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The Americas 62.3 (2006) 305-312

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Lost—and Found—in Translation?

The Practice of Translating, Interpreting, and Understanding the Past

Texas Christian University
Fort Worth, Texas
In a Bangkok temple: "It is forbidden to enter a woman, even a foreigner, if dressed as a man."

Cocktail lounge, Norway: "Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar."

Doctor's office, Rome: "Specialist in women and other diseases."

Dry cleaner, Bangkok: "Drop your trousers here for the best results."

Hotel, Japan: "You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid."

Advertisement for donkey rides, Thailand: "Would you like to ride on your own ass?"

A challenge that many—if not all—students of other cultures face is how to make the exotic familiar, or, in other words, how to bridge the gap between "them" and "us." Perspective and interpretation are key. By "perspective" I mean viewpoint: insider (emic) or outsider (etic). Perspective, in turn, affects, others might say "determines," interpretation. Often unstated is the elusive goal to move consistently from an etic to an emic interpretation of the "other."

One of the essential first steps to closing the cross-cultural communications divide between them and us is translation, the subject of this volume of The Americas. In the age of exploration and encounter and its colonial aftermath, native peoples and the European invaders struggled to communicate. As indicated in more detail below, missionaries and administrators often lacked the language skills to translate imported concepts into native American languages. Literal Spanish translations of Quechua, Aymara, Muchik, Nahuatl, Mixtec, Zapotec, Quiché, Chontal, Chichimec, Tarascan, Mayan, Otomí, Huaxtec, Totonac, Guaraní or any number of other native [End Page 305] languages and dialects, without enough context, often proved insufficient to transmit indigenous concepts and meaning to the intended Spanish audience. Likewise, native peoples and the translators (lenguas, or literally, tongues) who spoke for them had to search for words and phrases to convey the cultural milieu and unspoken assumptions that gave significance to their thoughts. Too often, even accomplished bilinguals, like Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, who left an early (circa 1613), long, and authoritative chronicle, recognized the intranslatability of certain words, concepts, and institutions. In such cases, Guamán Poma, like others, continued to use native words in otherwise Spanish texts, glossing them as best he could. Often the intention was to make the Spanish colonizers understand clearly, but even so, good communication remained elusive.1

Translation, so fundamental to perspective and interpretation in such situations, is not easy, especially when members of one party consider the others inferiors and infidels—thus justifying the dismissal of their often religiously-infused cultural practices. The process of rendering words and concepts into another language is fraught with difficulties. The multiple meanings of words or phrases can frustrate efforts to understand. Anthropologist Roger M. Keesing, for example, has discussed translation problems centering on the commonly used Polynesian term "mana." This word and its derivatives have many meanings. As a noun, it can be translated as support, empowerment, or protection of the ancestors for the living. As a verb, it can mean to be effective, true, realized, or successful or to be strong, hot, or good. Ethnographers who fail to distinguish between these various forms have systematically misrepresented the word's meaning. Partly for this reason, Keesing warns scholars that their own cultural filters and notions of otherness spur over-interpretation and encourage a view of "other people's worlds as more radically different from one another and our own than they are." This point is reiterated by Johannes Fabian using an example from Swahili.2 [End Page 306]

Another problem is coping with the dilemma of linguistic non-equivalencies. Still focusing on translation as a process of finding the "right" word, Willi Paul Adams provides scholars with a short, basic guide or primer on how to proceed. If a thing or concept does not exist in the receptor language, there are, he continues, five solutions: 1) importing the foreign term as a loan word...


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