, as a philosophical ground for her definition of cultural translation, and sets out the following points:

  1. Meaning is always produced in the communicative act, rather than transferred from one person to another. This means it is also always dependent on or determined in relation to context (the immediate social environment, the broader historical and political situation, the identity positions of the speakers, and so on).
  2. As part of that production, the speakers involved create themselves as subjects. This follows for both parties in any communication (in other words the self is created at the same time as, with, and through, the other).
  3. The subject actively engages in working out how best to communicate with the other. For Maitland, this involves working out what the other knows as best he or she can and then tailoring the information they present to what they think the other will understand or respond to.
  4. At the same time, any knowledge the subject obtains from the other will always be filtered through the subject’s specific perspective, determined by it’s judgements, values, and so on.
  5. This process is dynamic rather than a one-time only activity – it goes on, constantly, as we talk to and about other people. It is bound up with the ‘hermeneutic process’, that is, the daily activity of interpretation that we engage with all the time.

Maitland writes:

If, at base, hermeneutics is what we do in life, cultural translation is the purposeful orientation of the hermeneutic dimension of life towards meaningful action and the transformation of the purposeful self.” Maitland, p.10

Essentially, Maitland locates a translation-type process at the heart of all interpersonal communication. This radical approach means that the underlying mechanics of translation shouldn’t simply be considered as relevant to professional translators but, in fact, are rather familiar and mundane, traceable as she suggests within a very broad range of interpersonal activity, and bound up with the constant process of interpretation and investigation we engage in when we encounter other people.

One ethical consequence is that it forces us to attend to both what does not translate (and is ‘erased’ in the process of translation) but also to affirm that things do translate too, in an every-day sort of sense. This would seem to develop and critique the somewhat pessimistic view that sees cultural translation as founded on the misapprehension of the other.

It also makes Maitland’s approach, in my mind, both theoretically sophisticated and practical. It runs on the premise that although we cannot ever fully understand another person in our own terms, in conversation (and so in ‘cultural translation’) we nevertheless shuttle back and forth between what we understand of our own experience and what we learn of the other’s experiences. So, although we can’t every translate the total meaning of text, or know the full extent of an cultural object before it is exposed to a process of translation, we nonetheless do constantly work and rework at translating ourselves and others into terms of mutual, if always partial, understanding. As such Maitland’s work gives us a theoretical insight into the manifold ways in which cultural translation occurs, and, more importantly, provides a way forward for applying the term to cultural and media research.