GUEST POST: Esperança Bielsa on ‘Linguistic Hospitality’

by Dr Esperança Bielsa

(this is an extract from E Bielsa and A Aguilera, ‘Politics of Translation: A Cosmopolitan Approach’, European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology, 4:1, 7-24.)

The fundamental ethnocentrism of translation, the reductive tendency that is present in any culture, makes it necessary to formulate a politics of translation in any cosmopolitan project. A politics of translation based on the ethical purpose of translating, which according to Berman is to open up in writing a certain relation with the other, to fertilize what is one’s own through the mediation of what is foreign. Invoking Derrida’s notion of hospitality, Ricoeur has stated that translators can find happiness in what he calls linguistic hospitality, appealing to a regime of correspondence without adequacy that does not erase the irreducibility of the pair of what is one’s own and what is foreign. Only linguistic hospitality understood as an absolute or unconditional hospitality that lets the strangeness of the foreign tongue arrive and does not hide it under a pretended equivalence or false familiarity will make it possible to fertilize what is one’s own through the mediation of what is foreign. Absolute hospitality, as Derrida points out, breaks with the law of hospitality as a right or as a duty. Beyond the obvious reason that an ethical translation of the other, that is, a translation that does justice to the difference of the other, is not contemplated in any regime of rights, one would need to approach a politics of translation based on linguistic hospitality as a responsibility and not as a right. In many instances, this responsibility not only anticipates the law, or is even positioned in certain cases against the norm so that justice can be done, but refers to the circumstances and conditions in which genuine communication can be established. This cannot be articulated from a rights based approach, which approves of any type of communication as long as nobody’s rights are infringed.

An identity that reveals a glimpse of linguistic hospitality could avoid an identity that autoimmunizes itself in processes of closure, of a repetition that is assumed to be eternal but is still ephemeral and fragile, only less flexible and often less resistant and capable of survival. What at the philogenetical level distinguishes intelligence from instinct is not much more than this flexibility, which is impossible to sustain through the preservation of a dogmatic core of origins and essence that the old identitarian identity serves as an idol. There is no lasting tradition that is not renewed by the foreign. Linguistic hospitality allows for this innovation without parting blindly with what deserves to be preserved. Thus, linguistic hospitality could be the core of a politics of translation that is open to the foreign, neither closed nor absolutely open. Where Derridean hospitality would invoke a negative theology without any remaining borders, and where Habermasian tolerance would demand equality across borders, a politics of translation centred on linguistic hospitality draws a porous border in a cosmopolitan space. It really follows a perspective that has led the last Derrida to preserve a minimal nation-state in an international context, and Habermas to insist on a cosmopolitan constitution with few remaining borders. In its short distance from real hospitality, such politics of translation could give social shape to welcoming foreignness, conform it in language, that material of our wakefulness and dreams, of collective longing, that has modified and stirs our flesh, sending it beyond a spirit conceived as mere ideality, beyond culture as a mere symbolic game.

About the contributors:

Antonio Aguilera is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Barcelona. He is the author of Hombre y cultura (Trotta 1996) and of introductions to Adorno’s Actualidad de la filosofía (Paidós 1991) and Gehlen’s Antropología filosófica (Paidós 1993). He has published articles on Benjamin and Adorno, and book chapters on aesthetics, ethics and violence, time and history, memory and forgetting, etc.
 Esperança Bielsa is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. She is the author of Cosmopolitanism and Translation (Routledge 2016) and The Latin American Urban Crónica (Lexington Books 2006), co-author, with Susan Bassnett, of Translation in Global News(Routledge 2009), and co-editor, with Christopher Hughes, of Globalization, Political Violence and Translation (Palgrave Macmillan 2009).

CONFERENCE: On Translations at Nottingham Contemporary | part 1

The Nottingham Contemporary, a gallery/exhibition space in Nottingham, hosted the On Translation conference  from 16 to 17 February 2018.

In these posts (find part 2 here) I’ll give a brief overview of what went on and tease out some of the key questions that it raised for our cultural translation research theme.

Seminar: Rolando Vasquez

Friday’s main event shaped up as a seminar that explored the colonialist implications of translation, given by cultural critic Rolando Vasquez. It was a challenging session. It pushed us to think about the epistemological assumptions we hold when translating, but also raised broader questions about Western frames of reference and the violence they might do, wittingly or unwittingly, to those cultures that are seen through Western eyes.

Drawing on the postcolonial theory, Vasquez argued that translation between Western civilisation and non-Western cultures is inherently colonialist. This is because Western epistemology claims, at base, to be able to know the truth of any particular situation (a hangover from the Enlightenment), and also because Western epistemology implicitly or explicitly centres the West in any frame of reference it might use to explore non-Western subjects. Vasquez calls this our ‘arrogant ignorance’ – we implicitly centre ourselves and assume that we are perfectly able to know everything there is to know, if we don’t know these things already.

Vasquez then outlined the principal consequence of our ‘arrogant ignorance’: non-Western truths/ideas/ways of knowing, being, etc. that don’t look familiar to us are ignored or ‘erased’ when they are translated into a Western context. This counts, for Vasquez, as a repetition of the original act of colonial violence that he takes as founding Western modernity.

In straightforward terms, when we translate, for example, indigenous  mythology into Western cultural forms, say for an academic paper, we also unwittingly erase its ‘temporal and ontological specificity’, that is, we overlook those elements for which an equivalent in our Western conceptual schema cannot be found.

A similar argument that specifically handles cultural translation crops up in Talal Asad’s path-breaking essay, ‘The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology’.(1)

Vasquez’s decolonial approach to (cultural) translation is, I would argue, inherently political. It isn’t simply about exploring the challenges involved in cultural translation but holding those who erase subaltern specificity to account. It is about ensuring that colonial violence remains foregrounded, rather than forgotten.

Vasquez raises tough questions, particularly for scholars who work on culture that circulates to and from non-Western contexts. I admire his refusal to wave away the horrors of our shared colonial past. At the same time, of course, Vasquez is writing a broad thesis about a very general (global and historical) practice of translation rather than attending to specific texts, so some of what he says may or may not pan out in the details. Nonetheless, a challenging and informative seminar.


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




Welcome to the BCMCR Cultural Translation Research Blog

Over the coming months we will use this blog to capture a range of approaches to the topic of cultural translation.

 What is cultural translation?

A good question. In the most general of terms, cultural translation might be seen as the process through which culture moves from one particular place, language or time to another, whether that means a literal translation (from one language to another) or a more metaphorical transposition (say, across national borders). But as Maitland (2017) notes, the definition is far from settled. For our working definition, go here.

Part of the work this blog will undertake is exploring how the concept is useful in Media and Cultural research, what sort of thinking can be done when we attend to cultural translation, and what questions are raised by it.

The blog will aim to:

1.       provide an up-to-date library of work that looks at issues of cultural translation by BCU scholars.

2.       catalogue the seminar series as it unfolds, with perspectives and comments posted week by week.

3.       invite thinkers from around the world to comment on how cultural translation impacts their work.

4.       allow the public to engage with the BCMCR seminar series and involve them in the wider debates we’re having here.

To keep this short, we’ll just say that we welcome comments, thoughts and engagement from academics, arts practitioners and members of the public alike. We’re looking forward to exploring cultural translation over the course of this project. Watch this space!


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