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James C, Lindahl
Graduate Program in Philosophy

Submitted in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy

Faculty of Graduate Studies

The University of Western Ontario
London, Ontario
May 1999

o James C. Lindahl 1999

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Thesis Abstract:
AathmpaEqgical A p p m r d n e s fo the P-phy d lhmshtib

Philosophical thinking about the rationality of foreign beliefs

depends, fundamentally, on assumptions concerning how w e understand
and represent other belief systems. Systematic approaches to beIief
analysis must confront the issue of cross-cultural meaning transfer or
"translation theory." Despite €he theoretiad centrality of the issue of
translation, there remains a great deal of disagreement, not only over
the possibility of isomorphic semantic transfer between languages. but,
more importantly, on just what the project of .translating the beliefs of
the Other amounts to. A careful reading of the translation procedure
i m p l i c i t in contemporary anthropological work makes it clear that
abstract philosophical theories of translation are at odds w i t h the cross-
linguistic interpretive procedure implicit in anthropological practice.

In chapters one-three, 1 expLicate the model of translation

presupposed by many of the am.tributors to the "rationality debatesu
and reconsider issues central to cross-cultural interpretation. This
account is grounded in an analysis of Evans-Pritchard's often cited,
C?it&craft, Oracles and Magic among the Azmde. A careful reading of
that work as well as a new interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
of Linguistic relativity reveal the promise of re-characterizing the issue
of cross-cultural understanding as the problem of translation.

In chapters four-five. I extend this anthropological analysis to

provide a critical contrast to the influential translation theories of Quine
and Davidson. While they find good reason to question the idea that
translation involves simple "meaningwtransfer, addressing recent
linguistic anthropology, I call into question the appropriateness of the
widely endorsed "principle of charityu in translation theory.
In chapters six-eight, I draw lessons from recent anthropological
critiques of representation and apply them to philosophical theories of
translation- Although 1 argue that anthropological analysis provides
grounds for rejecting the strictly episternologicdl/rationalist formulations
of translation theory, 1 propose that recent anthropological work
provides a strategy for re-grounding cross-linguistic interpretation on
eWd/political considerations. The reconstrual I propose broadens the
focus of translation theory from an exclusive preoccupation with word,
sentence, and text, and further takes account of the politics of the
academic communities that make use of these texts.

Keywords: Translation Theory, Linguistic Anthropology. Cross-Cultural

Interpretation, Philosophy d Social Science

I would like to thank the following people for their invaluable help
and feedback on this dissertation: Alison W y l i e , B N C ~ Freed, Jim Leach,
Regna Darnell and Dick Liebendorfer. I would also like to thank my
family for their support and my wife, Susan, for her patience and

Certificate of examination ii
Abstract iii
Acknowledgements v
Table of contents n

I. Introduction - Traduttore, Traditore 1

i. Translator, Transcriber 4
Li. Translator, Transgressor 9
iii, Translator, Traducer 16
iv. El Original es Infiel a la Tradud6n 20

II. Chapter One - Lost in Translation: The Rationality Debates 22

i. Language Gone on Holiday 26

ii. Types of Thought (or, "The Cosmic Palm Treew) 29
iii, Bridgehead Theories 34
iv. Complex Beliefs and Simple Content 43
v, T h e Republic of the Mind 49
vi. T h e Vacant Other 53

IIT. Chapter Two - Evans-Pritchard's Azande 56

i. Understanding Another World 58

ii. Zande Witchcraft 62
iii. Consistency and Explanation 643
iv. The Veracity of Zande Beliefs 76
v. The Definition of Witchcraft 81
vi. The Failure of Literal Translation 85

ZV. Chapter Three - T h e M a d I n t y r e - W i n c h Debate 93

i. Before Rationality - Understanding the Language of

the Other 97
3. Language as CuLture 105
iii. EFistory or Histories? 113
iv. Language as Elistory 117
v. Translation as Explanation 124
V. Chapter Four - The Linguistic Turn in Anthropology
i. The "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis"
ii, The Influence of Language
iii, Testing the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
iv, The Reshtance to Linguistic ReIativism
v. Re-Reading Whorf / Re-Reading Anthropology
vi. Translation without Theory

VI- Chapter Five - Beyond the Transfer of "Meaning" - Quine

and Davidson
i- Radical Translation - Quine
ii. Radical Tnterprefation - Davidson
iii. Linguistic R e l a t i v i t y Revisited
iv, The Very Idea of Successful Translation
v- Charitably Uncharitable
vi. Determining the Indeterminate

VII. Chapter Six - Anthropology in Question

i, Fading Foundations
ii. An Anthropology of Anthropology
iii, Writing Culture
iv. The Post-modern Turn
v. New Interpretive Constraints and
the Re-emergence of the Other
vi. Return to Language

VIII. Chapter Seven - Translation as Cultural Criticism

i, The Language of the Inquisitor (or Inquisition?)
ii. Beyond Ethnocentrism
iii, Paternity and Witchcraft Reconsidered
iv. The Play of Language in Translation Derrida -
v. Deconstruction and Social Science Reamsidered
vi. The Politics of Re-Decentering

IX, Chapter Eight - Conclusion: The Irreducible Difficulty of

Translation, or, Translation Re-evaluated
Introduction - Traduttore. Traditorer

"Then the words don't fit you, said the

King, Imking round the wurt witb a smile,
T h e r e was dead silencee
"It's a pun!" the K h g added in an angry
tone, and eveqybcniy laughed,
"Let the jury wnsider their ~ e r & * c t . ~
the iGng said, for about the twentifii
trbe that day,
"No, no!" said ttte Queen. "Szntene f'irst-
verdict afterwards.
"Stuff and nonsense!" said Alice loud&.
"The idea of having a sentence first! "
"Hold your tongue!" said the Queen, turning purpfe.
"I won't!" said Mi,
"Off with her head!" the Queen shouted at
the top of h e r voim. Nobody m o v e d .
"Who cares for you?" said ALim (she had
grown to her full size by this tfme).
"You're nothing but a pack of cards!"
Lewis Carroll - M e ' s A d v e n t u r e in Wonderland

In the find chapter of L e w i s Carroll's M e ' s Adventures io

Wonderland, A l i c e finds it impossible to make a case for herself, to be
heard or understood, as the court continuously appeals to rules for
uaderstanding that she cannot make sense of, A l i c e is judged by rules
speciric to another context with an unfamiliar logic. In this conflict of
frames, the Queen can do no less than resort to an act of violence. The
interpretation is absurd, the verdict is elusive, and the sentence must
be passed beforehand.
Does the attempt to understand the radical Other necessarily
reduce to such an act of violence? To Alice, the court in Wonderland
appears irrational, as does she to her interrogators. But, can wALice's

An Italian saying, usually translated into English as 'Translator, traitor."
Evidencewretain its meaning across contexts? Does she stand a chance
of being wunderstoodw?
Alice*s experiene in Wonderland involves an encounter with an
alien way of thinking. As the court is unwilling to compromise its own
f r a m e of reference, its own method of interpretation, the sentence is
already passed before the trial even begins- Alice is not found irrational
but senten& to irrationality as a product of the nature of the
interpretive confrontation. In similar fashion, in the enterprise of cross-
cultural interpretation, the methodological imposition of a particular
interpretive structure, a universal "style of reasoning," or a "proper
f r a m e of reference," for understanding must always pass sentence on
the Other. The subject of interpretation is marginalized before any
evidence is heard, Barbara Johnson observes the s a m e predetermination
of a judgement in M e l v i l l e ' s BiLlg Budd. Captain Vere establishes his role
as a reader before giving his interpretation of the event. Yet, this prior
act of self-definition ensures that the latter is a foregone conclusion.

It is precisely this determination of the proper frame of reference

that dictates the outcome of the decision; once Vere has defined
his context, h e has also in fact reached his verdict, The very
choice of the mnditibns of judgement itself constitutes a
judgement. (Johnson 1980:103)

This is precisely the problem that anthropologists have recent.Ly

acknowledged as a central feature of ethnographic research. Recent
debates in anthropology have focused attention on the role played by
the particular referential f r a m e s and methods that are presupposed in
attempts to understand the Other as well as what the status of that
understanding is once it has been reached, T h e theoretical frames or
structures for interpreting and translating meaning from one culture to
another have changed quickly in the last thirty years according to
prevailing academic trendsO2The interpretive structures change, but.
whether functionalist, structuralist, or symbolic, they all have one thing

Sherry Ortner reviews the many trends that have eaerged in ethnographic theory during the
last thirty pears in "theory in Anthropologp Since the Sixtiesw (1984).
in common: the presupposition that understanding another culture is
reducible to one methodological model, However different from one
another, each of these theoretical approaches offers a single framework
for understanding that is assumed to transcend contextual and cultural
difference. In short, the question has always been "wH& theoretical
structure best facilitates accurate representation of the Other?" rather
than whether it is plausible to assume that the meanings of the beliefs
and practices of another s ocw
i can be clearly and accurately
understood from an external perspective. It is attention to this latter
question that has generated a whole new set of problems for
anthropoIogists that have transcended disciplinary
Most theoretical approaches generate interpretations that differ on
what specific practices and beliefs mean but not on what "meaningwis.
Underlying any of these approaches is a belief that there is a
methodological strategy independent of the particular application that
makes it possible to determine the meaning of a belief or practice. This
assumes that some specific "meaning" is there to be grasped; it need
only be properly deciphered to establish a true understanding of
another practice or culture. While not all structural analyses require
that the beliefs of the Other adhere to Western formal logic or scientific
empiricism in order to have meaning, they do all rely on Western
semantic frameworks to determine which practices and beliefs are
meaningful and which are meaningless or irrational. It is through
interpretations constrained b y semantic relationships imposed by

There has been, recently, a series of Izrgely departrentally independent, although related,
crises within a number of academic disciplines that have focused on the probler of interpretation and
representation. In literary criticisr, the turn has been toward a postrodern or poststructuralist
approach that reveals an unlimited seriosis i n language and postulates a displacement of author's
intentions that gives a free plap to interpretation. In philosophp, attention to the social sciences
has notivated variations of radical relativisr. In anthropology, the center of attention has focused
on writing and the devices bp which the ethnographer creates the Other. This trend [in anthropology)
culninated i n the 1986 publication of Clifford and Marcus' collection, Yriting Crrlture- a work t h a t
raised more than a few eyebrows and started a s t o n of controtersp that spilled out over the borders
that had previouslp defined academic disciplines.
m i l e m n p reasons have been suggested as the underlying motivation f o r these crises co-appearing
i n different foras in different disciplines, I would like, i n this paper, to investigate what I take
to be a comaon pet poorly acknovledged operation upon which a l l depend: translation.
translation that the O t h e r is sentenced to irrationality before any
verdict can be reached concerning their beliefs, In other words, the
imposition of such a theoretical structure "passes sentencen on what can
count as meaningful before the evidence for particular meaning is
considered. In this sense, every cross-cultural judgement is already a
judgement against the Other, It should become clear, in the early
chapters of this thesis, that, in many important respects, traditional
anthropology and, following suit, philosophy of social science, have not
been simply inquisitive but, more importantly, have been amducted as a
kind of inquisition, not unlike the trial of Alice, o r the execution of BilIy
Budd. Given standard methods of interpreting foreign beliefs, the Other
can only appear as "primitiven and "irrationalw in any respects in which
they are found to differ from us and, as such, somehow mistaken (about
the meaning of their own beliefs as well as the correspondence of those
beliefs to an independent reality that only w e understand). The Other
always falls outside the "lawn of reason. Whether explicit or not, every
structural/theoretical approach to interpretation is both an epistemology
as well as a methodology, And, the imposition of our epistemology on
their beliefs constitutes a judgement against them.
In order to understand t h i s "sentence-before-verdict" feature of
cross-cultural representation, it is necessary to come to terms w i t h the
most fundamental aspect of that proje translation, The epistemological
status or rationality of a belief or belief system cannot be assessed
without first coming to terms w i t h just how, or to what degree, meaning
is transferred between languages and cultures.

Translator, Transcriber

Traditionally, translation has been conceived as a simple operation

that involves taking what is expressed in one language and converting
it into another language, establishing a map or scheme of synonymous
words or sentences. The translator fraasfers meaning from one symbol
system into another. Ideally, in this process, nothing is gained and
nothing is lost. This process should preserve meaning, transcribing or
isomorphically transferring meaning across or between languages. This
model of translation is seldom elaborated and/or defended, but almost
always assumed by those who debate or judge beliefs across languages.
The etymology of "translatewreflects its designated function; from the
Latin translatus, the word means, Literally, "to carry across-" Hence, "to
translatewis to take the meanings of words (or sentences) in one
Ianguage and "carry t h e m acrossw to another. It is this picture of
translation implicit in a great deal of philosophical and anthropological
theory that I will refer to as "literalistwor "traditionalwtranslation
Understood in this simplistic way, there is liffle need for
"translation theory." Yet, the practice proves not to be as simple as the
label might imply. Translators of poetry and literature have always
acknowledged great difficulty in preserving form, meaning, style, and
rhythm simultaneously- In other words, there has always been general
agreement that some features of language do not translate easily, if at
ail. Yet, even the most functional language sometimes displays a
resistance to the simple transfer of meaning- Translators, in practice,
have had a great deal more difficulty than one might expect given this

Theorists and practitioners in both philosophy and anthropology have endorsed sore version
of a WteralistVheory of translation: they understand translation to be, in general terrs, an
isororphic transfer of reaning fror one Iangnage to another that (ideally) should perfectly preserve
seaantic content, an act of rimetically representing the reaning of a staterent in one language with a
statwent in another.
In the section on Quine and Davidson [chapter S), it is clear that even theorists who question
solee of the traditionally assumed features of translation, rake use of exarples that re-enforce such a
theory. Davidson, especially, even while calling the traditional rodel into question, chooses examples
that f i t this model of translation perfectly. For instaace he draws conclusions based on exarples of
the translations of the Geman "s r e g e a t h s "it is raining," and 'Der schnee ist rei8"s Qnow is
w h i t e . ~ t r u c t u r a lsirilarities between the tuo languages rake it appear as i f there is no aabiguitp
whatsoever in such tzanslatioas. AS in this case, it is not so irportant to categorize the position
subjected to criticisa, b u t rather elicit underlying assrtrptions that ray not stand up to practice.
While I rill generally siaply oppose 'translationL (in an evolving sense that it takes throughout
this paper) to 'literal" or "traditionala translation theory, there are any number of sirilar
oppositions that find their rap into the relevant literature. Dichotomies prevalent in the literature
include: exact vs. inexact, direct vs. reconstrPctire, literal vs. interpretive, and positivist vs.
herreneutic, arong others. It i s not so irportant to rake fine distinctions between these oppositions.
I will sirply be trying to trace the ways in which translation distorts or transforms the Other, this
distortion always undermines the positions represented in the f i r s t half of any of these dichotories,
and, as often, calls into pestion the dichotomp itself.
common representation of the activiw of translation. Competing
translations of the same Literary work or set of beliefs often differ
dramatically in the meaning ascribed, so much so that many theorists
have come to question the accuracy of this description of the process.
There are, no doubt, substantial problems translating overtly
theoretical amcepts like %enw or "neutrinoN into ather languages (that
may not have a word that refers to anything similar or a theoretical
context capable of supporting a definition of the concept) yet translation
of some apparently common concepts displays dXficuLty as well. Susan
Bassnett-McGuire suggests an example in which semantic conceptual
relations make translation problematic even while there appears to be a
common referent,

Shakespeare's Sonnet 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'

cannot be semantically translated into a language where s u m m e r s
are unpieasant... just as the mncept of God the Father cannot be
translated into a language where the deity is female. (Bassnett-
McGuire 1980:23)

W h i l e the translation problems addressed in exampIes of this sort

m a y seem academic, they are certainly not confined to literature, In a
rapidly shrinking world, intercultural communication and translation is a
necessity. Given this necessity and the inherent difficulty, the adequacy
and/or reliability of that communication process becomes a central issue-
A s Hallen and Sodipo note,

Given the international situation, translation on the theoretical

level has become a practical necessity that cannot be relinquished.
But w e must b e clear about how much is being communicated.
Practical exigencies encourage cultures that come into contact to
agree upon 'common' meanings. What this usually means is that,
when working out a translation manual, one language must defer
to the meanings of the other. (Hallen and Sodipo 1986~30)

If such "deferral" is common practice, then translation reveals

itself not as an exercise in meaning transfer o r transcription but as
involving a kind of conceptual competition or as an act of political
interaction-- a linguistic play of force, CIearly, the conceptual conflict
that Alice encounters during her trial in Wonderland reflects the model
of the linguistically unreflective cross-cultural encounter. B y impIicitly
endorsing a literalist translation theory, philosophers and
anthropologists alike have not only inadvertentIy erected an interpretive
theoretical framework for a universal, ethnocentric, cross-cultural
epistemology that necessarily projects an irrational cultural Other
through the conflict of languages in translation, but have also faciLitated-
a political conversion or c o l o ~ t i o nof the Other through the force of
In the first t w o chapters of this thesis, 1 reevaluate an influential
body of work that grew out of a crossing between anthropoIogy and
philosophy that was attempted during the sixties and seventies. A
number of anthropologists, social scientists, and philosophers addressed
questions about translation and cross-cultural interpretation, focusing
on a few well-known cultural representations taken from classical
anthropological literature, This exchange generated what has c o m e to be
known as the wrationaIityand relativism debates,"
Often, these debates focused on what critics regarded as glaring
fallacies contained in other belief systems. For instance, in Evans-
Pritchard's famous account, the Azande are said to believe that
witchcraft is inherited in a well-defined way and that it is determinable
by a postmortem examination, yet they often fail to draw conclusions
that seem to follow logically from such determinations. The Spiro-Leach
debate centered on the status of claims made by the Tully River Blacks
concerning whether they accurately understood the facts of
physiological paternity and expressed them symbolically, or they believe,
as they stated, that a woman's pregnancy is the result of a dream or
catching a certain type of frog. Simple statements by the Yoruba, who
seem to claim to carry their heads or souls in a stick, to statements
made by the Nuer, who m a k e the claim "a twin is a birdw seem to defy
basic common sense and observation, Questions about whether these
were cases reflecting bad translations or inherent irrationality w e r e
often the point of departure in the rationality and relativism debates.
Often, however, the problem of translation was too quickly
dismissed by critics who took it for granted that the foreign beliefs in
question were accurately represented and then proceeded to the
question of how members of these cultures muld c o m e to hold irrational
and/or false beliefs, As such, questions surrounding the possibility of
the success of translation quickly became critiques of apparently
Literally represented belief systems, a project that had to assume that
The most prominent examples of premature dismissal oP the problem
of translation were the positions taken b y Hollis and Lukes, editors of
Rationality and Relativism (1982), a coUection of essays that defined the
terms of this debate. HoIlis and Lukes hold that, in so far as translation
is possible, one must assume the necessary existence oP a "massive core
of common beliefsn between all people, With such a "bridgehead" of
common beliefs w e gain entry into the hermeneutic circle; without that
bridge, translation could never begin, The argument appears logically
sound. If there is no common mre, then there is no translation; since
there is translation, there must be this common core. W e are aU alike.
This common core of human beliefs not only presumably m a k e s
communication possible, but also justifies a theoretical evolutionary
structure that motivates many of these critics to hold a "superiority
thesisw of Western styles of reasoning,
Once I have drawn out the assumptions underlying positions of this
kind, I will then consider, in detail, an actual case of the representation
of another culture, I choose Evans-Pritchard's work on the Azande since
it is often treated as an example, in the philosophical Literature, of a
belief system that i s significantly different from our own and, hence, a
good test case for some of the central issues in translation theory. M y
goal in chapter two will be fo focus not so much on the specific
translations offered by Evans-Pritchard, but on the form that such a
work takes and how this might effect the representation of the Other,
While philosophers draw examples from this work, they usuaIly consider
only isolated cJaims or sentences taken out of context. A look at the
work as a whole will bring to the forefront the very issue of Linguistic
interaction and confrontation.
The examples drawn from Evans-Pritchard's Witchma& Oracles and
Magic among the Azande were analyzed, by many Ra~baaLityand
ReZativkm contributors, as cases of bIatant logical contradictions, lack of
awareness of the inefficacies of certain practices, and beliefs in dubious
causal connections. A careful rereading of this work returns these
beliefs to the ethnographic and ClLLtural context from which they w e r e
extracted by critics in the rationality debates, and restores to them
some of their sense. A t the same time, the remaining peculiarities of
Zande beliefs reveal an aspect of the study that Evans-Pritchard
suppresses: the fundamental problem of evaluating or coming to t e r m s
w i t h the limited success of translation. In fact, Evans-Pritchard is
careful not to raise questions about the adequacy of his translations of
Zande beliefs, T h e problem of translation thus emerges as an oversight.
Evans-Pritchard, and critics We, assume that the belief representations
are accurate in order to discuss the rationality of such beliefs. M y claim
is that the central questions raised b y €his kind of study must be about
translation: w h a t e m e r g e s w h e n Evans-Pritchard "translatesn the beliefs
of the Azande? I: address this issue, specifically, w i t h reference to the
question, "what happens w h e n he translates mangu as 'witchcraft'?"

Transistor, Transgressor

When translating a substantially foreign language (one that differs

markedly from English g r a m m a t i d y and in terms of semantic/lexical
resources), it is no surprise that one will encounter words or concepts
that have no equivalent in the target language. The attempt to translate
Eastern religious thought into English reflects this difficulty, and words
such as nirvana, ci%arma, and karma are best left inscribed in their
native language and merely described in English. In other words,
English readers w e r e forced to adopt some foreign concepts,
Evans-Pritchard's analysis of Zande mangu beliefs display this s a m e
kind of difficulty, yet the existence of the concept "witchcraftw in
English gives the translator a ready made word/concept that might be
used to categorize the practices of the Azande. T h e ethnography,
however, reveals muntless ways in which this translation is inadequate,
and Evans-Pritchard goes to great lengths to clarify the discrepancies,
Yet, the imposition of this English category o r concept on the beliefs of
the Azande through evidently imprecise translation necessarily produces
a misrepresentation of their beliefs, It is when the translator
unreflectively uses one of these ready made concepts in the target
language to represent a quite different and complex belief in another
language that the problems b m e noticeable,
The assuredness with which Evans-Pritchard, and subsequently
H o l l i s & Lukes, represent Zande mangu beliefs as beliefs about
"witchcraftn obscures the original motivation for the rationality and
relativism debates, In chapter three- I reconsider Peter Winch's
argument developed in "Understanding a Primitive Society" (which was
an important touchstone for these debates), that language can
substantially influence our interpretation of reaLity and t h a t beliefs have
meaning only within the context of a language. The debate that
continued between Winch and Nasdair M a c z h t y r e remained focused on
the problem of meaning, while others who joined the debate set aside
these questions about the Limitations of .translation and proceeded rather
too quickly to questions about the rationality of beIiefs presumably held
by the Other according to the given translation. Winch was motivated by
the implications of meaning holism and a Wittgensteinian philosophy of
language to reconsider the relationship between semantic theory and
Philosophers who take up questions about the nature of translation
usually do so by invoking some well-established theory of meaning.
Given the course of debate in contemporary philosophy of language,
most philosophers have rejected objectivist, correspondence, and
reductionkt theories of meaning. Even so, a great deal of translation
theory implicitly assumes some related theory of meaning, even when the
author does not explicitly endorse such a theory. Traditionally, the
chain of theorizing follows this progression:

semantic theory --> translation theory --> translation practice

By contrast, those who do translation, generally proceed without
the need or benefit of such theories of meaning, Henry Schogt, in
"Semantic Theory and Translation Theory," argues that "often
translation speclalists are even bothered rather than helped by the
tenets of semantic theory" (Schogt 1992:193). When translators do
address semantic theory, they generally acknowledge substantial
incongruities between theory and practice. The recent and productive
trend in translation and semantic theory is to stzwt w i t h the
practice/activity of translating, and translations themselves, and then
work in the other direction:

practice/translations --> translation theory --> semantic theory

My primary conern, in chapters one through three, is to show

that traditional translation theory of the sort that provides a foundation
for the rationaLity debates is not consonant with practice. Careful
attention to the context-dependency of meaning reveals that the
concepts in question could not be so easily removed from their contexts
as many critics in this debate assumed. The w a y in which the
MacIntyre-Winch debate progressed lent credence to the possibility that
there might b e signifimtIy different "ways of beingn in the world,
investigated how those differences are reflected in language, and
further analyzed the w a y s in which those differences might be lost by
insufficient attention to language and translation. The Winch/MacIntyre
dialogue called into question the existence of common Frames, practices
and contexts, and showed how the absence of such commonalities
problematizes the idea of shared meanings that might be IIteraUy
The absence of any widespread correspondence of concepts or
contexts between cultures motivates post-Wincheans such as Stephen
Turner to postulate a more intimate comection between translation and
interpretation, as the Linguistic insights of Wittgensteia and Winch are
extended into translation theory. Ironically, this takes u s back to an
even earlier movement in anthropology which I address in chapter four.
The problem of cross-cultural understanding is, it is now dear, better
characterized as a linguistic, rather than an epistemological, issue. In
the early part of the century, Franz Boas shifted the focus in
anthropology to language and the role it plays in shaping
interpretations of the world, Following Boas, Edward Sapir and Benjamin
Whorf further elaborated what came to be known (dubiously attributed
to them) as the thesis of "linguistic determinismwand/or wlinguistic
A careful reading of the work of Benjamin Whorf will r e v 4
that this "determinismw is not as strict as critics claim nor is the
implied "relativism" as insurmountable as they often conclude While
Whorf acknowledges significant differences in the ways in which
different cultures structure the world through language, he finds it
possible to (at least partiaily) transcend those differences through
translation. Recent critics have read Whorf as breaking down the
structuralist tenets usually ascribed to him. Whorf shifts the emphasis
in his subsequent work from the structure contained in a language
(Whorf's primary subject) to the act of structuration through language,
Whorf's analysis of the way in which language users are guided in the
structuration of reality is extended to analysis of the w a y in which the
interpreter/translator constructs the Other.
On the basis of an examination of some specific examples from
Whorf's translations of some Hopi Indian concepts and the structure of
that language, coupled w i t h a consideration of Stephen Turner's
assessment of translation as explanation, I wiU argue the case for
moving beyond the idea that ethnographers translate, or that
ethnographers use translations: My thesis is that, in a very important
sense, ethnography is translation. O r better, translation is ethnography,
On this amount, translation can no longer be treated as a purely
semantic exercise; a realistic account of translation must represent it as
an essentially anthropological activity,
Whorf's ethnographic translations both respect and transgress
boundaries between cultures. The Other remains different, and yet that
difference is somehow communicated--a combination that Hollis and
Lukes, given their essentially semantic theories of translation, found
difficult to conceptualize. For linguistic anthropologists following Whorf,
"transgression" becomes an essential element of translation, as the act
forces language to confront and then exceed its own limits. Translation
simultaneously forces a traosvaluatibn Fo which the categories contained
by a language are destabilized and reevaluated through their
confrontation with difference. The h g u i s t i c transfiguratzbn that folIows
translation threatens the stability of any semantic structure that had
previously been assumed to define "a languagegW In chapter five, 1
investigate the theories of W-V,0. Quine and Donald Davidson who, from
within the heart of analytic philosophy, focus attention on this Linguistic
destabilization that follows from the activity of translation.
Quine and Davidson take the thesis of meaning holism as their
point of departure and turn to the problem of translation as preliminary
to understanding If words might be ascribed meaning only
within the context of a sentence, and sentences only w i t h i n the context
of a language, then semantic theories that focus exdusively on
individual, de-contextualized concepts must be inadequate. According to
Quine, the inability to determine the meanings of concepts outside of
their linguistic context problematizes the notion of synonymy both intra-
and inter-linguistically- From mnsiderations surrounding radical
translation (translation of a hitherto unenmuntered language), Quine
develops his "indeterminacy thesisn: the c l a i m that, not only is it
possible to produce different and incompatible translation schemes for a
particular foreign language consistent w i t h all possible evidence, but
that further, there could be no objective, unambiguous meanings there
to be translated. In other words, language is not constituted by a set of
preexistent, uninterpreted meanings. Given the indeterminacy of
translation, Quine recommends a pragmatic constraint that effectively
reduces the number of practical translation schemes and facilitates
communication: According to the "principle of ~ h a r i t y the
, ~ beliefs of the
Other ought to be translated as rationally as possible.
Although Davidson accepts the central tenets of Quine's theory, he
utilizes a Tarskian theory of meaning to arrive at a truth functional
theory of translation. As a result, he is able to attribute a much greater
degree of determination to translation practice than Quine acknowledges,
Davidson aIso takes the position that conclusions derived from
considerations about translation preclude the possibility that people
think in substantially different ways (in the sense of h a a g different
"wnceptual schemesw)-These added assumptions allow Davidson to
provide a far more substantial theory of translation than does Quine,
which, while minimizing the role of unambiguous semantic "meaning,"
oversimplifies translation by assuming widespread and pervasive
similarities between languages. Quine ultimately adopts a position that
embraces a theory of linguistic, conceptual, and ontological relativity,
Davidson, on the other hand, is able to resist this outcome only by
postulating the cross-cultural similarities necessary to provide a more
substantial ground for translation through a more pervasive reliance on
the principle of charity, As for Hollis and Lukes, assumptions about the
conditions necessary for translation to be possible lead to a conception
of the Other as very much like ourselves. Davidson's bridgehead is built
upon truth assignments rather than meanings.
The indeterminacy thesis and assodated implications for semantic
theory, as elaborated by Quine and Davidson, established the t e r m s for
subsequent phiIosophical debate concerning translation, While both
accounts have drawn substantial criticism, they have succeeded in
transforming the t e r m s of debate in important respects: translation is no
longer seen as the unproblematic cross-linguistic transfer of pre-
existent nrneanings,"m e ' s thesis of indeterminacy calls into question
the very idea of stable, pre-existent meaning-structures that might be
the object of transiation. Debates in the philosophy of translation since
Quine and Davidson center almost entirely on questions about the extent
to which indeterminacy problematizes the project of transIation.
The crisis in cross-cultural interpretation was thus recast as a
confrontation between two seemingly unacceptable positions: O n one
hand, Whorf's linguistic relativism and Quinean indeterminacy are often
taken to imply that t h e Other can never be accurately translated and
hence never adequately understood. On the other hand, if this potential
relativism is rejected as untenable, the only alternative seems to b e to
postulate a rational universalism that flies in the face of practice and
experience, Debates over cross-cultural understanding have, thus
framed, often degenerated into a variant of the realist/r&tivisfs or
objectivistfsubjectivist debates better suited to the philosophy of the
natural sciences than to language o r translation theory.
Engaging in the project of translation between languages
necessarily involves confronting what has been labelled the "hermeneutic
circle." T h e translator, it is said, needs to know either the beliefs of
the foreign speaker or the meanings of hisher words, since one cannot
be established without knowledge of the other. In the more Literal
minded theories of translation, critics take the hermeneutic circle to be
a problem which must be overcome- Hollis for instance, insists that, as a
methodological principle, one needs to hold constant either beliefs or
meanings if one is going to get into the loop that makes understanding
possible. Having "nailed downw one pole of the negotiation (by insisting
that the Other hold the same basic beliefs as w e do), the hermeneutic
circle collapses and transkition m m e s a (relatively) simple operation.
A more careful study of anthropological practice, reveals the
hermeneutic circle to be less a problem to be surmounted and more a
method of interpretation (even if a somewhat unspecifiable one). The
translator who follows a hermeneutic approach enters into a Linguistic
confrontation with the beliefs to b e translated and then negotiates a
position balanced between determinations of the two foci of that circle.
While various hermeneutic theories differ substantially, one common
theme is the idea that the translator is involved in a movement back
and forth between determinations of individual beliefs in a foreign
language and translation schemes capable of representing those beliefs
in the target language, eventually arriving a t an interpretation that
strikes an equilibrium between the two. While this promises a solution to
Hollis' problem, the question remains, "should w e expect an interpretive
equilibrium, an end to the process or, is interpretation an open-ended
The hermeneutic model gets its name from the god Hermes, the
messenger god. Hermes is the "go betweenw: a translator between gods
and men. The ethnographer, as cross-cultural translator, Likewise is the
"go between": a translator between two languages. In fact, the story of
H e r m e s is metaphorically richer than the simple methodological
characterization transferred to a theory of representation. H e r m e s is
more than a messenger; he is also the god of thieves. This is perhaps
more telling than many endorsers of the hermeneutic model of
interpretation would like to admit,
When he was a young god, Hermes steals a herd of cows from
Apollo and is so clever and deceitful that ApoIlo is unable to track him.
Finally discovered after using one of the hides to invent the lyre,
H e r m e s is forgiven by Apollo in trade for the lyre. Herrnes later invents
the pipe, and Apollo, again impressed, trades his golden staff for the
pipe and teaches Hermes augury. After a long series of events involving
theft and trade, negotiation and forgiveness, Hermes' father Zeus insists
that he refrain from such deceptive practices and respect property.
H e r m e s says "1 will be responsible for the safety of all divine property,
and never tell lies, though 1: cannot promise to tell the whole truth."
Hermes emerges here as a thief, a deceiver, a trader, a negotiator,
and a messenger who cannot tell t h e whole truth. As I hope to show,
translation is better characterized in light of all of these characteristics
of the messenger god, The hoped for interpretive eqwbrium m a y be as
elusive as the rational bridgehead.

Translator, Tradumr

Since the late 1960's. anthropologists have been increasingly

preoccupied with analyzing the f o r m s that representations of other
cultures take in ethnographies, and this has caused a shift in the very
questions concerning translation that are at issue in anthropology.
Rather than aslcing what rules or methods apply to interpretation, or
asking just how translation is to be accomplished, recent critics of
traditional ethnography have forced the issue back to a prior question:
"what is translation?" Indeed, what is a-mplished in the attempt to
Linguistically represent another belief system? This focus on the effects
of ethnographic form reveals that w r i t i n g about the Other necessarily
involves a wOrfict of frames, languages, and ways of being in the world.
Representation, as such, reveals itseif as a political act, one that
necesssrily ideologically confronts and potentiaUy transforms the Other.
Another "culturew is not a subject represented, but the product of a
style of representation that necessarily involves taking an ethical and
epistemological stand on the values and the virtues of the frames in
conflict. Translation, thus, can never be exact and never innocuous, but
must, rather, involve a modification of the Other. In ather words,
translation is a wtraducement-"
T h e tradumr "leads acrosswand "transfersw something as well as
the transcriber, but what is transferred in a traducement is somehow
modified, violated, betrayed, or maligned. In the cross-cultural
encounter, that which is traduced comes across distorted--not as an
unambiguous, accurate representation of another belief system, but as a
negotiated compromise between languages. While, as in politid debate,
the tactful translator might refrain from "maligning" the Other, one must
acknowledge that, translation is a traasformatibn of the Other--a kind of
linguistic bargaining.
A t the close of the sixties, Dell Hymes' (ed.) Reinventing
Anthropology set the stage for this coming crisis of representation; he
called into question many [if not all) of the foundational assumptions of
traditional anthropology. The rejection of the evolutionist and
epistemological underpinnings of anthropology threatened to leave the
practice without a solid foundation, In an attempt to release
anthropology's Other from the objectifying, marginalizing tendencies of
the traditional practice, Clifford Geertz and others turned to an
interpretive approach based more on a model of reading than revealing.
Works by Roy Wagner, Johannes Fabian and Edward Said further
threatened the foundation of anthropology by drawing attention to
specific devices by which the anthropologist creates the Other, ensuring
that the Other emerges not as a speaking subject, but as the product of
prevalent literacy conventions in anthropology. This "reflexive turnw in
anthropology and attention to the act of writing about another "CU1tureW
culminated in 1986 in the collection Writing Culture edited by James
Clifford and George Marcust Essays in this collection, and the multitude
of responses to them, centered on the degree of play of interpretation
and the degree to which it is useful or appropriate to incorporate
Literary theory into anthropology*
A t the same time that it was becoming evident that cross-cultural
representation was all-too-political; authors Like Stephen Tyler were
advocating a "postmodernWanthropology that would free the Other from
the politics of representation, Whereas earlier ethnographers presumed
to be able to say too much about the beliefs of the Other (and so
miscasting them), postmodern ethnographers, in response, have
relinquished the possibility of any such attributions and perhaps say
too Little. The voice of the Other, once mis-represented, becomes entirely
un-represented. As speculation on the matter becomes more abstract, a
growing gulf separates the Self of anthropology from its Other,
The closing of this distance was facilitated by the dehomogenization
of Western academic disciplines, Members of cultures that had served as
the subject of Western anthropology, as well as other minority groups,
have entered the arena of anthropological theory and displayed a keen
awareness of the devices that served to misrepresent them. Members of
cultures previously studied by Western anthropologists have returned
the favor by studying the anthropologies that presumed to be studying
them. Here, in a sense, the book reads the author, forcing a crisis
somewhat more confrontational and political than that found in literary
interpretation theory and the earlier debates in which philosophers and
anthropologists negotiated a position between the mis-represented Other
of realist representation and the absent Other of postmodern Literary-
style evocation. This confrontation has not yet reached any resolution,
however it does have important implications for the study of translation
w i t h i n the field of philosophy to which I turn in chapters six and
Although m a n y contemporary authors are concerned to elucidate the
effects of Western styles of reasoning on cross-cuIturaI representations,
there is a growing concern with focusing on the effects of translating
into a Western academic framework. Following the recent anthropological
emphasis on academic writing, I will shift emphasis to the reading
culture, and the reading community that makes use of the written
ethnographic fext. It is as much the conventions of the reading
community as it is the forms of representation that wnstrain
interpretation of the Other by dictating the ways in which a text is
used and understood. The problems of representation do not end with
the text, but extend into the contexts of its interpretation@).
The need to reconceptualize the very idea of translation between
foreign languages is made clear b y the recognition that a growing
number of factors must be taken into account in constructing a
translation as w e i l as by an investigation into the specific deformations
that translation theory undergoes when translated between academic
disciplines. Debates over ethnocentrism and the hermeneutic circle
become extraneous as these new considerations coneruing translation
undermine the stability of ethnas itself as well as the very boundaries
between which the hermeneutic circle might operate. Every act of
translation transforms the Self as well as the Other. In other words, the
very betweenness of translation is called into question if the objects it
stands between are displaced or transformed in the act of translating.
This "translational transformationw of concern to some mntemporary
anthropologists bears important similarities to Jacques Derrida's
extensive analysis of the linguistic deformations that take place in the
activity of interpretation. The discomfort with postmodernism expressed
b y many anthropologists is justified only if one accepts a certain (all-
too-common) reading of the postmodern philosophy of language. The
linguistic instability revealed by Derrida does not render interpretation
a free-for-all. as many fear. Attention to the voice of the Other. the role
of the author (or ethnographer), and the deformations that language
undergoes in translation, suggest ways in which translation is
indeterminate yet requires a responsibfity that somewhat limits the play
of interpretation. In other words, the play of interpretation in
anthropological practice draws attention towards the politics of reading
(rather than, as is often suggested, away from the politics of reading),
The choice of a style, allegory, or frame of representation makes all the
difference in how the Other is portrayed. Translation is, hence. as much
an ethical negotiation as an epistemological assessment. MelWeTsCaptain
Vere is painfully aware of what Alice's Queen satirically represents: the
frame into which the Other is translated constitutes an interpretation
and a judgement that has serious moral repercussions, Translation, thus,
becomes a "political play,"

"The original is uufaithful to the translation," says Jorge Luis

Borges of Henley's translation of Beckford's Vathek Borges' inversion of
the conventionally understood relation wnstitutes a rereading of
translation that compromises the order of original and copy since both
are displaced in the process. Once translated, the source text is no
longer "original." Once translated, the other culture is no longer a t h i n g
represented, but a partner in a cross-cultural dialogue. Translation is
not a transposition of one thing into another (original to mpy), It is not
the product of two things crossed. It is the crossing. I have attempted
to make this analysis of translation not only one that appeals to various
approaches in assorted disciplines for justification, but itself a crossing
of those approaches. It is an attempt to translate (hence, traduce)
As a cross-discipIinary work, this thesis is itself a piece of
translation and will display many of the distortions that I speak of in
cross-cultural translation, Theory transmitted between disciplines grows
and transforms in the way that language does when transmitted between
cultures. Strictly speaking, different languages are spoken in different
disciplines although much is shared. Translations between, although in
some ways less difficult, are sometimes no less transforming. N o doubt
m y reading of others (especially anthropologists) bends their purpose to
m y own, In other words, I run the risk of incorporating them into a
philosophical frame. B y introducing contaminants. however, I also run
the risk of betraying some cherished philosophical traditions. B y
acknowledging and accepting this danger however, I embrace the picture
of translation that I paint, Every cross-disciplinary study transforms
theory in an attempt to translate it, Every crossing results in a hybrid
that only partially resembles either parent. No feature is exactly
translated to successive generations, Every acquisition is to some extent
a betrayal. But, I w i l l betray theory for a specific, well-intended
purpose. "Betrayal,win this context, does not carry its common
derogatory associations; the responsible, self-reflective translator might
betray tradition in a positive, constructive way. Since no translation is
perfect, betrayal becomes an imperative, It is here that the value of
betrayal as well as its limits should emerge- Every betrayal is political,
Every treason is a transgression for a reason. Betrayal might aIso be a
means to a positive mutual transformation that enriches understanding
within and between cultures. It is in this new sense of "traitor* that I
would f U y agree with the italian saying, "traduttore, traditore."
Chapter One - Lost in Translation: The Rationality Debates

If anthropology is to be pussibIe, I have argued, the natives must

share our wncepts of truth, mherenc~and ratiunal
interdependence of Mefs. Ofberwhe we are confronted as
theorisfs with V I * ~ - O U Scircles. ILIother words W e s t e r n rah'oaal
thought is not just one specks of raabnal thought nor rational
thought just one speaks of thought. And if we supposed it was,
and so had to disaover empiriOaLIy which soc~~etr'es espoused wM&
brand of rationality, we would destroy our only test for the
iden-tificatibnof native M ' s .
M a r t i n Hollis - The Limifs of l3-ratzbnality

There is no better place to begin discussion of contemporary

translation theory in philosophy and anthropology than w i t h the
"rationality and relativism debatesw that took place during the 1960's
and 70's. Questions about the rationality of foreign beliefs often arise in
the process of translating seemingly fantastic beliefs from one
culture/language to another. The focus in these debates was on a limited
set of examples drawn from rrlassic ethnographies primarily in British
social anthropology. These examples were notable in that the translations
of specific statements resulted in the attribution of beliefs that seemed
obviously false or meaningless. Can whole societies maintain belief in
truly absurd propositions or are these cases of bad translation?
Debates over translation and rationality took quite different forms
in anthropology and philosophy, Anthropological accounts of distant
cultures portrayed belief systems radically different Prom our own. In
fact, anthropologists often focus primarily on the differences between u s
and them, and these differences serve to characterize "them?
Predominant philosophical theories of epistemology as well as
contemporary philosophy of language, however, often reject the
possibili'ty of such pervasive u l d substantial divergence from the
standards of Western rationality. In the crossing of disciplines that
generated these debates, the question became "can the members of
different societies embrace substantially different beliefs about reality
and, if so, how are w e to understand radically different belief systems?"
In this chapter, 1 wish to re-engage some of the central concerns of
this debate w h i l e maintaining an emphasis on the issue of translation
and the role it plays in the theories of cross-cultural interpretation.
While many of the encounters constitutive of this debate begin from
questions about whether a translation can b e mnsidered accurate if it
attributes blatantly false or irrationaI beliefs to the Other, they often
move quickly on to epistemologicaI issues concerning the details of belief
content and standards of rationality, leaving the translation issue
behind.' In other words, what the Other believes is quickiy determined
(translation), then the debate turns to the question of h o w people might
come to hold false and irrational beliefs (epistemology). This move is
made possible only because the problem of translation is mis-solved or
prematurely dismissed. What I: hope to show is that a great d e d of the
debate over cross-cultural standards of rationality depends upon a
foundational framework which incorporates an outdated theory of
The rationality debates began with a series of responses to Peter
Winch's 1964 essay "Understanding a Primitive Society." In this essay,
as in The Idea of a -al Sdence, Winch negotiates a multi-faceted
crossing between anthropological theory, a Wittgensteinian philosophy of
language, contemporary social explanation theory and Evans-Pritchard's
ethnographic method, This crossing of theories and disciplines generated
new perspectives and a new set of questions for philosophers of
language and social science. Rather than building theory in abstraction,

In raking this distinction betveen 'translation" and "episteological"issues, I rean to draw attention to a
surreptitious or unconscious transition lade by my of these critics. Often, the question First up for debate is 'how
should ue translate a certain clah lade by the Otber?@htkrthan dueiIing on the intricacies of that question, a
decision is aade, a translation is settled upon, and the debate moves on to d i m s whether that translated staterent
reflects a belief that is rational. Ea the course of this thesis, part of vbat I endeavor to shw is that translation
and episterohgical issues are not separable in this my, and that their hplicit separation contaminates mch of what
is said on the issue* 1aake the distinction, thus, because it is helpful in characterizing the come of these debates,
not becanse i t is helpful in characterizing the p m b h of translation*
often through analysis of highly artificial hypothetical constructs,
philosophers found in this anthropological literature a number of real
examples that m u d ground their investigation of problems encountered
in the attempt to understand what appear to be radically different belief
The ethnographies of Evans-Pritchard, and a f e w other British
anthropologists, were an important source of examples cited by
philosophers in order to raise a number of questions concerning
translation as well as grounding discussion concerning the possibility of
verifying the exitence of universal standards of rationality. Evans-
Pritchard's account of Zande belief in witchcraft made it appear as if
the Azande could hold contradictory beliefs as well as beliefs w i t h no
obvious empirical justification (or, in the face of what w e might consider
obvious empirical falsification),
The most often discussed example is drawn from Evans-Pritchard's
Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande In the very first
pages of this book, Evans-Pritchard writes that the Azande believe that
witchcraft is inherited (in every case) along gender lines, They also
believe that a post-mortem examination can determine if someone was a
witch. They do not, however, d r a w the connection between an identified
witch and the witch status of his or her descendants, Even when this
oversight is pointed out to them, they do not revise their beliefs
accordingly. The question immediately arises: Are the Azande being
perfectly irrational in this case, or is the attribution of such beliefs
somehow mistaken or distorted, the product of a bad translation?
Otber popular examples discussed in the Literature include the
TuUy River Blacks' apparent lack of awareness of the facts of
physiological paternity, the Yomba claim that they sometimes carry their
head or soul around in a stick to protect it from witchcraft, and the
Nuer's claim that "a twin is a bird." The central question raised by
such examples is whether or when it is justifiable to attribute ignorance
or irrationality to the Other, and/or when to question the accuracy of
the trandation, Again, the ascription of irrationality can only follow the
assumption that the provided translation is accurate* Each of these
beliefs, as translated, provides a proposition that is either non-sense or
obviously conf1lcts with ather attributed beliefs.
The translation of statements of t h i s kind generates a tension
between the desire to translate literally (based on the meanings
particular words or expressions have been determined to have in other
contexts), and the desire to make the Other appear wherent in the
target language. Many philosophers who have addressed the question of
w h a t the preconditions for successful transiation are endorse what is
called the "principle of charity," a methodological principle that requires
that one always translate the Other as rationally (charitably)as
possible. W.V.O. Quine best expresses the intuition behind this principle
in Word and Object: "the common sense behind the maxim is that one's
interhcutor's silLiness, beyond a certain point, is less likely than bad
translation (Quine 196059). A great deal of the debate on transiation
centers around this principle.
The rationality and relativism debates began with the problem of
how to determine whether a particular translation is accurate or
acceptable, Presuppositions about the cognitive conditions that make
translation possible were derived, however, from a mistaken model of
translation and motivated a shift of focus to issues concerning what
could (or should) be considered proper reasoning in general, In 1970,
Brian Wilson's (ed.) collection, Rafibnali'ty, drew together essays that
concentrated on the problem of translation and cross-cultural
understanding, B y the t i m e Hollis and Lukes published Rationality and
Relativism in 1982, this debate had been recast in the framework of an
opposition between realism and relativism in which many of the
contributors to Ratrbndty were intent on justifying the claim that the
Western/scientific style of rationality is the one correct form that grants
epistemological access to the one real world, the standard by which w e
ought to understand a l l other cultures, The realism/relativism debate is
complex; for m y purposes, it is not necessary to discuss (and accept or
reject) scientific realism. Nonetheless, andysis of the way in w h i c h this
debate developed reveals the importan- of coming to terms with the
problem that generated the debate. M y concern is w i t h w h a t seems to
have been lost in transition: the original problem of the cross-cultural
transfer of meaning, or hinslahbn-

Language Gone on Holiday

Peter Winch's analysis of the nature of cross-cultural interpretation

is heavily influenced by Wittgenstein's theory of meaning holism-
According to this philosophy of language, words or concepts have only
partially determinate meanings, and those meanings can onIy be
elucidated in relation to the context of their application- As such,
concepts cannot be analyzed apart from those contexts without a
substantial transformation of mntent- Winch shows how a great deal of
cross-cultural interpretation theory ignores the implications of this
context-dependency of m d g -
In The Idea of a Sbdal Science and its Relation to Philosophy,
Winch takes the theoretical approach developed by Pareto, which
assumes the possibility of perfect translation, as an example of an aU-
to-common but misguided method of interpretation- Pareto proceeds as if
it is possible to simply transfer concepts between languages/cultures
without acknowledging the role they play in a particular context. Winch

But ideas cannot be torn out of their context in that way; the
relation between idea and context is an internal one. The idea gets
its sense from the role it plays in the system. It is nonsensical to
take several systems of ideas, find an element of each which can
be expressed in the same verbal form, and then claim to have
discovered an idea which is mmmon to all the systems. This would
be like observing that both the Aristotelian and Galilean systems
of mechanics use a notion of force, and concluding that they
therefore make use of the same notion. (Winch. 1958:107)

Winch is concerned, here, to make a point about the possibilim of

translating a foreign language or understanding a foreign conceptual
scheme- Since the meaning of a word or expression depends on the
contexts in which it is embedded in another language and/or way of Life,
any attempted transfer of meaning between languages wilI exhibit a
necessary content distortion, V i r t u a l l y all parties to this debate accept
that concepts have specifiable meaning (at best) only within a cultural
or sociological context, Most of them seem also to believe, however, that
the proper cultural context can be reconstructed, in the target
language, by providing a series of suczbIogid explanations. Such
explanations are deemed sufficient to restore the accuracy or the
translation. Winch's point, however, is that context is not a purely
sociologid matter, a framework that can b e reamstructed in another
language, but is also inextricably linguiktic The mistake, according t o
Winch, is to suppose that because a single word can be used, or re-
expressed, in two different Ianguages that the meaning of the concept is
the same in both cases, Philosaphers of science are surely aware of the
difficulty with this view when considering a well-defined concept Like
"force." As Winch suggests, the ability to use this term Fn different
contexts does not ensure consistency in meaning. Inattention to cross-
cultural translation has, however, concealed this cross-linguistic
conceptual incompatibility ia the case of less theoretically-defined
concepts Like witch."
This linguMic analysis of cross-cultural interpretation is more
explicitly addressed in Winch's "Understanding a Primitive Society." In
this essay, Winch concentrates on Evans-Pritchard's studzes of the
Azande and the Nuer. Winch professes a basic agreement with Evans-
Pritchard's avowed method of characterizing cultural practices in the
natives' terms--a means t o understand the meaning of foreign b&&s
and practices as members of the subject culture understand them, from
within their proper context. Where Evans-Pritchard goes wrong,
according to Winch, is in his belief that such meanings can b e
unproblematically translated and judged between mntexts Evans- -
Pritchard violates the internal sense of Zande concepts b y imposing a
foreign context on them "in his attempt to characterize the scientific in
terms of that which is 'in a m r d with objective reality' and the mystical
as that which is not" (Winch 1964:80). It is only through the imposition
of external criteria of sense and verification that Evans-Pritchard can
judge the beliefs of the Zande irrational or false,
I t is this difference between W i n c h and Evans-Pritchard that has
provided a framework for the choosing of sides on the issue of cultural
relativism- Winch's criticism of Evans-Pritchard's method appears to
imply a kind of radical relativism (in w h i c h cross-cultural understanding
becomes impossible) that Winch, otherwise, does not endorse- Subsequent
criticism of Winch's analysis focuses on this potential reIativism rather
than on the questions he raises about the prolaess of translation itself.
questions about the very possibility of "transferring meaningn between
languages. The central issues of the debate became the problem of
cultural relativism: whether or not a representation of reality is relative
to a Ianguage and, related to this, what grounds w e might have for
judging the beliefs of others false according to our criteria of truth or
falsity! W h i l e I will claim that these issues are beside the point. in
order to understand this influential movement in cross-cultural
interpretation theory, it is crucial to understand that the debate
originates in concerns w i t h the problem of whether and how Linguistic
meanings might b e transferred across cultures and that theories about
cross-cultural standards of rationality have been mnstructed
presupposing a hasty solution to that problem.

Robert [nin suggests that the primry point of disagreaent betoeen Uinch and Evans-Pritchard is precisely
over the question 'of uhether or not it is possible to have a context-independent notion of reality from which the
rationality of beliefs can be judged' (Ulin 1984:23). W e both agree that the role of the ethnographer is to
understand the Other they understand theaselves, ham-Pritcbard places Western science in a privileged position for
the parposes of assessrent. 'This additional m e by Evans-Pritchard (and, as dl, Alasdair Hachtyre, an outspoken
critic of Winch's theory) is made possible only according to a philosophy of language/ translation that Winch does not
endorse. This concern vith relativism was Likely, to a great extent, influenced by a debate lore closely tied to
philosophy of science, started by T h m Knhn, over the incamamability of scientific paradigm. Winch's theory
problmatizes translation betveen cnltnres in a way rhich bears close affinities to h ' s uatransIatabiZity betwen
incmensurate paradigms. Since that debate was gore explicitly a realist/rdativist debate, i t is likely that those
similarities greatly affected the direction of this debate even tho& Knbn is only sporadically wntioned. While no one
in this debate is advocating notranslatability, sirilarities betveen W t u r e s h d 'paradigsWie comparison. These
shilarities iay be infortunate for their oversbadwing of irportant dirferences. Scientific 'paradigms,"e natiral
belief systas, are theoretical structures intended not only to be consistent and cmplete, but also provide refutations
of other ways of looking at the world. W e the realim/relativis debate right be frmdarental to uuderstandiug
scientific theories, according to $ analysis, the issue of scientific realism is beside the point when i t comes to the
issue of cross-cultural translation.
Within anthropology, questions about the cognitive status of the
belief systems of other cultures long predate the rationality debates in
philosophy. Anthropologists were already intensely interested in
questions about the possibility of cross-cultural belief comparison by
the turn of the century. The issue that concerned them is how to
characterize a mode of thought that seems substantially different from
Western scientific thought, especially beliefs about the world that seem
patenay fake or are not particuIarIy effective in t e r m s of predicting
and wntroUing natural events. For instance, are beLiefs described as
"religiousw or wmysticalw simple propositions about an independent
physical world (and so inadequate by comparison with Western science),
or do such beliefs provide different kinds of explanations or serve
different functions? In Western anthropology and philosophy, the
cultural Other is defined in t e r m s of an us/them distinction that
generally contains within it a civilized/primitive, scientific/traditional
distinction and the implied superioriw of the former in each of these
dichotomies, Many anthropologists in the sixties responded to the
presuppositions embedded in these dichotomy-filled, representational
frameworks that are taken to provide a foundation for understanding
and reinforce belief in the unamditional superiority of the Western mind
by &ways portraying the Other as a somewhat muddle-headed primitive
that certainly would have invented the microwave oven if he or she
were s m a r t enough, An unconditional appeal to the standards of Westerh
scientific culture for the purposes of cross-cultural interpretation
amounts to insisting that members of different cultures have identical
purposes in forming beliefs about the world.
Robin Horton addresses this very topic in one of the central essays
in the RatiunaZity collection, "African Traditional Thought and Western
Science? Here, Rorton endorses a "continuity thesis" according to which
it should be possible to identify more similarities than differences
between Western scientific and African traditional thought, Horton
argues that bath modes of thought serve to explain and control events
in roughly the same way- In any belief system, explanations of what is
not easily observable is achieved by analogy w i t h what is. Different
beiief systems are constructed by appeal to different stocks of analogies
and this accounts for the differences between cultures. Horton provides
a (somewhat provisional) sociological explanation for why African
d t u r e s generally appeal to a personal idiom in constructing
explanations and Westerners appeal to an impersonal or materialistic
idiom? In the end, however. he argues that the purpose is the same
whether the representations of reality are constructed by appeal tc~
atoms and mo1ecules or gods and ghosts- The differences lie, not in the
goals of belief systems, but in the theoretical resources appealed to in
constructing explanations, Dichotomies such as intellectual/emotionaI,
rational/mythical, reality oriented/fantasy oriented, causally
oriented/supernaturally oriented, em pir ical/non-empirical,
abstract/concrete, and analytical/non-analytical are all shown to be
inappropriate once a continuity in the goals underlying alI modes of
thought is established (Horton l967:152).
In spite of this continuity of purpose, however, Horton is unwilling
to see all styles of reasoning as functionally equivalent. There is a clear
sense, according to Horton, in which scientific thought proves itself
superior to other styles not primarily because of its specific content,
but rather because it typifies a certain attitude or approach to the
problems of understanding reality that other styles of reasoning lack, It
is the method of scientific thought that allows it to produce the right
kinds of theories, Horton justifies this assessment by borrowing Karl
Popper's distinction between "openn and "closedwstyles of reasoning,

In Bortoa's essay, there i s a partial atterpt to historiche all modes of thoryht , including Yestem
scientific thought. Zn "Tradition and Kodernity kvisited,' he goes to great lengths to provide a cdtural/historical
contextualization of the style of reasoning characteristic of the Yest. Be suggests that, in the social sciences,
theoretical change is generally motivated by roral, aesthetic and emotional considerations. In the natural sciences, the
motivation for t h e o r w and theory #bification derives less frm evidence than Cram features of the scientific and
academic camuuity. In both cases, the lorn that theorg takes is less motivated by any confrontation with an independent
reality than by the strnctnre of inter-school warfare (ffirton 1982:246). Theoretical interest in identifyin#
inconsistencies rag be mre a prodnct of acadeaic theory capetition than of reality correspondence. This observation,
by historicieing Western thought, serves to reenforce the continuity thesis by showing the ways in which our ~ d e of
thought are better explained sociologicalIy than by @palto sore correspondence uith an independent, objective
using it to differentiate societies according to the degree to which they
&ow for their members to consider alternative ways of thinking about
the world around t h e m . Horton further justifies this distinction by
appeal to Evans-Pritchard's work, drawing attention to his claim that
the Azande cannot see their mistakes because they have only one idiom
with which to understand reality and can appeal to no other- O n Evans-
Pritchard's account, the Azande are a perfect example of a Wosed
society.R B y contrast, Horton argues that modern W e s t e r n society offers
a great number of alternative ways of understanding the world and is
characterized b y an essential skepticism toward any one of them. What
distinguishes the scientist from the "traditional"thinker is not so much
a superior conceptual scheme as a willingness to adopt what Popper
characterizes as a "critical attitude." Traditional or primitive societies
are, thus, understood to be trapped w i t h i n an uncritical and
unreflective mode of thought or trapped within the confines of a
particular language!
Horton's work d r e w substantial c r i t i c i s m in the years foiIowing its
publication, W h i l e partially undermining a popular style of cognitive
anthropology that represents the Other as cognitively inferior, critics
drew attention to the ways in which his distinctions and categories
nevertheless place the Other in a conceptual past and characterize them
in static terms.' B y the time Hollis and Lukes published Rationali* aad
Relatimkm, Horton, in his follow-up essay "Tradition and Modernity
Revisited," had significantly modified his account. Here, he rejects the
open/closed distinction and attempts to substantiate the continuity
thesis by elaborating his theory of the role of analogy in constructing
beliefs. H e suggests that there are two levels of theory evident in any
society: primary and secondary theory. The former deals only with

Cn a vonderfally telling mtaphor, Norton asks the question of a closed society, 'Uho is going to jap Ira
the cosaic palm-tree wben there is no hope of another perch to ming to?# (Norton 1967:163)
Both of these effects, characteristic of this style of representation, will be addressed in more detail in
chapter six. Edward Said and Johannes Fabian investigate the devices by uhich the Other is made a static, oppositional
entity placed in the past. M e k t o n aclmouledges that his critics b e identified a problem with his account, he is
still of the opinion that practices in Africa tribes can be best explained $ paralleling thea with "Id world'
Enropean thought. It is adogies of this sort that sustain the idea that the Other is "prhitive."
observable, middle-sized objects, doing Little more than IabeLing and
locating them in time and space. B y contrast, secondary theory fills in
the world picture with unobservable entities and causal stories about
tbe relations between objects, encompassing all explanation beyond the
descriptive claims of primary theory. It is, then, at the level of
secondary theory that the differences between "scientificw and
"traditional" cultures are manifested,
According to Horton, primary theory is common to all cultures. Its
very content (as opposed to simply its form or structure) is cross-
culturally constant, Secondary theory can, and often does, differ
dramatically between cultures- Horton's account of primary theory places
it prior to secondary theory logically, historically, evolutionally, and
developmentally. Horton suggests that, every culture has an historical
period where thought is exclusively characterized as primary theory
corresponding to the origins of "co-operative manual technologyw.And,
each indivlidual goes through a developmental stage where (possibly
innate) primary theory provides a foundational structure for the later
development of secondary theory, In other words, in every sphere of
development, from personal to cultural, there is an evoluf5on of theory
from a common foundation. The sense in which he maintains an
evolutionist thesis is clear by his characterizing of traditional African
thought as developmentally paraLlel to "Old world'' European thought
(Horton 1982:205-6). N o doubt, his continued reference to the thought of
the Other as "traditionalw maintains this "old world" foIk, non-scientific,
unevolved association that pla- the O t h e r in the past. A cognitive
inferiority of kind is replaced by a cognitive inferiority of development
or evolution-
An important aspect of Horton's theory is the attempt to overcome
the condescending attitude of the West toward the Rest. If this is so,
however, w h y should Horton maintab an evolutionary distinction when it
seems that his primary purpose is to subvert this very bias in
traditional anthropology? Horton's answer to this question depends
crucially on his theory of cross-cultural understanding. His continuity
thesis offers an iaterpretive bridge between the anthropologist and
members of other cultures. The Other is rendered comprehensible by
representing their belief system as an aLready understood excerpt from
our own past, To the extent that they are Like us (or our ancestors),
they are possible to comprehend, The pan-cuIturaL continuity endorsed
by Horton is not an empirical thesis but postulated as a pre-condition of
cross-cultural understanding. As a result, however, the characterization
of other cultures as ntraditionaln or "primitive" is neither accident nor
circumstance, but rather the outcome of applying such a m o d e l of
interpretation, If the Other is represented as "like us," continuous, in
essential respects, with ourselves or our culture, then every difference
must appear as a deformity or a defect in their thought system. Since
our own mode of thought is implicitly considered the historical apex of
cognition, no deviation from that style of reasoning could survive
comparison without being viewed as "primitive." The continuity thesis
necessarily relegates the belief system of the Other to a cognitive,
evolutionary past,
Despite Horton's implication that, according to this theory, the
representation of another culture may be regarded as unproblematic, he
later addresses further issues central to understanding cross-cultural
representation in his essay "Tradition and Modernity Revisited,", Here,
Horton considers the role of translation in anthropology and expresses
awareness of a crucial difficulty.

In saying that translation is a t the forefront of the intellectual

process involved in the monographic enterprise, moreover, 1 a m
talking about s o m e t h i n g more than a mere rough-and-ready search
for dictionary equivalents. I a m talking about a search for the
appropriate Western conceptual pigeon-holes for African concepts
and thought patterns; about a search in the course of which
Western concepts may themselves have to be stretched and bent
in order to provide such pigeon-holes, (Horton 1982:203)

Horton acknowIedges the potential for a conceptual disjunction

between languages and acknowledges the ways in which translation may
involve either imposing our c a t e g o r i e s / m e a n i n g s on the beliefs of other
people or modifying our own categories to better express their beliefs.
Yet, by postulating the existence of universal rationality or primary
theory, h e implies that, a t some level, there are perfectly
intertranslatable mncepts. Horton concludes that=

Any programme of cross-cultural understanding must start by

translating all of the idea-sets under consideration into terms of a
single 'world' language..., But without the kind of area of
comparable concepts, intentions, rules of Fnference and so on
which primary theory ex hypothesi provides, there can be no
'bridge* for the crossing from one language to another, and
translation cannot get under way. (Horton 1982:259)

Here, Horton makes it clear that the rrmnt.inuity" thesis h e

endorses is not the product of anthropological investigation but rather
is postulated as the very condition that makes anthropdogy possible-
Conceptual continuity must hold because understanding can only follow
from a conceptual continuity that Facilitates a l i o g W c continuity or
interpretive bridge, Closer examination of this bridge will reveal that,
regardless of what position Korton explicitly endorses, there is a
superiority thesis implied by this theory of necessary conceptual
common ground, Horton's earlier attempt to overcome the cognitive
superiority thesis basic to traditional anthropology largely fails because
his own assumptions about the conditions necessary for success€ul
translation are based upon an implicit evolutionism. The initial problem
of translation is overcome, not by investigating the nature of
translation, but by suggesting what conditions must obtain if the
anthropologist is to produce accurate cross-CUItural representations
according to a certain model of translation (already accepted). According
to Horton, there must b e this matinuity in the form of a Linguistic
bridge; the very possibility of cross-cultural interpretation requires it.
In other words, if understanding is possible, it m u s t be the case that
literal translation is possible for a limited set of sentences/ beliefs.

Bridgehead Theories

Horton's insistence on the necessity of a "bridgewor body of

conceptual/linguistic common ground between cultures is of centrd
importance in the "rationality and relativismw debates. In simplistic
terms, the idea is that there must b e a subsection of every language
that can b e peflectly translated into any other h g u a g e in order that
the translator have enough material to ground interpretation of
sentences or beliefs for which there are no obvious equivalents between
languages, Without some bridgehead of common beliefs a t a primary
level, Horton argues, translation "cannot get under wayu (from previous
The motivation for postulating this conceptual bridge was, again, a
concern w i t h the possibUty of translation, yet, the role of the bridge
takes on new importane as the debate shifts from a focus on the
difficulties of translation to a defence against cultural relativism. In
Rationality aad Relativilsm, H o w and Lukes set the stage for recasting
debate by including Barry Barnes* and David Bloor's "Relativism,
Rationalism, and the Sociology of Knowledgewas the first piece in that
collection, Barnes and Blmr make the case for an uncompromising
cultural relativism in which they claim that beliefs of alL kinds are
justifiable only relative to a context or cultural setting. Their analysis
of cross-cultural interpretation generates new criticism, shaping the
subsequent debate and refocusing it on issues concerning the relation
between divergent belief systems and an independent reality.
Contributors to Raihbnafity and RelativSm address a number of issues
central to the earlier debate(s) but their emphasis has shifted from the
problem of cross-cultural interpretation to questions concerning the
problem of identifying and justifying the correct representation of
reality as well as the related issue of who, if anyone, has it right. This
preoccupation with elaborating a defense against relativism was
peripheral to Winch's original analysis; here it takes center stage.
Translation remains a concern, but only insofar as translation theory
can support a thesis of universal rationality which can b e used, in turn,
to refute relativism and to vindicate the superiority of Western forms of
Like Horton, HoUis begins discussion of cross-cultural
understanding by focussing on the project of translation. Hollis accepts
that accurate translation is something w e can readily accomplish, and so
assumes that the conditions for literal translation must obtain! Hofis
often speaks of a (potentially) vicious circle confronted by translators
of foreign beliefs. This circle is akin to the hermeneutic circle? it lies
between the perceptions of the Other and the translation of statements
concerning those perceptions or between their beliefs and the truth
conditions for the assertion of those beliefs. T h e circle i s characterized
as nviciousnbecause it s e e m s that there is no w a y to enter it, O n e
cannot determine the meaning of a statement without knowing the belief
it is meant to express, yet one cannot know the latter without knowing
the former- Hollis makes the M m that if the anthropologist were to
walk into a foreign context w i t h o u t any assumptions about the society or
the language in question, it w o u l d be impossible to ever get the project
of translating the language started. Even the simplest ostensive
definition w o u l d be untranslatable without assuming that the subject
refers to objects in the s a m e w a y that w e do.
Despite considering the possibility that translation might be
undermined by this interpretive circle, Hollis argues simply that
translation is possible (since w e do i t ) and then delineates the
conditions necessary for translation to take p l a d He does not specify

flollis argues, sirilar to Eorton, f r a a priori considerations concerning what principles ast hold if
translation is to be possible. His account is referred to as a 'fixed bridgehead theory' since the contents are
presumably determinable prior to any crass-linguistic encounter. Lulres, on the other hand, suggests that i t is an
sspirical matter what sorts of beliefs and inferential rules qnatify as a bridfe and so refers to his account as a
'I loa t ing bridgehead theory. "Nonetheheless, their speculations on the content of the bridge are strikingly shilar and,
more importantly, are jnstified by appeal to the same theory of translation.
I sag 'akin" to t k hemeneutic circle since Hollis' solution to entering it is not properly 'heneneutic."
Wereas the project i n heneneotics is to provide an interpretation given the necessary existence of the circle, Bollis'
project is to elininate the circle altogether. That is, according to EoUis, the circle is ody a p ~ b l wfor those d o
do not accept the bridgehead argunent. Once one adopts a bridgehead position, the circle disappears. lhderstaoding this
circle as properly 'hementic' vould seriously weaken KoLLis' justification for the existence of a bridgehead.
Given that entering the situation with no preconceived ideas about structure and basic content is a no-
. L that one has no choice but to d e the €ollovinga priori
starter, Bollis suggests, as a ~ ~ 1 0 g i c apaint,
assnmptions :

1. The object (referred to) has properties which both (re a

d they) perceive i t to have (coron perception).
2. The utterance refers to the sare object (colon ways of referring).
3. The native believes the utterances to be true (coran notion of erpirical truth) . (Eollis 1967b:228)
the content of this bridge beyond suggesting some basic procedures for
identifying objects and verifying facts as well as claiming that w e must
share judgements concerning what can count as a "good reason" for
holding a belief in general (Hollis 1967a:217-18); H e insists, in this
connection, that "'good reason' is an objective termw ( H o U s 1982:72). H e
characterizes the beliefs that mnstitute the bridgehead more clearly in
"The Social Destruction of Reality.

T h e set of beIiefs consists of what a rational man cannot fail to

believe in s i m p l e perceptual situations, organized by rules of
coherent judgement, which a rational man cannot fail to subscribe
to. (Hollis 1982:74)

While Hollis' justification for the bridgehead begins as a

methodological thesis that postulates the conditions necessary for
granting a translator an entry point into the cross-cultural interpretive
circle, his argument quickly evolves into an epistemoiogical thesis about
the very nature of rationality. It is no longer s i m p l y the case that the
interpreter must make these assumptions in order to translate a foreign
language; it necessarily follows that any style of reasoning must follow
these constraints if it is to be called "reasoningwat all. The success of
translation is possible only if there exist universal standards of
rationality. This is not only a precondition of translation, but a pre-
condition of languagehood or thought. In the end, How insists that, as

Hollis also introduces three d e s of logic that rnst be ass& as coron if any other lode of thought is to be
called 'reasoning' (a condition that it be traslatable):
1. Identity [ p p )
2. Non-contradiction -(pL-p)
3. Inference (rodns ponens) [p&(p>q)]q (Bollis 196?b:232)
In "he Problas About RationaIitg"LLnkes, Likeuise, lists the criteria that mst be adhered to if stmething is to
qualify as a Iagua#e at alJ. These include notions of truth, reference and logic that are nearly identical to Hollis'
six constituents of the bridgehead (Lakes 1970:ZOi-210). As such, it is not entirely clear in what sense Lnkes'
bridgehead is a "floating" ow. The difference is tbat, for Lakes, vhat constitutes the bridge is presmably an
empirical matter whereas, for HolZis, it is established a priori. J h a so, according to each, the translator enters the
field with the same assmptions. M e s differs in tbat he holds that vhat is as@ is revisable ia Light of evidence
and experience.
a necessary condition for translation? "some beliefs are universal among
mankindw;there must exist "a massive central core of human -43
which has no historyu [Hollis 1982:75).
WhiIe Steven Lukes agrees with Hollis concerning the need for a
bridgehead, his justification differs from H O W in important respects.
Lukes argues that the necessary condition for translation is an
empirical, "floatingu bridgehead rather than an a priori, fixed
bridgehead, on the grounds that the latter may incline one to ascribe
true b e l i e f s where they are not due. According to Lukes, there m a y be
cases i n which a member of another culture violates basic rules of logic
but these are easily explicable given other previously translated beliefs.
In such cases, it would be better to construe the particular belief as a
violation of common principles of rationality rather than as rational yet
inexplicable. One ought to assume that others reason roughly as w e do
and then go on to determine which beliefs are fahe and which true. In
other words, one ought to maximize intelligibility rather than truth. 10
Hollis justifies his commitment to an a priori bridgehead thesis on the
grounds that, if one had to discover the bridge constituents empirically,
there could be no way into the interpretive circle (Hollis 1967a:214)-
Despite these minor differences, Hollis and Lukes both arrive at the
conclusion that some common bridge must necessarily exist. Lukes*

The argument f r a the rethodological to the episteological point becoles souud uith the addition of a single
prearise. Hollis lists the conditions that wst obtain if one is to translate another language. He then adds the preaise
that translation does in fact take place. This, in effect, changes the statns of this a m n core frm a
nethodologicallp useful assumption to a necessarily existing condition.
a) if translation is to take pIace, there must be a c m n core
b j translation takes place
therefore, there is this c a o n core
The argment wrks only by not calling into question exactly vhat is actmplished in the act of transiating another
langoage. Hollis assumes that translation is the ismorphic transfer of meaning between languages. It is this asmaption
that I will call into question in subsequent chapters. Postdating a c a o n central core guarantees isaarphic transfer
over this lhited subset of language. Yet, if translation is not just this, tltere is no need for this core. In a sense,
Bollis rerely assmes vhat he sets out to prove.
Lnkes suggests that Crandy's VrincipIe of W t y ' is a better operating principle lor the project of
translation than is the 'principle of charity'hbich BoUs endorses. The latter begins uith the assoption that mst of
the interlocutor's c l a h are tme, the foner begins by asslning that the interlocutor is basically like onrsehes (or
that most of their claim are intelligible). A mre detailed analysis of these positions MU be dealt with in chapter
bridge differs in that his emphasis on m a x i m i z i n g intelligibility rather
than truth allows him to maintain that the constituents of the bridge are
revisable in light of ongoing investigation. Lukes states:

In this sense H O W is right to say that "any fieldwork is bound

to confirm the epistemological unity of mankind." But what that
foundation is, what must be presupposed for the interpretation of
beliefs and belief systems to proceed is in a sense an empirical
matter, or at least revisable in the light of experience.,. What w e
assume to b e the common core wiIl be subject to endless
correction by the consequences of m a k i n g such assumptions,
(Lukes 1982:272-3)

In spite of the fact that both Hollis and Lukes purport to establish
grounds for the tdstence of a bridgehead as a necessary condition for
doing anthropology, neither presents much evidence or analysis for what
this bridgehead might contain." Other proponents of bridgehead
theories refer to a very few studies that claim to find evidence for the
existence of perceptual uniformities across cultures, Primary among such
attempts are Ekrh and Kay's studies of basic colour t e r m s in which
they claim to verify the existence of "natural categories" of colour.12
These studies, while for years cited as the strongest evidence against
linguistic relativity, do not, in fact, establish any claims concerning the
meanings of colour t e r m s and likely do more to refute than substantiate
the existence of a conceptual or linguistic bridge.13
Despite their inability to identify any specific concepts that are
universal across cultures, Horton, Hollis, and Lukes aU hold that there
are extra-linguistic (and, so, trans-linguistic) standards of truth or

Bollis refuses to identify the content of the bridjje, stating, 'Vithont specifying the core, I carmot make
this paper cogent. But neither can I rake i t short. So I sirpIy enter a plea For metaphysicsn (Hollis 1982:84). Lnkes
cites a number of studies purporting to identify cross-dtmalIy constant perceptual abilities. Such ctmnalities, it
they in fact exist, are, however, irrelevant to the issue of translation. I address this issue at greater length in
chapter loat.
Dan Sperber, for instance, places even greater evidential weight on this and sirilar studies. (Sperber
1982: %I)
1 retm to this debate in chapter four. Carl Shpson's 'Colour Perception: Cross Wtnral W s t i c
Translation and Relativia" (1991) is a goad, in depth, andysis of the debates surrounding these studies.
verification. According to each of them, a systematic distinction can be
made between beliefs that are grounded on objective criteria (and so
universal) and those not (and so relative). In order to differentiate the
types of explanations one might give for beliefs held b y members of
another culture, Lukes distinguishes a number of ways in which w e
might understand the word "rational," These. h e separates into two
primary categories: wrational(l)criteriaw are those that are universally
applicable to a limited set of beliefs in any ontext; "rationaL(2) criteriaw
are those that are context dependent, possibly diverge widely between
cultures, and are to be discovered empirically (Lukes 1970:208), Lukes
emphasizes the importance of criteria of truth, understood as context or
language mependent. This is dear in his claim that false beliefs cannot
be rational(1) but can, at best, only be shown to be rational(2) (Lukes
1970:211). Hollis does not, like Lukes, distinguish two kinds of rationality
but does similarly distinguish b e t w e e n rational (coherent)and true
Both Hollis and Lukes invoke a coherence theory of truth and
argue that this is all that a bridgehead theory requires (Hollis 1967935).
Yet they both appeal to extra-linguistic criteria in order to justify their
analyses of foreign beliefs. There is a clear sense in which Lukes*
) ~ used only to characterize beliefs that satisfy a
category " r a t i ~ n a l ( l is
correspondence or verification theory of truth (the first type: objective,
universal) whereas "rational(2)" criteria apply to all beliefs that fail
such criteria but satisfy a coherence theory (type two, above). For
HoIlis as well, there is a clear sense in w h i c h the criteria he identifies

A large part of the debate between Barnes/BIoor and Kollis/Lnlres is over the '@valence postuIateQr
'symmetry of explanation,Vefined by Barnes and Bloor:
Oar equivalence postdate is that a l l beliefs are on par with one another with respect to the canses of their
credibility.. the incidence of all beliefs without exception calls for eapirical investigation and m s t be
accounted lor by finding the specific, Iocd c a e s of this credibility. (Barnes and Bloor 1982:23)
The distinctions made by Hollis (trae/rational) and Lnkes (rationality(l)/rationality(2]) endorse the asymetry of
explanation or non-eqaivalence postulate. True beliefs receive one type of explanation (nsaally lerely that they are
true) whereas false beliefs require another type of explanation (historical or sociological). According to 3arnes and
Bloor, all beliefs require sociological explanations since our very distinction betveen true and false beliefs requires
a sociological explanation.
as constituting the bridgehead presuppose a correspondence o r
verification theory of t r u t h . 1 5 In speaking of the Zande, Hollis suggests
that their beliefs about witchcraft can be seen as rational (coherent)
even though they are empirically fake (fail to correspond to reality).
Rational(1) (empirically verifiable) beliefs and rational(2) (false but
coherent) beliefs each require different types of explanation (contra the
Barnes and Blwr "symmetry thesisw).
In the case of the Nuer claim about kwoth ("a twin is a bird"),
Hollis suggests that the only w a y to ascribe such a belief is by
providing an account of "good reasonsw that connects this abstract claim
to empirically identifiable (and empirically verifiable) beliefs. Ritual
beliefs must be linked to, and explained in terms of, everyday
observation sentences, or they must remain untranslatable.16 The
empiricist strain in H o b ' account becomes even more apparent when he
draws an analogy between the project of translating another language
and an atheist's attempt to understand a religious believer.

How is the unbeliever to understand his account, without becoming

a wnvert? He should. I suggest, take it Literally, and test it for
rationality, in order to understand it, then deny that it
corresponds to anything in order to disagree with it. For, if it is
taken as simply metaphorical o r false or without truth-value or
irrational, then it is unintelligible, and, if it is taken not to make
any empirical claims, then there is nothing to disagree with.
(Hollis 1967b:237) (italics mine)

Richard Poley has observed that even We Bollis and Lnires claim to adhere to a coheren!tist account a~f
meaning, their justification for this bridge depends on, at minim, a strong reliabilist theory and often lakes use of
a correspondence theory of truth. If held consistently t h r o ~ n ttheir analyses, their claired coherentist accounts
would be insufficient to justify the existence of a bridge ((Poley 196Bt. The underlying correspondence theory of truth
is not irediately apparent as it works transitively through translation. Bollis' theory of truth @Licitly iaplies
that English bears a correspondence to an independent reality. The language being translated, then, wst bear an
isaorphic relation to English (a traasitivity t vill address in lore detail in chapter 7).
The fact that Bollis distingnisbes betveen "be and rationalwand 'false but rationalf beliefs again
suggests the role of a verification theory of meaning. Both are coherent in the saw uay but the latter needs a
different sort of explanation or justification as i t does not properly correspoad to reality.
Lukes makes the same distinction over this very belief. h e r beliefs about h h satisfy rational(2) but fail to
satisfy rational(1) criteria; they are coherent bat false (Lnkes 1970:21). It is in this sare way that Lnkes criticizes
the spaetry thesis (Lnkes 1982:292-98) .
The model of .translation presupposed by Hollis and Lukes is, then,
one in which the beliefs of others become intelligible only insofar as
they can be assimilated into a set of conceptual categories and basic
principles of logic that are assumed to be context independent. T h e
original question concerned the translation of statements like the Nuer
claim that "a twin is a birdw or the YON^^ claim about carrying one's
head or soul around in a box. Rather than attempting to understand the
cuLtural context of such a claim or further evaluate the distortions of
meaning that take place in translation, the analysis has, in the end,
eluded those issues and moved on to the problem of falsification. This is
possible only because this theory of cross-cultural interpretation is
based on a theory of translation derived from a theory of meaning that
takes content to be a function of verifiability (or falsifiability);
According to this account, meaning is not context or language sensitive.
Significantly different beliefs must, on this account, b e either fake or
While proponents of the bridgehead theory debate the use of
assorted methodological guidelines for resolving problems posed by
apparently irrational beliefs, it seems, in the end, that both Hollis and
Lukes apply a principle of humanity w i t h a vengeance. Their underlying
argument is:

If translation is possible, then they must be like us.

Translation is possible.
Therefore, they must be Like us,

As Hollis and Lukes develop their critiques of relativism, they

complete the transition from the methodological point (that translation
can only be carried out given certain linguistic similarities) to the
epistemological thesis (that all people necessarily think in a similar way
and that Western thought is the standard). What began as a set of
guidelines for the project of translation has become a necessary
condition of any intelligible use of language, thought or reasoning:
N a t i v e logic must turn out to be a version of our own or remain
untranslatable. If natives reason IogicaUy at all, they reason as we
do. (Hollis 1967b:232)

This reframing of debate is justified only if it can b e assumed that

translational problems can be (and are) completely resolved in practice,
Consider, more closely, the model of translation assumed by Bollis and
Lukes, however, and it becomes clear that there is an important sense
in which their arguments lead, just a s surdy, to the conclusion that
translation is, in fact, not possible, Rather than reframing anthropology
as comparative epistemology, it would be prudent to first consider more
closely what is accomplished in the attempt to translate a foreign

Complex Beliefs and Simple Content

Thus far, I have concentrated on unpacking the assumptions that

underlie philosophical debates about cross-cultural interpretation theory
and clarifying the reasons for assuming a conceptual bridgehead as a
necessary condition for translation, Theories postulating the existence of
a bridgehead are not necessarily persuasive, as I have argued, but by
no means is this theoretical dispute the end of the difficulty-
Anthropologists do not return from fieldwork to publish papers Listing
the linguistic labels applied to common objects in another culture.
Anthropologists and other social scientists quickly move beyond the
mundane realm of observation sentences to describe complex social
practices and even metaphysical beliefs, Hollis and Lukes hold (at least
implicitly) the hope that, given the bridgehead, the anthropologist will
be able to accurately translate a sufficient number of boring observation
sentences to provide a solid enough foundation in the language to then

The over-sirglified irpiication of IioIding this theory of translation in the context of a realist/
relativist debate is most clearly exaplified by V. Hewton-Slith:
The possibility of translation entails the falsehood of relativisa. fly contapasition, the truth of relativisa
entails the hpassibility of translation. .. The fact that relativists do translate displays that they do not
believe in their om thesis. (Nevton-Mth 1982:llS)
go on and determine the meaning of less simple beliefs, While it seems
that standards of rationality are used only to justify the existence of
such m m m o n simple beliefs, more complex beliefs are often treated as if
the same criteria of inmgibility apply to their interpretations. Western
empiricist criteria of verification are, again, represented as context
independent and apply equally to the more complex beliefs of others.
Hollis very nearIy dismisses the anthropological importance of
interpreting more complex ritual beliefs on the basis that they are
either patently false or obviously meaningless. Statements that can b e
IiteraUy represented and empiricaUy tested are true or false all others
are meaningless>' This sentiment is clear Prom Hollis' observations.
quoted above, that. in order to understand the beliefs of the Other, it
is necessary to assume a "single, objective and neutral worldw (HolIis
1982:74) and this requires a "reference to objective truthw (Hollis
1982:85). It is not surprising that Hollis would find it necessary to take
"the side of judgement against that of charityw in all interpretive
endeavors ( H o l l i s l982:85).I9

KoLLis suggests that the only aetaphors that can be understood are those that can be reduced to literal
ceaning. [t is not purely an issue lor translatian theory, here, but a point about s w l e interpretation even uithin a
language. To illustrate, he quotes two lines from a poen: "Life like a doae of my-colomed glass, Stains the white
radiance of etemity."Kollis states, This is vhat Carnap would call a ktaphysid Proposition and only a rash ran
would claiin to how what it leans' (Hollis 1967b:237). There is no aeaning where there is no possibility of apirical
verification in isolation fra context. On this lodel, difference @lies falsity or rimiqlesswss. The translator's
potto becones "like us, or wrong." The self/other dichutag is translated into the tme/fdse dichotory. Hollis hplies
these very oppositions from the beginning lines of Wason and Ritual." Oppositions tbat can be found in the first tw
pages of that essay include:
Rational Beliefs vs. ktapb..sicaI/Ritd Beliefs
Informative VS. Expressive
Rational vs. Hystical
Literal VS. Hetaphorical
Sell vs . Other
And, in any case in which the right column carmot be reduced to the left,
haningfnl vs . iieaaiagless
True VS . False
Joseph HargoLis has criticized the debate betueen Kollis/Iakes and Baraes/Bloor on the grounds that the
positions taken by both parties are too extrere. Barnes and Bloor's sociology of kaovledge results in an mecessarg
skepticisr whereas Bollis and Lnkes [implicitly) endorse a very strong fom of realis. Kacgofis identifies a &r of
non-sequiturs that leave Lnlres' argment lor a bridgehead incoherent vithoot further assaptions about reirlim. Each
move in the argument assuaes %at sharing the saae wrld entails sharing the sare conceptual schere (of that cmon
world) or the same cognitive criteria, or the same criteria of rationalikf(Rargo1is 1986:225). Yhile both clah to
ground their theories on a verification theory of truth, there is an implicit endorserent of the correspondence theory
The case for or against metaphysical realism and the erdstence of a
single, objectively knowable world is irrelevant to questions about
translation, O n a bridgehead model of interpretation, it is the assumptbn
of objective truth that has ensured that the desire to judge the Other
supersedes the ability to understand the Other, This central concern
w i t h epistemological assessment is clear in Lukes' discussion of a
number of different interpretations put forth concerning the beliefs
about physiological paternity held by the Tully River Blacks. In his 1903
essay "Superstition, Magic, and Medicinew, WOE. Roth identifies four
possible causes of pregnanw acknowledged by the TulIy River Blacks,
none of which include sexual intercourse?0 During the late 1960's.
Medford Spiro and Edmund Leach debated whether the Tully River
Blacks were indeed entirely ignorant of physiological paternity or
whether their statements of belief w e r e some symbolic or religious way
of expressing the (roughly) accurately understood facts of procreation,
The debate between Spiro and Leach over this particular conflict of
interpretation was p a r t of (and was central to) the larger debate
between intellectualism (literalism) and symbolism/fideism21 (metaphorical
reading) that took place, during the 1960's and 1970's. in anthropology.
The intellectualists saw all expressions of belief, including mystical and
religious beliefs, as attempted explanations or hypothesis about the way
the world really is, Horton's nmntinuitythesisw is a modified example of

of truth that is an @licit metaphysical realism. Hargolis suggests that adopting, not anly a rild relativist
positions, but any veaker fon of realisr (for instance, Pntnar's "internal realis'), wonld leave Kollis' and Lakes'
defense of universalis mrsalmd. "It is quite irpossible to reach any of the universalized conclusions regarding
rationality Lnkes hiaself draws frm a riniaally realist thesis.~Mgolis1906:232)
Lnkes quotes the passage t r a Roth [Lukes 1982:283):
% wman begets children because a) she has been sitting over the fire an which she has roasted a particular species of
black bream, which nst have been given to her by the prospective father, (b) she has purposely gone a-hunt* and
canght a certain kind of bullfrog, (c] sae men have told her to be in an interesting condition, or Id) she may dream of
having the child put inside her. Fra: V.E. Both, 'Superstition, kgic, and Micine", dbrfb @eeaslaodE&ograph.ic
BitlIetio, 5 (lgO3), p .22
Wile disti@Wg between symbolist and fideist agproaches, Norton categorizes tber together as
approaches that do not read the beliefs of the Mher literally and so, to sae extent, ignore the Other's paint of view,
disrissing any cagnitive content or suggestion that the Other is attmpting to accurately explain sae feature of the
world. Ln any case, they are sirtilar in that they endorse a non-literal reading of ritual beliefs.
this approach. The inteIlectualist a s s u m e s that w e all have a common
interest in explanation and prediction. and our beliefs ought to b e
understood as an attempt to literally and accurately describe the world
to this end. T h o s e who endorse the s y m b o l i s t approach interpret such
wmysticalwbeliefs as expressing something beyond the immediate world,
metaphorically, for reasons other than straightforward description. If so
intended, these beliefs would not be amenable to standard empiricist
evaluation and strict criteria of consistency. Spiro takes the
inteilectualist approach, Leach the s y m b o l i s t , and each applies his
interpretive thesis, in their debate, to the project of deciphering the
meanings of particular statements made by the T m y River Blacbs.
Given substantial differences between the frameworks that each
adopts for interpretation, and given the internal consistency of each
theory, Lukes admits that it is difficult to settle the question of
w h e t h e r the beliefs of the Tully River Blacks display ignorance of the
facts of procreation. If the two interpretive frameworks can give rise to
t w o self-consistent interpretations then it appears impossible to
adjudicate between competing translations. Lukes suggests, in any case,
that the evidence inclines one toward Spiro's interpretation. Yet, even
on Spiro's own account, the evidence presents a t least two possibilities:
a straightforward attribution of "ignorancewand a thesis of "Freudian
repressionn that explains this apparent ignorance by appeal to
psychological mechanisms. Given this further explanatory ambiguity, it
seems difficult to imagine what sort of evidence would settle the issue.
Lukes acknowledges that each position is supported by its own
interpretation of the evidence and then asks what he takes to be the
central question:

How then to choose between these contending interpretive

strategies? Is this a dramatic case of the underdetermination of
theories by (all possible) data? (Lukes 1982:289)

Lukes' answer to this question is "now;he hopes that further

empirical investigation will always be possible and that w e could devise
test questions that will allow us to sort through the competing
interpretations and reject all but the true or accurate one, Jkspite this

hope, worries about the indeterminacy of the interpretation of evidence

sunrive in his account* In the end, Lukes has to admit that accounts of
the belief systems of other cultures may b e hopelessly perspectival, or,
as Lukes states, "perhaps social enquiry is for this reason inescapably
narcissisticw (Lukes 1982:303), Still, some ideals of objectivity survive as
Lukes claims that "interests, background assumptions and value
judgements enter, not into the accounts themselves, but into their
justificationw (Lukes 1982:304), Here, Lukes assumes that there is some
way to represent the claims of the Other titerally and then test those
beLiefs individually, subject to context independent criteria, Lukes takes
the question concerning w h i c h Wansiation is correct to be solved (or
solvable) and then proceeds to entertain questions about the rationality
of the beliefs of others as if it is an altogether separate issue,
While theorists who endorse a bridgehead theory do typically
attend to questions about translation, they often proceed as if the
meanings of the translated beliefs are unproblematically rendered, Once
the specific example (already translated) has been presented, w h a t
remains is the problem of explaining beliefs that appear irrational. T h e
debate over the beliefs of the Tuliy River Blacks centers on the
question of w h e t h e r they understand physiological paternity, not on
whether some concept in their Ianguage unproblematically translates as
"paternity," The distinctions used to categorize some beliefs as universal
made by Hollis (true/rational), Lukes (rational l/rational 2). and Horton
(primary/secondary theory) allow them to bypass the very issue of
meaning. It is assumed that the former category in each pair contains
concepts or statements that mean the same thing in each language. The
problem is that a concept could only be designated as p a r t of the
bridge if one neglects the semantic implications of that concept's
extension(s) into amplex beliefs and visa versa, In fact, the concept of
"paternity" is by no means a simple one, neither for the Tully River
Blacks, nor for ourselves.
As an example of a semantic feature of language that mmpromises
these foundational distinctions made by Hollis, Lukes, and Horton,
consider the word "wave,"An interpreter m i g h t take *wavewto refer
only to ocean waves (one of the medium sized objects of primary
theory). In English. however, we have come to use this word to also
describe certain hand motions and sound phenomena (among many other
things) due to analogies or physical similarities with ocean waves. These
extensions of meaning, in turn, modify the content of the original word,
llWaven no longer means what it did even at the primary level because
now it bears a relation to sound that it did not bear before. It is a
manifestation of a more general phenomenon rather than a simple object:
in itself, Even if one muld find examples where elements of the world
were divided dong simiIar lines, this wouId not guarantee similar
semantic content even a t a primary level, let alone in the metaphoric
extensions and associations of the term in question. If m e m b e r s of
another culture believe that ocean waves are one of the effects of the
anger of a certain god then not only do they have different beliefs
about waves, but their word for that phenomenon cannot be
unproblematically translated as "wave." I t is difficult to imagine what
sorts of simple concepts or observation sentences would not be subject
to uncertainties in translation of this sort. It is this difficulty that is
overlooked in the debate between Spiro and Leach. The debate over the
beliefs of the T U y River Blacks is premised upon the assumption that
they have, or should have, a concept of "paternitywLike ours,
The issue is not one of truth, b u t of understanding. If, as
proponents of bridgehead theories suggest, the only way to interpret
the practices and beliefs of another culture is by (unproblematically)
translating them into our own language and then judging them
according to our criteria of verification, it seems that a paradox has
been created, If those beliefs are truly different, then they cannot b e
understmd. If the speakers whose beliefs are being translated do
reason along the same Lines that w e do, then they are not truly
different; they simply fail (in some cases) to assign the proper truth
values to their beliefs. In any case, it becomes impossible to understand
(in any sense) that which is significantly different. Rather than "making
anthropology possible," the methodology, and associated epistemology,
endorsed by bridgehead theorists, makes anthropology impossible insofar
as anthropologists are centrally concerned to understand the Other, that
which is unfamiliar, as different,
HOES suggests. in reference to Evans-Pritchard's study of the
Azande, that this method provides the only foundation upon which
anthropology can be done.

(Evans-Pritchard) takes the line that Zande beliefs are empirically

false but rational both for them and for us, If m y argument is
sound, this approach is the oniy one which allows the
identification of ritual beliefs, ( H O W 1967b:235)

It should be dear that, despite Horton's attempt to overmme a

condescending attitude toward cultures like that of the Azande, those
who endorse bridgehead theories assume the success of translation and,
thus, take Western rationaliw as an independent or objective point of
reference. Where ideals of Literal representation and verificationist
criteria of meaning are accepted as necessary conditions for translation,
there is always the immanent danger that the presumption of cognitive
inferiority will be built into the translation, The beliefs of the Other wiU
be assimilated to the target language and judged inferior against its
standards of rationality.

The RepubLic a€ the Mind

Ernest Gellner reasons in much the same fashion as Horton, Hollis,

and Lukes b u t makes explicit the i m p l i c i t superiority claim found in
their theories; he appeals to criteria derived from what he takes to be a
product of holding the proper attitude towards the accumulation of
knowledge (ultimately not so different from Horton's Popperian
argument)? In T e l a t i v i s m and UniversalswGelher defends the
- -

Geher's om point of entry into the ratiodity debates is alrost exclusively focosed on the issue of
translation. In his 1362 paper, "Concepts and Society", he criticizes the Vinchean functionalist approach as well as the
theory that translation i s accomplished according to a principle of charity. Eis u i n point, in that essay, is that
understanding a foreign concept often regnires explaining the vays in which it is iomhmt.
Be is also keenly aware of the inseparability of vbat is later taken by my (possibly himelf included) as tw
separate projects. He states, "e logical assessmt of an assertion, and the identification of its nearest equivalent
in our language, are intirttely Linlred and inseparable.' (Cellner 1962:35)
cognitive superiority of Western styles of reasoning b y appeal to two
converging arguments* First, in agreement w i t h Horton's earlier thesis,
Gellner makes an wepistemoIogicalargument" suggesting that the method
of Western scientific investigation combined with a healthy skepticism is
conducive to the project of discovering and accurately representing real
aspects of the one real world. Sea~nd,llnlike Horton, Gellner offers a
"socioIogical argumentwin which he appeals to the observation that
others who do not practice this style of reasoning (initially),eventually
come around to seeing the value (or truth) of it and endeavor to adopt
it- In this way, he represents Western, scientific styles of reasoning as
the emerging common end for all cultures. It is this teleological
commitment that motivates Gellner to adopt the superiority claim in an
explicit way not characteristic of Horton's analysis.
While Horton takes explanation to be a universal goal, he does not
assume that explanation must b e reducible to physical, mechanistic,
material terms. Such a style of reasoning is not, in all ways, superior
(even if it is clearly superior in material matters). Horton's own choice
to live out his life in a "traditionalwAfrican culture, along with his
claim that he finds some aspects of that w a y of Life preferable, speak
against Gellner's single-minded materi;rll'sm. The physical, mechanistic
idiom that characterizes Western scientific secondary theory is,
according to Horton, inferior from an ethical/aesthetic standpoint. In
Africa, he finds "an intensely poetic quality in everyday life and
thought, and a vivid enjoyment of the passing moment--both driven out
of Western life by the quest for purity of m o t i v e and the faith in
progressn (Horton 1967:170). Both Gellner and Horton hold prediction and
control to be a universal human goal and yet, Horton is willing to
recognize that, w h i l e s o m e degree of pragmatic control of nature is
necessary for survival. it cannot b e treated as ail-encompassing; there

Be is aware that, often enough, for a particdar concept or belief, there is no seuntic equivalent betveen
languages, and the choice of a near& equivalent statmtlwrd is itself a value judgeaent concerning waning and
rationality. This, I take it, is a key issne that Cellner amf others f a i l to cme to tens with yet rove oa as if they
have. The evolution of Gelher's thought since then characterizes the c a o n progression that 1 trace through rang
others. Once problms of translation give way to assesslents of rationality, the path is clear for the superiority
thesis that Gellner now explicitly endorses.
may be other, equally important, goals that require different explanatory
idioms. The universal rational criteria endorsed by Hollis and Lukes
likewise rest on the assumption that prediction and control of nature is
not only universal but also the sole end served by rationality,
The assumed superiority of Western scientific reasoning follows
from the continuity thesis combined with claims about mgnitive
teleology. In 1988, Ernan M c M u l l i n edited the wHection Consfructrbn and
ConstrainC in which the issue central to the rationality debate had
again shifted. Questions about translation and what criteria of rationality
are to b e applied to interpretations of other WCefsystems are now
entirely absent. The contributors to this collection turn to explicating
rationality in general and assessing claims for the superiority of
Western styles of thought. Thomas M c C a r t h y clearly addresses this latter
concern in "Scientific Rationality and the 'Strong Program' in the
Sociology of Knowledge, " McCarthy acknowledges the historicity of
Western concepts of truth and rationality while also insisting that
Western thought exhibits characteristics that make it clearly superior to
other thought systems,

Thus in our transcuFtural dialogue w e might want to take the

position that there has been a learning process in regard to our
technical understanding of natural processes, that w e have
learned how to pursue the common human interest in prediction
and control more effectively by differentiating its pursuit from
other--moral, emotional, symbolic, aesthetic, etc--concerns, In
short, while the open-ended "conversation of mankindw rules out
the assumption that our point of view is absolute, it does not
require us simply to drop notions of cognitive advance or learning
from experience. (M c C a r t h y 1988:86)(italics mine)

McCarthy shares the teleological assumptions about cognition that

GeIlner endorses. W e need not reject notions of cognitive advance, only
its characterization by M c C a r t h y and Gelher, as unilinear and
monolithic, In the context of cross-cultural interpretation theory, this
additional teleological assumption justifies not only the claim that
members of another culture need be iike us to be understood, but
further, that they should desire to be like us. There may be a common
interest in prediction and mntrol in which everyone seeks progressive
improvement, however, this does not constrain all cultures to the same
kinds or standards of improvement and m n l y does not guarantee
common cross-cultural conceptualizations of the world nor of styles of
reasoning. Gellner and M c C a r t h y believe that the goal of human survivd
constrains possible interpretations of the w o r l d in such a way that all
cultures should endeavor to gain maximal technical control of nature. As
such, they believe that the technical superiority of .Western science
justifies using Western standards of rationality as a foundation for
understanding all other belief systems. In relation to the problem of
translation, however, this presumea cognitive superiority is a m o o t
point. When they serve as a foundation for interpretation, such
standards inhibit, rather than facilitate understanding. Even though it
might be the case that Western science has cornered the market in the
endeavor to control nature, this by no means implies that survival of
the species would be any less probable if the world were differently
represented. Barnes and B i m r emphasize that the ability to refrain from
falling into rivers and being eaten by alligators does not guarantee
common conceptualtions of potential threats to personal safety.
Sufficient ability to navigate one's surroundings and control enough
features of the environment to ensure survival is one thing, To suggest
that this implies a common rationality or a stock of common
conceptualizations runs the risk of including lizards and bats (but
maybe not lemmings) as beings that share basic beliefs with us. It is
unlikely that nature constrains belief to the degree necessary to
substantiate a robust cross-cultural conceptual bridge. It is narrow-
minded to believe that the pragmatic superiority of one style of
reasoning over others guarantees that all cultures will or should adopt
that style. In any case, it is clear that, b y the mid 1980's. the debate
over cross-cultural understanding had become entirely divorced from
the probIem of translation. It is assumed that w e can clearly know what
the beliefs of the other mean and that the goal of cross-cultural
understanding is cognitive comparison. Translation has become nothing
other than the unproblematic representation of the,Other in comparative
relation to the monolithic, modern, Western, scientific mind;
The Vacant Other

Why should the claim of the cognitive superiority of members of

Western culture be taken as a problem for anthropology and translation
theory? There are, no doubt, good reasons to believe that modern
physics provides a more accurate representation of real causal
mechanisms than does witchcraft, From a pragmatic standpoint, there is
no offence in holding that belief in the former is more conducive to
succeeding in our various endeavors than belief in the latter, Yet,
despite claims that some belief systems more accurately represent reality
than others, exclusive focus on that comparison effectively negates
anthropology's subject. Gellner makes clear the full implications of the
turn away from the problem of translation in Reason and Culture (1992)-
Nowhere in this work does Gellner raise questions about the efficacy of
translation; in fact, he rarely addresses any problems related to the
issue of cross-cultural representation, Rather, Gi4ner is concerned to
establish the case for the superiority of Western thought by providing a
very specific reading of the historical development of rationality. His
version of this history has only four main characters: Descartes, K m t ,
Weber and Durkheim. GeIlner suggests that the culture that adopted
Cartesian method was not simply one among many, but one that has
elevated above all others as a result of adopting that method. Descartes
initiated a "new kind of customIv (Gelher 1992:160) the goal of which was
to nearly eliminate the effects of culture and language on thinking. H e
is credited with articulating a conception of rationality that is not quite
transcendent, but unquestionably superior. The picture that Gellner
paints of what it is to b e a rational being is not only unrealistic as a
foundation for the representation of m e m b e r s of different cultures, but
is unrealistic as a representation of Western culture. Our culture is
portrayed as the culture of reason. In fact, *culturew is none other than
the social effort to perfect reason. The superiority thesis is justified,
not only by neglecting the intricacies of cross-cultural communication,
but by reducing the history of our own culture to the story of
rationality itself, Gellner's Hegelian-like history of reason reflects this
quite explicitly: "Rationalism is our destinym(Gellner 1992:159).
With Gellner's historical rationalism, the progress of Desawtes'
meditations is reversed: rather than reason resulting in solipsism,
solipsism becomes the condition for pure reason. Other cultures, as
Gellner conceived them, are not m e r e l y misunderstood, but are nowhere
mentioned; they are not present, precisely because they are not
necessary. From the standpoint of reason, difference must remain
incomprehensible or insignificant, The possibility of cross-cultural
understanding has been elhihated preciseIy because the Other, or the
very possibility of otherness, has disappeared. Gellner's theory
represents the thmretical culmination of the line of argument that
postulates a wmmon core of human reason as the necessary pre-
condition for cross-cultural understanding. Ironically, this very
condition, which was to have made anthropology possible, makes it
The debate about cross-cultural understanding need not progress
to the conclusion that Gellner has drawn. The justification for
postulating a substantial common core of human thought is not based on
any explicit evidence but rather on the argument that there must be
some common core if there is to be any cross-cultural understanding.
Only upon careful elicitation of the underlying assumptions of Gellner's
thesis (as well as that of Hollis, Lukes, and Horton) does the motivation
for insisting on a cognitive/linguistic bridgehead come to the surface!3
Bridgehead theories are based on an i m p l i c i t theory of meaning and
(related) ideas about the proper goal of translation. Horton makes this
perfectly clear by suggesting that "any programme of cross-cultural
understanding must start b y translating ali of the idea sets under
consideration into terms of a single 'world' languagem(Horton l982:259).
In other words, it is assumed that there must be a set of concepts or

CeLlner does not, like Eorton, hold that there is a lmiversal rationality that uuderlies all thought.
Rather, there is a superior rationality that is found only in sae thought. I group ther together in spite of this
isportant dissimilarity because both positions are based on belief in a cam goal or parpose. A 'continuity thesis"
either fom, whcih postdates prediction and control as a universal goal, must see Western scientific thought (&ether a
particnlar manifestation of universal rationality or as a unique tgrpe of rationality] as superior.
words, the meaning of which can be isomorplu'cally transferred between
languages. Since, as they all claint, translation is actually realized, a l l
h g u a g e s must have this core, and hence it is possible to speak of a
single world language or a single meaning system that is a subset of all
These bridgehead arguments are only persuasive on the assumption
that translation into a target language must produce a literal, exact
reproduction of what is said in the source language. While this
description of the project of translation was originally in question,
critics moved too quickly from €he question of the possibility of
translation to the question "is the Other rational?" Assumptions about
the success of literal cross-cultural representation of beliefs has lead,
through a chain of reasoning, to the unconditional superiority of the
Western scientific mind and the mmplete absence of the Other. A t best,
the Other can be only a primitive, muddle-headed curiosity.
Gellner's picture of Western, rational self as the product of the
fulfillment of Cartesian method represents the Western mind as the only
one that has access to the real world in spite of the effects of culture.

With Descartes, Reason appears as a method, and in effect as the

only method, of procuring truth. A t the same time, reason is a
means of escaping those dread enemies of truth, custom and
exampIe. (Gelher 199255)

In order to properly reevaluate the nature of translation, it will

be necessary to turn to one of the "enemies of truth": an a p I e that
has been central to the debates described here. While many critics make
use of Evans-Pritchard's study of the Azande, f e w discuss this work in
sufficient detail to recognize the difficulty of Linguisticatly representing
the beliefs held by the Azande. A careful reading reveals a clearer
picture of just what is being translated and what difficulties are
overlooked or suppressed.
Chapter Two - Evans-Pritchard's Azande

My aim has been to make a number af Engkh words stand for

Zande notions and to use the same term only and always when the
same notion is k h g discussed... I do not want to quarrel about
words, a d if anyone cares to designate these notr'ons and actibns
by terms other than those 1 have used I should r a k no
objectrbn.., Terms are only labeis which help us to sort out facts
of the same k h d from facts wh-ch are d i f f f f a t ,or are i31 s o m e
respects different- P the labels do not prove helpful we can
discard them, The facfs w U be the same without their labels-
E.E. Evans-Pritchard -
W i t c h c r a € t , Oracles and Magic Among the Azaode

A not uncommon technique for theory construction in philosophy

involves approaching theoretical questions by consideration of artificial
hypothetical constructs, This is taken, for some purposes, to be an
effective approach because it (among other things) allows the
theoretician to invent worst case scenarios upon which to build and test
a theory. Such hypothetical constructs can b e used to test the logic of
a system against a more formidable foe than reality* Another type of
approach to theorizing, however, concerns itself with real world
examples. Such approaches lend practical relevance to theories and
provide a different kind of justification, more Humean than Cartesian.
Examples from anthropology have a great appeal to philosophers of
social science because they can often satisfy both of these desires.
Representations of foreign beliefs are often sufficiently unusual,
providing worst case scenarios by which to test a translation theory or
interpretive method, but they are real, so the theory has an additional
empirical justification* Reflection on the nature of rationaiity has a long
tradition in Western philosophy, Anthropology offers many examples of
what appear to be irrational or unjustifiable beliefs that may have
serious implications for speculation on universal standards of rationality.
The rationality debates are almost entirely constructed upon
analyses of a couple of examples taken from classic British
anthropological Literature. Most prominent among these are Evans-
Pritchard's studies of the Azande and the Nuer. Even today, these
ethnographies have not failed to generate interest and debate, There is
a danger, however, when examples from these works are analyzed and
incorporated into a pbilosophical/epistemological investigation.
Philosophers most often abstract these examples from the context of the
complete ethnographic work or larger account of the ather culture,
retelling them in such stripped-down terms that they bear only slight
resemblance to the treatment received in anthropology, This refIects not
just the different theoretical concerns characteristic of philosophy, as
opposed to anthropology, but also reflects different basic assumptions
concerning proper method and the structure of analysis-
The rationality debates probably could not have taken place solely
within anthropology, not because anthropologists were unprepared to
theorize about translation and rationality, but because m a n y of the
premises held by philosophers which generated these debates were
simply not shared by anthropologists, In philosophy, the stage was set
for such discussion by the realism-relativism debates (and related
debates over paradigm incommensurability), cognitive science, and
philosophy of science, Anthropologists were largely concerned w i t h
issues surrounding the accurate representation of the Other: their
theoretical debates are discriminated according to the nature of social
structure and the methods that would allow for an accurate
representation of existing social relations (e-g., debates between
proponents of symbolic, functionalist, intellectualist, and structuralist
approaches), Where anthropologists generally focus on problems w i t h
representing other culfxres, philosophers generally take the cross-
cultural representations in question to be accurate and discuss issues
concerning problems encountered in comparing and contrasting belief
systems. What philosophers idenmied as the central concerns in these
studies thus, generally presuppose the success of cross-cultural
interpretation, Thus, while the rationality debates appear to be an in-
depth crossing of two disciplines, in fact, they involved Little more than
philosophers borrowing a coupIe of examples from anthropoIogy.
A telling example of the characteristic lack of communication
between disciplines is related by Tanya Luhrmann (of a story told by
Ernest Gelher), In a footnote in her book on contemporary witchcraft in
England, she comments on the attempted crossing between philosophy
and anthropology:

Actually, the philosophical inspiration was genuine, but the

iu1thropologicd content became somewhat garbled. Soon after
Evans-Pritchard publFshed the Azande m a t e r i a l , he also published
an ethnographic account of the Nuer, a pastoral Nilotic people
whose interest in cattle is such that they have several thousand
t e r m s to refer to different types of animals. Gellner recounts that
Winch and Macbtyre began a heated exchange on the meaning of
cattle to the Azande and even held a public debate on this
subject, to which they invited Evans-Pritchard. A t the debate's
conclusion, Evans-Pritchard apparently remarked that he had little
to add to the philosophical subtlety of the exchange, but that he
wished to point out that there w e r e no cattle amongst the Azande-
In fact, if one Iooks up wcattlew in the index of the 1937 volume,
it is listed as "cattle, absence of." (Luhrmann 1989:350)

In order to initiate a more fruitful exchange between philosophy

and anthropology, it will be useful to return to Evans-Pritchard's
account of the Azande in greater detail than is the norm, and re-emerge
with some anthropoIogid insight. Rather than simply applying p o p u h
philosophical approaches and methods to examples taken from the
subject matter of another field, it will be possible, through a careful re-
reading of Evans-Pritchard's work, to stage an actual conversation
between the two disciplines.

Understanding Another World

Evans-Pritchard remains one of the most influential ethnographers

of the twentieth century, having radically changed the way ethnographic
studies have been done during the Iast sixty years. John Burton
characterizes ethnographic accounts before Evans-Pritchard as "thin"
either because they lack an investigation of the broader context (or a
full interpretation of the information) or because they conform too
closely to a strict theoretical model of society- Evans-Pritchard, by
amtrast, w r i t e s "thickw or "rich" ethnographies, characterized by an in
depth interpretation of social life understood in its context- This new
style involved longer stays in the field, as well as a more involved and
interactive participation in another way of We. The objective is to see
things "from the native's point of view," a goal pursued by nearly
complete immersion in the context of another socieQr. The intent of this
approach is always to discover the meaning or sense of the beliefs or
practices of the Other and to show the ways in which they cohere into
a complete belief system. Evans-Pritchard was largely responding to the
tradition before him (characterized by the work of Uvy-Bruhl) that
represented the Other as primitive and, to some extent, irrational or
pre-logical* It is not a question for Evans-Pritchard that the Other
might be irrationak the job of the ethnographer is to reveal the
rationality in the practices or beliefs of the Other.
Evans-Pritchard's approach is heir to both Franz Boas' and
Bronislaw MaIinowski's revolutions in anthropology. Like Boas, Evans-
Pritchard emphasizes the importance of language in cross-cultural
inquiry; like Malinowski, he takes a functionalist approach to explaining
the beliefs and practices of the Other.' Despite an acknowledged element
of' subjectivity in social inquiry, his functionalist leanings allowed h i m to
maintain the idea that the anthropologist could b e a neutral observer in
another culture, Evans-Pritchard is conspicuously silent in regards to
his role in the British m10n.ization of Africa. H e mentions only in passing
that the Azande were gathered into settlements b y the British and
attaches no import to this fact as it might bear on his interpretation. He
is able to ignore the coloniaL context of his research because he

Robert Ulin suggests t3at there is an attempt t o pull away f r o r functionalist thought i n
Evans-Pritchardrs vork but that he is unable to break fror t h i s approach largely because of his role
i n British colonialisr. U1inrs claim is that British antbropologp necessarily rerained functionalist
because the main tenets of functionalisr are suited t o colonialisr ([Jlin 1984:18-21). Linguistic
anthropology, following Pranr Boas, tends to andenine ran1 of the p r a i s e s of functionalist analysis.
Thus, this dual influence creates a tension in Evans-Pritchardrs vork. I will return to this in
chapter four. 1 rill also address some of the relations betueen this style of representation and
doaination, evolationisr, and colonialism in chapters sir and seven.
m a i n t a i n s the functionalist assumption that the anthropologist can be a
neutral. objective observer not affected by political relations!
This combination of an emphasis on functional explanation with an
approach to fieldwork that involves careful and in-depth interpretation
of the beliefs of the Other creates considerable tension in Evans-
Pritchard's work: this has, itself, generated debate and precipitated a
later crisis in anthropology. W e Evans-Pritchard focused on the
beliefs of the Other as they function in their original context, he
presumed that such a amtext muld be readily explicated in terms of
our own scientific understanding. A t the same time, Evans-Pritchard
challenges the goal of objectivism in anthropology by acknowledging the
subjective dimension of ethnography?
The consequence of this theoretical tension in Evans-Pritchard's
work is that he sometimes po-ays the O t h e r as seen from their context
and other times as seen from ours, H e sometimes treats representation
as an objective matter and other times as hopelessly perspectival. The
apparent incompatibility of these consequences brings into question the
larger issue of the nature of anthropology's relation to the Other.
Differences between anthropological and philosophical
interpretations of Zande beliefs are, to a great extent, a product of
these underlying tensions in Evans-Pritchard's work combined w i t h
substantial differences between the two disciplines concerning how the
beliefs of others are translated and assessed. The philosophers who

Mary Douglas atteapts t o explain many of the detaiIs o f uitch accusations among the Arande
alinost entirely as a result of British intervention and of t h i s crouding caused bp the settlerents.
According t o Dougias, t h i s forced proxirity of reabers of Xande society strained the rules of
( ~ i g o o o s )social relations resulting in an increase in such accusations (Douglas 1970:xxxv,
1980:59). Eva Gillies, i n the introduction t o the 1976 abridged version of Hitchcraft, Oracles, and
Magic, provides a quite detailed history of British colonialisr i n North Africa and the changes that
took place i n Xande culture a s a d i r e c t result. this historical and political analpsis contrasts with
the absence of any such discussion i n Evans-Pritchardls noticeably ahistorical account,
This subjectirity, houever, functions a t the personal rather than cultural level. Evans-
Pritchard acknowiedges t h a t the ethnographer has particular concerns that will shape the l i n e of
questioning and investigation. It remains possible however, according to Brans-Pritchard, for the
ethnographer t o overcome the confines of t h e i r o m culture. Ethnographr appears as a dialogue between
an individual person and another culture rather than a dialogne between tuo individuals o r between tuo
made use of examples taken from Evans-Pritchard's studies generally
focus on two m a i n features of 7;mde belief in magic- The first is the
pervasiveness of their belief in magic: Evans-Pritchard says "there is
no niche or corner of 7nnde culture into which (witchcraft) does not
twist itselfw (Evans-Pritchard 1937:18). T h e second is the logic according
to which the relevant beliefs are related and justified- According to
Evans-Pritchard, the Azande routinely fail t o recognize the l o g i d
conclusions of their beliefs, These include failing to see the implications
of the relation between two beliefs, failing to see the inefficacy of
certain practices, and failing to identify the ways in which their beliefs
run contrary to experience. A s such, it appears that both Zande logic
and ontology differ so r a d i d y from our own that one might have a
great deal of difficulty holding that they think rationally, to any
substantial degree, or that their beliefs are similar enough to our own
that the project of translation could ever get off the ground- Yet,
Evans-Pritchard has presumably given detailed translations and
explanations of their beliefs.
In what follows, I will re-evaluate what Evans-Pritchard actually
achieved in his study of Zande witchcraft. Rather than assessing the
beliefs of the Azande in terms of coherence, correspondence to reality
or rationality, I will d r a w attention to the changes in meaning and
conceptual connections that become distorted in translation and how this
affects (and renders extraneous) assessments of rationality. Philosophers
who make use of Evans-PritchardTs study often cite one key passage
that contains what appears to be a glaring violation of Western patterns
of reasoning and then quickly move on to discuss the implications of
such failure to reason properly in relation to a particular theory of
translation or rationality, IQ order to understand just how the Other is
represented or what is translated between cultures (whether in single
passages or complete ethnographies), it will be illuminating to
systematically wmpare the ways in which members of Zande and of
Western culture treat the concept of witcbcraffs
Zande W i t c h c r a f t

O n the first page of Witchcraft, Omcles, and Magic among the

Azande, Evans-Pritchard comments on the ease with which one
encounters witchcraft in Zande society.

1 had no difficulty in discovering w h a t Azande think about

witchcraft, nor in observing what they do to combat it. These
ideas and actions are on the surface of their Life and are
accessible to anyone who lives for a f e w weeks in their
homesteads. Every Zande is an authority on witchcraft. There is
no need to consult specialists. There is not even need to question
Azande about it, for information flows freely from recurrent
situations in their social Life. and one has only to watch and
listen. Mangu, witchcraft, was one of the first words I heard in
Zandeland, and 1 heard it uttered day b y day throughout the
months. (Evans-Pritchard 1937:l)

It is clear from the very beginning that there is at least one very
important difference between Western and Z a n d e witchcraft= there is
nothing marginal or secretive about Zande witchcraft- It is not a
deviation from standard modes of behavior as it is in the W e s t but,
rather, an integral part of everyday Life, This needs to be made clear so
that one can keep in mind that the beliefs that Evans-Pritchard is
attempting to translate and explain are not deviant esoteric beliefs
outside the frame of everyday We, but everyday beliefs that constitute
the foundational framework for understanding even the simplest

This is worth bearing i n rind when assessing the viability of a bridgehead theory. It is not
clear that one i s in a position to first try t o master beliefs pertaining to simple a p i r i c a l natters
before roving on to coapler retaphysical ones or that the ethnographer might be able to distingnish
betueen these tuo types. In Zande culture, the tuo are intenixed. In other uotds, it does not seer to
be the case that there is a separate set of pnrely a p i r i c a l beliefs which ritual beliefs stand apart
fro1 or snpervene upon.
I t i s also worth ref Iecting on the debate betueen HoIlis/lakes and Barnes/Bloor over language
learning. It i s not clear, i n this case, that the ewographer is a t leisure to separate basic from
ritual beliefs and f i r s t concentrate on the foner. Uhile Evans-Pritcbard relates very l i t t l e
concerning the process of coning to understand the Azande, be irplies that one learns to use the
concepts paicklg (whether basic or retaphpsical) and then later addresses the finer details of
meaning. Evans-Pritchard coments:
Evans-Pritchard identifies a number of ways in which the word
Mangu is used, t w o of which are important here- First, the t e r m may
refer to a wwitchcraft-substancecen The Zande believe that witchcraft
emanates from a material substance found in (or near) the stomach of a
person capable of using witchcraft. This substance may be diswvered
b y a post-mortem examination of the person suspected of being a witch,
Second, Mangu may refer to the w i t c h c r a f t emanated by this substance.
This is a psychic power which goes out from the body in order to
perform its deed- Witchcraft always acts in this way, by traveling to the
person or property it is to act upon, It usually travels at night in the
form of a b r i g h t light.
Witchcraft is inherited through unilinear descent. Any son of a
male witch is a witch; any daughter of a female witch is a witch! For
the most part, inheritance is the only way that one can come to possess
this witchcraft substance! It is only possible for someone to practice
witchcraft if they possess this substance inside of them. It is not,
however, the case that one who possesses this substance necessarily
practices witchcraft. The substance can remain dormant or wcool,
making it ineffective.

Azande were talking- about vitchcraft daily, both a m g theaselves and to re; any corrunication
was well-nigh irpossible unless one took witchcraft for granted. (Evans-Pritchard 1937:244)
Yhile certainly not t h e f i r s t concept one is going t o f u l l y understard, it cannot be separated
from the i n i t i a l encounter and then dealt with later. The ateanings of basic personal interactions, as
well as simple interpretations of realitp, are intirately linked to beliefs in witchcraft and must
take their meanings in t h i s context.
This belief is a specific instance of a m e general belief concerning inheritance of
traits. In "Sadan KotesIw Evans-Pritchard gives an accoant of the rather conpler theory behind the
passing on of t r a i t s fror the parent to the child. A child's gender, amng other things, is determined
by which parent's s p i r i t o r soul (bisiro) i s stronger. This is in conformitp uith (and supports) the
belief that ranga is passed on through gender lines. (%vans-Pritchard l W b :165-6). Yitchcraft is
passed on with bisi'o and also acts as disim hence is consistently related through the multiple
leanings of t h i s concept (see also Evans-Pritchard 1937:2 f o r a shorter account).
The third definition of Mddqa, uhich I have omitted, is a s a reference t o 'uitchcraft-
phlega.~itchdoctors and sorcerers can, bp taking the appropriate medicines, create sorething like
the witchcraft substance i n themselves for the puposes of perfoning magic. I o r i t this reference
because it is not involved i n any of the asuallp cited contradictions and it does not play the s u e
role in everyday life t h a t t h e inherited witchcraft substance does.
Almost any unfortunate event in Zande Life can be attributed to the
intervention of witchcraft. Ill-health, the failure of crops, an
unsuccessful hunting expedition, even the cracking of a piece of pottery
when put to the fire are a l l attributed to the intervention of witchcraft,
A s such, Azande are constanffy a w a r e of the possibility of witchcraft
affecting any endeavor, and are always trying to identify the situations
in which it will intervene as well as trying to combat it.
Whether or not witchcraft is responsible for a particular mishap is
determined by consulting any of a number of oracles. The types of
oracles rank in a hierarchy according to their accuracy and
dependability, The most important of these is the "poison oracle." This
oracle is consulted b y putting a question or the name of a suspected
witch in front of a fowl (chicken) that has been forced to swallow
beage, a potion made from indigenous plants. The fowl will then either
live or die in order to indicate a positive or negative response to the
question. E v e r y appeal to the poison oracle is double checked by
administering benge to a second fowl and asking it to confirm t h e
verdict of the first by asking the same question in the negative form.
This is to safeguard against benge too strong or too weak.
Predictions made by the oracle are not a l w a y s vindicated, and the
Azande are aware that t h e s e pronouncements do not always mincide with
other verdicts or with experience, The first a n d seamd tests m a y
contradict one another or an oracle may determine that a certain state
of affairs wilL come about w h i c h d o e s not. These contradictions however,
do not lead the Zande to question the veracity of the oracle itself-
There are a number of acknowledged ways in which the oracle might be
interfered with.? The apparent failure of one m y s t i d belief is fully
accounted for by appeal to other mystical beiiefs. Evans-Pritchard

- - --

Evans-Pritcbard lists eight: '(1) the urong variety of poison rap have been gathered, (2)
breach of a taboo, (3) witchcraft, (4) anger of the owners of the forest where the creeper grows (the
source of benge), (5) age of the poison, (6) anger of the ghosts, (71 sorcery, (8) asen (Evans-
Pritchard 1937:155).
A s w e may w e l l imagine, the oracle frequently kills both fowls or
spares both fowIs, and this would prove to u s the futility of the
whole proceeding. But it proves the opposite to the Azande. They
are not surprked at mntradictions; they expect them- Paradox
though it be, the errors as w e l l as the valid judgments of the
oracle prove to them its infallibility. T h e fact that the oracIe is
wrong when it is interfered with by some mystical power shows
how accurate are its judgments when these powers are acluded.
(Evans-Pritchard 1937:155)

Azande more often consult other less m t l y and time consuming

oracles, such a s the rubbing-board or t e r m i t e s oracles. These, however,
are not considered r&bIe enough to w a r r a n t action against an
identified witch and are only used either as a preliminary amsultation
before putting some question before the poison oracle or in order to
determine some course of action in less i m p o r t a n t matters.
This short account of Zande witchcraft summarizes the aspects of
Zande belief that gave rise to the apparent inconsistencies so widely
cited in the rationality debates. Azande generally hold that there are
only two ways to identify a witch (boro mangu). Again, the first is by
verdict of the poison oracle, the second by a post-mortem investigation
in which witchcraft substance is found. Given their beIiefs concerning
the inheritance of witchcraft, w e would think that there ought to be a
third way. Evans-Pritchard states:

To our minds it appears evident that if a man is proven a witch

the whole of his clan are i p s 0 f a d o witches, since the Zande clan
is a group of persons related biologically to one another through
the male line- Azande see tbe sense of this argument but they do
not accept its conclusions, and it would involve the whole notion
of witchcraft in contradiction were they to do so. In practice they
regard only those close paternal kinsman of a known witch as
witches. It is only in theory that they extend the imputation to all
a w i t c h ' s clansmen. If in the eyes of the world payment for
homicide by witchcraft stamps the kin of a guilty man as witches,
a post-mortem in which no witchcraft substance is discovered in a
m a n clears his paternal kin of suspicion, Here again w e might
reason that if a man be found by post-mortem immune from
witchcraft-sub-- all his clan must also be immune, but Azande
do not act as though they w e r e of this opinion. (Evans-Pritchard
Not only do the Azande fail to extend accusation to a declared
w i t c b ' s kin, they do not even seem to express a wncem w i t h keeping
track of someone who has already been identified as a witch, After a
case has been solved in which the offending person claims to have no
knowledge of the fact they w e r e using witchcraft on anyone and the
customary apologies are made, neighborly W e c=an resume as before.
While it would seem that the verdict of the poison oracle o r the
possession of witchcraft substance makes one who is a witch (and one's
kin) a witch for all time, Azande are not concerned to keep track of who
h a s been accused of witchcraft m d who has not, In fact, at one time or
another, nearly everyone is accused of witchcraft. Someone may be
identified. by the-verdict of the poison oracle, to have performed
witchcraft, and then exonerated b y post-mortem (being found to lack the
substance and hence incapable of w i t c h c r a f t ) . In this and other
instances, although it is claimed that the poison oracle never lies, it is
found to reach a verdict contrary to other consultations or sometimes
conwary to experience. 8
It is not the case that the Azaode entirely fail to see the
contradictions that Evans-Pritchard has presumably identified between
their beliefs, They either, for pragmatic reasons, fail to care about the
inconsistencies, or they explain them by reference to other beliefs-
Concerning the identified inconsistency b e t w e e n ideas about witchcraft
inheritance and the failure to identify related witches based on this
knowledge, E v a n s - P r i t c h a r d points out the following:

Azande do not perceive the contradiction as w e perceive it

because they have no theoretical interest in the subject, and

This refusal to acknowledge the inconsistent irplications of holding these tuo particular
beliefs sinultaneonsly is greatly exaggerated in the critical l i t e r a t a r e on the l a t t e r , and possibly
even, elsewhere, by Evaas-Pritchard hirself. It is clear that the h a n d e do not r i s h t o rake the
ilaplied belief part of their explicit belief system, yet thep often a c t i n a ray that indicates the
acceptance of the irplicatioa. In W d a n Kotes,Vvans-Pritchard relates a n1lrbe.r of accounts of the
autopsies performed in search of ranqn. The living relatives present a t the operation clearly
acknowledge that they rill be irplicated o r exonerated by the findings (Evans-Pritchard 1929b:237-
241). It is only concerning distant blood relatives that the connection is not generally rade. The
distant biological connection is easf to disriss as llaande will often claim that an accused distant
kinsman i s a bastard (Evans-Pritcbard 1937:3). The connection is only partially ignored and can be
explainably disaissed.
those situations in which they express their beliefs in witchcraft
do not force the problem upon them.. . A 7ande is interested in
witchcraft only as an agent on definite occasions and in relation
to his own interests, and not as a permanent condition of
individuals, (Evans-Pritchard 1937:4)

A partial explanation for this lack of interest in constructing a

permanent catalogue of witches is found in the concept of mangu itself.
Witchcraft. for the Zande, is less a "state of being" and more an
Evans-Pritchard emphasizes that the nature of this concept
makes concern over mangu more present and pragmatic than permanent
and theoretical,

The concept of witchcraft is not that of an impersonal force that

may become attached to persons but of a personal force that is
generalized in speech,.,, Zande interest is not in witches as such-
that is to say, the static condition of being a possessor of
witchcraft- but only in witch activity.,. A person who has
bewitched a m a n is not viewed by him ever afterwards as a witch
but only at the time of the misfortune he has caused and in
relation to these special conditions, (Evans-Pritchard 1937:13.48)

The static condition of being a witch is uninteresting because a

person can possess the substance and fail to use it (if it is dormant).
In addition, the Zande are not, except in the case of deatb, interested in
taking legal action against a witch, They are interested in the source of
the witchcraft only so that they can ask that it be discontinued in the
particular case, A Zande accepts that there are w i t c h e s a l l around him;
he is only interested in the one that is casting the spell that is causing
the present inconvenience. T h e goal is to rectify the situation, not to
identify and accuse the witch, T h e concern is with the activity, not the

The apparent contradiction is, thus, a product not of the Zande concept boro #anqu, but of
the difference between boro aangu and Because being a witch is a deviant condition in
Christian/Scientific society, persecutors are concerned with the state of being a witch. As discwed,
Zande witchcraft i s not deviant. It is so comon that one could, for practical reasons, only be
concerned to protect oneself i n particular situations. It would be inconceivable to eradicate witches
fror the society as was the Christian goal i n the West. Given the different social relations
S U K K O M witchcraft,
~ ~ ~ ~ it rakes perfect sense t o ignore the condition and concentrate an the
In each of the cases considered above, the apparent inconsistencies
disappear when the larger conW and related beliefs are taken into
account. Hence, while it may b e possible to identify inconsistencies in
Zande thought by consideration of a few isolated propositions, detailed
consideration of the larger system of beliefs suggests that it is not the
case that these are potential inconsistencies for the Zande. The
appearance of blatant inconsistencies is Iargely a product of the ways in
which these examples are made use of in the philosophical Literature.
They are not, strictly speaking, inconsistent in Evans-Pritchard's
account When the examples are cited out of context, however, without
the filling in that Evans-Pritchard is so careful to provide, the Zande
can only seem irrational,

Consistency and Explanation

As I have indicated, the primary reason why philosophers mmmonly

appeal to Zande witchcraft practices and beliefs is the apparent internal
inconsistency b e t w e e n some of these beliefs as well as what most critics
see as an incompatibility between these beliefs and experience. In fact,
if Zande beliefs are considered in the context of a full, detailed
ethnography they are exonerated of the charges of blatant irrationaIity,
even while they may not emerge as perfectly consistent b y Western
standards. Many Zande beliefs are represented as coherent or
understandable b y providing sociological explanations accounting for
their functions in the broader context of Zande life.
Should it b e a requirement of any belief system (or its translated
representation) that it be perfectly consistent? There are countless
studies that show that w e commonly hold contradictory beliefs or fail to
adhere to the implications of our beliefs (see esp. Stich 1991:l-54,
Nisbett & Ross 1980, Tversky & Wmeman 1983)- Within philosophy, Fred
Dretske (among others) has suggested that it is not uncommon to fail to
recognize the implications of all of our beliefs. Mary Douglas notes, as
well, that the idea that everyday thinking will contain no contradictions
is simply mistaken. As Horton pointed out in his analysis of the criteria
of academic inter-school theory warfare, w e do not, in everyday life,
seek to purge our belief system of contradictions; that activity is
largely an academic one, Douglas suggests that "one would expect
metaphysical assumptions inevitably to involve contradiction if
transferred to superficial levels of explanationw (Douglas 1980:llS). The
degree of inconsistency that remains in the belief system of the Zande,
after a more careful reading af Evans-Pritchard's representation of their
beliefs, is no greater than what one might expect to find in a careful
and in-depth analysis of the belief systems of most Americans whose
beliefs have not been carefully tested for lack of need or discipline.
Malcolm Crick relates beliefs involving witchcraft to these
observations concerning the idea that belief systems might not b e held
to strict standards of logical consistency. No natural language, he
observes, is a homogeneous structure. There are, in every language,
different modes of discourse that appeal to distinct criteria of evidence
and consistency. In our own culture, he cites specifically the discourses
of ethics and law, suggesting that "our own Iegal notions operate by not
following up certain lines of investigationn (Crick 1976:356).1° The rules
of formal logic simply do not apply unconditionally to anyone's entire
belief system. It is only b y failing to reflect on this condition of one's
own belief system that one might find it possible to arrange another's
beliefs as a series of propositions about reality and then test t h e m for
consistency. Tanya Luhrmann also criticizes the idea that any belief

Crick notes specifically the discrepancy between oar ideas of freedor and deterrinisr. It
i s generally accepted that a person's character i s shaped by influences beyond hislher control, pet we
hold t h a (legally) responsible for their actions. O u r legal notions depend on not resolving this
contradiction of the sort faronsly elaborated by John Hospers. Another exarple fror legal practice i s
the related issue between chance, accident and responsibility. Ye believe that there are accidents
that are uncontrollable, pet we act as though there i s always a responsible agent against which a
(monetary) clail can be made. The practice of rampant lawsuits in oar culture is no more consistent
with oar other beliefs than are Xande witchcraft beliefs with theirs. One could sap of Western justice
what Evans-Pritchard saps of Oande R U ~ E "Westerners (Azande) see the sense of this argruent bat thep
do not accept i t s conclusions, and it would involve the whole notion of jnstice (witchcraft) in
contradiction mere thep to do sou (Evans3ritchard lW:3),
It is interesting to note that this area of conflicting beliefs and practices in both caltores
centres around the issues of personal responsibility and chance. One right be harder pressed to find a
belief syster that consistently reconciles these issues than t o find one that elbraces such ainor
system must stand the test of strict consistency in her study of
witchcraft in England.

Magicians do not think through their understanding of magic in

axiomatic detail, nor do they test their concepts w i t h anything like
Popperian care- Nobody does- Even Popper described his account
of stringent falsification as a rational reconstruction, the
scientist's ideal but not necessarily his practias.., The difficulty
is that people tend to interpret the behavior of other people on
the basis of the ideal models that they have of themselves, which
are far from empiricaI reality. That is, people tend to
conceptualize themselves as unitary selves, mherent and all-of-a-
piece. (Lubrmann 1989:123,307)

The concern w i t h belief system consistency is less the result of

reflection on actual belief systems than it is the product of a certain
style of investigation and a set of rational ideakmtions that academics
apply to other academics in their theoretical disputes with one another.
Academic theories are constructed sub-systems of general beliefs that
are designed to b e (among other things) Logically consistent. Such strict
criteria of consistency, while appropriate to a certain type of theory
competition, have the potential to reduce any natural belief system to
senselessness. When applied to natural W*ef systems (ours o r
another's), strict criteria of consistency o r rationality either make many
beliefs in that system appear irrational or require modification to the
extent that the concept of rationality becomes rather hollow. As Stanley
Jeyarqja Tambiab notes:

The danger is that w h e n every piece of symbolic behavior is

sought to be translated as a form of wproposition,wa translation
supposedly demanded by the notion of "rationality," then either
the translation process resorts to various transformational
"fictionswwhich may be as contrived as they are unconvincing, or
the notion of propositional rationality itself is so weakened until it
becomes a minimalist claim that is more vacuous than illuminating,
(Tambiah 1990:129)

Every natural belief system contains aurdliary explanations that,

locally, cover up or explain away logical inconsistencies. A lengthy,
detailed ethnography is an investigation into the conceptual connections
that reveal a sociologicaI consistency by foregrounding some of these
auxiliary explanations. Evans-Pritchard takes great care to explicate and
contextualize Zande beliefs for the expressed purpose of reveaLing a
kind of explanatory coherence. While Zande reasoning differs
dramatically from our own, it is not any less consistent in practiw

I: hope that I have persuaded the reader of one thing, namely, the
intellectual consistency of Zande notions- They only appear
inconsistent when ranged Like lifeless museum objects. When w e
see how an LndividuaL uses them w e may say that they are
m y s t i d but w e cannot say that his use of t h e m is illogical or
even that it is uncritical, I had no difficulty using W d e notions
as Aande themselves use them. Once the idiom is Iearnt the rest
is easy, for in Zandeland one mystical idea follows on another as
reasonably as one common-sense idea follows on another in our
own society. (Evans-Pritchard 1937222)

The academic method that analyzes ideas "ranged like lifeless

museum objectswdivorces these ideas from their context and hence their
meaning in that broader explanatory system, Fundamental conceptual
differences go unnoticed when statements are treated propositionally,
awareness of which would lend some credence to, or a t least a deeper
understanding of, the beliefs of the Other. These conceptual connections
become intuitive for Evans-Pritchard "once the idiom is learnt," It is
through detailed and broad-ranging reflection on this "idiomwor way of
confronting the world that the Other begins to emerge as coher-t.
Reflection on differences in the way belief systems carve and
categorize reality illustrates the importance of the ethnographic aspect
of translating beliefs. For instance, the Azande are not ignorant of what
w e take to be natural causation, it is simply that they do not
distinguish it from other kinds of causation in the way that Westerners
do- When a Zande falls ill, a doctor will be summoned to administer
medicine that does have a natural causal effect (by Western standards)
on the illness, The Azande have knowledge of a wide range of medicines
with which to treat illness, They are also very proficient at identifying
the type of illness according to symptoms. The difference is that the
medicine is not the only or even the most important cause of a person's
recovery. The medicines must be administered in a ritualistic fashion if
they are to work properly and, the medicine works not b y fighting the
iUness within the person, but by warding off the witchcraft that is the
cause of that illness. Likewise, the Azande know when and how to plant
crops in order to m a k e them grow. They concern t h e m s e l v e s with magic
in such matters in order to prevent outside interference- Witchcraft
works more to prevent interference in the natural course of things than
it does to change a state of the world.'' Hence, mystical notions do not
replace natural ones, they work in conjunction with them. It is part of
the Western beIief system, not theirs, that sees natural and mystical
explanations as opposed, In fact, Azande do not make the distinctions
that we do between the natural and the super-natural nor between the
moral and the physical. This weaving of categories that W e s t e r n ontology
arranges as oppositional dichotomies puts Zande witchcraft beliefs
beyond the purview of a materialistic Logic that w a s only ever intended
to apply to half of each opposition. Evans-Pritchard is aware that the
Zande "idiom" of thought is neither in conjunction with nor in
opposition to Western thought.12

This i s another difference between the use of Zande rangu and Western witchcraf t that often
goes unnoticed. The standard empiricist challenge ta witchcraft beliefs is that they rake c l a i ~ s
(against experience) to be able to (psychically) affect the world. The consistencp probler arises when
one encounters an abundance of cases where a ritual is perforred intending to bring about a specific
effect, and that effect does not arise. This problem i s seldor present i n the function of Zande ra~qa.
The intention of consulting oracles is lost often to avoid interference fror other uitchcraft. That
is, ipstical rethods are used to conbat rpstical forces. Hence, there is scldor e q i r i c a i evidence to
the contrary. Also, rost action taken to avoid witchcraft involves refraining fror a certain activity
when it i s predicted that there w i l l be sore disaster. Since a Xande never acts against the verdict of
the poison oracle, the counter condition is never pat to the test. The question, often stated in
conditional f o n , can never be false since prediction of the interference of witchcraft precludes one
from realizing the antecedent condition. Hence, there is seldor erpirical or logical counter-evidence.
Tanya Luhraann discusses conterporary witchcraft beliefs in England and suggests that
Uestern practitioners, likevise, hold their beliefs in conjunction with, rather than in opposition to,
aodern scientific beliefs about reality (lahnann 1989:57). Kystical beliefs are not intended to stand
up to the test of a scientific style of hnothesis testing or verification theory and the application
of sach criteria rust necessarily distort those beliefs. Sirilarly, in the case of fande raagu, sach
beliefs perfom different functions i n a different idior of thought and, as sach, are not arenable to
the kinds of testing procedures ckaracteristic of Yestern science.
Rather than arguing tor ragic as a persuasive account of physical reality, magicians tend to
explain uhy the nonal criteria of truth-testing do not apply t o ragic. Then, they justify
Hence w e see that witchcraft has its own logic, its own rules of
thought, and that these do not exclude natural causation. Belief in
witchcraft is quite consistent w i t h human responsibility and a
rational appreciation of nature. To u s supernaturaL means very
much the same as abnormal or extraordinary. Azande certainly
have no such notions of reality. They have no conceptions of
"naturalw as we understand it, and therefore neither of the
"supernaturalw w e understand it. (Evans-Pritchard 1937=30)

Mary Douglas points out that witchcraft, for the Azande, provides
extended explanations that fulfill functions s b p l y not found in Western
thought. 'It attempts to provide answers for queSfi*ons that Westerners
simply do not ask. She characterizes a specific type of inquiry as
involving "the ego-focused question of w h y any particular mishap
should fall upon m e particuhrlyW(Douglas 1980:51). The Azande require
an explanation beyond that of chance or arbitrary circumstance to
explain why a particular mishap should happen a t a particular place and
time and why certain individuals should b e involved, When this sort of
question is asked in Western culture, it usually has no answer. When it
does, it too is mystical or religious.
Given this extended explanatory function, there is also a sense in
which Zande ideas about maagu perform a function similar to (but richer
than) our notions of misfortune or bad luck. The Azande appeal to
witchcraft in order to both explain misfortune as well as provide a
socially proscribed way of responding to it. They are, again, capable of
explaining the occurrence of an unfortunate event by appeal to the
natural conditions that made that event possible but they also seek to
explain further wnditions that w e would be inclined to attribute to
chance (a concept that doesn't explain much), Evans-Pritchard suggests,

They did nat a t t e m p t to account for the erdstence of phenomena,

or even the action of the phenomena, by mystical causation alone.

their involverent on the grounds of its spiritualitp, its freedom, i t s aesthetic beauty and so
forth. (Luhrrann 1989:283)
Guhraann suggests that ranp Western practitioners entertain such beliefs not because they
disagree with scientific beliefs, but because they find them incomplete. The Azande share this
What they explained b y witchcraft w e r e the particular conditions
in a chain of causation which related an individual to natural
happenings in such a w a y that he sustained injury* (Evans-
Pritchard 1937:Zl)

A Zande m a y attribute the fact that a piece of pottery cracks when

put to the fire to the presence of a stone i
n the clay. Be or she knows
that the stone is what caused the pot to crack. But, this stone somehow
managed to remain in the clay even though they took great care to
make sure there were none- Witchcraft is not appealed to every time
disaster occurs, but only in the cases where all necessary skills were
exercised and precautions taken and disaster follows anyway (Evans-
Pritchard 1929b:187)- This p a r t of the explanation would be attributed to
witchcraft. An example in Evans-Pritchard's account (that goes largely
ignored in the rationality debates) of the Zande need to extend
explanation into the realm of chance, concerns the collapse of a granary
(Evans-Pritchard 1937:22-3). This example clearly shows the
interwoveness between what are considered, in the W e s t , two different
(incompatible) sorts of explanation. The Zmde are fully aware that
granaries wllapse due to old age and termite damage. Often people sit
under granaries to escape the sun and may be hurt when they collapse.
The extended explanation seeks to account for what w e take to be
coincidence--namely, why the granary collapsed at the specific time that
specific people were sitting under it- It is thiS co-incidence of events
that is attributed to ~itchcraft.'~ Again. the natural and supernatural
mesh together to offer a full explanation of the event-
In light of these applications, Zande belief in witchcraft might be
better characterized as sharing a great deal w i t h religious beliefs in
Western culture. In the case of illness, a religious believer might count
on both the use of medicine as well as the intenrention of a god and
exhibit certain ritualistic behaviors (like praying) in conjunction with,

The Zande verb that Evans-Pritchard translates as Yo bewitchn is no, also reaning a to
shootE (Evans-Pritchard 1937:13). "Arande always say of ritchcraft that it is the cubaga or &ond
spearVEvans-Pritchard 1937:25).Thus, the Amde distinguish between the 'first spears (what we
would call the natural causes) and the "second spear8 [~ritchcraft).Together, these act to bring about
a certain, fully explainable, state of affairs.
and not necessarily apart from, the use of natwabtfc methods of
healing. Success in any endeavor will be attributed to buth, This
important similarity between Zande witchcraft and Western religion adds
mother dimension to the meaning of the concept boro man43~z.~~ There
are those, in every culture, who desire answers to questions that do not
admit of empirical investigation- One is often led to believe in
supernatural powers where there is no possibilim of a naturalistic
explanation, There is good reason to believe that the Azande appeal to
magical nations due to a deeper need to fully explain events than is
permitted b y nalamktic concepts. Westerners still appeal to God or
"fatewfor explanations that are no less metaphysical and n o more
logically consistent or empirically verifiable than Zande witchcraft
Hence, Zande notions of witchcraft do not preclude any
understanding of natural causation, but rather supplement explanations
that appeal to natural causes. Since the Azande do not distinguish two
kinds of causation, h o w e v e r , they do not see their explanations as
appealing in part to natural and in part to supernatural causes. They
see a l l of these things together acting as the complete explanation. The
mystical component is not a mere addition to untversal, rational beliefs
about natural causation, Evans-Pritchard notes that the Azande find it
unusual that w e do not appeal to witchcraft in our explanations. It
appears to t h e m as if w e are not capable of explaMng events as fdly
as they do.''

In addition to further f i l l i n g out oar understanding of the concept, this farther dirension
cornprorises the accuracy of t h e translation: bozo ranqu = 'witch.' Supernatural explanations that
appeal t o god are widespread and generally acceptable to Uesterners, d i k e supernatural explanations
t h a t appeal to witchcraft. Phis translational difficulty rill be further investigated a t the end of
this chapter.
There is a sense i n which t h i s reshing of n a t ~ r a land r o r a l reasoning draws attention t o a
gap o r possible inconsistency i n Western thought. There is a long history of (Iargelp unsuccessful)
atterpts t o reconcile naturaI with roral phifosophp i n the Vest--a gap t h a t is rather gracefullr
bridged i n Zande thought.
The Veracity of m d e BeUefs

The functional and oonceptual subtieties of Zande witchcraft beliefs,

discussed above, have important implications for understanding their
belief system, It is dear that Evans-Pritchard takes care to show that
Zande beliefs about witchcraft are not c o m p r o m i s e d by blatant internal
inconsistency. Even so, he is not so sympathetic when it come to
assessing t r u t h claims. Even though the Azande are not unusudy
inconsistent, they are, accordhg to Evans-Prftchard. just wrong about
the nature of redity. Evans-Pritchard arrives at this conclusion not by
judging the internal wherence of the Zande belief system, but by
judging the truth value of their s n&& by appeal to the external
criteria of Western scientific ontology.16 H e seems to have held these
two issues entirely separate and, in this he clearly adheres to an
"asymmetry thesisn of explanation like that endorsed by Hollis and
Lukes (discussed in chapter one). Hollis' claims of affiliation w i t h Evans-
Pritchard's approach to explanation is justified (at least on this issue)

In addition to corrents quoted above, Evans-Pritchard rakes rany similar couents that
either flatly s t a t e o r clearIp irplp that the Arande are plain urong about r e a l i t p t h a t their
beliefs, while consistent, do not correspond t o anything:
.... since witchcraft has no real existence.. . (1937:43),
I, too, used t o react to misfortune i n the idiom of witchcraft, and it was often an effort to
check this lapse into unreason (1937:45),
(as opposed t o bzande) Ye rake every effort to rid ourselves of, o r elude, a risfortune by our
knowledge of the objective conditions which cause it (1937:65).
Ye ray ask why comon sense does not triarph over s~perstition(1937:108).
Witchcraft is not real, but an iraginary process (1929b:214).
Host notable, i n Evans-Pritchard's trenty-two reasons rhp "brande do not perceive the futility of
their #agic"l937:201-204}, i s 117: hande do not possess srrfficient knowledge to understand the real
causes of things.
Evans-Pritchard relates only one story i n which it appears that he witnesses an event that can
only be explained by Zande beliefs. Yitchcraft, according t o the Zande, usually travels a t night
emitting a bright light. Evans-Pritchard begins the story of having seen such a light, 'I have only
once seen witchcraft on its path. ...'
He f a i l s t o discover any natural source of this light and
learns, the next day, that the inhabitant of a nearby hut, where the Iight had gone to, had died.
Yhile acknowledging the accord between the events and Zande beliefs, Evans-Pritchard prefers to hold
that this event was never really explained. (Evans-Pritchard 1937:ll)
inasmuch as one finds the same implicit distinction in Evans-Pritchard's
work that was made explicitly by Hollis-

Witches, as the Azande conceive them, clearly cannot exist.,,.

(of Zande witchdoctors) Here, as everywhere, w e are confronted
w i t h the same tangle of knowledge and error.,,. And yet Azande do
not see that their oracles tell them nothing! Their blindness is
not due to stupidity: they reason excellently in the idiom of their
beliefs, but they m o t reason outside, or against, their beliefs
because they have no other idiom in which to express their
thoughts. (Evans-Pritchard 1937=18,117,159)

Evans-Pritchard's Azande, Eke Horton's subjects, seem to b e stuck

on what Horton called the "cosmic palm treem (fmt 4, p.31). They reason
effectively w i t h i n a particular belief system, but that belief system
somehow precludes any deeper understanding of objective reality. In
this passage, the affiliation between Harton and Evans-Pritchard is
clear: Evans-Pritchard attributes to the Western mind a unique ability
because of its methodology and openness, to grasp an independently
existing reality, something the Zande mind is presumably incapable of.
The tension inherent in a representation that simultaneously
translates the beliefs of the Other as consistent but judges them to be
false results from the cross-cultural appIication of specific verifying
procedures and concepts. Appendix I: of W i f c h c r a f t , Oracles aod Magi"
contains a list of definitions of b d h Zmde words as well as words or
expressions that Evans-Pritchard bas used to describe or assess ;r;lnde
beliefs. H e often uses the categories mystical," "common-sense, and
"scientific notionw to describe these beliefs. His definitions reveal this
tendency to re-categorize Zande thought b y Western standards.

MYSTICAL NOTIONS. These are patterns of thought that attribute

to phenomena supra-sensible qualities which, or part of which, are
not derived from observation or cannut be logically inferred from
it, and which they do not possess. (Evans-Pritchard 1937:229)
(italics mine),

Also, in Evans-Pritchard's list of 22 reasons "why Azande do not

perceive the futiIity of their magicw (Evans-Pritchard 1937:201-204) there
are a number of references to the differences between what the Azande
cite as causes and what are the "real causeswof phenomena. Again, it is
clear that Evans-Pritchard is concerned to demonstrate the coherence of
Zande beliefs from within the frame of their language, but clearIy
judges those beliefs according to criteria from his own context. In fact,
he acknowledges this ( w i t h qualification) when justifying his terminology
for categorizing Zande beliefs. According to Evans-Pritchard, use of the
expression "scientific notionsw is necessary not m u s e the Zmde have
scientific notions which need to be identified ("they have none, or
f e w w ) , but rather, because this is necessary for assessing the credibility
of their beliefs.

The term is introduced because w e need a judge to whom w e can

appeal for a decision when the question arises w h e t h e r a notion
shall be classed as mystical or oommon sense. O u r body of
scientific knowledge and Logic are the sole arbiters of what are
mystical, common-sense, and scientific notions, Their judgments
are never absolute. (Evans-Pritchard 1937:229)

Evans-Pritchard is aware that his own belief system does not mesh
w e l l w i t h that of the Zande. He seems to hold, however, that he is not
trapped in his own language and belief system in the way that the
Azande are. That is, he is capable, because d the mncepts he
possesses, of jumping back and forth between belief systems, whereas
they are not, He is capable of judging content against reality, whereas
they are not. They are hopelessly trapped in their web of (largely false)

In this web of belief every strand depends on every other strand,

and a Zande cannot get out of its meshes because this is the only
world he knows. The web is not an external structure in which he
is enclosed. It is the textwe of his thought and he cannot think
that his thought is wrong. (Evans-Pritchard 1937:109)

This observation appeals to the distinction between closed and open

societies w h i c h Horton found so convincing in his earlier essay but later
rejected in response to c r i t i c i s m , What Horton comes to see (and Evans-
Pritchard did not) is the sense in which his own system of beliefs also
constrains thought* Western thought is viewed as different in kind from
Zande tbought; the coherence of the former is a by-product of truth or
its correspondence to reality. Evans-Pritchard's "22 reasonsw is an
attempt to explain the coherence of Zande thought io spite of its falsity
or lack of correspondence to reality,
The point I: wish to make in rehtion to these observations is not
that Zande beliefs should be taken as true, but that the reasons Evans-
Pritchard gives for judging them false rest on a relatively unreflective
and ethnocentric assessment procedure- Evans-Pritchard's care in
investigating the subtIeties of concept meaning and the relations among
beliefs that render t h e m coherent is altogether lacking w h e n he turns to
the project of judging the truth of those beliefs.
Michael Polanyi addresses the problem of comparing and assessing
belief systems but focuses, not on the coherence or reality
correspondence of any system, but on the aspects of any belief system
that render it sfable or defend it against external criticism. It is clear,
according to Polanyi, that Evans-Pritchard's "twenty-two reasonsw are
more an attempt to elucidate what he calls the "stabilityw (or s t a b i k i n g
features) of a system than its mnsistency. Polanyi suggests that every
belief system exhibits this self-preserving stability; every system of
thought has m e c h a n i s m s that defend it against possible contradictory
evidence.'' H e then endeavors to reveal aspects of Western thought
that display the same sort of defense against instability as does Zande
thought, O n this account, what Evans-Pritchard takes to b e a

Polanpi identifies thzee aspects of a spster that fortifp it against competing system.
These are, circularity, epicpclical structure, and suppressed nucleation. After showing how Evans-
Pritchard appeals to these aspects of any thought spster to explain how Xande thoaght can resist
change i n light of evidence, Polanpi shows how these same aspects operate within Yestern cheristry (as
an erarple) t o shor that:
The stability of the naturalistic spster rhich ue canentlp accept instead tests on the sue
. ..
logical structure.. (and). how, within scieace itself, the stabilitp of theories against
experience is raintained by epicyclical reserves rhich suppress alternative conceptions in the
gem. (Polanyi 1958:45?)
This analysis is another my of stating that uhat counts as a 'good reasonyor holding or
changing a belief or set of beliefs i s not an objective ratter bat rather depends on methods
sanctioned by that spster as well as context dependent criteria of uhat counts as evidence. Western
belief spstas are no less self-presening and self-verifying than Zande beliefs.
fundamental difference between scientific and traditional thought cannot
be maintained: Polanyi's analysis shows that every belief s y s t e m acts nut
only to support tbe beliefs contained ia it, but also to falsify those
external to it- This fortifying aspect of any belief system is embedded in
the concepts used to assess beliefs both foreign and domestic, The use
of categories like "mystical notion" and "scientific notionware deeply
theoretical products of our belief system- They stabilize beIiefs by
providing criteria by which to judge foreign beliefs false.
While Evans-Pritchard is f a r more charitable to Zande beliefs than
most of the philosophers who comment on his work, he nonetheiess,
embraces a "superiority thesis." This ethnocentric position is, at least in
part, a result of the assumption that the Literal translation of the beliefs
of the Other has been accomplished and that once translated, these
beliefs can be assessed using theory-laden Western concepts. H e does
not find it necessary to address the problem of the translation of
central concepts because of the belief that (from the quate a t the
heading of this chapter) "the facts w i U be the same without their
labels" (Evans-Pritchard 1937:229), His account clearly displays the
problem of translation by drawing attention, ethnographically, to the
many profound ways in which Zande mangu differs from Western
witchcraft, yet his assessment of the beliefs held by the Azande is
founded on a cross-linguistic appIication of concepts that must take
translation to be wproblematic.
Evans-Pritchard's failure to reflect on the Limitations of his own
language and belief system is tempered by periodic observations. Even
while implicitly holding that the categories of his own thought transcend
the CU1tural/Linguistic context, he often acknowledges that the problem
of understanding the Other is bi-directional and complicated by

L e t it be remembered that it is no less hard for Azande to

appreciate our ignorance and disbelief about the subject. I: once
heard a Zande say about us: "Perhaps in their muntry people are
not murdered by witches, but here they are." (Evans-Witchard
Evans-Pritchard notes a great deal of difficulty in expressing
objections to Zande in their language, Western critical concepts
do not translate gracefully into Zande and the objections themselves are
difficult to communicate. Attempted criticism often serves to justify their
beliefs rather than calling t h e m into question. In appendix IV, Evans-
Pritchard notes some of the problems encountered by missionaries when
they choose a native word to translate "God." H e reports that he has
"published a note on the near idiocy of English hymns translated into
Zandew (Evans-Pritchard l93RZ49). Translation, in either direction,
distorts the concepts translated, In order to appreciate the
precariousness of cross-cultural belief assessment, it will be helpful to
explicate the conceptual distortion that arises in translation by
investigating, in more detail, nat the Zande mncept of mangu but, as
importantly, the Western concept of witchcraft,

The Definition of W i t c h c r a f t

Although Evans-Pritchard acknowledges some difficulty in defining

or translating some of the key t e r m s h e uses in his ethnography, he
indicates little concern w i t h the definition of witchcraft. It appears that,
in spite of the differences he discusses, he holds that Zande mangu is
similar enough to witchcraft in the West to justify using the same label
for both. In fact, he implies that magic is roughly the same in any
context across time and culture:

Zande magic comprises the common characteristics of magic the

world over, rite, spell, ideas, traditions, and moral opinion
associated w i t h its use, taboo and other mnditions of the magician
and the rite- (Evans-Pritchard 1929b:163)

There is a wealth of literature investigating problems w i t h

assuming this cross-cultural uniformits of witchcraft beliefs. A majority
of the essays in Max Marwick's (ed.) Witchcraft and S~raery(1970). a
collection dedicated to the work of Evans-Pritchard, are focused
precisely on investigations into the various uses of this concept in both
Western and African societies.
Malcolm Crick, in his contribution to this collection, d r a w s attention
to what he feels m u s t remain important features of any analysis of
witchcraft across cultures, It is essential, according to Crick, to redhe
how it is that w e (modern Westerners) should come to be concerned with
investigating this particular practice in another culture. The history of
witchcraft beliefs in the West makes the investigation possible (because
w e possess the concept) but simultaneously creates the conditions for
the drastic distortion of this concept (again, because w e possess the

It is i m p o r t a n t to see that witchcraft may have become a separate

topic for anthropology because of its appearance in the history of
our own socl*ety. This occurrence, by supplying us with a ready
made term, would be sufficient to destroy those cautions w e
observe in the translation of culture in connections w i t h other
problems, (Crick 1970946)

It is not clear that Evans-Pritchard failed altogether to observe

caution in the use of the term; large sections of Witchcraft, Oracles aad
magic are dedicated to exploring differences between the function of
Zande mangu and Western witchcraft. Evans-Pritchard also relates mangu
to Western conceptions of luck, chance, jealousy, and an assortment of
concepts drawn from Western religion in order to d r a w attention to the
different roles the concept plays in explanation. Yet, in spite of these
precautions, the use of the word "witchcraft" in translation distorts
Evans-Pri'tchard's account for just the reasons that Crick suggests. The
beliefs of the Azande are assessed as witchcraft beliefs, Taking a
Wittgensteinian approach to language, C r i c k focuses attention on the
broader social context and the ways in which context influences
meaning. While, in his attempt to explain foreign practices, Evans-
Pritchard takes account of the larger context, in judging truth claims of
foreign beliefs, he does not. This is only possible if one supposes that
meaning has somehow crossed con- undistorted. The second p a r t of
Crick's discussion on the translation of witchcraft centers on this
EngIish witchcraft e t e d in a culture which possessed such
categories as "natural philosophyw and a theological system upon
which witch beliefs were partly parasitic. Great vioIence must be
done to the conceptual structures of another culture in speaking
of witchcraft if it lacks those environing categories which defined
it in our own. (Crick 1976:346)

Hildred Geertz also points out the ways in which Western witchcraft
is defined in opposition to normal thought in the West, She traces the
history of the use of the label in the West and shows how it is defined
negatively against religion and rationality- T h e context in which
witchcraft beliefs developed in the West was f i r s t in opposition to
Christian and then scientific beliefs. Witchcraft derives semantic
associations because of its oppositional role as wnot-religiousn or "not-
reasonablew or "not-practicaln (H. Geertz 1975:75), This negative,
oppositional semantic element is entirely lacking in the meaning of
mangu. Geertz suggests that these substantial differences in contextual
frameworks (and their internal, oppositional dichotomies) render concepts
Like mangu, soroka, and ngua (witchcraft, oracles, and magic)

Evans-Pritchard was trying to explore the inner mherence of a

complex system of ideas.., These English terms were adopted by
Evans-Pritchard for want of better translations of what he proves
to be untranslatable ideas. It is the systematic character of
Azande thought which makes it untranslatable. (H.Geertz 1975:84)

Like Geertz, Stanley Jema Tambia.begins analysis of foreign

frwitchcraft" beliefs by first tracing the history of the concept of
witchcraft in the West. Monotheistic Western religions as well as (and in
conjunction w i t h ) Western scientific reasoning place a "relentless ban on
magicv (Tambia.1990:7), defining it as irrational not in itself, but in
opposition to accepted styles of reasoning. This oppositional nature
becomes part of the meaning of the term "witchcraftn in the West.
The amtextual and functional differences between "witch" and boro
mangu are m a n i f e s t in yet another aspect of their respective
applications. There is not only this dramatic difference in the witch's
role in a particular social context, there is an existential difference
between the boro mangu and the witch. T h e Western w i t c h is (a state of
being): the Zande born mangu does (exercises a power).'B This explains
not only w h y the Azande are not concerned to keep track of witches,
but it also reveals the ways in which Western thought structures focus
more on attributes than activities, A materWc ontology (Like ours) is
constructed according to the identification of essences. In the Christian
idiom, the wit& is, therefore, a heretic, wndemned forever because
presumed to &st in a state of evil, T h e Western w i t c h is a permanent
condition, Boro mangu is not a statet but an action, Further Linguistic
analysis reveals fundamental ontological differences of this sort
throughout Zande thought, aIl of which threaten to render seemingly
simple beliefs quite difficult to represent in English,
Evans-Pritchard is aware that the broad conceptual relations in
Western culture explicated by Crick, Gee& and Tamblah are lacking in
Zande thought but, typically he speaks as if this does not effect the
translation. Further, he seems to assume that the problems surrounding
translation (even if acknowledged) do not effect the assessment of Zande
belief s.
In Light of the idiosyncratic nature of the Western concept of
"witch" and the significant differences it bears to the Zande boro
mangu, it is clear that the pre-existence of the t e r m " w i t c h c r a f t " in
English makes kanslation of the Zande term both possible and
problematic. That witchcraft has a W e s t e r n history (and ready-made
concept) makes it possible; that its sociaL context is substantially
different necessarily distorts the meaning, making (at least Literal)
translation impossible.

see Ballea and Sodipo, RPorledge, Belief a d Yitchixaft (1986: Ifl2-lE). The Yoraba, like
the Zande, h e n referring to soreone as a ritch, are speaking more of a person's behavior than a s t a t e
of being (Hallen & Sodipo 1986:112). They sap of a person not that hefshe is aje (ritch) bat that
helshe has ije. Again, the idea that being a witch is a physical state is largely a by-product of the
Western frareuork and the role it plays in that context. 1 discuss this difference i n greater detail
i n chapter seven. The s i a i l a r i t p betueen Yotuba and Zande thought on witchcraft is clear based on ran1
of the observations Evans-Pritchard rakes concerning t h i s sare discrepancy.
The Failure of Literal Translation

In the final appendix of W i t c h c r a f t . Oracles, and Magic; entitled

"Some Reminiscences and Reflections on Fieldwork," Evans-Pritchard
provides helpful advice or guidelines for anthropologists and elaborates
some of his ideas on the methods of anthropology. He suggests that, as
a first stage in doing fieldwork. one ought to learn the language of the
d t u r e under study before making any inquiries into social or religious
matters- This is presumably not so difficult, According to Evans-
Pritchard, the possibilfty of widespread amfusion is small, and control
of the language helps avoid confusion when one finally does inquire into
more obscure beliefs. Here, he seems to acknowledge the distinction
between learning a foreign language and translating foreign beliefs
emphasized by Barnes and Bloor. Evans-Pritchard also assumes a
distinction between learning a language at a basic level and inquiring
into social or religious matters--a distinction that is key to bridgehead
It is clear, in any case, that Evans-Pritchard feels that
understanding the language is the crucial foundation for understanding

Every social process, every relationship, every idea has its

representation in words and objects, and if one can master words
and things, nothing can eventually escape one. (Evans-Pritchard

It is not clear, however, exactly what is meant by "mastering the

language-" In places Evans-Pritchard writes of speaking easily in the
idiom of Zande thought. That is, he learns how to use the language Like
the Zande do. In dher places, he claims to understand their concepts
only by appeaL to external criteria of meaning or verification as he does
w h e n defining or explaining the social function of a "mysticalnZande
concept or practice. Elsewhere, he notes the distortions caused by his
translations and in other places expresses a lack of concern with these
possible distortions.
I have already identified a number of important differences
between Zande mangu and Western witchcraft. Having defined Mmgu as
"witchcraft" Evans-Pritchard proceeds to clear up some of the important
differences, That is, he begins with a mncept that we are roughly
familiar w i t h and then goes on to adjust and refine it to better f i t the
practice in 7;inde culture, H e might have defined the practke in t e r m s
derived from religion or mythology and then refined his definitions
along other Lines. He suggests at one point that the Zande oracle is
similar to the Delphic Oracle even though it is not personified in the
same way. Here, as elsewhere, it seems always assumed that it is their
concept that differs from ours and that it is this divergence of their
way of thinking that necessitates a social explanation of the concept in
question. It is never our concept that is idiomatic, requiring an
investigation into the social context surrounding its use. I n other words,
the conceptual differences between languages are not a case of two
*&gs that diverge, but one thing (them) distant and different f r o m an
archimedean point (us),
Some Zande concepts seem to defy any translation without a great
deal of qualification. In some cases, the necessary qualification is so
great, in fact, that any English word may s e e m inappropriate as a
.translation. N o doubt, this is the case with the concept the Zande use to
account for the w a y in which the poison oracle acts, a difficulty Evans-
Pritchard is quick to no-

If you press a Zande to explain how the poison oracle can see
far-off things he w i l l say that its mbisimo, its soul, sees them. It
might b e urged that if the poison oracle has a soul it must be
animate. Here we are up against the difficulty that always arises
when a native word is translated by an English word, I have
translated the 7;mde word rnbikho as wsoulwbecause the notion
this word expresses in our own culture is nearer to the m d e
notion of mbisimo of persons than any other English word- The
wncepts are not identical, and when in each language the word is
used in a number of extended senses it is no longer possible to
use the original expressions in translation without risk of
confusion and gross distortion, In saying that the poison oracle
has a mbisimo Zande mean little more than "it does somethingwor,
as w e would say, "it is dynamic." (Evans-Pritchard 1937:151)
In some contexts, mbisimo is used in a simfiar fashion as the
mncept "SOUL" o r "spiritwis used in English. It differs drastically,
however. in most other contexts. Traits, including gender and witchcraft
substance* are passed on to descendants through m b & h a Not only
people have mb&ima witchcraft, the poison oracle, and certain medicines
are said to possess rnbibiina Given these substantial differences, it
makes no sense to say that the Zande believe that wsoulwhas such
attributes or functions; rather, it seems appropriate to insist that
mbisimo is untranslatable. M b M m o is not undescribable, but no single
w o r d or short gloss provides an adequate translation.19 The
identification of a possible inconsistency concerning the statement. "if
the poison oracle has a soul than it must be animateVw is clearly a
product not of faulty logic but of faulty trmshtion.
In "The Morphology and Function of Magic," Evans-Pritchard
considers both primary and samndary meanings of the word "magic."
The material dement of Zande magic consists of assorted woods and
roots. T h e Zande word ngua, which Evans-Pritchard translates as
"magicn generally means "wood.n It is oaly in certain contexts that it
means anything like magic, It can also mean wmedicine.wAs such, it is
clear that w e have no parallel concept, and any English word used as a
translation will be a substantial distortion. The "poison oraclen is
another problematic case as the Azande do not consider benge a poison.
A chemical analysis done by Evans-Pritchard Likens benge to strychnine
yet the Azande refuse to entertain questions concerning what would
happen if a great amount were given to one fowl or if a person were to
ingest benge- For the Azande, benge's natural properties have nothing
to do with its effect during consultation of the oracle.

Consider one of the staterents Evans-Pritchard ascribes to the Azande that acts as an
inconsistent p r a i s e in the set of beliefs that philosophers are fond of using as an exarple: W e
Bxande believe that witchcraft is inherited." Problem with the translation of witchcraft have already
been discussed pet l i t t l e attention has been paid to the concept of "inberitance.Yhe Azande do not
subscribe to anything like genetic theory; nangu is passed fron parent to child through &is&. As
such, the lzande do not, in fact, believe that "itchcraft' is 'inherited.' They nap believe that
r u p is passad through disi.0, bat this is a significantly different belief.
Evans-Pritchard seems to hold, however, that it is enough to note
these and countIess other conceptual ~ r t i o n s in, order to bring the
tmnshtion back into line- In some sense it does, as long as one
maintains that the unit of translation is the entire ethnography. Long
and detailed descriptions replam simple sentences in representing what
the Zande believe. As long as the reader can maintain focus on a l l of
these conceptual re-definitions and contextualizations, the foreign
concepts will be better understood,
Lack of concern with the effective unit of translation, however,
creates substantid confusion concerning just what is translated, This
confusion is an important unacknowledged motivating factor in the
rationality debates, It is a little surprising but not difficult to see why
both Hollis and Winch (despite t h e dramatic differences) can claim close
affiliation with Evans-Pritchard's method. There is a tension in his work
inasmuch as he w a n t s to both assess foreign statements literally and
relate them (ethnographically) to their broader context, Hollis affiliates
himself with the former project, Winch with the latter. What Evans-
Pritchard fails to realize is that these complex conceptual relations to
the broader context constitute an element of the meaning of any term,
and hence problematize the very idea of literal translation,
Godfrey Lienhardt's analysis of Zande thought identifies the
oversight in Evans-Pritchard's work that creates this unreconcilable
tension. Lienhardt, like many of the others mentioned, engages in a
detailed investigation into the differing background assumptions upon
which Zande thought is founded. Awareness of features of the broader
context makes the statements in question appear rational (or consistent).
Yet, this is not, according to Lienhardt, the end of the interpretive
story (as it m a y be for Evans-Pritchard), If key concepts cross cultural
boundaries only by undergoing sometimes drastic semantic distortion,
then the problem of seeing sense in the practices of the Other is not
addressed by focusing on the issue of rationality; rather, it requires
attention to the issue of translation, It is in the passages where Evans-
Pritchard struggles with the difficulty of translation that he sheds the
m o s t light on the concept in Further. according to
Lienhardt. the activity of cross-&turd translation involves not only a
distortion of the concepts of the Other (as I have already discussed)

Sore conterporaq ethnographers construct entire accounts focused heavily on the difficulty
of translating central concepts, Patrick Mcllaughton's Zhe Mande Blacksnitbs: I(bouIedge, Purer, and Art
ia Nest dfrica, i s an etarple of the war in uhich one could treat beliefs in magic and witchcraft
without rarginaliaing those beliefs through attempted literal translation and simltaneoaslp
challenges the beliefs of both crrlt~resengaged in an ethnographic encounter. the Mande bear a
striking reserblance to the hande and, hence, the representational and traaslationdL probiers
confronted by Kc10aughton are shilar to those confronted bp Ems-Pritchard. McHaughton's stratepp
differs significantly in that he does not attenpt to reduce the reaning of key concepts t o the role
they play in the social situation, nor does he allow Western concepts to significantly shape the
interpretation of tbe practices of the Kande blacksriths. M~aughtonbegins with a caution about
trying to iaterpret the beliefs of the Other according to our frarerork for understanding:
Aabiguitp and aabivalence becore even more prorinent when the Mande confront sorcerp, Here we
enter a reah that is difficult to explore, because lestern civiliaation is poorly equipped to
consider the components of Hande sorcery on the b d e t s om tens. Host of our teninology
fails to reflect Mande thinking, and so misapprehensions are perpetuated ahost bp default.. . .
Words such as v i t a witch doctor, or sorcererare not aligned uith the area re Westerners now
take rost seriouslp, science and the Judeo-Christian religion. So, using then to identify
Kande practitioners does not encourage as to reflect upon the atmosphere in which they
actually practice. Ve should keep these liritations in rind. (MclOaughton 1988:llj
Hcbiaughton differs fror Evans-Pritchard, following Lienhardtts caution, precisely in that he is
willing to "quarrel about words,"e attempts to represent sore of the practices of the Made not by
translating thm or by fitting ther into a definable social structure, but by investigating the
relationships betueen different roles aad aspects of Hande life and intent ionally ref raining fro1
structuring those beliefs into translated propositions about reality. He combines sociological,
historical, linguistic, and functional analysis and even negotiates these with interpretations
provided by others.
Key to understanding sorcery among the Mande i s understanding the rord nyiuakaIa. Wle a great
deal of the book i s concerned to elucidate this concept, transIating it ethnographically, it cannot be
translated sirplp or literally. Xyara, according to the Mande, is a basic energy that peneates the
universe. The blacksriths ranipulate agars in order to shape retal. But ngara permeates even the
supernatural world and the ability to raaipulate it in one world carries over t o the other. The
etprologp of the word reveals clues to i t s meaning:
Control is the idea behind another etymology for nydlabala. Kala i s the rord for handle, s ~ c h
as the handle of a hoe or knife. The nJmakaIa clans are handles of power, points of access to
the energy that anirates the universe. (MclTaughton 1988:18-19)
mat is striking about HcIfaughtoncsrepresentation of the Mande is that it appeals to rany
different rethodologies for understanding and refuses to draw conclusions based on any one of thm. Be
leaves raw kep words untranslated, since sole of the differences in approach to reaning reveal
contrary reanings. In other rords, the added evidence, the broader investigation into reaning, tends
to intensify the conp1ications of LransI~tionand representation rather than work touard settling
corpler questions.
but necessarily a distortion of the concepts appealed to in both
languages. Lienhardt states:

The problem of describing to others how members of a r e m o t e

tribe think then begins to appear largely as one of translation, of
making the coherence primitive thought has in the languages it
really lives in, as dear a s possible in our own,.., It is when w e
try to contain the thought oP a primitive sodety in our own
language and categories, without also modifying these in order to
receive it, that it begins in part to lose the sense it seemed to
have* (Lienhardt 1961:96-7)

What is required is not m e r e l y a molding of Zande concepts to fit

English categories, but also a transformation of the English categories
used as translations. The translation theory assumed b y Evans-Pritchard
(Like Hollis, Gellner, etc.) is based on the implicit idea that English is an
ideal language or reference-that ail differences are between the Other
and the center (defined by the translator's own d t u r e and its
linguistic resources). It is this a s s u m e d theory of translation which also
motivates the idea that differences cannot be great, that there must be
a conceptual/Linguistic bridge and that the Other must think basically
like ourselves.
Evans-Pritchard's contribution to anthropology cannot be
overstated. His ethnographic work reveals a great deal about the details
of Zmde thought. His attention to language use, and the way in which
beliefs and practices function in the context of the larger social
framework, revealed a coherence in the belief system of the Other
seldom before acknowledged, This shift in emphasis to understanding the
beliefs of the Other as they function coherently in the context of that
society is a great improvement on methods that represented the Other
as pre-logid. A rich, detailed account of a foreign belief system Like
that contained in Evans-Pritchard's account of the Azande, to some
degree, allows for the conceptual recontextuakations that explain away
the conceptual distortions generated in translation.21H o w e v e r , E v a n s -
- -

In appendix I: of Hitchcraft, Oracles and Magic, Evans-Pritchard states that he does not
want to "define uitchcraft, oracles, and ~ a g i cas ideal types of thought but desire[s] to describe
what Aaande understand bp rddgrr, soroka, and a# (Evans-Pritchard 193'1: 226). this conscious
Pritchard, and nearly all who make use of his work, often extract
isolated statements from the context he provides as if they are
unprobfematic Literal translations, and then judge them by Western
standards of verification,
W h i l e Evans-Pritchard reveals the internal consistency inherent in
the belief system of the Other through a detailed sodoIogical account,
he is only able to conclude that those beliefs are false by failing to
acknowledge the context dependency of the Western concepts he uses to
judge those beliefs* Only the Other is wntextualized.
When Evans-Pritchard characterizes the position of the
anthropologist who communicates between cultures or Languages, he
endorses "going nativen to some extent, but then realizes that this idea
is naive. If one remains too immersed in one's own framework the
danger is that it will be impossible to understand the Other.

One always remains oneself* inwardly a member of one's own

society and a sojourner in a strange land. Perhaps it would be
better to say that one U v e s in two different worlds of thought at
the same time, in categories and concepts and values which often
~ t be reconciled. One becomes, at least temporarily, a
o easily
sort of double marginal man, alienated from both worlds, (Evans-
Pritchard 1937:243)

Evans-Pritchard r-gnizes that the anthropologist, while in

another society, is "doubly m a r g W n Yet, his own hattention to the
effects of language on understanding results in a representation of the
Other that is a textual assimilation of the Zande to his own culture. What
is missing in Evans-Pritchard's acclount is the marginalhation of his own
world. His subjectivim is m e r e l y personal rather than cultural or
Evans-Pritchard's eighth reason w h y "Azande do not perceive the
futility of their magicwis:

avoidance of conceptual universalizing can oalr be accorplished by acknouledging, as he seems to here,

a degree of antranslatibility of these concepts. Yet, elsewhere, he does seer to endorse ae
universality of these concepts, ascribing their differences rerelp to the effects of different social
structures (see esp. Evans-Pritchard 1929a).
A Zande is born into a culture with ready-made patterns of belief
which have the w d g h t of tradition behind them- Many of his
beliefs being axiomatic. a Zande finds it difficult to understand
that other peopIe do not share them. (Evans-Pritchard 1932202)

Borrowing a technique used by Peter Winch, who 1 turn to in the

next chapter, it might not seem unfair to make the same claim of the
non-reflexive Western rationalist=

A Rationalist is born into a culture with ready-made patterns of

belief which have the weight d tradition behind them, Many of his
beliefs being axiomatic. a Rationalist finds it difficult to
understand that other people do not share them.
Chapter Three - The M a c I n t y r e - W i n c h Debate

The more narrowly we exantihe actual language, the sharper

becomes the mnfli'ct between it and our requirement. (For the
u y m e purim of logic was, af murse, not a result of
iuvesti'gation:it was a requirement.) The mnfli" becomes
intoferabfe; the requirement i& now in danger af becvming empty-.-
We have got on to s l i p p e r y 1'- where there is no Pricfrbn and so
in a clerfaia sense the w~dr'tionsare ideal, but also, just because
af tbat, we are unable to waLk. We want fo waLk: so w e need
friiztioa. Back to the rough ground!
Ludwig Wittgenstein - P.osophr'cal Investfgatiis

Ludwig Wittgenstein's reflections, in PhilosopMcal l i r ~ ~ g a f i ' o n s ,

reveal a disjunction between the traditional, formal theoretical
requirements for attributions of meaning or sense and the way w e seem
to attribute meaning in actual language use, Among the features of
popular Linguistic theory that he subjects to criticism is the idea that
language use and interpretation foUow strict criteria of rationality. Such
requirements are never empiricaUy justified by those who endorse such
theories; they are assumed a priori, and often do not coincide well with
practice, What became clear to Wittgenstein, concerning the possibiliv of
a formal theory of meaning w i t h i n a language, becomes doubly clear
when considering translation between two languages.
Having carefully re-evaluated the details of Evans-Pritchard's
study of the m d e , it will now be useful to turn back to the early
stages of the rationality debates and focus on Winch's original wncerns
with language. M y aim here is to arrive at a clearer notion of what is
involved in the translation of foreign beliefs. A careful consideration of
Winch's early work reveals important aspects of the project of
translation t h a t were, later, largely ignored in the rationality debates,
An implicit theory of meaning motivates a great deal of
philosophical speculation on the methodology and/or theoretical structure
appropriate to the social sciences- Issues surrounding the choice of a
theory of language or meaning were the original points of contention in
the M a d n t y r e - W i n c h debate. It was clear at the outset that what
position one took concerning rationality or relativism was largely an
effect of presuppositions about semantic theory and translation-
MacIntyre and Winch do nut so quickly bypass issues of meaning, but
carefully address them in their debate about how one comes to
understand s t a t e m e n t s made by a member of another culture,
The pivotal concern with a theory of meaning is clear& evident in
the early sections of Peter Winch's The idea of a Social Scrienae and its
Relatim to Philosophy (1958). In addition to elaborating a Wittgensteinian
approach to social science, Winch is concerned to investigate the effects
of various philosophical theories of language on theories of cross-
cultural interpretation. Winch's main concern is to clarify the relation
between socM science (concerns with different forms of life) and
pbilosophy (concerns with formal or objective accounts of epistemology,
and universal genermtions). Winch's aim is to bring social science and
philosophy back together, not by modeling social science theory after
predominant theories in natural science, but b y turning attention to the
role of language as a s m * d practicle, shifting the theoretical focus from
an empirical investigation of a particular state of affairs or a set of
"facts," to an interpretive investigation into a linguistic system of
meanings.' I t is toward this end that he makes a lengthy appeal to
Wittgenstein's theory of meaning. Like Wittgenstein, Winch rejects the
idea that all expressions in a language can be treated as a series of

There is a long and less than resolved controversy over to what extent Winch should be considered a
'relativist.' His rejection of the theoretical structure appropriate to the natural sciences is often interpreted as an
eaiorsemt of cultural relativis. Tbe difficulty in situating his position in this debate, bauever, is probably
largely due to his lack of concern on the ratter. His concerns are, as 1uill try to sbm, prior to the realisll
relativim issue. Ee does, houever, distance himself Inn the extreae relativist reading, stating:
We sbdd not lose sight of the fact that the idea that m ' s ideas and beliefs mst be checkable by reference
to s a e t h g M e t - s o l e realitpis an irportlnt one. To abandon i t is to plauge straight into an
extrew Protagorean relativism. (Vinch 1964:81)
Bence, W e lauguge and 'the wrld' are too inthtely intertvined to penit a discussion of an independent
reality, this does not preclude holding that language bears sae relation to the nrrld.
propositions about reality, ready to b e logically arranged and empirically
tested. Instead, he takes a more interpretive approach to meaning
systems through careful attention to the uses and functions of natural
By appealing to Wittgenstein's analysis of language, Winch opposes
the Literalist/realist conception of language which underlies the
approaches taken b y Hollis and Lukes. Fundamental to this framework
for thinking about language is a theoretical separation between language
and the world, between the world as it is, and the Ianguage w e use
(hopefully accurateiy) to represent that world- This distinction is
foundational to w h a t W i n c h rrills the "underlabourer conceptionu of
philosophy, a view that takes "realitynto b e something entirely
independent of language, and language (and each concept within a
l a n g u a g e ) to be a tool for accurately conveying representations of that
reality- The language used in such representations m u s t be
determinatdy and llnambiguously related to the world (even if only
through verification procedures), The goal of philosophy, according to
this view, is to clear language of the many ambiguities that lead to
misunderstandings, rendering meaning perfectly transparentO2 Winch

Uit tgenstein' s critique of philosophy is largely directed at this Werlabourer' camption. Vittgenstein
criticizes any semantic thecry that bases meaning strictly on the idation between the ward and the world (as do
correspondence or reference theories of waning)- In other vords, he endeavors to discredit the idea that a word clearly
signifies saething in the vorld or that the reaning of a wrd can be determined by articulating such a relation.
Vittgenstein eaphasizes aspects of #aninb vhich depead on Iarylye use, cantext, and cowention and, in doing so,
raises the issue of meaning indeteniaacy and thereby effectively probImtizes the idea of 'reference"by draring
attention to the non-haogeneity of aatnral language.
buy of his examples center around the problem of translatian as a mans to specdating an seaantic theory. M i l e
uot explicitly characterized as faPsIafiao, the examples are reant to reveal. hw ue light roe to anderstand the
'reaninghof a tern by witnessing its lanp applications. The "Fmderlabourer cmceptim' takes the role of philosophy as
the project vhich tries to rid language of its natnnl inexactness by postnlatiag a hmogeaeity and clarity &ch it
does not have. This is exactly vhat the critics discnssed in chapter one irpIicitlg do. Rather than deriving theory Ira
experience, such critics impose theory on practice to fit the requireeats of popalar theoretical structare.
Wat confuses us is the uniform appearance of wrds when ue hear them spoken or meet Lhea in script or print.
For their appficatim is not presented to us so dearly. Especially when ue are doing philosophy. (PI1
Vittgenstein 1958:6)
We predicate of the thing what lies in the method of representing it, hptessed by the possibility of a
caparison, ue think we are perceiving a state of affairs of the highest generality. (PI04 Vittgenstein
points out, however, that such a mnception of the role of phiIosophy
begs the very question a t issue:

To assume at the outset that one can make a sharp distinction

between "the worldw and "the language in which w e try to
describe the world," to the extent of saying that the problems of
philosophy do not arise at all out of the former but only out of
the latter, is to beg the whole question of philosophy. (Winch

Hollis' approach mm';lllvdepends on tbe possibility of making this

very distinction. In just the way that the underlabourer conception
"begs the whole question of philos~phy,~ the bridgehead theory begs
the whole question of translation. Evans-Pritchard himself seems to
acknowledge the role of language use and rule following in
understanding the Azande while at the same time judging their beliefs
according to the criteria of Western scientific reasoning as expressed in
English. H e maintains this distinction despite being fully aware of the
relation between learning another way of speaking about things and the
meanings of statements used to do so.

I found it strange at first to Live among Azande and listen to

naive explanations of misfortunes which, to our minds, have
apparent causes, but after a while 1 learnt the idiom of their
thought and applied notions of witchcraft as spontaneously as
themselves in situations where the concept was relevant. (Evans-
Pritchard 1937~19)

The question that I want to foreground in this discussion of the

Madntyre/Winch debate is: what did Evans-Pritchard learn by having
"learnt the idiom of their thoughtR?More generally, I am concerned to

Wittgenstein's analysis of the dependence of aeaning on 'lagwge-games' and the context dependency of what it
reans to "go on in the sare way,' rdativizes leaning to a language or context and significantly problesatizes
translation (at least on the traditional rodel).
Yhen Ime-games change, then there is a change in the concepts, and nth the concepts the reanin@ of
words change. (P65 Uittgenstein 1969:lO)
W e it is not ay parpose to explicitly defend a Yittgensteinian theory of language, by drawing attention to this
approach, I hope to show not necessarily that it is justified in itself, ht rather that it is lore consonant vith
anthropological practice and translation.
investigate how the answer to this question affects translation theory. It
is worth focusing on this debate because M a c I n t y r e and Winch, unIike
the others engaged in the rationality debates, make this problem central
to the goal of understanding the Other, The outcome of their dialogue
provides a substantial foundation for further discussion of the
philosophy of translation.

Before Rationality - Understanding the rlrnguage of the Other

The approach to interpretation that W i o c h opposes in 1958 is the
positivist attempt to subsume the theoretical structure of the human
sciences under the framework of the natural sciences. While a
Wittgensteinian theory of language might be taken to motivate a
reassessment of natural science, rather than "socializingu science, Winch
is content to leave that issue aside. As a result, he makes a case for
the separation and fundamental distinction between the two?
The objectivity of natural science is founded upon the idea that
there are unambiguous "factswthat transcend context and that
corresponding statements about the world can b e catalogued and
empirically tested. As discussed in chapter one, the presupposition that
underlies bridgehead and universal rationality m o d e l s of cross-cultural

A substantial section of the h k considers the possibility of constming social science theory along the
sare lines as that in the natural sciences (Winch 1958:66-94). While Winch suggests that scientists operate according to
socially accepted d e s (like everyone else), their society is represented as being basically hmrgmw. In other
words, all scientists operate by appeal to the saw set of dearly iaterpreted d e s . Represented in this way, any
natural science rethod viLl be i n m t i b l e vith the social sciences since the goal of the latter necessarily involves
the investigatim of the [different) rules of the H e r (Winch 195&8?,94). Winch states,
'Chis non-philosophical well-consciousness is for the most part right and proper in the investigation of
nature. .. bnt i t is disastrous in the investigation of hmn society, whose very nature is to consist in
different and capeting ngs of life, each offering a diffemt account of the intelligibility of things.
(Winch 1958: 103)
It is arguable that his hguistic analysis strongly suggests a 'sociology of science' interpretation of the
natnral sciences, hmer, Uineh is not concerned to press this issue. Such a direction is pursued homer in the vorks
of critics like Feyerabd and gnhn, within philosophy of science, and, as vell, Bums and Blaor fnr the "sociology of
Wedge' (as discussed briefly in chapter one). &uQess of one's position on the appropriateness of these
extensions of Winch's approach to natmal science, such positions are not pursued by Winch himelf. His speculation on
the cultnre/langmge dependency of Liayistic reanings in interpretive social science is persuasive in itself.
interpretation is, similarly, that the meanings of certain types of
statements are not effected by language or context- B y appeal to the
Wittgensteinian theory of meaning, Winch attacks precisely this
presupposition (Winch 1958:83-4). Following a detailed consideration of
the effects of crossing contexts on linguistic meanings, Winch chaknges
the type of wlogico-experirnentdnapproach to social science (as modelled
after natural science) endorsed by Vilfredo Pareto=

A scientific approach to sociology,.~axmists in using only

concepts which have a strictly e m p i r i d reference, in subjecting
one's theories always rigorously to the control of observation and
experiment, and in ensuring that one's inferences always follow
strict logic, (quoted in Winch 1958~96)

Following Wittgenstein's meaning holism, Winch takes the meaning of

a amcept or sentence to b e intimately linked to the larger linguistic
framework and the social context of its application. This precludes the
possibility that such mncepts have "strictly empirical referencewand
undermines the idea that there are trans-cultural criteria of "strict
logic." m u s e the logim-experimental method operates acarding to a
logic that is specific to a particular context (and foreign to others),
such criteria of interpretation have little value. According to W i n c h ,

Criteria of logic are not a direct gift of God, but arise out of, and
are only intelligible in the context of, ways of Living or modes of
social We. It follows that one cannot apply criteria of logic to
modes of social life as such, (Winch 1958:lOO)

Pareto's method is grounded on the same assumptions as the

theories proposed by HolLis and Lukes and, g i . Winch's critique of the
underlabourer conception of philosophy, can be seen to beg the very
question at issue. While all acknowledge some degree of meaning context-
dependency (accepting the implications of meaning holism to some
extent), Winch, following Wittgenstein, is explicit in holding that, as a
result of such considerations, specific rules of inference and logic can
not be taken as universal b u t are rather context/language dependent
(Winch 195854-57). As a result, theories of interpretation in the social
sciences should not be based on the idea of universal, t r a n s - d t u r a l
concepts or logic, but on the problem of cultural and linguistic
differences and how such differences can be understood or transkted
(Winch 1958:43). Winch's careful treatment of linguistic meaning re-
charackrkes the question at issue, Rather than asking, as Hollis does,
"what must b e the case for transhtion, as w e understand it, to take
place?," following Winch's analysis, the important question is, given the
context-dependency of meaning, what is communicated, cross-culturally,
in the act of translation? Translation theorists must view the Other not
as saying, w i t h different words, the same things as w e do about the
world, but rather as possessing what Evans-Pritchard described as
another "idiom of thought.
B r y a n Wilson's (ed,) Rati'oaaLiify appeared in 1970 containing, as the
opening essay, an excerpt from Winch's book The Idea of a Social
Sdencle- Clearly, Winch's book served as a key motivation for the
rationality and relativism debates and, in this collection, Alasdair
MacIntyre takes up the case for the opposition to Winch's apparently
relativist position,
MacIntyre begins his essay "Is Understanding Religion Compatible
w i t h Believing?" b y considering whether it might be possible for a
religious believer and an atheist to share certain significant concepts
(such as that of "God," "sinwor *salvationw)to a sufficient degree that
would make any sort of disagreement between the two meaningful, The
requirement of this conceptual crossover, he observes, seems bath
necessary and impossible. MacIntyre begins by posing the somewhat
paradoxical problem:

Two people could not be said to share a concept or to possess the

same concept unless they agreed in at least some central
application of it.,. To possess a concept is to be able to use it
correctly... Yet sceptic and beIiever disagree i n toto in their
judgements on some religious matters,.. So it seems that w e do
want to say that a common understanding of religious concepts by
skeptics and by believers is both necessary and impossible, This
dilemma constitutes m y problem. (Macxhtyre 1964=62-63)

Because MacIntyre's critique is staged specifically as a response to

Winch, their exchange remains centered upon Winch's concern with
language and meaning, specifidly, the relation between the use and the
meaning of a mncept, The question is not "is a certain statement made
by the Other rational?" but rather "to what extent do w e understand a
statement made b y the Other, given significant linguistic differences or
different idioms of thought?" While the skeptic and the believer
presumably share a language, they do not necessarily share the same
patterns of concept usage. Consequently, the difficulties they
encountered in understanding one another, just as in the cross-
linguistic case, mnstitute a problem of translation.
The skeptic and believer must agree not on some referential or
transcendental meaning. but on some judgements about the applicability
of the concept. This is to agree nut merely on a proposition (or
assignment of truth to it) but on what it means to use the mncept
correctly and the role the mncept plays in a particular w a y of engaging
the world. M a d l h t y r e has not, like many others, fallen into the trap of
treating language as a propositional caIculus but treats language
somewhat as Winch and Wittgenstein have suggested. Having identified
the problem as one of translation, Madntyre turns to anthropology, as
characteristically encountering this problem, to consider the different
popular positions taken mncernfng semantic assessments of radically
different and seemingly irrational beIiefs.
MacIntyre begins by categorizing the different approaches to
cross-cultural interpretation that are possible, and allies Winch's
approach with that taken by Evans-Pritchard. Winch takes the position
that you can only understand another culture "from the insidewso to
speak. by grasping "another form of life" and representing them as
they represent themselves. Concepts and beliefs must be linked
coherently and judged only by criteria from within that frame. It might
seem a Little odd that MaCIntyre represents Evans-Pritchard and Winch
as endorsing the same approach to anthropology if only because they
both claim that one should attempt to determine the meaning of a
practice by appeal to the way in which it is understood by the Other
(especially odd given that Hollis sided with Evans-Pritchard according to
his method of assessing irande beliefs), While it is clear that Evans-
Pritchard attempts to immerse himself in the foreign context in order to
arrive at some understanding of Zande beliefs, by no means does he
hold to Winch's stricture against judging from the outside- Evans-
Pritchard's ntwenty-two reasons w h y the 7nnde fail to see the error in
their beliefsu embodies just the judgmental stance that MacIntyre
criticizes W h c h (along w i t h Evans-Pritchard) for not taking. M a c I n t y r e .
like Evans-Pritchard and unlike Winch. wants to maintain some sense4 in
which it can be said that Zande beliefs are false or illogical and in
order to do this, he must hold that some criteria of judgement are
cross-wntexhdIy valid.

It seems to m e that one could only hold the belief of the Azande
rationally in the absenm of any practice of science and
technology in which criteria of effectiveness, ineffectiveness and
kindred notions had been built up. But to say this is to recognize
the appropriateness of scientific criteria of judgement from our
standpoint.. . This suggests strongly that beliefs and concepts are
not merely to be evaluated b y the criteria implicit in the practice
of those who hold and use them. ( M a c z h t y r e 1964:67)

Understanding the Other in cases such as these is a two part

project on MacIntyre's account. First one must, as Winch suggests,
determine w h a t the rules for use are within the context, understanding
the Other as they understand themselves- Second, unlike Winch, one
must show how the concept is or is not intelligible according to our
standards of intelligibility. The latter is justified, according to
Madntyre, not because Western criteria of truth or sense are objective
or transcendent but because wcriteriahave a historyw ( M a d n t y r e
1964:67). MacIntyre evaluates the Christian concepts in question by
appeal to the history and evolution of Western thought. He suggests
that the Christian ontology has been historically transcended by science.
It is this historid. evolutionary transcendence that makes the latter a

The difference betueen the three possible positions that llacfntyre identifies is that they endorse different
stands an the prefllrably distinct issues of truth and ratianality. Winch sees the particular Zandt beliefs in question
as rational and not false (basically denying the distinction); Ems-Pritchard sees thm as rational but false;
&cIntyre rants to maintain a sense in vhich they are bath irratianal and fdse. Ybat HacIntyre is disagreeing with
(contra Yinch) is that agreamt in rnle foUwing or mcept application is always sufficient for clahhg that
smetbg 'mkes sense."
proper frame for interpreting the former. In the historical wnflict of
ideas, scientific notions have been vindicated over Christian ideas.
This ability to interpret from the standpoint of an historically
vindicated frame of referen- Ieads M a c I n t y r e to hold that "sometimes to

require a stance from which it is possible to see how and w h y a concept

no longer makes sense (MacTntyre 1964:69). More precisely, M a c I n t y r e
w a n t s to disagree w i t h W i n c h ' s cIaim that "agreement in following a rule
is sufficient to guarantee making sensew ( M a c I n t y r e 1964:68), This
criticism applies to a g r a t deal of what the Azande believe as weLI as
beliefs addressed in other popnlar examples in the literature. MacZntyre
separates the two issues of what the Other means to say (does their
utterance have some coherent meaning and regular u s e within the
context?), and the meaning of what the Other says (how what they say
stands the test of Western science), T h e ethnologist accomplishes the
former from within, and the latter from outside the context of those
beliefs- In short, MacIntyre acknowledges the possibility that different
belief systems are incompatible by taking seriously the implications of
meaning holism, but he still holds the view that belief systems m be
compared and evaluated according to trans-historical standards-
MacIntyre positions himself, theoretically, between the opposing
positions he has considered in order to alleviate his original paradox (of
understanding how beliefs might b e compared when significant concepts
are not shared)?

Against Winch and Evans-EWtcbard I have argued that to make a

belief and the concepts which it embodies intelligible I cannot
avoid invoking my own criteria, or rather the established criteria

These are tvo of the four possible positions he considers in anthnpalo#y. k dimisses (I), the Lby-
BrahlICarnap position which claim that religions utterances do not refer to anything and that natives have a pre-
logical mtality. This is similar to BoLLis' analysis in believing that, if they do not apply d e s of logic as we do,
then they do not apply rules at all. (2) The Evans-Pritchardhinch psitian proceeds by ding sense of the beliefs and
practices of the Other as understood fro within that contat. The analysis, as Hi~cIntyrecharacterizes it, is closer to
Winch than Dans-Pritehard because he irplies that such an approach gives no grounds [or rejecting magic; Evans-
Pritchard undoubtedIy finds reasons to reject any truth behind the practice of r y i c . (3) The Leach/Braibaite position
pulls opposite of (21, suggesting that the Other an be made sense of only as expressing sawthing sydmlically,
relating sorething other than a propsitian aboat reality. Snch aa approach interprets clairs as reaning smthing other
Lhan vhat the user explicitly says they rean. Position (4) is his aun.
their beliefs are mistaken (on historica3.Iy justified empiricist grounds)-
In the end, MacIntyre holds that when it comes to (empirically
unverifiable or false) beiiefs such as reIating to the existence of the
Christian God or Zande magic

Understanding Christianity is incompatible w i t h believing in it, not

because Christianity is vulnerable to sceptical objections, but
because its pculiar invufnerabiliw belongs to it as a form of
belief which has Iost the sociaL context which once made it
comprehensible. It is now too Late to be medieval and it is too
empty and too easy to be Kierkegaardian, (MacLntyre 1964:?6-7)

The important difference between MacZntyre and Hollis is that

MacIntyre does nat appeal to transcendental or a priori criteria of
judgement, but to historical analysis. Although MacIntyre is not so
expIicitIy ethnocentric, his history embodies a tebs in reason just as
GeIlner's does. Whereas HoIlis and Gellner found it necessary to appeal
to a single world reason to ground interpretation, MacIntyre substitutes
a single, progressivist world history.
W h i l e MacIntyre's case for the assessment of Christian beliefs m a y
appear persuasive, in some respects, the question remains as to whether
the confrontation between the skeptic and the believer is a pIausibIe
analogy to the case of understanding Zande beliefs in witchcraft. To a
large extent, Christianity and science share a history in ways that
Africa and the West do not. MacIntyre provides a short account of how
science overcame the idea of God (and analogously, witchcraft). Western
science may have transcended W&s&rn witchcraft (and the Western God),
but t h i s does not necessarily imply that Zande mangu or Indian Visbnu
have suffered the same historical fate. Different cultures have different
MacIntyre's story about the historid/scientific transcendence of
religious belief in God appeals to the internal criteria of justification of
what might be considered a single culture! Western and Zande criteria

hchtyre's story is based on the assnption tlut Uestern science has, bt fact, transcended belief in the
Christian God. There are, of m s e , thriving reIi#ions even in scientific cultures. It is by no leans clear that a
social context for ascrib& mnhg to the concept ot Cod is altogether lacking.
of justification do not share a history, hence, judgement of Zande
beliefs can be made only by appeal to criteria that are external (bath to
other cultures and their histories), WhiIe MacIntyre, unlike many other
parties to the rationality debates, retains a focus on the problem of
translating concepts across frames of reference, his solution depends on
an a p m to universal criteria of judgement no better substantiated
than the criterfa appealed to b y Hollis.

Peter Winch's essay "Understanding a Primitive Societyw is both a

response to MacIntyre's criticisms and a further justification of his
position w i t h a specific treatment of Evans-Pritchard's representation of
the Azande. Winch is careful to separate his own position from that
taken b y Evans-Pritchard, a position that MacIntyre characterized as
roughly the same as Winch's because of the importance both attached to
grasping the meaning that beliefs have for the Other in their context!
While it seems paradoxical that both Winch (by MacIntyre's acamnt) and
Hollis (by his own account) muld be represented as conforming to
Evans-Pritchard's method of representing anather dture, one can see a
number of different interpretive strains in W i t c h c r a f t , Oracles, and
Magic that are compatible with bath. Although Evans-Pritchard is careful
to contextualize Zande beliefs for the purpose of demonstrating their
internal coherence, as I discussed in chapter two, he also appeals to
empiricist criteria of verification in judging their beLiefs false. Winch
recognizes this latter feature of Evans-Pritchard's ethnography and so
categorizes Evans-Pritchard w i t h Pareto, arguing that he endorses an
implicit version of Pareto's "logico-experimentalwmethod for sociology.
Both adhere to a non-contextual distinction between the "logical"and

It is attention to this irportant dilfereuce that Ulin suggests generated the r a t i d i t y debates in the
first place. l l ~ eprirary difference between Vineh and Ems-Pritchard, as be sees it, is:
This fmdamtal d i s m t betueen Evans-Pritchard and Winch is over the questioa of &ether or not it is
possible to have a context-indewdent notian of reality from which the rationality of beliefs cau be judged.
(ULin 1984:23)
the "scientificw;Evans-Pritchard reserves the former for beliefs
coherent but false, and the latter for coherent and true beliefs- Both
Evans-Pritchard and Pareto impIicitly appeal to an independent reality
as a referen- for interpreting and judging foreign beliefs,
The coherent/true distinction underlying such analyses of foreign
beliefs seems to parallel what MacIbtyre identifies as the two stages of
interpretation. In the first stage, one explains the coherence of beliefs
by appeal to the meaning they have for the Other; in the second, one
judges them by the Light of Western scienc3et While not explicit about
this division, Evans-Pritchard seems to proceed in a similar m a n n e r - Of
all of those who claim affiliation with Evans-Pritchard's approach, o r are
claimed by others to be affiliated with it, it is probably Macfatyre (who
does not claim this affiliation) whose theoretical position is closest to
Evans-Pritchard's. Winch endorses such a reading of Madntyre's theory
( W i n c h 1964~94-5).
Winch makes a point of denying the justification for what
MacIntyre takes to be the second stage of interpretation. T h e
assumption that underlies Madntyre's distinction is that coherence is an
internal feature of language (having to do w i t h a concepts' relations to
other concepts) but truth is an external feature (having to do w i t h a
concepts' relation t o reality or to an historically sanctioned
representation of reality). Meaning is linked more intimately, according
to Madntyre, to the latter. Once the initial translation is accomplished,
one can judge ( b y the criteria of Western science) which statements
accord with reality and which do not, O n this model of interpretation,
correspondence w i t h reality is quite independent from the coherence of
the language itself. It is not a contextual matter what is to be counted
as real and what is to be counted as unreal. Winch denies just this
distinction, following the Wittgensteinian critique of traditional theories
of meaning.

Reality is not what gives language sense. What is real and what is
unreal shows itself ia the sense that language has. Further, both
the distinction between the r e d and the unreal and the concept of
agreement w i t h reality themselves belong to our language, (Winch
A s Wittgenstein endeavored to show, reflection on language use
suggests that it is a mistake to separate "the worldn from *the language
used to describe it," The problem, as Winch identifies it, is that
language, context, verification, history, and culture are far more
intimately intertwined than MadIntyre and atber theorists engaged in the
rationality and relativism debates have granted, Revealing the co~ection
between what others have identified as different aspects or stages of
interpretation re-establishes the problem of cross-cultural interpretation
as one of translation, How is one to ascribe meaning to a statement made
by the Other when translating that statement into English linguistically
divorces it from the context that gives it sense?
Before considering MacIntyre's critique, Winch first turns to
anthropology, specifically Evans-Pritchard's study of the Azande, to
more carefully assess the assumption that concepts cross languages
unaltered, Winch proceeds to pose two important questions arising from
Wittgenstein's theory of Language that have important implications for

(1)Is it in fact the case that a primitive s y s t e m of magic, Like

that of the Azande, constitutes a mherent universe of discourse
like sciene, in e r m s of which an intelligible conception of reality
and clear ways of deciding what beliefs are and are not in
agreement with this reality can be discerned?
(2) What are w e to make of the possibility of understanding
primitive social institutions, Like Zande magic, if the situation is as
I have outlined? (Winch 1964:83)

Winch is intent on pursuing the first question and provides only a

couple of tentative remarks in response to the second. The first
question (barring the phrase "Like sciencen) is less controversial today
than when Winch wrote this essay. Even if one is not willing to grant
the appeal of the Wittgensteinian theory of meaning, it ought to be clear
that the members of another society do in fact "go onwin coherent
fashion, regardless of what external judgement one passes on their
beliefs. Both Hollis and MacIntyre would be willing to answer some slight
variation of question one in the affirmative (although neither seems
concerned to fully draw out the implications of granting such a
characterization). The real disagreement centers around Winch's second
question, and it is here that the problem of tramlation is central,
Winch turns again to Evans-Pritchard's representation of the
Azande and suggests that distortions in the translation of mangu as
"witchcraft" (of the sort addressed at the end of chapter two) b e made
a primary point of focus in discussing exactly what it is that is
translated between cultures, W l n c h notes,

We do not initially have a category that Iooks at all like the Zande
category of magic, Since it is w e who want to understand the
Zande category, it appears that the onus i s on us to extend our
understanding so as to make room for the Zande category, rather
than to insist on seeing it in t e r m s of our own ready-made
distinction between science and non-science, C e r t a M y the sort of
understanding we seek requires that w e see the Zande category in
relation to our own already understood categories, But this
neither means that it is right to 'evaluate' magic in terms of
criteria belonging to those other categories; nor does it give any
clue as to wM& of our existing categories of thought w i l l provide
the best point of reference from which w e can understand the
point of Zande practices, (Winch 1964:lOZ)

This is just the problem that Evans-Pritchard wrestles with when

trying to translate the Zande word mbisimo as "soul" (as discussed in
chapter two) but is reluctant to acknowIedge in the case of mangu. It
is, arguably, the problem implidt in the translation of every significant
concept he uses and the one that Winch makes into the central
interpretive issue.
What Evans-Pritchard fails to appreciate is that he has, to a large
extent, passed judgement on Zande beliefs by translating their dabus
into the idiom of Western "witchcraft," In anticipation of many of the
claims discussed in chapter one, Winch notes that the Western concept
of witchcraft involves the notion of deviation, as being "parasitic on,
and a perversion of other orthodox concepts, both religious and,
increasingly, scientificn (Winch 196484)- The concept of magic is not a
self contained concept. It makes essential reference to that which is
outside of itself, It is defined as much by what it excludes (and what
excludes it) as well as its relations to other concepts. This inadvertent
judgement accomplished through translation and passed by the
application of a label is nowhere clearer than in Evans-Pritchard's
designation of Zande w m y s t i c a l notionswwhich are so called precisely
because they are deviant (not for Azande, b u t from the standpoint of
Western empirical science), They are not so much translated into our
frame of belief as translated into terms which are aIready outside of our
frame. Winch points out that Evans-Pritchard's labelling of certain
practices and beliefs as wmysticalwalready implies that some sort of
mistake is being made (Winch 1964:85.88)?' "Mysticalw is. by definition.
other than the natural, which is, according to m o d e r n science, other
than the red. Evans-Pritchard translates the concepts as deviant (by
labelling them "witchcraftw)and then goes on to explain the sense in
which they are not (by telling of their acceptance in 7nnde culture). But
then, what could be the sense of testing them for rationality when they
are excluded from rationality through the very act of translation?
WittgenskWs theory oP language applied cross-cllfturally
contextualizes justification and, more precisely, what it means to make a
mistake, relative to a language or cultureJ1 It is this relativization of
jusWicatSon that persuades Winch that the t w o stages of MacIntyre's
interpretation strategy are inseparable. MadIntyre accepts the
mntextualization of sense as relative to language, but objectifies
justification as independent of language.
If Winch is right then w h a t it means to make a mistake and how
one might determine whether a belief "corresponds to realityware
language and context dependent, Both Evans-Pritchard and MacZntyre
see the Azande as mistaken because they represent their beliefs through
the use of marginalized concepts in E n g ' . It is not that they

Winch draus attention to the ~ s which
y in this very characterization ensntes that 2ande beliefs uill not
stand the test of eapirical verifiability.
The chief faction of oracles is to reveal the presence ot 'mystical' forces--1 use Evans-Pritchard's t e n
v i t h t c m t t h g $self t o his denial that such farces realty exist. Nou though there are indeed ways of
detenining h t h e r or not rgsticd forces are operating, these ways do not correspond to vhat ue understand
by 'eapirical' confinatirm or ref'utatian. This indeed is a tautology, since such differences in
'conlimatory' procedures are the min criteria for classifying strething as a qstical force in the first
place. (Winch 1961:88)
This is mre specifically the topic in Uittgenstein's posthoorrslg published Ib tkhthty (1968).
explidtly rely on an independent or universal logic, but that they fail
to see the logic contained in the very concepts Evans-Pritchard used to
translate the beliefs d the Azandd2 What appears as a mistake Is
largely a product of translation, More to the point, it is the
anthropologist who is making the inistake by failing to refl- on the
logic contained in the target language.

This suggests strongly that the context from which the suggestion
about the contradiction is made, the context of our scientific
culture. is not on the same level as the context in which the
beliefs about witchcraft operate. Zande notions of witchcraft do
not constitute a theoretical system in terms of wbich m d e try
to gain quasi-scientific understanding of the world. This in its
turn suggests that it is the European, obsessed with pressing
Zande thought where it wouId not naturally go-to a
contradiction--who is guilty of misunderstanding, not the Zande.
The European is in fact committing a category mistake. (Winch

It is i m p o r t a n t to notice that Winch neither endorses universal

standards of rationality nor the position that each culture embodies
fundamentally different and incompatible styles of reasoning. Rather
than having reIativized the amcept of rationality, as m a n y d a i m that
Winch has done, I will argue that, as a result of Winch's analysis, the
question of the rationality of athers becomes moot. Either "rationalityw
contains assumptions about universal logic and the possibility of
representing an independent reality that preclude one from
understanding of the beliefs of the Other or, those assumptions must be
compromised (in practice) in which case the application of the concept
itself becomes vacuous.13 O n c e turned back to fundamental issues of

Auareness of the logic 'containedw by a concept in Euglish is of Imdaental irportaace to rmderstanding the
effect of translation on our understanding of the beLiefs of the Other. I reserve a wre in-depth analysis of this
ayareness for chapter four and the l m s t i c anthropalogists uho make it a central issue.
Yinch basically holds this latter vimr since it is not realiy a question as to uhether the Other m i d be
irrational. He states, 'to say of a society that i t has a laqpge is also to say that it has a concept of rationalityw
(Winch 1964:99). f i l e this clah s o d s exactly like one rrdt by LlLis, 'ntimality' has ceased to wan myth@ #re
than sow kind of intercormectedness of beIiefs. It certainly does not entail c a m rules of logic or reference. The
fact that tw such opposed thinkers could say the sac th& about ratioaality shavs hov little agmamt there is on
just vhat is reant by 'ratiouality.' We bilefis mans that there rmst be a nniversal type or pattern of ronwctedness,
Winch ream dy,
language/meaning, the debate over rationality and relativism reveals the
inappropriateness of applying either concept to a theory of cross-
cultural interpretation. It reduces questions of c r o s s - c u l M
understanding to the issue of whether w e ought to use their criteria of
intelligibility or ours in translation: which frame ought to be taken as
primary, as giving the correct meaning to the beliefs in question? While
Winch endorses a position that seems to make the cultural context of the
Other interpretively p r i m a r y , he is, at the same time beginning to
deconstruct the idea that the interpreter is translating between t w o
static, immovable frames of reference and meaning.

Seriously to study another way of life is necessarily to seek to

extend our own--not simply to bring the ather way within the
already existing boundaries of our own, because the point about
the latter in their present form, is that they ex hypofbesr' exclude
that other. (Winch 1964:99)

B y revealing the inadequacies of the concepts w e possess to

understand beliefs held by members of another culture, W i n c h gestures
not toward cultural relativism, but toward a different notion of what is
involved in the act of translation, a notion that inmrporates the idea of
extending our own boundaries, linguistic and cultural. Language emerges
as intimately connected to culture and, in order to understand the
relation between cultures, it becomes necessary to understand the
relation between languages.
Taking a position diametrically opposed to Hollis', Winch suggests
that, in the study of another culture, an initial assumption of universal
standards of rationality precludes understanding, not because this
makes interpretation impossible, but because it leads to an interpretation
that necessarily represents w h a t is different as deficient. What Hollis
takes to be an a priori condition of interpretation, Winch takes to

Yhen there is a language it mt mke a differencewhat is said and this is only possible vhere the saying of
one thing d e s out, an pain of failure to curmicate, the saying of saethiag else This, however, is so
far to say nothing about what in particular caustitutes r a t i d behavior in that society.. In other words,
it is not so mch a ~ t t e ofr invoking 'our nom of ratianalitg' as of inpoking our notion of rationality in
speaking of their behavior in tens ot 'confonity to norm'. (Winch 1964:99-100)
guarantee mis-interpretation, B y holding our own concepts and Iogic
constant, as the m e a s u r e of sense, we can never ame to understand a
different belief system.
W i n c h d r a w s attention to MacIntyre's c o m m e n t s on aborigines who
are said to d a b to carry their souls in sticks. M a c I a t y r e suggests that
"we confront a blank wall here, so far as meaning is concerned,
although it is easy to give the rules for the use of the conceptw
(MacIntyre 1964:68). W e confront a blank wall w i t h meaning only so long
as w e Zimit interpretation to description of the way things are in
English, and expect to find a single mncept in Enj@sh that accurately
translates their usage?I For Winch, the problem of understanding the
Other is not a matter of comparing frames, nor of accurately
representhg other representations of reality. In order to come to
understand another belief system, w e must come to understand another
way of Life, anather way of wneptually confronting the world. In this,
the onus is on us to extend our language to accommodate conceptual
connections that are not already mntahed in our belief system.
Winch sees the study of other cultures as a way of studying the
w a y people make sense of life, not just "the worldw. It is arguable, or
maybe just observable, that this is something that the Western scientific
tradition has had a great deal of difficulty doing. From existential
nihilism to technological alienation, contemporary Western culture has
had Liffle to offer concerning the meaning of Life (this is probably why
religious beliefs in God have nut been transcended b y science). Winch,
for instance, sees Zande magic as, in some ways, like aspects of
Christianity in that it provides recognition and ways of dealing w i t h the
fact that one's life is subject to contingencies and uncertainties (Winch

What w e may learn by studying other cultures are not merely

possibilities of different ways of doing things, other techniques.
More importantly we may learn different possibilities of making

lt is arguable that it is, ironically, the interptetive litetalist who is respansibIe for the tenera1 aQpeal
of relativisa. By postulating the necessary exlstenee of cross-cultural criteria of sense wbich, by all erpirical
evidence do not exist, one is left vith the fear that carrmiation or detailed understanding between cultures is
inpossible (the extreme relativist position).
sense of human Life, different ideas about the possible importance
that the carrying out of certain activities m a y take on for a man,
trying to m11ternpIa-kthe sense of his life as a whole- ( W i n c h

Winch agrees with M a c I n t g r e that interpretations must take account

of, and be situated in, history, but asks the telling question "whose
history?" Be identifies the inappropriateness of the analogy between
Christian and Zande beliefs and suggests that MacIntyre interprets
Zande magic as he does because "he can see in it only a (misguided)
technique for producing consumer goodsw (Winch 1964:106). To base a
model of interpretation on standards of modern Western logic and
science is paramount to insisting that the proper goal of Life anywhere
is that prevalent in Western societies: producing goods and amtrolling
nature. MacIntyre's history is capitalist, intellectualist, and technocratic.
It seems that if anthropology has shown u s anything, it has s h o w n us
that this is not the only, nor possibly even the best, w a y of making
sense of li~e."
fn his 1967 essay, "The Idea of a Social Science," M a c Z I L t y r e re-
engages Winch's claim that interpretation can be understood in terms of
the Wittgensteinian analysis of rule-following. He accuses Winch of
confusing some fundamentally different senses in which one could b e
said to fallow a rule, The value of judging the beliefs of the Other
according to their criteria of what makes sense is again called into

Winch suggests that the d e s and cd~~ventioas embodied by another Miel system shoald not be judged sirpIy
in tens of 'efficiency of production,"but rdated to 'the significance of ban Life' (Winch 1964:105-110). In the
end, he shifts the eqhasis [which dainates the debates) I r a epistemlogical analysis to ethics. Be says Little aboot
this, but it is an irportant change of emphasis. llte prevalent philosophical emphasis on ratianality is itself a
cultural d u e judgment. It is a byproduct of our (at least aczderic) culture that places the intellectual above the
m t i d . Winch states 'onr blindness to the point of priritive lodes of life is a corollary of the pointlessness of
mch of our oun lifevtYineh 1964506). lhis expresses the sare smtiwnt as that expressed by Eortm den he justifies
his reasons far preferring to live in a 'traditional society.'
Like wst apiricists, hlntyre sees value only in truth aml technological success. Epistmlogy as "efficiencyof
prodnction"or trnth as effective 'control over natureWtes precedent (to the point of exclusion) over ethics, as the
significance of hnan Life. Understmding takes precedent aver beliming (onless one believes what is true). This dght
be seen as part of a larger trend in p h i l o s e that sees epistemlqp and (meta)physics as prior to, or prorid@ a
foundation for, ethics.
question as Madntyre suggests that the same behavior can be
understood as following different rules (whether judged from inside or
outside that context) and that people often do not act according to the
rules they explicitly endorse." MacZntyre does, however, concede a few
previously disputed points to W i n c h - Winch's strategy of interpretation
is not, according to MacZntyre, mistaken, b u t incomplete. It is the
correct starting point for the project. of coming to understand another
belief system but Ieaves out the later stage of inquiry that, on
MacIntyreTstwo stage account makes judgement from the outside
possible. First w e interpret the O t h e r on their terms to understand what
they think they are doing, then w e interpret them on our terms t o
explain what they are really doing.

Attention to intentions, motives and reasons must precede

attention to causes: description in terms of the agent's concepts
and beliefs must precede description in terms of our concepts and
beliefs. (MacIntyre 1967:124)

O n one hand, MacIntyre admits that Winch is correct in supposing

that language and social W e are not two separate things (the first of
which ought to be understood before the second), O n the other hand he
maintains the view that the meaning of any concept under discussion
must be capable of crossing contexts undistorted if w e are to
investigate and explain the true motives and reasons for such behavior
according to our criteria of sense. MacIntyre claims that there are two
ways to characterize the relations between beliefs (according to their
criteria and according to ours), but does not see, at this point, that
this corresponds to two ways of characterizing the relations between
words. 'In order to separate this second stage of interpretation from the
first, it m u s t be presumed that semantic content can remain intact in

It has been noted by critics more familiar uith Uittgenstein's philosophy that this is not a fair criticis
of Winch. According to Uittgenstein, it is not necessary that the actor explicitly formlate the d e they are foUwing
nor actwily lollw my rules vhich are explicitly fordated. The activity of defying or ignoring rules is itself rnle
governed. On the other hand, hcIntyre does identify an indeterminacy (tbat Uittgenstein was f d y awe of) in
inkqreting the rules being followed. Behavior can be interpreted as confodng to different d e s depending on the
context or purpose of the interpretation.
translation (isomorphidly transmitted) if w e are to explain or criticize
their beliefs."
Maclhtyre amtinues to elaborate the idea that our own history of
modifying and changing beliefs provides an adequate foundation for
judging the beliefs of others. Now restricting his analysis to one
Ianguage and one history, he considers that, at one time, within our o w n
tradition, it might not have made sense to ask whether or not there are
witches (there just were). B u t somehow w e came to see the sense of
raising that question, w e were then able to criticize that judgement and
now firmly beIieve that witches do not e&t. This history provides
evidence that w e appealed to independent or non-contextual criteria.''

O n Winch's view certain actual historical transitions are made

unintelligible; I refer to those transitions from one system of
beliefs to another which are necessarily characterized b y raising
questions d the kind that Winch rejects. In seventeenth century
Scotland, for example, the question could not be raised, "But are
there witches?" (MacIntyre 1967:129)

The question, "are there witches?" would not be raised in the

seventeenth century because there just were witches (like there just
are chairs). The larger conceptual s y s t e m unequivocally supported such
a belief. What was once not debatable came to b e a question and then
again came not to be a question as a decisive negative answer took
hold. Madntyre reads this history of belief transition as providing the
foundation for an evolutionarily sanctioned framework for justifying
beliefs (whether ours or anyone else's). The history of conceptual
change is a process of progressive elimination of false beliefs. O u r
witch-related beliefs have been put to the test, but Zande beliefs have
ncjt yet undergone this historical process. O n MacIntyre's account, it is

Both of these positions are seen clearly elaborated a h s t consecutively (I[zcIntyre 1967:12'1). We
QcIntyre acknwIedges the intimy of the relation between language and social Life, he nonetheless laintains that, in
order to explain the behavior of the Other, ue must as= that ue man the sa# Wag as they do concerning the
concepts under discnssion.
This is a reiteration of a point lade in "UnderstandingBeligione (&chtyre1964:67) conceruing the
realization that criteria have a history. Rather than relativizing judgement, KacIntyre takes this to indicate that sue
modes of thought (and beliefs) have p m thersehes are effective thaa others.
not unreasonabIe for us to interpret their beliefs from our later vantage
point in this historid progression.19
Whereas the first judgement, mncerning seventeenth century
Scottish witches. depends only on cross-contextual intra-linguistic
comparison, the second case of cross-cultural inter-linguistic comparison,
concerning Zande boro maogu, depends on assumptions about the
possibility of literal translation. MacInQwe is fully aware of this

Consider the statement made by s o m e Zande theorist or by ICing

James VI and I, "There are witches," and the s t a t e m e n t made by
some modern sceptic, There are no witches." Unless one of these
statements denies what the other asserts, the negation of the
senten= expressing the former m d d not b e a wrrect translation
of the sentence expressing the latter. Thus if w e could not deny
from our own standpoint and in our own Ianguage what the
Azande or King James assert in theirs, w e should be unable to
translate their expression into our language. CulturaL idiosyncracy
would have entailed linguistic idiasyncracy and cross-cultural
comparison would have been rendered logically impossible, But of
course translation is not impossible. (MacIntyre 1962129)

By postulating an historical conceptual evolution, MacZntyre has

arrived at the same conclusion Hollis justified through postulating a
universal logic. The argument begins. "sincetranslation is not
impossible..." and ends "perfect translation is possible." The word
"perfect," however, finds its way into the argument somewhat
surreptitiously; MacIntyre assumes exactly what he sought to
demonstrate by invoking an analogy with a situation in which translation
is not an issue. Again, histories are equivocated and the Azande are
judged mistaken for the same reason as was King James. MacIntyre has
replaced Hollis* universal Iogic w i t h a universal history by which he
postulates a necessary commonality for the sake af judgement, The

Haclntyre's history is not only lirited to the history of tbe Vest, but, in rang ways, liiited to the
history of science. It is certainly not the case that, in wdern Yestern society, the concept of God has been
transcended by science. A significant percentage of the @ation still believes i n God. Likewise, although to a Car
lesser degree, uitchcraft beliefs persist in the Vest. Although significantly transforaed f r a beliefs said to be held
by seventeenth century uitcbes (if angone a c t d y ever held such beliefs), ritchcraft not only swim in Yestern
culture, bnt has had sorething cf a recent resurgence in popularity (see esp. Lnhn;um 1989).
original question was: "is there any sense in which it could be said that
w e mean the same thing amcerning cross-cultural or cross-linguistic
translations of difficult concepts?w The answer MacIntyre proposes is
that w e can only make judgements across contexts if the meanings of
those concepts do, in fact, translate isomorphicaLly. The desire to make
such judgements does not, however, justify the antecedent condition.
The argument is circular; it assumes, as its maor premise, what
translation accomplishes. The original problem has not been solved,
MacIntyre suggests that if we accept W i n c h ' s thesis,

We shall have to conclude that the contingently different

conceptual schemes and institutional arrangements of different
societies make translation difficult to the point at which attempts
at cross-cultural gener-tion too often becomes little more than
a construction of Lists. (MadIntyre 1967:130)

What MacIntyre has identified as a fault in Winch's analysis is

better understood as, in part, the condition of anthropology. The
problem, however, lies not with Winch's method, but with Maclntyre's
implicit definition of translation, As long a s translation is mnceived as
the isomorphic transfer of meaning, anthropology of substantially
different cultures might involve only very short and boring lists af
names for common objects.

Madntyre eventually does mme to see the importance of Winch's

point about the nature of language and meaning, and directly addresses
the problem of translation in his essay "Relativism, Power and
Philosophy." This essay is fascinating in that it reflects a dramatic
change in MacIntyre's position as the result of coming to terms with the
implications of Winch's question "whose history?"
Madntyre begins b y suggesting that only a person in a specific
sort of situation need face the problem of relativism?' This is someone
who is simuItaneously a participant in two different cultures and is
forced to negotiate the beliefs of bath- H e speaks of such a person as
having to choose between one wlinguistkcommunityw or the other,
noting the dependence of belief on language (MacTntyre 1985:186), and
suggests that, if they are sufficiently different, some of the beliefs
associated with each system wLU be incompatible. In the course of
considering such a scenario, MacIntyre finally addresses the problem of
fxanshtion. The result, not surprisingIy, is that he is drawn closer to
the outlook originally endorsed by Winch-
The primary example, discussed by MacIntyre, concerns the
apparently simple labels "DoireColmcillew and *LondonderryW applied b y
the Irish and the British, respectively, to the same town in Ireland. T h e
different contexts and histories surrounding each label guarantee that,
in spite of having a common referent, these labels are not translations
~ a proper name, cannot be
of one another. In fact, "Doire C ~ l m d l e ,as
translatable at all (MacIntyre 198~:185).~' Finally, the problem of
translation takes precedence over the problem of cross-cultural
judgement, largely undermining a great deal of MacZntyre's previous
speculation on the matter in a way that foregrounds the problem at the
heart of anthropology.

He originally characterizes this situation as existing only tor mple vho live in "highly specific tgpes of
social and adturd situations.... They are the social and institutional cireostances of those uha inhabit a certain
type of frontier or boandary situatioa@(hclntyre 1985:184). These are people in a situation here, for
politicaE/historical reasons, they are forced to speak different languages in different social interactions each of
which presuppose differeat cosdogies (or histories). The exarpks he uses imlve societies occupied by outside forces
attempting to Nose their culture.
Ilachtyre, in fact, saests tJut i t is not the case that the of a proper me is ever exhausted by
its relation to a referent. Proper names foUw the pattern revealed in this example:
Ct names ia Be firsf iastam only for those uha are rerbers of sae particular linguistic and cultural
c m m i t y by identifying places and persons i n tens of the scheae of identification shared by, and perhaps
partially constitutive of, that ummity. The relation of a proper are to its beater carmot be elucidated
vitbout reference to such identifying fmctians. And second that 'Doire Colrcille' na#s--dodies a cnrmal
intention of m i g - a place with a contimums identity ever since it becar in fact St. Calmba's oak grove
in 546 and that 'Londonderrg' nimes a settlerent ude only in the seventeenth century and is a nare dose use
presupposes the legitimcy of that settlement and of the use of the hglish langnage to noe it. (Haclntyre
It is not that the beliefs of each such community cannot be
represented in any way at all in the Ianguage of the other: it is
rather that the outcome in each case of rendering those beliefs
sufficiently intelligible to be evaluated by a member of the other
community involves characterizing those beliefs in such a way that
they are bound to be *ected- (MacInQme 1985:186)

Even the existence of a bridgehead or a short boring list of

commonly held concepts will not help to adjudicate such differences:

It will not at this point b e helpful to remark either that in both

these pairs of Linguistic communities a great many other Mefs
were of course shared b y members of both communities o r that in
particular no one had ever had any difficulty in translating 'Snow
is white' from one language to the other,,. for it is precisely those
features of languages whose mastery cannot be acquired from
such phrase books which gener te untranslatablity between
languages, (Maclhtyre 1985:187)d

For all of the similarities between MadIntyre's previous analysis

and bridgehead models of cross-cultural translation, he now explicitly
denies that simple commonftlities might assist in providing a foundation
for the translation of other such beliefs,

The fact that certain other parts of the two languages may
translate quite easily into each other provides no reason at aIl for
skepticism about partial untranslatibility, The sentences-in-use
which are the untranslatable parts of this type of language-in-use
are not in fact capable of being logically derived from,
constructed out of, reduced to, or otherwise rendered into the
sentences-in-use w h i c h comprise the translatable part of the same
language-in-use, (Machtyre 1985:188)

The relativist predicament, according to Madntyre, prevails in this

specific case. He entertains several possible solutions to the problem,

The exaple kIntyre cites of the sirple sentence 'saw is uhite' alludes to Donald Ikvidson's translation
theory in which this sentem appears as his lost c o l o n and pivotal example. While Davidson's theory w i l l be the
subject of chapter five, it is uo g kIntyre is, here, identifying me of the irportant shortanings of
d ~ t h that
such a theory. The existence of a set of easily translated propositions does not insure that a& a set will provide a
foundation for forther uaderstandhg betueen caltares. The qwstian wrth re-coasideriog in chapter five, to be d m
f r a hclntyre's obsemtions, is 'to vhat extent does &cIntyrels bormdar~rsibation problmtize cross-dtnral
translation, and hov does this effect Davidson's theory?'
but finds none etfecti~e?~ The transition from his previous reliance on
a tempered superiority thesis to this lfmited concession to relativism is
the outcome of MacIntyre's new philosophy of language. H e clear& treats
at least some instances of meaning transfer so as to take account of
other cultural contexts and histories. He formulates a strikingly
Wittgensteinian critique of the view of language which takes meaning to
b e a function of reference and sentences to be hypotheses about the
world, H e considers a stranger or tourist who could find the town Doire
Colmcillefiondonderry (given directions) regardless of which name is
used to label it. In this way he addresses the argument that meaning
(as identification) might be extracted from the context of history by
appeal to its referential function.

Philosophers of logic have sometimes treated the way in which

such names are used by strangers or tourists as exemplifying
some essential core naming relation,,., in so doing such
philosophers have obscured the difference between the type of
natural language in which the standard uses of a variety of
expressions commit the user to an expression of shared, communal
belief and the type of natural language in which this is so
minimally or not at all. (MacIntyre 1985:186)

The prirary possibfe solaeioa that he offers is that of learning a third language in order to d a t e
betwxn the two in conflict. For reasons all adequately addressed by HacIntyre, this uill not do, and relativisa remains
the predicarent of the dti-lingual in such a situation. The third language would have to be such that it bad no
allegiance to either of the languages it was b e h g used to &ate be€veen, and it rnst be able to accurately represent
the beliefs of both. The reasons k gives for the impossibility of us@ such a language is that lost languages viU not
satisfy the first criteria. Those that do, got that uay by enbracing a certain heterogeneity that lakes thea mducive
to justifying the relativist position. In other words, the potential solution, by ~ t n r e ,ironically, &races the
problem. A third langnage could only cae to satisfy these criteria by having a certain sort of history.
k i t the history that calrinates in this kiad of educational gallimaufry produced along the uay mas a large
and general avareness ot the wide range of varying and conflict@ tgpes of justificatory ar-t used to
support various types of contending belief, and also of the vide range of varying and contlictiq theoretical
accounts of rational jnstification available to support their use. (hchtyre 1985:196)
The probla is that the old language offers too feu, the nev languge too rang, interpretive possibilities, and
either uay one is faced with the probler of relativism.
It is arguable that d e r n Wlish (his del heterogeneous language) still vould not satisfy the second condition
above. We a heterogeneous language offers more possibilities for representing the beliefs of the Other, i t does not
ensure that any one of those rill be without distortiw or judgement. It is aunecessary to press this point here (in
relation to !facIntyreis atgmnt) since he concedes the inability of d i a t i o n through a third langmge tor the above
MadIntyre has identified an all-to-common mistake in translation
theory. This language, as used by a tourist (or philosophers of logic),
often serves as the foundation for claims about cross-cultural
understanding at all levels of inquiry-Such an approach equates the
ability to find a public restroom with understanding the m e a n i n g s of
deeply religious or spiritual beliefs. This extension from the simple to
the complex is only possible if you ignore the linguistic differences
between cultures and the differences between sentences like "snow is
whiten and "Londonderry is a town in Ireland."
A more careful mnsideration of meaning holism and natural
language use reveals a closer link between a belief system and the
Ianguage in which it is expressed, The possibility of perfect synonymy
between concepts cross-culturally is further compromised by adding the
textual history (whether oral o r written) of a culture to the historical
aspects of meaning or justification- MaCIntyre suggests that the
meanings of concepts in a language depend not o d y on a stock of
factual stories (of history) but also myths, fictions, literary conventions
and styles, all of which influence and constrain meaning, So too, the
different textual histories of cultures problematize the idea of

The consequence is that when two such distinct linguistic

communities confront one another, each with its own body of
canonical texts, its own exemplary images, and its own tradition of
elaborating concepts in terms of these, but each also lacking a
knowledge of, let alone linguistic capacities informed by the
tradition of the other community, each will represent the beliefs of
the other within its own discourse in abstraction from the
relevant tradition and so in a way that ensures misunderstanding.
(Madntyre 1985:188)

The consequence of all such mnsiderations is acknowledgement of

at least partial untranslatibility between certain languages. As MacIntyre
points out, the person caught between cultures faces a choice not just
between languages, but between linguistic communitfes and, in this,

not only a choice between two mutually incompatible sets of

beliefs, but one b e t w e e n sets of beliefs so structured that each
has internal to it its own standards of truth and justification.,.,
They exclude the possibility oP appeal to some neutral or
independent standard of rational justification to justify the choice
of one set of beliefs, one wag of life, one linguistic community
r a t h e r than the other. (Madntyre 1985:189)

What i s to b e said of this unique person in this specific situation?

According to MacLntyre, they will have a different understanding of
truth and justification, finding it impossible to appeal to any
independent criteria to ground those concepts. Constant confrontation
between LinguisticaUy embedded conceptualr7;1tions will create an
awareness of the lack of any such non-contextual criteria: "rational
choice wiU have transformed our imaginary person into a relativistu
(Madntyre l985:190)-
Although Maclhtyre considers t w o highly specific amtexts in which
these interpretive difficulties arise, he suggests that this kind of
situation "happens to be that which most people in modern societies
such as ours take to be their ownn (MacIntyre 1985:199). Certainly it is
the situation in which anthropologists routinely find themselves. Indeed,
anthropologists intentimafly place themselves in MacIntyre's "boundary
situation." In some sense, anthropology (and so cross-cultural
translation) just is t h e investigation of "boundary situations."
MacIntyre's hypothetical relativist, is then none other than Evans-
Pritchard's, now self-reflexive, "double marginal man," who, through
careful attention to the intricacies of Ianguage, is able to displace not
only the culture and language of the Other, but (unlike Evans-
Pritchard's character) their own culture and language as well.

When w e learn the languages of certain radically different

cultures, it is in the course of discovering what is untranslatable
in them, and why, that w e learn how n o t only to occupy
alternative viewpoints but in terms of those viewpoints to frame
questions to which under certain conditions a version of relativism
is the inescapable answer. (Maclntyre 1985:198)

MacIntyre, nonetheless. maintains the possibility that the problem

of relativism m a y be partially transcended, making, here, the same
appeal to an historical progress toward the truth as in earlier essays.
He sees a fundamental difference between the languages used by the
people in his examples and modern Western languages. The latter type of
language approaches (though never fully attahs) a transcendence of the
determination of beliefs by language because it has evolved in a context
(the tradition of multiculturalism) where different views are commonly
negotiated. Such languages (as modern English) have a stockpile of
concepts from different traditions to appeal to as well as the linguistic
tools to negotiate between
MacIntyre's later position is more sophisticated than those
presented in chapter one because he sees the sense in w h i c h the
criteria for judging foreign beliefs are historically grounded and wntext
dependent, and he recognizes the embedding of such criteria in the
very language that the anthropologist uses to represent such beliefs, H e
is aware that the anthropologist's own historical/linguistic context must
play a role in the interpretation of the beliefs of the Other but
overvalues that amtext because he sees Western rationality and
language as further advanced in an evolutionary progression of thought.
While not strictly objectivist, MacIntyre's justification for the privileged
interpretive position of those using W e s t e r n ianguages is teleological. H e
i s able to maintain the superiority of Western Linguistic and conceptual
resources not just in translation but as a standard for judgement in the
assessment of other belief systems. It has, however, b m m e a tenuous
standard. It seems that, in s p i t e of this valuation of Western frameworks
for understanding, those who find themselves in boundary situations,
negotiating between linguistic communities, m u s t at Ieast act Like a
relativist; in order to communicate effectively. The problem with Evans-
Pritchard and early Macfntyre is that they recognize only one frame by
which to translate the Other: W e s t e r n empirical science. In his debate
with Winch, MacIntyre comes to see the sense in which there is a

An interesting ~ t i to mp m e in relation to Haclntyre's chancterizatioa of different m e s is "Ew
did modem 01glish get to be such a heterogeneous lmguage?' A large part of the answer to this question would have to
address colonialisa, anthropolagy, d t d mix@ aPd cross-cult& caaniation. Canteaprarg Ehglish is a
conglcaeration of tern barroved f r a other languages, and mterporary EQlish speaking cultures are the byproducts of
countless confrontations with, and incorporations of, other societies. Discassions of witchcraft now often make use of
concepts borroved f r a Eastern religions, a caparison that wuld not have been possible had hglish not already
expanded in a confrontation with and attmt to understand vhrt is antraushtable in those belief systas.
mdtitude of language games that can serve as contexts for
understanding the Other.

Drawing from the lessons that emerge in the dialogue between

Maatyre and W i n c h concerning the untenability of any theory of
translation that posits cross-cultural concept-to-concept synonymy,
Stephen Turner reengages the debate (discussed by Lukes, see chapter
one) between Spiro and Leach over WX, Roth's study of the Tully River
Blacks. A new approach to translation results from this twenty year
retrospective which is presented in SoCl'oIogical Euplanation as
Recall that Spiro came to the conclusion that the Tully River Blacks
were completely ignorant of physiological paternity. Leach, on the other
hand, argued that the relevant beliefs were ritual in nature and that
this mmmunity was not, in fact, ignorant of any "factsw;rather, they
were best understood as expressing religious beliefs symbolically.
Turner's approach to this debate differs significantly from Lukes' in
that he concentrates not on what the Other is said to believe, but on
how what is said is translated,
Turner begins by first considering what beliefs or practices we
might identify in our own, or any other famiLiar culture that are similar
to the beliefs in question, Be then broadens this line of investigation,
considering both similarities and differences in related beliefs. It t u r n s
out that the Tully River B h c k s do not appear to be ignorant concerning
the nfactswof physiological paternity in animals. Turner asks, what
would it be like in our culture to be ignorant of one and not the other?
Like Leach, he also compares the t a r g e t beliefs to various mythological
stories, conceptions of virgin birth, and concepts related to English
wedding ceremonies. Ee further compares these beliefs to those held by
the Walbiri people and the ways in which these are a mix of secular and
ritual responses to the same issue. Finally, he compares the beliefs of
the Tully River Blacks to Catholic beliefs about the virgin birth. This
exercise seems to be just what MacIntyre envisioned when suggesting
that English speakers muld apply the tools of diversity acquired in the
modern Western tradition to the project of cross-cultural interpretation.
In order to evaluate the interpretations proposed by Spiro and
Leach, Turner uses these mmparisons as a basis for reassessing the
beliefs of the Tully River Blacks as well as indicating w h e r e each of
these interpretations is likely to break down or conflict w i t h other
related beliefs. The interpretations are said to "break downww h e r e this
multifaceted approach reveals inconsistencies. Turner finds that the
Spiro interpretation breaks down more often than Leach's and in
unexplainable ways?
While Turner seems, at first, to address issues related only to the
explanation of beliefs held by the TuUy River Blacks, his analysis shows
how the attempt to explain their beliefs is intimately linked to the
project of trmslafi'on. Following what appears as a preestablished
translation of the belief in question, both Spiro and Leach attempt to
link the beliefs in translation to something in their own belief system in
order to explain them. What each fails to appreciate, however, is that
each explanation, through this implicit Linking, is simultaneously a
translation-Turner provides a clear account of what the translation of
these specific beliefs would have to be on each analysis. According to
Spiro's explanation, Turner provides the arresponding translation:

When they say such and such (about the causes of pregnancy)
they mean w h a t a person innoce~tof understanding (like a child)
would mean if h e said that the causes of pregnancy were dreams,
catching frogs, e t c (Turner 1980=53)

Turner's translational gloss on Leach's interpretation is:

When they say such and such (about the causes of pregnancy)
they mean what a devout Roman Catholic means when he says that

It is interesting to keep in lind that Me' analysis motivates hir to favor the Spim interpretation.
Lnkes' anaIylsis, in chapter I, actuaIly takes place well after the publication of tbe Tmner h k . Lukes cites Tarrier's
view but dislisses it in an r t t m t to derive a mn 'objective' approach. It shoald be M sorprise that Iukes'
rationalist approach to interpretation favors Spiro's hfelIattualistinterpretation as both are founded on sirilar
assmptions. Bel lbv Lerner davs attention to this intirate connection (Lerner 1995:181).
the wnception of Jesus w a s caused by G o d without any male
contribution, and by wcausewthey mean w h a t the Roman Catholic
would mean if he pointed to signs of this dlvine act (like the
annunciation)- (Turner 1980:53)

The key point of Turner's thesis is that the explanation or

interpretation of such beliefs and the translation of those beliefs are
not two separate issues, as MacIntyre suggested when he posited two
stages of interpretation, H e relates the beliefs of the Other, not to one
of our concepts or one proposition in our language, but to a practicet a
whole activity or way of perceiving things, Turner refers to this
procedure of e x p l a n a t i o n s o n as working with the "same-practices
hypothesisw(Turner 1980:56). O n th isaccount, all explanation/transIation
is comparative. We Iook for a concept, belief or practice in our own
language/dture with w h i c h to equate the belief as nearly as possible,
and then attempt to explicate the differences? The amparison will
undoubtedly break down at some point and it is here that the debate
between alternative translations arises.

The puzzles arise when this hypothesis breaks down or appears to

break down. Not uncommonly, ascertaining whether there really is
a breakdown and identifying the place where it occurs constitutes
the b u k of the sociologist's task in offering a comparative
explanation, (Turner 1980:56)

It is not difficult to see that this i s just the pattern that Evans-
Pritchard's follows in his study of the Azande. H e equates the Zande
belief in witchcraft with the Western project of trying to explain natural
phenomena. The explanation breaks down in various places, and he must

Turner describes the pmcedure in greater length:
Ue start with a prrzzle of the [onWere they say x, vhat do ue say?"d hypothesize a rule like Were they
say x, ue say y.@This rule fordates an antlogy betveen the use of xin the one 1e- and the use of gin
the other. Ve ray discover that the hypothesized rule leads ns astray on certain occasions of the use of s. Me
dm mag coaclusions, or cauaot mke omelves understood. 'This gives us a puzzle of the [on%by did the
rule wrk (or appear to work) on this occasion and not on that one?' It is at this point that we rast do the
looking around at the setting. Ue are looking for saethiag specific: material, like conduct, expressiw ased
in cormection n t h x, and so forth, with which to construct analogies betwen the "iue' or set o f asages of
which the expression is a part and such sets in oar ovn language. f'l'arner 198056)
fill in the reasons for this breakdown. These points of breakdown
indicate the dements of untranslatibility in the cross-cultural transfer
of mncepts, Depending on how one translates the belief in question, the
breakdowns in translation will appear in different places and may also
be more or less numerous, Turner implies that Evans-Pritchard has not
aligned Zande beliefs w i t h the practice in our culture to which it bears
dosest resemblance:

What Evans-Pritchard shows us is how far the comparison to

scientific thought may be pushed and where it breaks down, and
in doing this he shows the futility of seeing the Zande system
simply as another mistaken scientific doctrine. (Turner 1980:61)

The implication is not that Evans-Ptitchard has taken an approach

that necessarily produces a mistranslation, but that h e has made some
unfruitful or misleading comparisons, without taking fuJl account of the
implications of important differences between the terms he treats as
inter-translatable. The judgements he passes on Zande beliefs reflect not
on their beliefs but on the particular comparisons he posits.27
The implication of recognizing this intertwining of translation and
explamtion, acoording to Turner, is "that there are no a priori
'appropriate' comparisonsw(Turner 1980:78), H e suggests that one posits
comparisons and then tests t h e m to see where they succeed or break
down. A translation of a concept m a y work in some contexts or for some
purposes but not in others, and then one has to explain the
discrepancy- Without a priori constraints, there is no theoretical model

Tanya Lnhnann carpares wnterporary mgic beliefs rare to religious beliefs both in tens of chzncterizing
causal efficacy and in tens of hw beliefs are defended (LPhnarm 1989:296,336). In fact, very few of her descriptions
appeal to the traditional notion of This amparison with religion alows her to interpret such beliefs as
instmental bnt not necessarily false. Eoans-Pritchard interprets such beliefs as scientifically instrraentaf but
false; Yinch often interprets ther as non-instmntd and hwce not making any real c l h about reality. N6 doubt,
Christian ritnaIs are reant to have sae ef tect an the wrld. Raying, for instance, is intended to prodace results.
L u h m ~is able to interpret witchcraft beliefs smwhere betreen the poles of instrpentalist and -list
approaches. Snch a camparison does, however, have its m lhitations and LPhnarm is carefal to draw attention to the
@ic is a modernist religion: it challenges the validity of religious dogttim, authoritative sgdology. and
intellectual analysis, vhiie gaining its inspiration f r a archaic primitive form; and its structural
adiguity rests upon a decanstmted mtim of belief. [imhnrnn 1989:336)
upon which to base a comparison between differing beliefs, Turner also
draws attention to the misleading use of the idea of "mntextWin these
debates, Contexts are not pre-given segments of culture; they are a
product of the a t t e m p t to make tmns1ationa.l mmparisons. As such
comparisons are made, that which was sectioned off as the "contextw
appropriate for undermding a particular belief or practice may change
Many critiques of r e l a t i v i s m are motivated by fear that giving up
objectivism entails the impossibility of explanation. Turner shows that, in
spite of the lack of theoretical constraints on explanation or a common
bridgehead of universal rationality, fruitful engagement between two
opposing views is still possible, This is precisely what anthropologists
do and what Turner negotiates between the interpretations provided by
Spiro and Leach, H e analyzes the points at which "same-practices"
comparisons breakdown as well as the ways in which these can be
explained away by those who endorse alternative translations. Although
the aspects of each translation that need explaining are different (each
comparison holds the possibility of breaking down at different points), it
does not follow that no comparison between conflicting translations can
b e made. Even without objective constraints on explanation, judgements
can still be made distinguishing better from worse explanations/
translations. The important point is that the translational breakdown (or,
its analysis) ought to remain p a r t of the process of translation. The
successes as w e l l as the failures of each "same practices hypothesis"
are both constitutive of the translation.
A t this point it w i l l be useful to summarize the lessons I draw from
the rationality debates considered in these first two chapters:
1) When translating the beliefs of the Other, the primary issue is
not which concept or statement accurately conveys the content of their
belief in the target language, In cases like those I have considered, no
one statement can. Therefore, the idea of literal translation or the
synonymous cross-cultural transfer of meaning must be abandoned,
2) The crucial question is, rather, given a particular translation,
what distortions are created when a particular translational comparison
is made between the way a concept or sentence is used in the social
context of the Other, and the way the translated concept or s t a t e m e n t is
used in the social context of the anthropologist? This opens up the
further question of what to make of the possibility of understanding the
Other given these breakdowns?
3) T h e basic unit of translation is neither the concept nor the
proposition, but rather the entire ethnographic account of the beliefs,
practices and social s y s t e m in w h i c h the particuIar belief in question is
said to be held, This follows from a rmgnition that no "translation,"
however simple, is a literal representation of the of the Other,
and from an appreciation that explanations, more or less expansive, are
required to account for the distortions, discrepancies, differences, and
analogical breakdowns that inevitably arise in the process of translation.
4) Translations are not entirely accurate nor inaccurate
representations of the beliefs of the Other, but partial and distorted
analogues of other w a y s of thinking. This recognition of a degree of
untranslatibility undercuts the standard paradoxes and oppositions that
structure debate about translation,
5) T h e translator must engage in linguistic self-reflexivity. One
cannot c o m e to terms with w h a t it means to translate "Doire Colmcille"
without coming to terms w i t h w h a t it means to translate it as
"Londonderry." The translator must take account of the effect of taking
a label from the amceptual apparatus of one language and placing it
over a concept f r o m another language.
Having recast w h a t is at issue in debates about translation, it will
be useful to look at work in anthropology that takes language
comparison as central. The linguistic anthropologists I will consider in
the next chapter may b e said to have taken Winch's maxim to its
theoretical limit=

Our language and our social relations are just two sides of the
same coin. To give an account of the meaning of a word is to
describe how it is used; and to describe how it is used is to
describe the social intermurse into which it enters, (Winch
Chapter Four - The LinguiMic Turn in Anthropology

Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to o a r m w the

range of thought? In the end we shall make thought crime
Literally impassible, because there will be no words in which to
express it, Every concept that m n ever be needed will be
expressed by exact& one word, with ifs meaning rigidly d&Ined
and aLI its s u b s i d e meanings rubbed out and forgotten..., Every
year f e w e r and fewer words, and the mnge of wnscibusness
always a little smaller..,. The whole &ate af thought will be
different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it
now. Orthodoxy means not tblnkhg - not needing to think.
Orthodcqy is unmnsal'busness~

George Orwell - 1984

Winch's origind mncern was to address the relationship between

language and a belief system or "form of life." Careful attention to that
relationship revealed a far more intimate connection than had previously
been acknowledged by most philosophers. Regardless, the rationality
debates quickly left this concern behind and returned to it only w h e n it
became clear that something had been missed. Madntyre's "Relativism,
Power and Philosophy," discussed at the end of the last chapter,
characterizes this return to a concern with this intimate language-belief
mnnection as crucial for coming to terms with cross-cultural
understanding. It is careful attention to this relation that exposes the
linguistic one-sidedness with which many previous theorists had treated
the language of the Other and the project of translation. Winch exposes
this theoretical one-sidedness, this lack of attention to distortions
created when beliefs are expressed in another language b y drawing
attention to the ways in which English constrains our thought just as
much as the Zande language does on Evans-Pritchard's account. H e
suggests that any interpretive investigation is guided and shaped by its
own language or cultural context.'
Winch often speaks, not of translating from one "language" into
another, but of wtranshting [from or into] modes of thought," alluding
to the ways in which language and thought are intertwined. T h e
question remains however, if thought and language are so intimately
related, what is the nature of that relation, and to what degree does it
effect our understanding of other cultures and the possibility of
translation? George Orwell envisioned the possibility that the right kind
of b g u a g e could make certain types of thought impossible and literally
guarantee others. To what extent is one's thought confined or
determined by language? The answer to this question has important
implications for translation theory and for the possibility of
understanding the speaker of another language. Related questions draw
attention to a body of work in anthropology done forty years prior to
. -- - --

Yinch creates a telling staterent of this pervasive oversight by reversing a passue f n Evans-Pritchard's
mrk on the Azande, in order to illustrate the pint that it is not only the Azande uho are constrained by their
languadeIbeliel systm. F r a ~ f M tO d, e s aad higic, Uhch quotes:
Azaude observe the action of the poison oracle as re observe it, but their cbservations are always
subordinated to their befiefs and are incorporated into their beLiefs and made to explain thm and justify
then. Let the reader consider any ar-t that uould utterly deaolish aL1 Zande claias for the p e r of the
oracle. If it were translated into Zande lodes of thought it would serve to support their entire structure of
belief. For their mystical notions are erinently coherent, being interrelated by a netwrk of logical ties,
and are so ordered that they never too crudely contradict sensory experience but, instead, experience seem to
justify the^. The Zande is i r s e d in a sea of mystical notions, and i f be speaks about his poison oracle he
mst speak in a mystical idia. (lhns-Pritchard 1937:150)
Vinch states: 'To locate the point at uhich the important phi1osophic.d issue does arise, I shall offer a parody,
coaposed by changing round one or two expressions in the forgoing quotation.' This reversal dravs attention to the ways
in vhich language (any 1-e) lag be taken to influence belie[ content or constrain thought.

Europeans observe the action ot the poison oracle as Azande observe it, but their observations are alvags
subordinated to their M e f s and are incorporated into their beliefs made to explain then and jastify
thea. Let a Zande consider any argment that nmld utterly refute dl European scepticis about the p m r of
the oracle. If it were translated into eatopean lodes of thought i t voald serve to support their entice
structure of belief. For their scientific notions iue einently coherent, being interrelated by a netuork of
logical ties, and are so ordered that they never too crudely contradict rystical experience but, instead,
emrience seas to justify ther. The Enropean is i r s e d in a sea of scientific notions, and i f he speaks
about the Zande poison oracle he rust speak in a scientific idia. (Winch 1964:09)
The point is d l uade that many anthropologists are often quick to point oat the inflneuce of the laugnage or
conceptual scheae of the Other in forming beliefs withont acknowledging the influence that hisher m language has on
the interpretation of that society or of reality.
the debates over rationality and rehtivism discussed in chapters one
and three-
In the 1930's and early 1940's. Benjamin Whorf created a
controversy in anthropology by proposing what has since been called
the thesis of "linguistic determinismm and/or "linguistic relativism."
Following the path charted by Franl: Boas and Edward Sapir, Whorf
drew attention to the ways in which a particular language shapes the
beliefs and behavior of those who speak it. Significant differences
between belief systems were found to be manifesfed in the languages
used to express those beliefs, These anthropologists generally drew
attention, not to differences in behavior, nor to specific unusual beliefs,
but to differences in ways of speaking about the world and the ways in
which the structure of a language is transferred to the structure of a
particular representation of reality.
Whorf's analysis of linguistic structure and his attention to the
substantial differences in structural features of different languages has
been heavily criticized within both philosophy and anthropology, A large
part of the criticism is, however, a product of conspicuously
unsympathetic interpretations of Whorf's work, misdirected empirical
testing, as well as of unreflective applications of the labels
"determinismwand wrelativisrn,wM y a i m in this chapter is to show that a
great deal of this criticism misses the point by failing to appreciate just
what Whorf was attempting to come to terms with in analyzing structural
differences between languages.
Whorf's work addresses strikingiy similar questions to those that
later emerged in the MacIntyre/Winch debate; he does not, however,
make the case for his claims about cross-cultural representation by
appeal to a priori rules derived from epistemological considerations that
pertain to the possibiLim of translation, nor by explicit appeal to
theories of meaning. Whorf appeals, instead, to the actual practice of the
anthropological aCtMty of translating. Consequently, his work offers a
basis for a more promising characterization of the project of translation
as well as a better understanding of exactly what is ammplished in the
attempt to translate the beliefs of the Other.
In his essay, "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to
Language," Benjamin Whorf investigates the differences between some
fundamental concepts in the Hopi Indian language and some apparently
related concepts in English. These comparisons allow him to establish a
case for the existence of substantial differences between these
languages and draw attention to some important features of the project
of translation.
Whorf considers a number of examples in which language appears
to influence behavior and belief and reflects on the implications of this
relationship, Ia drawing attention to the intimate connection between
language and belief, as Winch was later to do, Whorf suggests not just
that a particular perception of reality not only shows itself in language,
but that a particular language governs or heavily influences the ways
in which a speaker will perceive reality. One of the clearest statements
of Whorf's thesis is adopted from Edward Sapir whom he quotes at the
beginning of the essay:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone
in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are
very much at the mercy of the particular language which has
b e c o m e the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an
illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without
the use of language and that language is merely an incidental
means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection.
T h e fact of the matter is that the "real worldu is to a large extent
uneonsciousiy built up on the language habits of the group..,. W e
see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do
because the language habits of our community predispose certain
choices of interpretation. (Whorf [quoting Sapir] 1956P134)

This claim that language, to some extent, dictates a speaker's

perception of reality has m m e to be known as the "Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis." It has been restated in countless forms, most of which
distort what appears to be Whorf's original claim(s). Whorf is most often
read as endorsing strong forms of both linguistic relativism and/or
linguistic determinism. Of the two theses, ulinguistic determinismw is
generally considered the stronger; it is the cIaim that "our cognition
and thought procRsses are totally determined b y the structure of the
language that w e speak." "Linguistic relativism," the weaker form of the
thesis, is the claim that "the structures of different languages do
some influence on the thinking and categorization of speakersw(Robins
1976:100)> This thesis is often identified with the further claim that
there exist substantial differences between languages and that these at
least complicate, if not preclude, the possibility of cross-cultural
While these definitions are used in some of the more overstated
formulations of Whorf's dairn[s), I: will take John Carroll's
characterization in the introduction to Language, Thought, and Reali'm to
be one of the better formulations of Whorf's view. CarroIl summarizes
Whorf's "linguistic relativity thesiswas the claim that, "the structure of
a human being's language influences the manner in which he
understands reality and behaves with respect to itn (Carroll 195623).
C r i t i c s almost always attribute stronger forms of the thesis to
Whorf by focusing on one or two quotes, taken out of context that seem
to imply a strict determinism in the relationship between language and
beliefs about reality? In addition, labelling the view expressed b y Whorf
"Linguistic determinismn is misleading, from a philosophical standpoint, as

The tw theses are not consistently stated throughout the critical literature. Frank C m , in contrast
to the Robins/Perm formlation, quoted above, characterizes the two as follous: Lingnistic Relativism, considered the
stronger thesis, cakes the claim that, ' B a the world is pmeived is ... detenined by language.' W s t i c
Determinis, considered the weaker thesis, suggests only that, "he tens and gnmr ue use point us toward different
types of things" (fCnnninghP 1973:46-7). b s t writers, houever, consider liqpistic deteninism to be the stroaer
thesis, reversing these definitions.
A umber of often quoted stataents in lihrf's essays souud as if he light be endorsing a view consistent
with die "strong thesisa of linguistic deteninis. Be refers to the individual as 'constrained completely' uithin the
'unbreakable bonds' of language (Whorl 1956c:256), or w e s t s that the tens of lin@stic agreaent are "absolutely
obligatory' [iorf 1956g:213-14). Critics often pick up on stateneats such as these in isolation, and suuest that he
endorses a strictly deteninistic thesis and proceed to criticize some version of this. Aside f r a these Ceu dramatic,
rhetorical statemts, there is little in Wharf's writin@ to support such a vier.
It should be re#dered that Worf follws in the tradition of Franz Bars and Edward Sapir, both of uha explicitly
held that structural differences (ubile inflmtial) can be m r n e through cammication (hence are not strictly
deteruinistic) (Boas 1911:24-26). Yhile Sapir and Wrf place #re emphasis on the direction of MIuence Cram language
to thought, the theories of both are consistent with 3oas' vim that neither is strictly deterministic. Sapir , likewise,
is very clear that the connection betwen language and thought is not "deteninistic" (Sapir 193359).
his claim is certainly neither that language alone determines, nor that it
completely determines, what one does. or is able to, think.( Rather.
according to Whorf, there is an intimate relation between a pdcuIar
representation of reality and the language used to express it such that
each is, to s o m e extent, reflected in the other, He chooses to emphasize
Ianguage as a significant factor influencing belief, but this is not to say
that it is the only factor. H e explicitly distances himself from such a
crude deterministic reading, suggesting that culture and language
influence each other:

Which was first: the language patterns or the cultural norms? In

the main they have grown up together, constantly influencing
each other, B u t in this partnership the nature of the language is
the factor that limits free plasticity and rigidifies channels of
development in the more autocratic way. This is so because
language is a system, not just an assemblage of norms- (Whorf

To b e "at the mercy of a languagew (as Sapir put it, quoted

above), is not to b e "determinedwby it. in the standard philosophical
sense of determinism. Sapir. too, is clear on this point, qualifying the
degree of linguistic influence on belief by suggesting that individuals
are "very much at the mercy ofw language and that language governs

The use of the uord 'deterahisifis often taken to irply that ubat one thinlrs is predlchbIy determined by
one's language. Vhorf, on the contrary, states that "There are connections but not correlations or diagaostic
correspondences between cultural noms and linguistic patterns' (Yhorf 1956f:f59). aorf's d a .is that language
influences vhat ve MitnalI'think, bnt not necessarily uhat ue are capable of thinking. It d d be wre accurate to
suggest that language bnstrains8 rather than 'deteninesWought.
In 'Linguistic Consideration of Thinking in Priritive Coraaities,' Yborf clearly disassociates his viev vith the
deteninistic one often ascribed to hir. iie appeals to the wrks or Boas and Sapit to sabstantiate the clah that
thinking is largely Linguistic, but insists that it is a ustake to see i t as entirely linguistic (Vhorf 1956e:66). He
also states "Ishould be the last to pretend that there is @a so derinite as 'a correlation* betveen culture and
1anguage"tWhorf 1956f:139) but only that belief patterns are 'in consonance' or 'in accord8 with language (Ybort
l9%f: 154).
I t is probable that the distortion caused by the translation of the caacept Veteninisl"fm anthropology to
philosophy is partly responsible for the philosophical problems vith this theory. Tbere is a long history of debate over
'hard deteninis" philosophy and, ahittedlg, the conceptual pdaging that caes uith the philosophical use of the
word 'deteninimWes the analysis appear uurealistic. In any case, the use of the label 'deteninis% found in
the uork of caentators, not Uhorf's m. See also Dell l@s' "bQpes of Linguistic Relativity' (1966 esp. p.158)
for a detailed treabent concerning hw mst critics dstalre Ohorf's anaIysis for uhat has been labelled the "strong
thesis of Linguistic: Deteninisl.@
thought "to a large extent," or wpredisposeswcertain Lines of thinking.
None of this suggests strict determination but rather suggests that
there is a substantizd degree of Linguistic influence on the speaker's
perception of reality-
In order to illustrate this Linguistic influence on belief* Whorf
draws attention to the ways in which the meanings of some t e r m s exceed
any simple referential function and M e t , for speakers, what Sapir
had called a kind of wunconsciouspatterning," His claim is not merely
that the meanings of concepts differ between languages but, more
importantly, that the structure and grammar of a language significantly
contribute to how one structures or "patterns" representations of
reality. Ris analysis is as much a semantic theory as a theory of
anthropological methodology and, in fact, precedes a tradition in
philosophy that similarly foregrounds 'translation theory as a means of
understanding semantics (to be discussed in the next chapter).
In spite of the fact that there is a positive theory of language
implicit in Wharf's writings, his central concern is actually criticalt he is
intent on dispelling some popular assumptions concerning the relation
between language and reason that he regards as mistaken. A large part
of his work is designed to show that a style of reasoning is intimately
Linked to a particular language, In wScienceand Linguisticsw, he
attempts to dispel the idea (key to bridgehead theories) that natural
logic and language are independent. The same point would be
emphasized by Winch twenty years later in his critique of the
underlabourer conception of philosophy. Whorf characterizes the
unreflective nation that language and logic are two distinct things in
the following passage:

Natural logic says that talking is m e r e l y an incidental process

concerned strictly w i t h communication, not with formulation of
ideas.,,. Formulation is an independent process, called thought or
thinking, and is supposed to be largely indifferent to the nature
of particular languages. Thought, in this view, does not depend on
grammar but on laws of logic or reason which are supposed to be
the same for all observers of the universe- to represent a
rationale in the universe that can be "foundwindependently by a l l
intelligent observers. (Whorf 1956g:207-208)
The examples that Whorf presents in his essays provide what he
takes to be munter-evidence to the view that thinking takes place
independent from the framework provided by a language and to show
that reasoning is guided by semantic relations and syntactic structure
embedded in the language. Ais own statement of the thesis of linguistic
relativity, following this critique of natural logic. is far more modest
than those most often attributed to him.

We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which

holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence
to the same picture of the universe, unless their ling-c
backgroyds are similar or can in some way be calibrated. (Whorf

-use Whorf holds that different languages "leaduspeakers to

different representations of reality, he often speaks of world views or
wnceptual schemes as wfashionsof speakingw (Whorf 1956fS8)
emphasizing this comection between the structure of a language and
the structuration of reality- Whorf is concerned to establish exactly what
Hollis denies-that reasoning takes place within the confines of a
language and is guided by the structure of that language,
Both Sapir and Whorf substantiate their positions by citing
countless examples from anthropological studies in which basic concepts
in other languages are so radically different in content and function
from those in the target language as to remain untranslatable by
anything short of a lengthy account that explicates substantial
differences which preclude any simple translational substitution of
terms. This translational difficulty is acknowledged by Evans-Pritchard
when he considers, for example, the problems inherent in translating the
Zande mbisimo as "soul." What differs importantly in Whorf's analysis is

Another often referred ta statesent of the principle of Linguistic relativity is folmd in 'Mguge, Kind,
and Reality' in vhich Vborl states:

Gvery language is a vast pattern-systa, different fm others, in which are c n l t d l y ordained the Cons and
categories by ohich the personality not d
y colranicates, but also anaIyzes natm, notices or neglects types
of relationships and pkmeua, chvlwls his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness. (Vhorf
that he is willing to consider the broader implications of this failure of
s i m p l e translation for the project of translating and understanding the
beliefs held by members of another culture- B y analyzing structural
differences between languages, Whorf mnfronts the difficulty of
translation and provides not only a re-characterization of that project,
but a new understanding of what our interpretations of other ways of
thinking amount to.

The Influence at Language

Whorf's analyses of language proceed on a number of distinct

levels. In "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,"
he begins with an analysis of the ways in which certain forms of
behavior appear to b e influenced by Linguistic meanings. For instane,
in his experience as a fire investigator, Whorf observed that people tend
to be careless w i t h fire around gasoline barrels labelled "emptyweven
though gas fumes are more dangerous than liquid gas, Whorf suggests
that this is because there is an implicit analogy between "emptywand
"safew and that people act amrdingly. Through thls and many other
similar examples, he draws attention to the effects of wLinguistic
analogieswinternal to a language and to the influence these have on
belief. Correlations between behavior and these semantic analogies direct
attention to the holistic aspects of meaning and the structural features
of the language &at bolster these analogical connections. Such examples
are meant to show that "the meanings of elements that are grouped
together influence each other, that is, they are analogically interpreted
as the same" (Lucy 1992:45).
M a n y critics have mistakenly assumed that this point about
conceptual analogies is the crux of Whorf's analysis. It is an important
and often overlooked feature of his analysis that he quickly moves
beyond the focus on words and individual concepts to an investigation
of linguistic structure, Conceptual associations are often manifestations
of Linguistic structural patterns and it is these that he wants to
emphasize as influencing thought worldsO6 These early examples are
meant only to show how analogical relationships influence meaning and
behavior within one language mving established this, Whorf turns his
attention to interlinguistic analysis, still focusing on large scale
structural features of language.
In his e s i s of Hopi Indian beliefs, Whorf focuses not only on
the ways in which the Hopi conceptualhe and categorize the world, but
also, as a preliminary step, on the counterparts to these
conceptualizations among English speakers, H e first considers the ways
in which English or SAE languages (Standard Average European)
structure aspects of our perception of reality such as physical quantity,
phases of cycles, tendencies, durations, and intensities, and shows how
large scale structural and grammatid features of a language motivate
speakers to characterize an experience in a certain fashion. English, for
instance, is grammati'callg structured such that objects must often b e
described as a combination of form plus substance. This, in turn,
influences the perception of those objects:

SAE languages.-. tend to see existence through a binomial formula

that expresses any existent as a spatial form plus a spatial
formless continuum related to the form, as mntents is related to
the outlines of its container. (Whorf 1956k147)

The form-plus-substance sentence structure, embedded in English

and similar languages fosters some representations of reality and
hinders others? The tendency to structure reality along these lines

This focus, not on individual concepts but on broad linguistic patterns, is also emphasized in 'A Linguistic
Consideration of Thinking in Primitive Comnities' where he states, 'Sense or waning does not result I r a wrds or
lorphmes but frm patterned relations be& uords or m~haes'(Uhorf 195k67). We my of Yhorf's exwles seem
to erehasize the fomr, it is important to realize that he uses such examples to drav attention to the latter.
krtrand Russell sirilarly aclwnledges the influence of -tical structute on so# very central concepts
in the history of Yestern retaphysics. Although he daes not drav the same conclusions as Ybort, the clairs about the
influence of g n m r are strikingly sirilu. llrrssell suggests:
'Snbstance"in a ad,is a uetaphysid mistake, due to the transference to the wrld-structure of the
structure of sentences capsed of a subject and a predicate. (IbPsseL1 1945:202)
The point is the sam, that featrues of gramar influence speakers to attribute certain related features to
provides a foundation for some broader and more systematic theories
and representations of the world:

From the form-plus-substance dichotomy the philosophical views

most traditionally characteristic of the "Western worldw have
derived huge support. Here belong materialism, psychological
parallelism, physics and dualistic v i e w s of the universe in
general Monistic, holistic, and relativistic views of reality appeal
to philosophers and some scientists. but they are badly
handicapped in appealing to the wcommon sensew of the Western
average ---not because nature herself refutes them (if she did.
philosophers could have discovered this much), but because they
must be talked about in what amounts to a new language. ( W W

In order to further substantiate such claims conc3erning the

"influencewof language, Whorf investigates the differences between some
fundamental conceptual categories in the Hopi language and (sometimes
not so) similar categories in SAE languages. For instance, Whorf draws
attention to the implications of the differences between the Hopi and
English languages concerning the division of nouns and verbs (Whorf
1956~262,1956g:216). Again, the emphasis is not on the differences in

reality. For instance, our distinctions betwen objects and actions are heavily influenced by proper gramatical use of
norms and verbs. Vbori suggests, as an example:
Ve are constantly reading into rutate fictional acting entities, sirply because our verbs NUSt have
substantives in front of tba. We b e to say 'It fla&d' or 'A light flashed, ' setting up an actor, 'it' or
'fight ,' to perfon uhat we call an action, "to flash.' [Uhorf I956d:243)
Hopi gramar, in contrast, allovs sentences to have verbs vithont nouns (or pronouns) and hence it is gramtically
possible to express sirply Washed.Wghting is not a thing for the b p i (an ' i t w t [lashes), but an event--a
f Iashing .
A m e detailed example capares tvo sentences in S h e e with the tuo closest translations in English to show how
the strncture of a language influences deteninations of sirilarity of pbenaena. In 'Languages and Logic,' Worf offers
the Eoglish sentences: '1 pail the branch aside' and "I Ive an extra toe on rg foota and suggests that these have
little sinilarity in English (Vhorf 1956d:233). In Sbavnee, these sentences are ai-1#ma-30-a-a and ni-I%ava-%odWe
respectively. Shamnee bzs a category I Vm, denoting a Corked o u t ~ e The
. sentence structure of Slurnee dram close
similarities between the two phenaena as revealed by the less graceful translations: "I pull it (saething Like branch
of tree) m e open or apart where it forks-d '1 have an extra toe fork@ out like a branch from a n o d tw"#orf
1956d:234). The difference beheen the sentences centers only m d the ending of the second We: pertaining to the
toes. Vhorf ends the discussion with the observation that, d i k e English speakers, 'Shawnee logicians and observers
wuld class the tro phenaeua as intrinsically s M u a ( b r f 1956d;235).
individual word meanings, but on the effect of Linguistic structure on
meaning and on how speakers of a language represent reality-
English, as opposed to Hopi, is a noun oriented language, Hopi
grammar requires fewer nouns and depends heavily on verb and adverb
grammatical forms. Whorf notes the tendency in English, due to its noun
preference, to objectify wncepts, such as time, drawing attention to the
pervasive use of spatial metaphors in English as a consequence of the
grammatical noun-verb structural relationship-

It is clear how this condition "fits in-" It is part of our whole

scheme of OBJECTIFYING-imaginatively spacializing qualities and
potentials that are quite nonspatiaL (so far as any spatially
perceptive sense can tell us), Noun-meaning (with us) proceeds
from physical bodies to referents of far other sort. Since physical
bodies and their outlines in PERCEIVED SPACE are denoted by size
and shape terms and reckoned by cardinal numbers and plurals,
these patterns of denotation and reckoning extend to the symbols
of nonspatial meanings, and so suggest an IMAGINARY SPACE.
Physical shapes "move, stop, rise, sink, approach," etc., in
perceived space; why not these other referents in their imaginary
space? This has gone so far that w e can hardly refer to the
simplest nonspatial situation without amstant resort to physical
metaphors, (Whorf 1956fi145-46)

The Hopi noun/verb distinction is based more on duration than

English's rather arbitrary object/action distinction (why, for instance, is
"Lightning" a noun?). Lightning, wave, flame, fist, etc, are all verbs in
Hopi. These grammatical differences provide a mnceptual foundation that
reinforces, for instance, a different concept of "timen in Hopi, T h e Hopi
see time not as a series of individual units following one another in
succession as on a spatially represented line, but as what Whorf
describes as a nmntinual eventingn or as a "cyclical recurrence of the
same." This linguistic form makes it difficult to see t i m e as a line carved
into units extending from the past, through the present, and into the
future. H e represents the Hopi as dividing time into what can only
roughly be described as the "manifested" and the "manifestingw(Whorf
195h59). The manifesting sometimes becomes the manifested as it passes
through our present into the unalterable p a s t That distinction is not
parallel, however, as much of the past still lacks dosure (it is still
manifesting) and some of the future is seen as unalterable (it is
manifested)? This alternative w a y of categorizing events e m p h a s i z e s
what can b e changed, known, or verified and what cannot, rather than
what position an event occupies on an imaginary t i m e line- Whorf then
goes on to explain substantial differences between Hopi and English
beliefs in other matters that are a product of the Hopi's non-spatial
concept of time. Because grammatical forms of plurality also differ
substantially, the Hopi do not count non-spatial items in the way that an
English speaker counts days,

It is the pattern of countiag successive reappearances of the

SAME m a n or thing, incapable of forming an assemblage, The
analogy is not to behave about day-cyclicim as to several men
("several daysn), which is what W E tend to do, but to behave as
to the successive visits of the SAME MAN, One does not alter
several men by working upon just one, but one can prepare and
so alter the later visits of the same man by working to affect the
visit he is making now, This is the way the Hopi deal with the
future--by working within a present situation which is expected
to carry impresses, both obvious and occult, forward into the
future event of interest. One might say that Hopi society
understands our proverb " W e l l begun is half done," but not our
"Tomorrow is another day," This may explain much in Hopi
character. (Whorf 1956fi148)

This linguistic verb preference and the associated perception of

time has vast repercussions for how the Hopi see their relation to the
world. According to Whorf, the Hopi beLieve that thoughts and desires
can interact causally with the world because the human active (verbs, in
English) and external physical (nouns, in English) are not seen as
separate realms; both are represented as related amwffies in similar
verb forms, Actions have effects on the "manifestingw regardless of the
location of such an event on a linear t i m e Line,

In "Science and Liqpistics,%rf attmts to diagram this difference by drawing attention to the different
tenses used by Hopi and Btlish speakers in reporting the event of soreone nmniag. Yhile wish speakers report that
event differently depending on its location on a t h e Line (ran, is cming, will mnj, Hopi report the event depending
on its 'type of validitya [Uhorf 1956g:217). Cramatical tenses depend on a past event's verifiability or a future
event's certainty and the relation of the speaker or listener to the event ratkr than upon any location in linear tire.
This is one example of the effects of iinguistic structure on how
speakers represent and confront reality. English noun preference as
opposed to Hopi verb preference, the English dichotomy of form-and-
substance, the tendency in English to spa* and objectify, and
differences in singular as opposed to plural forms, a l l mntribute to
substantially different ways of mnceptualkbg reality. Whorf identifies
many other correlations between grammatical patterns and conceptual
structures which, when explicated in both languages, allow h i m to
provide a wmparative analysis of substanthlly different ways of
representing reality. This anaIysis works in amjunction with his earlier
remarks on linguistic analogy to further emphasize the influence of
language on thought. H e refers to these conceptual/linguistic
stsucturations as "thought worlds.

B y "habitual thoughtwand "thought worldw 1 mean more than

simply language, Le., than the language patterns themselves. I
include all the analogical and suggestive value of t h e patterns
(e-g.,our "imaginary space" and its distant implications), and all
the give-and-take between language and the culture as a whole,
wherein is a vast amount that is not linguistic but yet shows the
shaping influence of language. In brief, this "thought worldn is
the microcosm that each man carries about w i t h i n himself, by
which he measures and understands what he can of the
macrocosm. (Whorf 1956k147)

Whorf's analysis of some fundamental mncepts in the Hopi language

depends as much upon identifying wntrasts with and idiosyncracies in
EngEsh (lor,more broadly SAE languages) as upon finding parallels
between the languages, Translation, on Whorf's model, is an inherently
comparative and linguistically reflexive prmess, a view that challenges
those who treat the conceptual apparatus of the target language as an
objective frame of reference for translation, This linguistic displacement
foregrounds one of the main oversights that emerged from the debates
generated by Evans-Pritchard's analysis of the beliefs of the Azande,
and explains why there has been so much emphasis on standards of
rationality as the necessary condition for the possibility of translation.
Translation theorists often overlook what the cross-cultural encounter
reveals about one's own languagefculture- As translational distortions
become apparent, it becomes clear that one's own language cannot
function as an objectfve frame of reference in the project of cross-
cultural understanding,
Whorf distinguishes between what he calk umvert"and "overtw
structural features of Ianguage; it is usually the covert features that
attract his attention- Overt structural features are so classed because
they are formally present in the grammar in all occurrences (as gender
in Spanish or plurality in English). Covert structure is a less constant
grammatical feature and depends more on the context; it is often
variable across speakers and deviates from more standard uses (as in
intransitive verbs i~ English)- Overt structure is apparent by analysis
of individual sentences- Only through a more holistic analysis of
Ianguage structure and grammar is it possible t o gain insight into
covert meaning.
O v e r t and mvert structural categories correspond roughly to
aspects of word meaning that Whorf refers to as "phenotypewand
"crypbtype, respectively. These categories emphasize the s e m a n t i c
features of concepts rather than grammatical structure (Lucy:1985:26-31)-
T h e traditional approach to semantics in translation has been to
emphasize the overt category/phenotype meaning (something that may be
done by analysis of words o r individual sentences). The phenotype is
more closely related to the transparent, definable, referential or primary
meaning of a word or concepL Only structural analysis with attention to
context will reveal covert category/cryptotype meaning which is present
only in the relation that the word/sentence has to grammatical structure
and analogical rehfi'onstu'ps within the larger frame of the language,
This aspect of meaning, pertaining to cross-linguistic semantic analysis,
is predseIy what MacIntyre draws attention to in his discussion of the
influence of cultural context and cultural history on the meaning of the
~ an i m p o r t a n t sense, the critiques commonly
label "Doire C o l m ~ i l l e .In
made of Whorf's analyses reflect the standpoint of MacIntyreTstourist;
they lack an appreciation of the contextually embedded aspects of
meaning in translation. That is, they focus only on phenotypic meaning.
Whorf discusses the way in which an anthropologist might come to
a decision about the semantic amtent of the Hopi belief mncerning, for
instance, clouds. The Hopi, in rain prayers, speak of clouds as if they
were alive. Whorf identifies a cryptotype in Hopi grammar that
distinguishes nouns between animate and i d m a t e in the way in which
such nouns are pluralked. The Hopi word for "cloud" is pluralized in a
way that indicates that it belongs to the cryptotype for animateness
(Whorf 1956~79).While not fully deciding the issue concerning belief, it
does provide clues to meaning through analysis of the analogical
relationships this word has with other mncepts and with the
grammatical structure of the language.
Cryptatype meaning and the related semantic analogical linkings are
exactly what are lost in translation because this aspect of meaning is
derived from a particular linguistic structure and context rather than
an external relation or referential function. Whorf emphasizes that
cryptotype meaning is precisely what "eludes translationw (Whorf
1956b:lOS) and that linguistic and translation theory have been
hampered by concentrating only on phenotypic meaning. Slructural,
grammatical, and analogical differences between languages ensure that
the full meaning of such mncepts cannot cross wntexts perfectly intact,
The purely referential aspect of the meaning of the Hopi word o.'ma^w,
translated as "cloud,wmight cross mntexts but t h e animateness of
clouds indicated by the structural relations in Hopi cannot. As a result,
the complete meaning of any belief concerning clouds cannot be
perfectly translated as a proposition in English.
Attention to this inability to translate all semantic features of a
concept is the key to understanding the crucial and too often ignored
relevance of anthropological translation theory to the rationality debates.
A belief is often rational, according to Whorf, only in light of its covert
meaning--its analogical relationships to other concepts and its role in
the grammar. It is to be expected that the Other will seem irrational
when these relationships are distorted or eliminated by translating their
beliefs as isolated propositions in a structurally dissimilar language.
Whorf shows how any attempt to judge the rationality of a foreign belief
is already compromised by taking translated senten- as representative
of the beliefs of the Other without attention to the supporting structure
those sentences have in another language,
Rationality (or natural logic, as Whorf caLls it) is revealed to be
dependent on a language- As such, it cannot be invoked as an
independent criterion for the adequacy of translation, Whorf's
translations are not founded on a priori standards of sense or meaning,
nor on a bridgehead of inter-linguistic similarities, but on a comparative
analysis of linguistic difference- The "translationsw he supplies are
admittedly i m p e r f e c t but they are made possible by analysis of
structural differences rather than by dependence on any assumption of
pervasive similarities, It is essential to notice that his translations work
through a double displacement; h e reveals the metaphorical and
analogical underpinnings of the soure and the target languages by
focusing on the ways in which the grammars of each influence the
associated structuration of reality,
The "translation paradox," foundational to the rationality debates,
is not solved but dis-solved. It is possible to translate foreign beliefs
so long as concepts are recognized to have meaning only relative to a
linguistic framework and no proposition in the target language is
assumed to suffice as an exact translation of a belief held by the Other.
Neither incommensurable nor shared, ways of perceiving the world are
compared by attention to the differences in ways of structuring the
world through language, an activity which requires understanding how
both languages do so. Whorf's method, thus, constitutes an approach to
translation that is largely ignored in the debates over universal
standards of rationality and the necessity of a bridgehead of cross-
cultural similarities,

Critics do not always agree about what Whorf was trying to

establish concerning linguistic difference, It appears as if his
conclusions are variously and/or ambiguously stated. This, however,
reflects a pervasive misunderstanding of Whorf's project: he was
primarily concerned to explicate the activity of grasping structural
differences between languages and of translating concepts in spite of
these differences. Whorf was not primarily concerned to draw out the
theoretical implications of this activity. Regardless, attempts have been
made to test his "theory."
Claims that the there exist large scale structural differences
between languages that m o t i v a t e different structurations of reality and
may render translation problematic are often assumed to imply radical
versions of epistemological relativism and to preclude the possibility of
cross-cultural understanding or communication. In order to discredit
such claims and resist their most radical relativist implications, many
anthropologists and philosophers have taken up the project of
establishing that there are moss-culturally amstant perceptions,
perceptual abilities, o r categorizing tendencies. Whereas Hollis et al.
argued that cross-cultural commonalities must obtain based on a priori
arguments, many other critics responded to Whorf's version of cultural
relativism by seeking empirical evidene that some conceptual categories
are universai and that the meanings of related beliefs are not
linguistically relative.
Nowhere in Whorf's writings is the claim for linguistic determinism
clearly stated in the form of an hypothesis. It was, rather, Whorf's
critics who explicitly formulated the "thesis," attributed it to him, and
then subjected it to empirical testing. These tests, however, w e r e
usually constructed without fully understanding Whorf's emphasis on the
importance of linguistic structural difference on meaning, and a t t e m p t s
were made to isolate a ample of words o r concepts that could b e Linked
to some universal perceptual abili-? In short, many critics have tried
to identify the individual constituents of what Hollis and Lukes would
later designate as a bridgehead, motivated not primarily by the question

For a nice analysis on the problers of testing the Sapir-Yborf hypothesis, related to the dair that Yhorf
never intended to put f o m r d a f o d thesis that coald be erpiricalIy tested, and an analysis concerning hw attempts
to test such a "thesis" distort the original clairs, see Bidington "bthe hngmge of Benjpin Gee Yh6rfu (1991) and
also Byles' 'ILo Tgpes of Lin@stic Relativity' (1966:153-165).
of translation, but rather by a preoccupation with rejecting the idea of
cultural relativism.
Notable among the attempts to formulate and test what came to be
known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, w e r e the studies done by Paul
Kay and W i l l e t t Kempton (and also Berlin and Kay) on colour perception.
The idea was that, if one could produce empirical evidence of some
universal cross-cultural perceptions, that this would constitute a
refutation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (in whatever form it may be
stated). Universal perceptual abmes were taken to provide evidence
for anything from cross-cdturaEy w m m o n conceptual categories to pan-
cultural standards of judgement and even provided a framework for
speaking about universal standards of rationality, It is these types of
studies, recall, to which Lukes appeals in defence of his claims for
universal rationality.
Kay and Kempton isolated t w o claims in the work of Sapir and
Whorf as w e l l as (what they take to be) a commonly held implication:

(I) Structural differences between language systems will, in

general, be paralleled by noalinguistic cognitive differences, of an
unspecified sort, in the native speakers of the two languages-
(II) The structure of anyone's native language strongly influences
or fully determines the world-view he will acquire as he learns
the language.
(III) The semantic systems of different languages vary without
constraint. (Kay and Kempton 1984:66)

It should be noted that each claim is represented as stronger than

the previous one, yet they are importantly independent of one another.
Thesis (I) postulates a correspondence between language and cognitive
ability (a topic on which Whorf had nothing to say). Thesis (II)
postulates a mmection between language and a belief system and,
stated less strongly, is probably the closest of m y to claims made by
Whorf. Thesis (111) is a claim about the extent of the dwerences
between languages. It is a very strong MIU and is probably endorsed
by no one, The "without mnstraintwclause makes it almost trivially
false. By no means does thesis (III) follow necessarily from (I) or (11):
Whorf certahly never suggested that it did. In any case, he would have
endorsed only a very moderate version of thesis (III),
Thesis (II), it is suggested by Kay and Kempton, is dXficult to test
even as formuIated. Many critics have tried to disprove some version of
(111) in the hope- that this will compromise the rest of the (somewhat
disconnected) chain of reasoning. K & y and K e m p t o n take themselves to
be testing thesis (I). In any case, it is understood that a refutation of
any of these would constitute a refutation of the wSapir-Whorf
hypothesis. "
In order to provide counter-evidence to thesis (I), K a y and
Kempton test subjects who speak languages in which colours are
categorized differently in order to determine if the speakers of each
language similarly judge wcolour The assumption is that, if
it could b e established that people everywhere perceive colours (or
colour differences) similarly, this would constitute a case against at
least the stronger forms of linguistic relativism, The thesis that Kay and
K e m p t o n presume they are testing (and endorse) is that= "there appear
to be strong constraints on possible inter-linguistic variation in the
enmding of colorw (Kay and Kempton 1984:66).
John Lucy suggests that the wcoIourtradition" has over-
emphasized investigations that focus exclusively on perception and
cognitive ability artificially extracted from linguistic cues. H e draws
attention to Whorf's concern with linguistic analogy, the effects of
linguistic structure on such analogies, and the relation of such analogies
to meaning. B y design, tests Like those undertaken by K a y and Kempton

The two languages studied are English, vhicfi has a liqpistic green/blue distinction, and Tarahuara (a
language of Northern Wco) in which the word "siponare' encapasses both green and blue.
The first m of tests done by and Kerptw meal that speakers of the tuo languages judge colour distance
quite differently. EngLish speakers, who make a linguistic distinction, judge the distance of a labelled sarple as
greater frm either blue or green than those uho speak TanbPm, which seers to contin wfut Kay and -ton call the
'Morfian effect."ey then revork the experimt to eliriaate linguistic cues vhich r e d t s in the speakers of each
language aakhg roughly sirilar judgerents about tbe colour distauce. This is interpreted as sh- that pcceptnal
ability is cross-culturally similar. Interestingly, the resalts of such tests could (possibly lore) easily be read as
confinin# the very Lhgnisfic thesis they set oat to discredit. It is ody by c e m @ the linguistic cues that they
get the desired results.
ignore the very analogid (holistic) relations of meaning that were
central to Whorf's analysis,

Eventually this denutationd emphasis led to the complete

elimination of any concern with structures of meaning or
grammatical differences among languages. Because the
wnceptualhtion of language forms was in t e r m s of an
independently known reaLity (as construed in English), the whole
approach undermined io priacr'pe the possibilie of discovering
genuinely different linguistic approaches to reality. (Lucy
It should be dear, then, that Whorf was not primarily concerned
either with perception or with what might be called mgnitive
processes, but with conceptual content- (Lucy 1985:423)

Robin Ridington also notes that attempts to test the theory, like
those undertaken b y Kay and Kempton are,

particularly revealing of the limitations imposed by an operational

paradigm. The paradigm itself forces the ludicrous conclusion that
world view can only be studied objectively by excluding language
as a source of information. (Ridington 1991:249)

A s i d e from the f a c t that many of the wnclusions drawn from the

research on color terms are highly ambiguous," even if it w e r e
possible to establish that people everywhere could similarly judge colour
differences (or distances), this would not provide evidence against what
Kay and Kempton take to be the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (characterized
as thesis II, much less against Whorf's more subtle position). Those
engaged in the colour perception/categorization investigations largely
m i s s the point because they explore only perception in the artificially
arranged absence of any linguistic categories. If the judgement of
colour distance plays any role at all in the meaning of colour t e r m s it is
only partial, a t best, Kay and Kempton take the same approach as the
linguist who attempts to derive a theory of meaning from the situation
of Maclhtyre's tourist. Both reduce meaning to a single perceptual
ability or referential correspondence. This obscures the very

See Carl Shpson "Iwr Perception: Cross~turalLinguistic Translation and RelativisVn i n d for
tbe lkury of Wal WPior. 21:4 1991.
rdationship between language structure and meaning or belief that m o s t
concerned Whorf. It is only by artificially eliminating this aspect of
m e a n i n g that K a y and Kempton get the results that they want.
It should be clear, then, that such tests establish little or nothing
in the case against thesis (II) (closest to the actual Sapir-Whorf clatm).
A t best, they suggest rather that there are trivial exceptions to thesis
(I) and that the m o s t radical version of thesis (m) is untenable. Kay
and Kempton are attacking a straw man; the case they make is perfectly
consistent with Whorf's analysis of the effects of language on habitual
behavior. They acknowledge that the results of such tests do not
amount to a rejection of the actual Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and they end
up accepting a versionw of the thesis of linguistic relativity not
unlike the one Whorf endorsed in w h i c h Linguistic structure influences
belief but might be overcome (Kay and Kempton 1984:77). It is
interesting to note that other theorists routinely appeal to this study as
one of the primary sources of evidence against linguistic relativism
without acknowledging the qualifications explicitly stated by Kay and
Kempton. Their conclusions are quite different than those usually
attributed to them by advocates of u~fiversalstandards of rationality.

The case seems to be first, that languages differ semanticdy but

not without mnstraint, and second, that linguistic differences may
induce nonlinguistic cognitive differences but not so absolutely
that universal cognitive processes cannot be reawered under
appropriate contextual conditions. (Kay and Kempton 1984:77)

If tests such as Kay and Kempton's show anything in relation to

semantics, they establish that linguistic structure and Linguistically
embedded categories do, in fact, affect meaning. As such, these tests are
perfectly consistent with Whorf's argument that there is a connection
between language structure and meaning and that one must take amount
of this connection when translating. Attention to the differences between
languages through trmsIation displays (rather than provesw) the
existence of substantial differences in the semantic content of different
representations of reality.
If there is a "thesisw in Whorf's writing, it amcerns meaning and
translation, not cognitive or perceptual ability, Even if K a y and Kempton
have discovered a universal ability to judge colour distance under ideal
conditions, this does ndhing to establish linguistic synonymies stable
enough to f a d h t e the project of transktion--even of colour terms.12
Such studies remain influential not because of the results they produce
or condusions they justify, but because they are presumed to establish
the necessary foundation for a particrllar vision of anthropological
practice that might b e compromised if linguistic relativity were accepted,

Clifford Geertz has suggested that the reaction against any form of
cultural relativism is best understood as the product of a particular
worry or fear rather than as the result of evidence or any substantial
theory to the amtrary,

Whatever cultural relativism m a y be or originally have been (and

there is not one of its critics in a hundred who has got that
right), it serves these days largely as a specter to scare us away
from certain ways of thinking and towards others. (C.Geertz
l989:f 2)

Medford Spiro's wCulturaL Relativism and the Future of

Anthropologyw is a revealing attempt to discredit Whorf's work by both
critiquing a particularly strong version of the thesis of cultural
relativism and defending anti-relativism as its only viable alternative.
Spiro begins by distinguishing between three types of r e l a t i v i s m :
descriptive, normative, and epistemological, Descriptive relativism makes
only the s i m p l e claim that "human characteristics are various across
cultures.* Normative relativism builds on that claim by suggesting that,
because of such differences. there can be no trans- or pan-cultural

Think of the rean@ @rednin "Red A# Ilrrg" and thetations of threat and ag@ssion, the maniry of
@black% 'black deathwor 'black lass' via the comotations of evil or fear, or the leaning of 'blue' in 'feeling
blue.' These are evidently mn@erfaasiiw since these coloar tens can be used in new expressioas and dearly carry
these comotations. Conld 'black nss' be translated into a Iaaguage where 'black' does not have connotations of evil?
standards of judgement. Epistemological rela-tivism draws the further
conclusion that inmmmensurable epistemologies are implied by
substantial differences between M e f systems combined with the
absence of any cross-cultural standards of judgement. Spiro suggests
that a great deal of misguided speculation on cultural r e l a t i v i s m results
from adding questionable assumptions to the fairly unmntroversial claim
that there is some cultural diversity (descriptive relativism). According
to Spiro, contemporary anthropology as a whole has embraced this line
of reasoning that progresses from descriptive to normative and
epistemological relativism both of which imply the absence of any
universal principles of judgement rendering cross-cultural interpretation
hopelessly subjective. Embracing this position i m p l i e s that there can be
no more substantial method o r goal for anthropology than partial,
indeterminate interpretation.
Spiro appeals to the fact that anthropologists successfully
communicate with m e m b e r s of other cultures to substantiate the claim
that there is, in fact, no inmmmensurability between belief systems,
which he takes to imply that there must be a substantial degree of
s i m i l a r i t y between belief s y s t e m s (reversing the theoretical progression
between types of relativism), The threat to anthropology is that
acceptance of these relativist theses in any substantial form makes
anthropology a purely interpretive and indeterminately descriptive
project, rather than an explanatmy endeavor, That is, the relativist
predicament precludes anthropology from being properly scientific (Spiro
1986:278). Spiro's counter-argument proceeds from what Spiro expects
from anthropology to what must be the case if those expectations are to
b e satisfied. H e rqtects Whorf's theory, not because it threatens the
possibility of cross-cultural communication, but because it threatens a
certain objective/scientific vision of anthropology.13

f t woud
l be an interesting point to pursue [although not one that space gemits here) to consider the wags
in which Whorf's caparative anaiysis of the Hopi language and the idiosyncracies of Lgiish revealed in that analysis
already contain a critique of the my criticisms of his wrk. By this, 1 lean to draw attention to the raag rays in
which the objectiffig tendencies of English that he draw attention to provide a grmding for the critiques of the
sort endorsed by Spim and b u i n g h . Their theories are grounded oa the pzesupposition that English has ao embedded
retaphysics and that it bears an unprobleratic relation to an independent reality. Mern English has evolved in a
culture that concentrated a great deal of its efforts on a confrontation vith nature rather than on conmication with
Frank Cunningham's critique of Whorf seems to follow a similar
pattern. He too frames the debate as an opposition between objectivism
and anti-objectivism. L i n g u i s t i c relativism is aligned with the latter and,
given the translation paradox, is assumed reduce to a kind of cross-
cultural skepticism. Having set the debate in such a frame of polarized
extremes, Cunningham presses the thesis of linguistic determinism to
absurd conclusions, leaving the way open for the only remaining option:
objectivist anti-relativism.
Cunningham implicitly assumes that all belief systems have the same
functions and goals as scientific theories about reality; he endorses a
straightforward intellectuslism. In addition, he understands anthropology
to b e a cross-cultural explanatory endeavor in which world views can be
treated as theories that are in competition with one another, Understood
thus, the price of anti-ob jectivism (or relativism) is the impossibility of
meaningful cross-linguistic theory competition: it entails a kind of moral
and conceptual isolationism. Cunningham is clear about the implications
of giving up scientific objectivity in the project of cross-cultural

L i n g u i s t i c relativists who stress t h e interpretive function of

language flirt dangerously with thoroughgoing scepticism unless
they can show some way that two theories... am be said
objectively to compete. If t w o theories can share no observation
t e r m s (no matter how loosely observation t e r m is defined or
whether the line between observation and theoretical t e r m s is
dearly fixed), then there can be no basis for favoring one over
the other except on merely pragmatic or aesthetic grounds.
(Cunningham 1973:67)

To allow the t e r m s and categories established by the

objectivism/anti-ob jectivism d e b a t e to delimit our understanding of
Whorf's work already amounts to a serious misinterpretation of his
central insights. Whorf can be read, within the confines of this
opposition, as endorsing either subjectivism or d e t e r m i n i s m , yet, it is

other cultures. It is no surprise that the language itself wtivates thinkers to want to incorporate ang investigation
of culture into the lode1 of the natml sciences and objectify the Other in explanations rather than understand in
precisely the terms of this debate that are called into question on
Whorf's amunt of the process of translation-This point is made by
Emily Schultz who, like Geertz, objects to relativism being understood as
nihilism or subjectivism.

To domesticate to reduce it to either subjectivism or

determinism, i s to turn it into a mncept which i s easily disarmed
b y the Western philosophic tradition. To argue against such
domestication is to defend relativism as a perspective which
reduces human sociological practices neither to the s u m of purely
arbitrary individual preferences nor to the predicable outcome of
implacable, inscrutable forces of biology or history. It is therefore
to defend a perspective which eludes the grasp of "normal"
philosophy, which is no doubt why wnormaluphilosophers so fear
it. ( S c h d t z 1990:153)

Contrary to many standard readings of his work, Whorf does not

argue that Linguistic relativism implies cognitive or e p i s t e m o l o g i c a l
incommensurability or the impossibility of communication or
translatio~d~ John Carroll suggests that Whorf's appeal to linguistic
relativity was not a rationalization for the failure of communication
between cultures, but rather a hope that "awareness of Linguistic
relativity might lead to humbler attitudes about the supposed
superiority of standard average European languagesw(Carroll 1957:27)
thus enhancing the possibility of meaningful communication. This agenda
is clear in essays like "Habitual Thoughtwand "Linguistic Consideration"
where other languages are represented as more elegant and rational in

- -

Hay have identi tied a Uhorfian strain in Thoras Kuhn's analysis of the incuensurlbility of scientific
paradigm. Lirited shilarities are plain enough, yet Uhorf does not endorse an %comemrabilityWesis.
Inco-ens_uEabilityi ~ o r e sthe very coronicative aspect of translation that Worf erpbasized. Ridin#ton notes the
siiilarities behreen Yhorf's umetaphysics underlying language-d Kh's "scientific paradigms' sqgestiag that both
are snbject to similar pmblm vben it roes to eqirical contimation or discanfination, but eqhasires that Worf
does not endorse i n c s u r a b i l i t y (Ridington 1991:249-251). Reading the parallels too closely is precisely what cakes
tests like those done by giy and m t o n seen e if they are relevant to Worf's claim. For a detailed d y s i s of the
similarities, see Kart De Hey's 'Tnro#nsar;lbility of Theories and Untranslatability of Iaq$uage~.~He, however, in my
opinion, pushes the parallels a little too far, suggesting fht Uharf's theory is a sort of incoensnrability thesis
very mch like Knhn's.
many ways. than ~nglish." Read thus. it is. ironically. the theories
proposed by Spiro and Crlnningham that pose a potential threat to the
future of anthropology, not Whorf's method- It is precisely by engaging
in a cross-linguistic. self-reflexive, conceptual dialogue rather than
reducing the beliefs of the Other to an object of scientific explanation
tbat Whorf makes understanding the Other, as ofher, possible-

Serious attention to the more subtle aspects of Linguistic meaning

emphasized by Whorf as w e l l as more sympathetic readings of the thesis
of linguistic relativism have motivated new interpretations of the "Sapir-
Whorf hypothesis." These have generated, in turn, new formulations of
the problem of translation that lie beyond the polarized options of
realism or relativism that structure the rationality debates.
In the late 1960's. the work of Dell Hymes initiated a new crossing
between Linguistics and anthropology and played an important role in
motivating a large scale self-reflexive trend in anthropology. Hymes
highlighted the comparative aspect of Whorf's method of cross-cultural
interpretation, drawing attention to the implications of Whorf's work for
ideas concerning the nature of language and translation, and initiating a
reconsideration of the goals and functions of anthropology. Whereas
Spiro and Cunningham reasoned from a vision of anthropology to the
falsity of Whorf's thesis, Hymes reasoned from the insights of Whorf's
work to a re-vision of the function of anthropology.
Hymes' own analysis of the differences between linguistic

"stic nisticusideration' is basidly Erami as a case against the idea that Europeans are capable of sae
kind of superior rationality. Uhorf concludes the essay vith the statemt:
The evolutionary concept, having been dmped upan rodern aan uhile his notions of language and tholyht w e
based on knwledge of only a fw types out of the hundreds of very diverse linguistic types existing, has
abetted his provincial Iinguistic prejudices and fostered the grandiose hohr that his type of t)linlrinl and
the feu European tongues on vhich it is based represent the cnlrination and flower of the evolution of
language. (Uhorf 1956e:84)
'Science and Linguistics"ends on a shilar note (Uhorf 1956g:218).
structures adds another level of indeterminacy to the problem of cross-
cultural understanding; h e identifies another type of cross-linguistic
variation. W M l e Whorf focused m a i n l y on the r e l a t i v i ~that arises from
grammatical and structural differences between languages, Hymes drew
attention to a theoretically prior relativity that has to do w i t h
differences in the use, role, or function of the languages in general
(something Like the differences in "forms of lifew central to Winch's
analysis). An awareness of functional linguistic relativity problematizes,
to some extent, the wmparison of structural differences (of the first
type). N o t only is it possible that the structural differences between
languages motivate different representations of reality, but different
languages might "referR or "representw in dipferent ways, or rely to
different degrees on key concepts Like "reality," "tr~th,~ and "belief."
Hymes observes that, historically, various approaches to
anthropological theory emphasize varianm or invariance in any of four
areas of investigation:

In the recent past, American linguistics and anthropology seem to

have emphasized invariance of structure in analysis of a single
language; variation of structure as between languages; variation in
the handling of use with regard to a single language.... and
invariance of use as between languages (Hymes 196&115)

Hymes suggests that one wuld choose variance or invariance for

any of these features of linguistic analysis and focuses on the long-
neglected category of variation of function across languages.
Emphasizing variation of use within a language is akin to accepting a
Wittgensteinian theory of meaning. But to suggest that languages have
potentially different functions (that use is variant between languages)
extends that analysis cross-linguistically and potentially problematizes
structural comparison by adding another level of relativiw to the
project of translation.
Hymes, for instance, provides a detailed analysis of the activiw of
naming in Wishram culture in order to show that its function within the
language is quite different from that of naming in English. In many
applications, a name persists through time and an object or person
comes to fall under it for Limited durations to later be replaced by
another. It might be said that, in these cases, the name possesses a
greater reality than the object it labels in Wishram, As such, the very
function of applying a label differs between Wishram and English. Prior
to the problem of comparing the meanings of labels, then, is the problem
of comparing differences in what it means to apply a label- Eymes notes:

As linked to the Weltanschauung interest, the emphasis upon

structural diversity had to assume functional uniformity.. THE
of the rehtionship between the two Qqes of linguistic relativity,..
the role of language m a y differ from c o m m u n i ~to community.,. if
this is so, then the cognitive significance of language depends not
only on structure, but also on patterns of use, (Hymes 1966:116)

Further comparative linguistic analysis amplifies rather than

eliminates the potential for pervasive linguistic differences and adds
another dimension of distortion to contend with in translation- Eymes
suggests that "with use, as with structure, a monolithic position is not
tenable; an adequate theory must coordinate several standpointsw (Hymes
1966:123). The implication, for anthropology, is that cross-cultural
interpretation may be even more complex than Whorf had envisioned and
that anthropological theory can no longer be shaped by the goal of a
single interpretive mod& o r by the need for objectivism but rather must
be shaped by the complex and multi-faceted nature of the cross-
Linguistic encounter.
Translational distortions that arise from each type of Linguistic
relativity identified by Whorf and Hymes reveal interpretive
indeterminacies that call into question the very idea of a stable
linguistic structure. This, in turn, provides the framework for
contemporary readings of the problem of cross-cultural representation
that move beyond structural analysis in interpretation. What is revealed
in such comparative analyses is no longer a preexisting "structurew
that constitutes any one language, but a set of activities of
structuration operating through language. The self-reflexive turn in
anthropology that followed from Hymes' work has re-framed the terms of
debate over cross-cultural understanding, calling into question the idea
of linguistic structure and providing a new understanding of the nature
of the anthropological encounter that has defused preoccupation with
the threat of relativism, New readings of Whorf's work that emerged
from the post-s~ucturalistinterpretive tradition were influenced by
Hymes' ideas and offered a clearer picture of the implications for
Ranjit Chatterjee shows how the very idea of linguistic relativity is
a product, not of obvious cultural difference, but of s-tructmdist
thought about the nature of language. It is only when language is
viewed as an "hermetic unity, a complete structurewthat the idea of
linguistic relativity becomes possible (Chatterjee 1985:41).I6
Representing languages as pre-interpreted and determinate
representational structures suggests that different languages may
engender different conceptual systems which are potentially
incommensurable. The idea of linguistic relativity, like that of
(cross)linguisticobjectivism, requires the belief in two preexisting
Linguistic structures which might, or might not, b e compared via their
pre-determinate contents.
Whorf often emphasizes the sense in which a concept has meaning
only in relation to the amtext of a specific language but, like
Wittgenstein, he also holds that (even relative to a given language) a
word does not have a determinate meaning (see esp. Whorf 1956~258-
261). Just as for Wittgenstein, Whorf's method implies an anti-essentialist
theory of meaning1' that transcends the structuralist assumptions that

Chatterjee drm attention to the fact that one of the problems uith the Linguistic relativity principle is
that cwentators have interpreted language as too lnch Like Enhn's 'paradig."It is the idea that a Ianguage is a
caplete theoretical structure (Me a pvadignf that functions exclusively or primarily to represent reality that gives
rise to the idea of incorensrrrability and relativity (Chatterjee 1985:38). Attention to the different functions of
langnage and the indeteninateness of interpretation calls into question this repmentation of Linguistic systems and
questions whether 'representing reality' is a cross-lingmistically constant category.
I sirply burmu this liayistic theory llbel fra Chatterjee who notes:

This attitude to word waning held in c m o by Uittgenstein and Yhorf I will characterize as aoti-
esseotidist, Le., refuting the idea h t wrds are Like labels attached to things, that the meaning of a
word is of the saae nature as the ton of the wrd, definite and reproducible. (Cbatterjee 1985:47)
make the Linguistic relativity principle [LRP) appear threatening. It is
precisely by questioning the viability of an essentialist theory of
meaning that both Whorf and Wittgenstein can envision the possibility of
overcoming the problems of cross-cultural communication and/or "the
bewitchment of our intelligence by means of languagew(PI09
Wittgenstein 1953:47). Chatterjeeps Wittgemtenmm extension of Whorf's
analysis Likewise undermines the idea of a preexisting independent
structure of the language of the Other (by making iaferpretatr'on of the
beliefs of the Other (target) language dependent), It is, again, this
assumption that generates the paradox foundational to the rationality
and relativism debates. What is being contested by Whorf implicitly and
post-Whorfians explicitly, is this idea of pre-interpreted determinate
meaning and stable Linguistic structure and so, also, the commonly
understood version of the thesis of linguistic relativism,
Chatterjee combines Wittgenstein's intra-linguistic indeterminacy
w i t h Whorf's self-reflexive inter-linguistic interpretive process to
suggest that Whorf's own method transcends the representation of
language that gives rise to the problem of Linguistic relativism.

The LRP (Linguistic relativity principle) in Whorf's work is one

conclusion of a structuralist view of language, to be left behind
when the contradictions of that view become visible.,. The
dissolution of cross-linguistic relativity in post-structuralist terms
results in the appearance of a pervasive intra-ling-c relativity,
(Chatterjee 198556)

Because Whorf actually produces translations, he automatically

undermines any strong principle of Linguistic relativism. By engaging in
translations that highlight conceptual differences, he neither endorses
insurmountable mnceptual diffsence nor pervasive similarity, no bridge
of Linguistic commonalities nor universal rationality. As such, his method
points beyond the bipolar opposition between objectivism and relativism
by providing a series of admittedly imperfect but informative
translations in the form of culturally and linguistically self-reflexive
ethnographic accounts. Chatterjee double extends Whorf's interpretive
strategy to undermine the very idea of "relativen linguistic structures.
Any view of meaning that stresses the metaphoricity and use-
dependent nature of linguistic elements--recalling here Whorf's
view that linguistics is essentially the quest for meaning--beawes
ra@cdy non-structural and non-reductive, and therefore
incapable of sustaining a slructurally derived and deterministic
LRP. B y such contradictions, Whorf's texts are seen to point
beyond the seemingly explicit statements that are generally taken
to represent his thought, (Chatterjee 1985:57)

A careful reading of Whorf's work corroborates this analysis, Whorf

never presents a characterization of the Linguistic Reiativity Principle
in order to let it stand a s a theory pertaMhg to the possibEty of
cross-cultural understanding. It is always presented a s a stage in the
overmming of the determination of thought by language. Only the
unreflective monolinguistic thinker is victim to the determination of
thought by language. Translation is the activity that simultaneously
draws attention to and overcomes linguistic determinism and, likewise,
linguistic relativism. In "Science and Linguistics," Whorf presents the
solution to the problem of linguistic determinism a t the same time that
he expresses what are taken to be the strongest characterizations of it.
Linguistic determination is always taterrupfed in the act of translating
between languages. Whorf repeatedly emphasizes the role of translation
and cross-cultural communication in the overmming of cultural
relativism, not by discovering universals, but by embracing diversity.

When linguists became able to examine critically and scientifically

a large number of languages of widely different patterns, their
base of reference was expanded; they experienced an interruption
of phenomena hitherto held universal, and a whole new order of
significances came into their ken, (Whorf 1956g:212)

The activity of eanslation draws attention to the determination of

thought by language but is, a t the same time, the interruption of that
determination. Whorf clearly states that "the person most nearly free in
such respects would be a linguist famitiar with very many widely
different linguistic systemsw (Whorf 1956g:214).
Emily Schultz extends this reframing of the debate over Linguistic
relativism by introducing the concept of a "multilingual consciousnessw
(borrowing from Bakhtin) to further explain how Whorf's analysis
overcomes linguistic determinism. Like Chatterjee, SchuLtz identifies a
tension in Whorf's writings between the single-voiced, scientific,
positivist style of explanation and an analysis that Implicitly denies the
applicability of that style to the subject matter. It is. according to
Schultz, a "struggle between modes of discourse, indeed a struggle to
create a new mode of discoursew(Schultz 1990:18)?' The negative
response to Whorf's work is largely due to the fact that he presented it
to a mostly monolingual American audience at a time when positivist
theories of meaning and explanation held sway- The audience had to be
persuaded that languages differed in terms of their representational
capacities and that "fashions of speakingw influenced representations of
the world before they could be convinced that such linguistic influences
could b e transcended. Whorf found it necessary to emphasize the way in
w h i c h Linguistic forms constrain thought as part of "his struggle to
reconcile the monological language of science with linguistic diversityw
(Schultz l99O:3S).
Given the views held by Whorf's audience, and the limitations of
the only accepted mode of dismwse availabIe, Whorf found it necessary
to state his case in e x t r e m e form, choosing the idiom of relativism as a
w a y to describe his position. Yet, the translational activity contained
within each essay overcomes this relativism through a conceptual
negotiation w i t h the Other--a cross-cultural didogue that must
acknowledge another (non-positivist) philosophy of language without
stating it (precisely because it cannot be done w i t h i n this mode of
discourse). This represents, not a solution to the problem of relativism,
but a disarming of its threat to the project of translation.
The thesis generally attributed to Whorf really captures only the
first stage of his cross-cultural dialectical method. Schultz characterizes

W t z suggests that there is no possibility of consistently a rm for insights derived C n waning
holism in the language of positivist science. A great deal of the misinterpretation of Uhorf's wrk is due to Zs
atterpt to 'speak holistically osiw a rode of discourse uhose foms require a lechanical-aaterialist reductionis'
(Schnltz1990:18). l3e thesis of lingtiistic deteninisr is a product of this reduction of &at really ararmts to an
altogether different theory of interpretation. This awkward reduction is evident in the characterization of the Sapir-
Wharf hypothesis discussed by Kay and Keapton.
Whorf's procedure as follows:

1) create an i m a g e of the monolinguistic, deterministic,

reductionistic argument about the way language molds thought.
2) present an artistic amnterimage that demonstrates the means
by which openness can be wrested from closure, freedom from
deter-m, relativity from abso1utism-
3) the counterimage is completed not in t e r m s of content, but in
terms of form- the stylistic form of the text itself- And style
points back at the image of the author-,*whose nature is defined
by the mulmgual prose wnsciousness- (Schultz 1990:62-3)

Whorf's subject is neither linguistic determinism nor cultural

relativism, but rather the nature of multi-liogual dialogue. H e articulates
a w a y of perceiving the cross-cultural encounter that follows from
reflection on the nature of that dialogue,

Whorf moves back and forth between Native American languages

and English in an effort to demonstrate experientially, without
defining verbally, what a multilingual consciousness is Like.
(Schultz 1990:88)

Schultz proposes that Whorf's texts be understood, not as

presenting a theory, but as themselves "events for his readers-" It is in
these events that Whorf presents a method of translation that d i s a r m s
the translatability paradox, endorsing neither objectivism nor relativistic
isolationism, Through drawings, descriptions of situations, long
expositions and analogies, he attempts to create, not a description in one
language of something said in another, but rather a dialogue between
languages and, hence, between belief systems. Cross-cuItural
understanding is neither an insurmountable confrontation between
differences, nor an isomorphic reproduction of the beliefs of the Other
in the target language, but what Schultz refers to as "dialogue at the
marginsn (Schultz 199053). This "dialogue at the marginswis as close as
Whorf comes to presenting a "theoryw of translation.

It is the contrastive event, the dash between two or more diverse

utterances about objects within a single context that gives birth
to multilingual consciousness. And, in the face of this event, it is
impossible to prevent one utterance from casting Light on the
ather; impossible to prevent cross-linguistic/ cross-cultural
"contaminationw;impossible to ignore the opportunity for new
insight.. . [Schultz 1990:120-1)

Translation wfthout Theory

Although Whorf's translational cross-cultural engagements do not,

s-trictly speaking, constitute a theory of translation, clearly a large p a r t
of Whorf's message is that the traditional approaches to translation
theory are m i s t a k e n Fn some primary assumptions about what is involved
and what is acamplished in the project of the cross-cultural
representation of other beliefs. Whorf has been systematically
misunderstood because the bipolar oppositions that frame the debates
over rationality represent linguistic relativity as implying an
insurmountable cultural relativity generating the u.translation paradox."
This paradox dissolves as soon as the focus of attention is turned to
the activity of translation rather than any particular theory.

The translatability paradox is a paradox only for monologicai

thinkers who persist, even against their better judgement, in
seeing one and the same thing where others see many and varied
things. Only such a mentality could imagine that cross-cultural,
cross-linguistic understanding is a matter of word-for-word, or
even sentence-for-sentence, translation... only such a mentality
could interpret the absence of a systematic monologid point of
v i e w in Whorf's work as a flaw, rather than as the entire poiat of
his project. (Schultz 1990:125,126)

Moreover, when translation is understood as a kind of cultural

dialogue, the multiple oppositions and paradoxes central to the debate
over rationality also dissolve. It is only when translation is viewed as a
m a t t e r of accurately (Literally)re-representing the representations of
the O t h e r that assumptions of ration&- play a role in assessing the
adequacy of particular translations- In the contrastive approach engaged
by Whorf, standards of rationality cannot be a measure of translation
accuracy since the activim itself neither reveals nor depends on
universal logic; rather it becomes possible to grasp sometimes
profoundly different forms of thought embodied in different
It is through cross-cultural communication aad .traaslation that one
reveals and dispIaces the implidt m&aphysics/rationality in one's own
language. Dell H y m e s is careful to draw attention to this point of
Whorf's projeck

People often forget in criticizing Whorf that he talks about

language in relation to HABITUAL thought and behavior. There's a
very important difference between that and what people can
potentially do...-I think the point is that Whorf was nat
maiutaining that people muld not transcend the patterns of a
particular language; in fact, I think he wrote his articles hoping
that people would.... Whorf is trying to call attention, is arguing
that the role of linguistics is to call attention to these differences
in structure, so that people will be able to transcend limitations
that these particular patterns may place on their behavior in
ordinary daily We. (Hymes 1966:165)

Reconsidered in these terms, Whorf's work, and the extensions of

his work described here, have the foilowing implications for
contemporary translation theory:
First, fundamental struchmd and grammatical differences between
some languages ensure that large segments of one language defy simple

Vhorf dram attention to the uays in which every language "conceals a retapiiysics' (Yharf 195k58).
Translation fror me language into another rakes aauy source language claim appear senseless because they lack the
retaphgsics, in the target language, that provided their jostification. Translations into foreign liqpistic structures
rake everyday claims appear marginal precisely because the metaphysical ander@minghas been stripped away or
drastically distorted [as was the case with b-Pritcbard's translations of Zande claim). Yhorf notes this
The abstractions, by approximtion of which we attapt to tecanstrnct for ourselves the retapbysics of the
Hopi, will undoubtedly appear to us as psychological or even $stical in character. (Vborf 1956a:58)

Et is interesting to reflect on the recent attempt within Vestem philosophy to break free f r a its ow contained
metaphysics. It is no accident that such atterpts have had to radically refon the language. Positivists found it
necessary to drastically reduce 1e- in an atteapt to eliminate retaphysics, or, on the other extreme, post-
rodernists allude to an excess of leaning in order to reveal a contained metaphysics or reinterpret a traditian. The
difficulty in find% an idia to translate past~ehghysicalphilosophy into English is also evident fm probleas
confronting the translations of thinkers fm the Continentai post-wtaphysical tradition Ira Beidegger to Derrida. In
order to cornnicate this critique of retaphysics, translators are forced to reshape the target language and expand its
boundaries, and still, much is distorted.
or literal translation into another* This indudes complex, abstract as
well as simple referential terms and concepts.
Second, the activity of translation must involve a focus, not only
on the language of the Other, but be simultaneously Linguistically self-
reflexive. A s John Lucy notes, "we deautomatize our own language
categories by contrasting them with those of other languages" (Lucy
1992:37). Translation, on Wharf's view, works to disrupt a linguistic
complacency, or a blindness, toward the foundations of our own belief
system. I t is this disruption of monological, monolinguistic wnsciousness
that makes possible a cross-CUItural dialogue.
Taken together, these two observations suggest a new model of
translation: rather than viewing it as the simple transfer of meaning
between languages or a sententid mapping between belief systems, it is
better conceptualized as a form of Wogue between languages,
The fear of the impLications of linguistic relativism expressed by
critics who take seriously the translation paradox, is precisely the
condition of the cross-cultural encounter that needs to be fully

If Linguistic relativism were true, it would be advisable to study a

language in order to study the beliefs of its users (although, of
course, if Linguistic relativism w e r e true, this study would itself
be shaped by the effects of the ethnologist's language on him.
(Cunningham 1973:48)

What is, for Cunningham, a methodoiogical nuisance is, in fact, a

fundamental aspect of the project of understanding our representations
of the Other. Rather than compromising the integrim of anthropology, I
hope that I have shown that this bi-directional, cross-linguistic,
translational interaction reestablishes the possibility of a productive
anthropology--,one that offers an understanding of the beliefs held by
m e m b e r s of other cultures, rather than one that unreflectively passes
judgement on misrepresentations of those beliefs.
Chapter Five-
Beyond the Transfer af mMeaninga-Quine and hvidson

Meaning is what essene becomes when it is divorced from the

obj- of reference and wedded to the word.
W,V. Quine- Two Dogmas of Empiricism

While Whorf's Linguistic investigations often -bit substantial

differences b e t w e e n cultures in ways of representing the world, he w a s
often willing to attribute determinate beliefs to the Other on the basis
of these investigations. At the same t i m e , however, his careful
translational studies reveal mmplerdties of cross-linguistic belief
comparisons that p m y undermine the idea of stable determinate
meaning and (as a r e s d t j the ascription of determinate beliefs. The
importance of intra-Linguistic analogical relationships and the
implications of meaning holism were similsrrly addressed in a
philosophical con+& by Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein. Their
investigations into semantic theory led them to question the assumption
that single words or concepts are the proper units of linguistic
meaning, and to further problematize the idea that meaning (even within
a language) is stable and determinate* T h e implications of such linguistic
complexities for translation w e r e explicitly brought to bear on the issue
of translation by W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson.
Contemporary philosophical treatments of translation remain a l m o s t
entirely centered around the issues framed by W.V-0. Quine in Word a d
O b j e c t (1960). Understanding Quine's arguments for the "indeterminacy
of translation" is essential not only to understanding his philosophical
system a s a whole, but also for understanding almost every philosophical
debate concerning translation addressed since. w e ' s indeterminacy
thesis and his insistence on the methodological necessity of the
"principle of charityw in translation remain widely influential and
controversial within philosophy,
What makes Quinefs theory of translation especially significant is
that he rejects the assumption, central to virtually every prior theory,
that "meaningw can be treated as a stable. pre-interpreted, given. Quine
thus undermines any basis for objectively identifying synonymies
between expressions in different languages, and in the process calk into
question the very idea that translation could be a matLer of matching
expressions so as to ensure the isomorphic transfer of meaning, Indeed,
Quine questions the very idea that such wmeaningwexists. Quine's
analysis calk for a thorough reassessment of the nature of cross-
cultural representation, As Robert Feleppa puts this point, Quine
effectively shows that "the foundational anthropological concern with
recovering CUtturaily specific elements.,, may b e founded on mistaken
semantic and cognitive assumptions" (Feleppa l988:52). Quine changed
translation theory not by proposing a new theory of how translation is
accomplished, but by redefining translation itself--by changing the idea
of what w e muld expect translation to accomplish. By implication, he
calls into question the very possibility of cross-cultural representation.
In Word and Object; Quine begins his discussion of translation by
suggesting that the only evidence w e could have for attributing meaning
to a foreign word or sentence is the behavioral dispositions, both
physical and verbal, of the speaker, While Quine believes that this is
the only type of evidence that could bear on any determination of
meaning, his approach differs dramatically from the Linguistic
reductionism of empiricist theories of meaning in as much as h e insists
that the analysis of meaning can be exhausted neither by explication of
reference to objects nor by analysis of behavior.' Like Whorf. Quine

Thus, Qnine is an mpiricist but an anti-reductionist. In order to understand Quite's aualysis of 1e-
and translation, it is important to bear in lint? that he is prirarily responding to theories of linguistic reductionism.
%en while he retains a naturalist/phgsicaiist foundation for interpretation, his theory is largely motivated by the
inplications of a holistic approach to language that nudemines the sort of reductionism usually associated vith this
approach. Sima W e suggests that 'the only thing that separates Qnine's behavioriw frm the erpiricist do- of
reductionism is his b o l i a " ( ~ e 1991:96-7). Still, this is no sdll difference. Qnine's reasoning steas fro
ansidering atteapts at reduction M e confronting the possibility that those atterpts rust fail.
emphasizes the holistic thesis that meaning is a function of context, the
s t r u c t u r a l features of a language as w e l l as analogical relationships w i t h
other words/concepts/sentences in the language. This Linguistic holism
undermines any attempt at semantic reductionism-

The power of a nonverbal stimulus to elicit a given sentence

commonly depends on earlier associations of sentences with
sentences. And in fact it i s cases of this kind that best illustrate
how language transcends the confines of essentially
phenomenalistic reporting. (Quine 1960:lO)

Quine agrees with the anthropoiogical Linguists who take careful

analysis of language to be a necessary basis for understanding the
beliefs of the members of another culturee,In wThe Problem of Meaning
in Linguistics," Quine takes Whorf's work as a point of departure,
acknowledging the intimate comection between a particular language and
a way of representing the world- He, like Whorf, suggests that there is
"no separating language from the worldw ( m e 1953a.61-63) and, in
"Speaking of Objects," he, again Iike Whorf, provides an analysis of the
"object orientedw nature of English in order to establish that the
structure of a language substantially influences thought- Quine p a r t s
company w i t h Whorf, however, on the question of whether one can
determinately translate the beliefs of the Other by taking clues from
Linguistic structure. Whereas Whorf seemed to believe that the broad
range of evidence to which he appealed was sufficient to determine the
content of a foreign belief, Quine focuses critical attention on the range
of applicable evidence and argues that interpretation might never be
adequately constrained by such evidence. It is by focusing on the
Limitations of the evidence on which translators must rely that Q u h e
questions the very possibility of determinate translation.

Radical Translation - Quine

Two claims stand as a point of departure for most of Quine's
analysis of translation, First, he argues that there is no objective way
in which to determine synonymies w i t h i n a Ianguage. His critique of the
analytic/synthetic distinction in "Two Dogmas of Empiricismw (Quine
1953b) shows that any statement can be re-interpreted as analytic or
synthetic depending on how the supporting statements in the theory or
language are interpreted, The ana.lytic/synthetic distinction relies upon
the possibility of providing a non-circular definition of synonymy which,
in turn, can only be provided if the a n a l y t i c distinction can
be unproblematidy maintained. Given this interdependency, Quine
argues that there is no systematic or theoretical w a y objectively to
determine synonymy. Synonymies are designated within a language
rather than determined through empirically discovered or extra-
Linguistic relations, A consequence of the failure to maintain a clear
analytic/synthetic distinction is Quine's second central claim: that words
or sentences are not the proper units for analysis of meaning, rather,
semantic analysis m u s t treat the whole of language. Where the
interpretation of one sentence depends on that of all others w i t h which
it is associated in a "web of belief,w semantic analysis cannot be
confined to sub-units of a language: meaning m u s t be treated
Interpretive evidence, for w e , is Limited to states of the world
(for natural science) and human behavior, verbal and non-verbal, (for
social science). AU possible evidence, however, is never enough, even in
principle, to uniquely determine the meaning of a single statement. Even
given access to all of the evidence bearing on the interpretation of a
statement, it will remain possible to provide multiple interpretations of
that s t a t e m e n t depending on how one interprets (or reinterprets)
supporting statements, This third important thesis follows from Quine's
second thesis above, Based on these claims, Quine mncludes that
translation is underdetermined b y all possible evidence. It is always
possible to interpret the sentences of a language in different and
incompatible ways, all consistent w i t h the totality of admissible evidence.

There can be no doubt that rival systems of analytical hypotheses

can f i t the totality of speech behavior to perfection, and can f i t
the totality of dispositions to speech behavior as well, and still
specify m u t u a l l y incompatible translations of countless sentences
insusceptible of independent control. (Quine 1960:72)
Given Quine's three theses above, what follows, in relation to the
project of translation is a potentially pervasive non-uniqueness of
sentential mappings between the foreign statements expressing the
beliefs of the O t h e r and the transIation of those beliefs in the target
language. Multiple, incompatible translations. consistent with all possible
evidence, can always (in principle) be produced, This has implications
not only for the possibility of determining the meaning of statements
made in a foreign language, but also for the very nation of semantic
Quinedevelops his theory of meaning through several well known
thought experiments. H e amsiders cases of "radical translationw in which
an ethnographer faces the task of translating a language that is wholly
unfamiliar, one for which there is, as of yet, no translation manual- H e
argues that these thought experiments are the appropriate starting
point for a theory of translation because too often such theory is
misguided by consideration of examples from languages structurally
similar to English where standard translation manuaIs already exist and
where the languages and cultures in question have co-evolved.'
In the most f a m o u s of these radical translation thought
experiments, Quine considers what would be involved in translating the
simple s t a t e m e n t (or sentence) gavagai from a hypothetical language
( Q u l n e 1960:29-32.51-~).~W e are to imagine that the speaker points to a
rabbit and says "gavagai." The linguist's first impulse is, of course, to
translate the utterance as "rabbit." T h e translator formulates an
"analytical hypothesis," a postulation of meaning based on the available

It is vorth keeping this concern in und as a point of amparison with Donald Davidson. Daridson's examples
are dl dram frw faniliar and structurally similar languages, possibly contributing to the significant differences in
his conclusions. @tine pags careful attention to the structural shilarities upon which such translation theory depends
and is often seen as detenined:
Translation be- kindred languages, e.g., Frisian ad English, is aided by reseablance of cognate vord
fans. Translation between mwlated languages, e.g., Ihmgarian and EugLish, ray be aided by traditional
equations that have evolved in step with a shared cnItnre. Wat is relevaat to our purposes is radical
translation, i.e., translation of the language of a hitherto untouched people. (Quine 1960:28)
Qaine invents a mthetical 1e- rather investigating an exist@ one precisely to avoid the
philosophical trappings of the preconceptions that care with exaples of actual translation.
behavioral and verbal evidence, The linguist might later find that this
hypothesis is mistaken through further trials where the native utters
gavagai when presented w i t h rats as well as rabbits, or all long-eared
animals: in the face of evidence that speakers of the other language
classify things differently, the translator may be forced to revise
his/her initial translation. Problems aligning referential classes do not
constitute the only, nor the most significant, problem with determining a
translation. Suppose that, given infinite testing and all possible
behavioral responses, the speaker utters wgavagaiwalways and only
when an English speaker would say A c c o r d i n g to Quhe the
linguist is stiU not justified in claiming that "rabbitw is the single
authentic translation of the "meaningwof the statement gavagai, Quhe
suggests that the native wuld be pointing a t "rabbit stages* or
"undetached rabbit parts." Either of these interpretations would be
indistinguishable from "rabbitn even given all possible behavioral
evidence. Quine concludes, on this basis, that there is no exhaustive,
objective criterion b y which to fully determine the meaning of gavagai.
Translators inevitably confront what Quine calls the inscrutability of
referencen; Feleppa describes this thesis as "the field linguist's
inability, in principle, to determine objectively what the subject's
referential and ontological categories realty aren (Feleppa l988:33).4
Quine does not believe that all terms are entirely inscrutable
(Quine 1960:42). In some cases, meaning can be determined by reference
to what he refers to as wstimulusmeaning," as in the case of terms Like
"red," Although the stimulus response to gavagai may be unambiguous,
Quine insists that it does not exhaust the meaning of the statement
"there is a rabbit." Purely observational statements are a small class of

Although not lade entirely clear in dbject, Qnine is Iater careful to stress that the inscrutability
of reference is not want to act as a proof for the thesis of the indetenioacy of translation. It is considerations of
the irplications of holim that mtivate the theory (me 1969a:00-81,19?R:118-1031 Feieppa 1988:132). It is because
the unit of translation is neither the uord not the sentence (as one d g h t suspect ira his mles of inscrutability),
but the ohole of language that translation is rendered indeteninzte (Qnine lWb:8, 1969a:tlO). Since any sentence can
be reinterpreted by uking proper adjustments in the interpretations of other statmts, it cmot be settled what a
staterent (objectively) reans, even within a language. Such a clair has vast repercnssions for epistmlo~.The
irportant result, stated in 'Epistmlogy Natunlized,' is that 'epistemlog nor beeaes serantics' (we l969a:89),
and, in an irportant sense, seaantics becaes translation.
sentences that lie at one end of a spectrum that ranges from statements
with fully determinate meaning through partially underdetermined
statements like that identified in the gavagai example, through obviously
theoretical sentences like "there is a neutronw (Quine 1960:42, 1969a=86-
7). This s m a l l class of observation sentences can be unproblematically
translated (Quine 1960:68). While the belief that there exists a class of
determinatelg translatable observation sentences bears resemblance to
bridgehead theories, Quine suggests that the class of statements he
considers purely observational is not sufficient to determine the
meanings of other complex senten- in the Ianguage ( m e 1960.72).
Such simple statements are holophrastic responses to external stimulus
that do not function to stabilize the meanings of other more theoretical
statements in the language ( w e 1969a:86-89). In other words, the
presence of a s m a l l class of determinately translatable observation
sentences will not be sufficient to determine a complete translation
manual that wiU allow one to ascribe contentful beliefs to the speakers
of that language.
Sentences Like "there is a rabbitw remain partially non-
observational because of the contextual and analogical relationships the
meaning of gavagai might bear to other concepts or statements in the
language. Simplistically put, there m a y be "rabbit theoryn which gives
gavagaz' another role in the language. The surrounding body of
knowledge presupposed in the identification of some object, Quine calls
"collateral information." One might, for instance, affirm "there is a
rabbitn even though there is not one in view because of the presence of
a rabbit fly (which is only observed when rabbits are present) or
dissent from "there is a rabbitw when only the ears are observed
because it is not visible enough to be shot at (if that is the only
function a rabbit has). With collated information the meaning of a term
or statement is extended beyond the notion of reference or stimulus
response to include the social function or history of the object and use
of the concept. Consider again MacZntyre's example of the translation of
"Doire-Colmcillew or the translation of tbe Zande t e r m used in reference
to the object referred to by the English wchicken.wAlthough such terms
(in source and target languages) refer to observable objects, their
meanings depend, in large part, on their function and history in a
context or culture. Clearly, collateral information mncerning the role of
the chicken in the practice of Zmde witchcraft impinges on the meaning
of that term while t h e whole history of British-Irish relations affects the
meaning of town names.' No amount of behavioral evidence could exhaust
the intricacies of the meaning of such terms.

From the point of view of a theory of translational meaning the

most notable thing about the analytical hypotheses is that they
exceed anything impUcit in any native's dispositions to speech
behavior, B y bringing out analogies between sentences that have
yielded to translation and others they extend the working limits of
translation beyond where independent evidence can exist. ( w e

Quine makes his case against the semantic foundations of traditional

translation theory (as the transfer of deep meaning) in the opening
pages of "Ontological Relativity." B y considering the evidence that can
bear on the determination of the meaning of a foreign word or sentence,
w e are forced to give up w h a t he refers to as the "museum figurew
theory of meaning in which meaning is something apart from the
statement or something the concept attaches to, Only given this
representation of language can one maintain an interlinguistic notion of
synonymy. the view that expressions can be found in any two languages
that have the same wmeaning.w Quine further suggests that if one
abandons the museum figure theory of meaning, there are no grounds
for assuming that there is a right or wrong answer to the question of
which of two possible consistent, although incompatible, translations is
the wcorrectw translation (Quine 1969b:29-30).

[Quine's]objection is not to meanings and propositions as such: it

is to their being construed as somehow independent of language.

Kirk discusses this point sarmmding the waning of the ten 'dog.' In sae cuitrues, dags function as pets,
in other cultures as food. He refers to the relevaut collateral infonation as 'dog theory,' suggesting that 'dog'
differs from an obviooslg theoretical ten Like 'neatm~rimril~ in the simplicity of the relevant theory. The point
is that (in both cases) reaning is not, and m o t be, exhausted by reference but bears an essential relation to
supporting concepts. (Kirk 1986:93)
So in the discussion of analyticaI hypotheses he exploits the
remoteness of the jungle language f r o m the translator's in order
to illuminate the claim that, in general, translation between the
two can have nothing to be right or wrong about- In particular,
there are no free-floating meanings which the translator attempts
to identify and re-label, (Kirk 1986:44)

Quine's thesis is not simply that transIation is underdetermined and

so indeterminate, Underdetermination i s an epistemological thesis about
what can b e known concerning the beliefs of the Other. Quine makes the
case for a more radical thesis of iadetermioacgt suggesting not just that
it is, in principk, impossible to determine what the Other means in
uttering a statement like gavagai; but that there i s no objective fact of
the m a t t e r at stake concerning what the Other means, Indeterminacy is,
in short, an onf010gical thesis about meaning itself (that there is no
"meaning itselfw).This constitutes a radical departure from previous
semantic based translation theory, and has substantial implications for
our understanding of the nature of translation.
In principle, then, one cannot determine whether one ought to
translate gavagai as "rabbit, "undetached rabbit parts," or "rabbit
stage" given the evidence admissible by Quine. Yet, Quine does not
think that, in practice, translation is wholly undecidable. While
incompatible schemes of translation could be mnstructed, there is nct
always reason to do so. T h e goal of translation is coherent discourse
(Quine 1960:70), and, just as Hollis would later suggest (for different
reasons), this induces us to extend the "principle of charity" to the
speaker, translating his or her sentences as rationally as possible
unless there is evidence that would motivate us to do o t h e r w i d The
principle of charity is not justified a priori [as for H O W ) but i s
grounded pragmatically; it is warranted because it promises to facilitate

@ h e characterizes the "principleof charity' as the f o l l ~ :

The laKir of translation uuderlying all this is that assertions startlingly false on the face of ther are
likely to turn on hidden differences of language. This rardr is stma enough in aL1 of QS to SvelOeuseven
from the homophonic wethod that is so IrmdmtaI to the very acquisition and use of one's rother tongue. The
c m n sense behind the uxir is that one's interlocutor's silliness, beyond a certain point, is less Likely
than bad translation- or, hi the dorestic case, linguistic divergence. (Qnine 196059)
communication, It is justifkble, then, for pragmatic reasons, to translate
gavagai as "rabbitm(Quine 1969c:3). This does not, however detract from
the theoretical point that the transIation is undecidable (Quine 1969b:34),
Any determination of meaning w i l l be based on a p m b extra-empirical
criteria such as charity, familiarity, ease or simplicity.
Not only will translation schemes be shaped by pragmatic concerns.
they will also b e shaped by the conceptual apparatus of the target
language, According to Quine. the process of translation w i l l result in
the partidl projection of the cultural ontology (however ill-defined) or
style of reasoning of the anthropologist onto the beliefs of the Other.

[The translator] must make do w i t h a limited lot of contextual

definitions. Now once he has carried out this necessary job of
lexicography, forwards and backwards, he has read our ontological
point of view into the native language,,,, English general and
singular terms, identity, quantification, and the whole bag of
ontological tricks may be correlated w i t h elements of the native
language in any of various mutually incompatible ways, each
compatible with all possible linguistic data, and none preferable to
another save a s favored b y a rationahation of the native
language that is simple and natural to us.,. It makes no real
difference that the linguist will turn bilingual and come to think
as the natives do-whatever that means. For the arbitrariness of
reading our objectifications into the heathen speech reflects not
so much the inscrutability of the heathen mind, as that there is
nothing to scrute, (Quine 1969c:3,4-5)

While Quine often characterizes his position as wrelativist," it is not

clear that his rejection of determinate meaning amounts to a rdativism
of the standard sort nor, indeed, of the forms of relativism often
attributed to him. It is not the case that meaning is relative to a
language and/or ontology, but that it is relative to an interpretation, or
translation, of a language or ontology, which, in turn, denies the idea of
a pre-existing ontology. A s Richard Rorty objects, w1do not see how the
claim that something does not exist can be construed as the claim that
something is relative to something elsen (Rorty 1991:27), Robert Kirk has
Likewise noted, "we cannot properly call Quine a relativist about
meaning. H e is not a relativist; he is a semantic nihilistw (Kirk 1986:75).
This is to say that belief systems do not exist independently of our
interpretations. Quine states wepistemoiogynow becomes semantics"
(Quine 1969a:89), not "relative" but indeterminate,

The relativistic thesis to which w e have come i s this, to repeat: it

makes no sense to say what the objects of a theory are, beyond
saying how to interpret or reinterpret that theory in another.
(Quine 1969b:50)
To say what objects someone is talking about is to say no more
than how w e propose to translate his terms into ours; w e are free
to vary the decision w i t h a proxy function, The translation
adopted arrests the free-floating reference of the alien t e r m s only
relatively to the free-floating reference of our own terms, by
linking the two. ( m e 1981b:ZO)

Relativism is traditionally identi€ied w i t h the claim that meaning is

relative to a language o r conceptual scheme, therefore, something must
b e lost or misrepresented, If not remain altogether unintelligible, in the
attempt to translate the beliefs of the Other. Quine's claim is not that
there is another stable system of meaning so different that translation
b e c o m e s difficult or impossible, He argues, rather, that there is only
translation; there is nothing to misrepresent, 3 meaning is "relative" to
anything, it is relative to the translation scheme or manual through
which it is constructed, Quine's indeterminacy thesis thus produces a
relativism of an importantly different sort than that atfributed to Whorf.
Quine states, "reference i3 nonsense except relative to a coordinate
systemw (Quine 1969b:48) and that coordinate system is not a language
or an objective reality outside of language, but an interpretation- The
implication of the indeterminacy thesis is that synonymy (rather than
meaning) can only be defined relatively, i.e., "X means the s a m e as Y
relative to (translation) manual Mu (Kirk 1986:76).
Even on a conservative interpretation, Quine's observations are
sufficient to motivate an important modification to the traditional model
of translation which represents it as the project of mapping meanings
from one language to another. Meaning holism implies that there are no
pre-existing meanings inherent in the source language, independent of
the interpretation, there to be translated. Hence, translation cannot be
the isomorphic m a p p i n g of meaning since those meanings do not exist
independently of the map. For Quine, there are not two stable languages
and then the map; there is only the map*
Eknjamin Whorf, recall, believes that the threat of Linguistic
relativism m a y be overcome in the act of translating- Conceptual
differences are substantial but may be bridged ethnographically and
through self-reflexive linguistic analysis, For Quine, the very lack of
pre-interpreted meanings to transfer between languages means that any
translation will be somewhat arbitrary. Still, Quine's linguistic amdysis,
Like Whorf's, implies that translation ought to b e carried out
ethnographically- Interpretations are not constructed out of individual
sentences but of whole language/ belief systems.

The dogma of reductionism survives in the supposition that each

statement, taken in isolation from its fellows, can admit of
confirmation or infirmation at all,,., What I a m now urging is that
even in taking the statement as unit w e have drawn our grid too
finely. T h e unit of empirical significance is the whole of science,
(Quine 1953b:41,42)

Still, according to most critics, m e ' s indeterminacy of translation

thesis leaves the threat of relativism looming large. While the pragmatic
constraints endorsed by Quine, such as the principle of charity, might
b e sufficient to determine a best (or better) translation manual, the
indeterminacy of meaning precludes the possibility of isomorphic, cross-
Linguistic meaning mapping* Donald Davidson extends Quine's theory of
translation, proposing a solution to this relativist threat by making
charity a foundational principle to be applied more pervasively in the
process of translation. In order to accomplish this he develops a theory
of translation that represents the project as another kind of cross-
linguistic mapping.

Radical Ihterpretation - Davidson

Donald Davidson accepts the motivation for QuineVsholistic analysis

of language and many of its implications, including indeterminacy, but
maintains that it is possible to derive a formal theory of Wanslation that
reduces, to some degree, the instability of translation in w a y s that
Quine's pragmatic constraints do not, Before considering his analysis of
translation, it will be useful to draw attention to a few key features of
his theory of meaning, o r intra-linguistic interpretation, in order to see
how it provides a foundation for his theory of €ranslation.
Davidson qCectsQuines' strict behaviorism and his restriction of
the grounds for translation to sensory evidence (Quine's internalism),
Quine's behavioral evidence introduces an intermediate step between
belief and the world into the process of translation, according to
Davidson, and unnecessarily opens the door to epistemological skepticism
(and to r e l a t i v i s m ) by advocating a scheme/amtent dichotomy (Davidson
1984:189-190). In just the way that Quhe rejects the analytic/synthetic
distinction, Davidson rejects Quine's distinction between observation
sentences (those reducible to sensory meaning) and those not so
reducible. H e advocates, instead, a causal theory of belief formation.

For the distinction between sentences belief in whose truth is

justified by sensations and sentences belief in whose truth is
justified only by appeal to other sentences held true is as
anathema to the coherentkt as the distinction between beliefs
justified by sensations and beliefs justified only by appeal to
further beliefs. Accordingly, I suggest w e give up the idea that
meaning or knowledge is grounded on something that counts as an
ultimate source of evidence. No doubt meaning and knowledge
depend on experience, and experience ultimatdy on sensation. But
this is the 'depend' of causality, not of evidence or justification,
(Davidson 1986:313-314)

In other words, one needn't follow m e in s p e a k i ~ gof the

relations between the external world, sensory input, and belief: Davidson
considers only the relation between the external world and belief. What
determines the meaning of an utterance, then, is not a combination of
possible stimuli plus assent/dissent, but merely assent/dissent in the
presence of certain states of the world. Davidson's theory of meaning is
thus an externalkt account; meaning depends only upon states of the
world and speaker assent/dissent.
Davidson appeals to a theory of interpretation derived from
Tarski's semantic mncept of truth as well as from a more extensive
application of the principle of charity. For Davidson, interpreting a
sentence w i t h i n a language amounts to identifying the conditions under
which the sentence is true, This is done by specifying the biconditional=

s is true (in some language L) if and only if p

Davidson states:

T h e theory will have done its work if it provides, for every

sentence s in the language under study, a matching sentence (to
replace 'p') that, in some way yet to be made dear, 'gives the
meaning' of s, One obvious candidate for matching sentences is
just s itself, if the object Ianguage is contained in the
metalanguage; otherwise a translation of s in the metalanguage.,..
The definition works b y gitrfng necessary and sufficient conditions
for the truth of every sentence, and to give truth conditions is a
way of giving the meaning of a sentence. To know the semantic
concept of truth for a language is to know what it is for a
sentence--any sentence-to be true, and this amounts, in one good
sense we can give to the phrase, to understanding the language.
(Davidson 1984~23.24)

An example of the application of this method that Davidson often

uses is the T-sentence interpretation of "snow is white-" The T-sentence
is constructed:

"snow is whitew is true if and only if snow is white

The interpretation of the sentence is given b y stating the

conditions, in the metalanguage, under which the sentence is true. It is
important to realize that the stab%- of translation can be (relatively)
unproblematically assumed on Tarski's model because it is guaranteed by
the definition of the metalanguage so that it contains the object
language. Tarski's method is designed for application to formal
languages and eliminates problematic semantic issues by treating
translation as primitive and a purely syntactical operation. Davidson
modifies this method for application to natural languages, recasting the
relation between object and meta-language posited by Tarski as a
correspondence relation between the meta-language and reality? It
remains necessary to assume that "the object language is contained in
the metalanguage," but this extension to natural language can no longer
take translation to be primitive. Rather, an understanding of translation
must be derived from "a partial understanding of truthw (Davidson
1987:172). The meaning of a sentence, then, is given by stating the
external conditions under which the statement is true. This "partial
understanding of truthwrequires a more substantial relation to reality
than Tarski needed. Although Davidson sometimes describes this account
as a "correspondence theory of meaning,n it differs significantIy from
most correspondence theories. It is based, not on a theory of reference
but on Tarski's notion of satisfaction; Dandson therefore avoids
traditional notions of reference and word meaning (Davidson 1984:chapter
3.15). In a similar manner, Davidson sometimes describes interpretation
as dependent on a type of correspondence, since satisfaction is a
relation between a statement and the world (Davidson 198th). but h e also
insists that interpretations are not wrepresentat.onsnof the world
(Davidson l989:165-166).
Davidson is primarily concerned to provide a model of
interpretation within a language, however, his theory is easily extended
to provide an account of cross-linguistic interpretation. Here, Davidson
recognizes many of the same evidential problems that make inter-
Linguistic interpretation indeterminate as did Quine. In the attempt to
understand the beliefs of members of another culture, however, Davidson
speaks not of "radical translationn b u t rather of "radical interpretation."
Davidson redescribes the project of interlinguistic translation in this
w a y to emphasize that " meaningn is not as central an issue as

Oavidson suggests:
Ye knw how to give a theory of truth for the r ' o d 1-e: so i f we knew hou to transfon the sentences af
a natural language systmtically into sentences of the f o r d language, we wuld have a theory of truth for
the natnral laquge. Fm this point of view, standard f o r d languages are M e d i a t e devices to assist as
in treating natural languages as more caplex f o r d languages. (Davidson 1987:171)

It should be noted that this is no d ltask. It is, wig, vhat positivists tried and failed to do. A great
deal of Davidson's analysis of translation depends on the success of this 'translonation' from f o r d to natural
traditional translation theorists assumed; its goal has been misformulated
when translation is characterized as the proj& of matching meanings
(Davidson 1984:128-130). Translation does not proceed by means of a
"transfernor ntranscriptionwof meaning between languages but rather
by matching sentences that have identical truth conditions. What holds
for intra-linguistic interpretation, holds for inter-linguistic

We are interested not in what a person meant b y uttering the

sentence, but what the sentence, as uttered, meant,..,
The central difficulty is that we cannot hope to attach a sense to
the attribution of finely discriminated intentions independentIy of
interpreting speech. The reason is not that w e cannot ask
necessary questions, but that interpreting an agent's intentions,
his beliefs and his words are parts of a single project, no part of
which can be assumed to b e complete before the rest is- (Davidson

O n Davidson's account, then, translation is best understood as

radical interpretation; it is an interpretation of the sentences of one
language in terms of the sentences of another-
When interpreting a sentence within a Ianguage Davidson suggests,
again, that the "obvious candidatew for replacing p in the T-sentence is
"just s itself." Turning to the problem of interpreting statements across
languages, Davidson provides a similar model but one that is
substantially more complex p r e c i d g because the pre-defined equivalence
between object and meta-language obviously does not apply between
source and target languages. The result is that there is no "obvious
candidatew for replacing p in the T-sentence that specifies an
interpretation of sentences between natural languages.

As before, the aim of the theory will be an infinite correlation of

sentences alike in truth. B u t this time the theory-builder must not
b e assumed to have direct insight into likely equivalences between
his own tongue and the alien. What he must do is find out,
however he can, w h a t sentences the alien holds true in his own
tongue (or better, to what degree he holds them true). The
linguist then will attempt to construct a characterization of truth-
for-the-alien which yields, so far as possible, a mapping of the
sentences held true (or false) by the alien on to senten- held
t r u e (or false) by the linguist. (Davidson 1984:27)
InterIinguistic translational T-sentences take the same form as
those that provide interpretations w i t h i n a language yet must accomplish
the further task of mapping the sentences of one language onto
sentences that are not contained in the first. Davidson provides an
example of the form that such T-sentences would take:

"Es regnet" is true if and only if it is raining!

"It is rainingwacts as an English interpretation of the German

sentence "Es regnet" precisely because the truth conditions are the
same for the two sentences in their respective languages; m e m b e r s of
each speech community will utter their r e s p d v e statements under the
same external conditions, Translation, then, is to be understood as a
matter of establishing truth-preserving matches between statements in
different languages rather than transferring of word meanings or
intentions across languages, Consequently, translation is, Davidson says,
"a purely syntactiic notionw (Davidson 1984:221), It is not meanings" or
"referencesn that are mapped, but sentences that are matched (Davidson
Davidson agrees with Quine concerning both the inscrutability of
reference and the indeterminacy of meaning. Even given the constraints
that Davidson places on translation, it w i l l not be possible to determine
a unique, correct translation manual. Indeterminacy, in Davidson's
terminology, is recharacterized as the claim that there may be competing
manuals that preserve truth conditions for a large number of sentences
but match sentences differently, or assign different truth conditions to
(a Limited number of) the same sentences (Davidson 1984:139,224-5).

The truth of any sentences in a language, according to Davidson, is relative to a l-e, tine and speaker
(Davidson 1984:45). Hence, the more exact staterent of this biconditional is:
"Es regnet' is tme-in-Gem when spoken by x at ti# t i f and only i f it is Wg near x at t.

A further generalization (to a gronp of speakers or a langua#ej offers the proper translation:

"[x)(t)(if x belongs to the G e

m speech coormity then [x holds trne V9 regnet' at t i f and only it it is
raining near x at t)).' (Davidson 1984:135)
Davidson's indeterminacy also differs from Quine's in one further
respect; he characterizes competing translation manuals as possibly
different but not as potentially inwmpatible (as Quine does), Davidson
acknowledges a llmited indeterminacy, but not substantial

It is not likely, given the f k i b l e nature of the constraints, that

all acceptable theories wiU be identical. When all the evidence is
in, there will remain, as Quine has emphasized, the trade-offs
between the beliefs we attribute to a speaker and the
interpretations w e give his words, B u t the resuItiag indeterminacy
cannot be so great but that any theory that passes the tests will
serve to yield interpretations. (Davidson 1984:139)

This denial of the possibility of substantial differences between

languages is motivated by fundamental differences between what Quine
and Davidson munt as evidence for the construction of beliefs and their
interpretation. Recall that Quiae requires that meaning b e based on
sensory evidence and that translation be based on behavioral evidence,
while Davidson allows interpretation to proceed on the basis of truth
conditional assent and dissent in relation to possible states of the world.

Quine makes interpretation depend on patterns of sensory

stimulation, while 1 make it depend on external events and objects
the sentence is interpreted as being about. Thus Quine's notion of
meaning is tied to sensory criteria, something he thinks that can
be treated also as evidence. This leads Quine to give episternic
significance to the distinction between observation sentences and
others, since observation sentences are supposed, by their direct
conditioning to the senses, to have a kind of extra-linguistic
justification. (Davidson 1986:317)

Quine's internalism suggests that conceptual schemes may be

culturally specific and his analysis of translation suggests that they
may b e substantiaIly different cross-culturally. Davidson's externalism,

Davidson does not acknowledge that there will be cases here translation is not passible. me, on the other
hand, suggests that there ray be cases where there will not be correspr,ndhg observation sentences between languages. In
other words, Qniae accepts partial failure of translation; Davidson does not (see Vallace 1986:219). The reasons for
this difference are elaborated belw concerning Davidson's critiqne of conceptual scheaes.
on the other hand, leads him to question the possibility of substantial
conceptual differences across cultures.

In one of Davidson's most controversial papers, "On the Very Idea

of a Conceptual Scheme," he argues that it is inconceivable *at the
speakers of another language think in a way so radically different from
ourselves that their language might r e m a i n untranslatable, This
conclusion derives much of its support from his theory of translation,
Like the Linguistic anthropoIogists discussed in chapter four, Davidson
equates having a amceptual s c h e m e with speaking a language- Since a
language embodies a "thought world," as Whorf would say, it is
impossible to separate the idea of a language from the mnceptual
scheme characterized in terms of those ideas (Davidson 1984:184).
Davidson refers to this dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical
content as the "third dogma of empiricismw (Davidson 1984989) and
suggests that Quine's conceptual r e l a t i v i s m is a consequence of his
failure to give up this dogma.10
Given this intimate relation between language and mnceptual
scheme, Davidson equates the possibility of radical differences between
conceptual schemes with the kinds of radical difference between
languages that would render t h e m mutually untrmslatable. A s such, a
failure of translation between two languages is grounds for saying that
the conceptual schemes associated with these two languages are
substantially different (Davidson 1984=190). In order to assess the
possibility that conceptual schemes might be incommensurable, Davidson

Quine reseonds to Davidson's critique of his use of the idea of a conceptual schem by implying that his
analysis does not rely on this dichotay and that any confusion light be avoided by simply substituting talk of another
h triad - coneeptd schm, language, and mdd - is not what 1 envisage. I think rather, like Davidson, in
tens of language and the world. I scout the f e n quid as a myth of a rnsenr of labeled ideas. Mere 1
have spoken of a conceptual schae 1 could have spoken of a language. Uhere E have spoken of a very alien
conceptual scheae 1would have been content, Davidson dl1 be glad to Imw, to speak of a language aukward or
baffling to translate. (Quine 1981a:rll)
turns to a consideration of the conditions under which Linguistic
translation can fail.'
Davidson's preliminary considerations mncerning the possibility of
translation are strikingly similar to those proposed b y Hollis. A s
discussed in chapter one, Hollis argues that it is essential to assume a
stoclc of shared meanings between language users, Davidson proposes
not a bridgehead of shared meanings, but a common stock of
propositional truth assignments; if interpretation is to b e possible at all,
then language users must share a stock of senten- heId true. "Truthw
plays the role in Davidson's account that "meaningw did in Hollis*
account. While Davidson's semantic theory differs substantially from
H o b ' , the central problem he addresses is the same as Hollis': that of
how to break into the hermeneutic circle, In translating, one must
simultaneously account for both the truth conditions (or meaning) of a
sentence as well as the content of the belief that the translation of that
sentence is meant to represent, Insofar as translations are, in fact,
aammplished, Davidson posits that ascriptions of truth be held constant
(Davidson 1984~196)just as Hollis found it necessary to assume that
beliefs be held constant-
In order to enter the hermeneutic circle then, Davidson, appeals to
a very strong version of the principle of charity. Because successful
translation is based on shared truth assignments, the principle of
charity must be applied across the board to all types of statements.
Charity becomes not a pragmatic constraint, as for Quine, but an a
priori condition of translation:

Davidson's argmnt, here, is mtivated by the fact that he conceptualizes differences in conceptual schms
on the nodel of the i n c a b i l i t y of paradigms as developed by K h and Feyerabend. The case that Davidson rakes
against Yhorl is interestiag precisely becanse it reveals the way ia vhicb his critique of reiativis light be saevhat
misdirected. By asking whether translation is possible between i n c s n r a b l e schemes, he has already stacked the deck.
By definition, it is not. The real question is whether these sche#s should be represented as 'incmensorable' or
whether partial failure of translation @Lies incmenmrability. Yhorf's translations of Hopi concepts and ways of
representing the wrid are carried out as an overam@ of [potential) incammability. Dav-idson to equate (for
reasons developed Mow) ' i n ~ a b l e ~ v i 'significantly
th differeWad this is precisely the equation that Uhorf
suggested could be transcended through translation. I t is Davidson's ass~ptioasabout the utm of translation that
incline hia to lake this equation which, in an iaportant sense, begs the very question at h e .
This method is intended to solve the problem of the
interdependence of beliefs and meaning by holding belief constant
as far as possible while solving for meaning. This is accomplished
by assigning truth conditions to alien sentences that make native
speakers right when plausibly possible, according, of course, to
our own view of what is right. What justifies the procedure is the
fact that disagreement and agreement alike are intelligible only
against a background of massive agreement-
Since charity is not an option, but a condition of having a
workabIe theory, it is m e a n i n g l e s s to suggest that w e might fadl
into massive error by endorsing it. Until w e have successfully
established a systematic correlation of sentences held true with
sentences held true, there are no mistakes to make. (Davidson

Given Davidson's theory of truth, if translation is possible, it must

be because the cultures in question share truth assignments over simple
statements about the world. Although disagreement is not eliminated on
this account, it must remain intelligible and largely peripheral. Davidson
thus concludes, with Hollis. that to think at all is to think like w e do.''
The condition of languagehood is translatability, just as the condition
for translation is languagehood- Translation cannot fail; no sense can be
made of the idea of a language so different that it cannot be
comprehended, hence no sense can be made of the idea of a radically
different (incommensurable) mnceptual scheme. It is on this basis that
Davidson rejects the very idea of a conceptual scheme- 1 will argue that
this stricture against substantial CU1tural/Linguistic difference is
inconsistent with anthropological practice-
-- - -

Davidson, in a statement strikingig sirilar to one d e by Hollis, claim
If ue cannot find a way to interpret the utterances and other behavior of a creature as revealing a set of
beliefs largely consistent and true by ow oun standards, ue have no reason to count that creature as
ratianal, as having beliefs, or as saying anything. (Davidson 1984:137)
Again, as is the case for EoUs, Davidson's mtfiodologicaL concerns motivate substantial epistmlogical claim.
The conditions of snccessfal translation becae the conditions of thinking (see M e 1991 p.llO).
The transition I r a the lethodological to the aomtive clah has no need of fusther justification for hidson. In
a sense, the constraints on interpretation dictate h a t qualifies as another rind. Mchael h t notes:
Davidson offers no m t to bridge the gap betreen other linds and our understanding of W... givea his
views on interpretation, there is no gap to bridge.. . it is lore appropriate to say that other rinds are the
products of interpretation than i t is to sag that they are the objects of interpretation. Other tinds, on
Davidson's vier, are what we get when ue interpret the behavior of others. (Boot 1!86:293-294)
The V e r y Idea d Suaxssful TranslatTon

Davidson's criticism of Benjamin Whorf is not that he has

mistranslated the Hopi Language, but that he attributes to the Hopi a
radically different w a y of speaking about reality and, as a result.
concludes that any conception of reality is relative to a language, That
their conclusions about cultural and linguistic difference differ
dramatically might be seen as a product of their different approaches to
translation, Davidson translates sententially by matching sentences
according to truth assignments; Whorf transiates ethnographically by
providing lengthy descriptions of another w a y of representing reality. It
is this difference in approach, I would argue, that motivates Davidson to
emphasize cross-cultural similarity and Whorf to emphasize cross-cultural
Davidson's examples of translated sentences are decontextualized.
simple, and familiar; through their familiarity, they lend credibility to
his account- Davidson draws examples from translations of German
sentences that are structurally identical to their English equivalents.
English and German classify weather conditions and colours similarly
(having common roots) such that the expressions "Es regnetw and "Der
schnee ist weiBw translate easily and obviously into the structurally and
truth conditionally identical statements in English "It is rainingw and
"The snow is white." To some extent, it is the certainty derived from
our familiarity with European languages, a mmmon ontology, and a
pervasive linguistic structural s i m i l a r i t y that makes these translations
appear accurate, If Quine considers exotic examples and then extends his
analysis to the common, Davidson does the opposite, drawing from the
common and then extending his analysis to the exotic (perhaps in order
to deny the exotic), W e might be less confident in our intuitions if
Davidson had borrowed Quine's example and asserted that: "gavagai is
true if and only if there is a rabbit present." The problem is not that
"there is a rabbitw is a bad translation of gavagai; Quine, Davidson, and
myself, all for different reasons, would agree that it is. The problem is
that t h i s translation does not teil us all w e could know about this
particular belief. In many cases, a degree of conceptual adjustment is
needed to make sense of the foreign expression and that adjustment may
be part of the interest of the expression. Whorf mnsiders a range of
problematic cases, from Hopi statements where what appears as a verb
in one language appears as a noun in another (the nearest equivalents
to "Light~~ing,~ wcloud,wand "stormwin Hopi are verbs) (Whorf
1956g:215), to cases w h e r e a concept that matches the description of the
referent in another Ianguage i s completely absent in the target language
(such as the case w i t h mangu in Zande), to examples in which some
essential attribute of that reference is absent in the nearest English
equivalent (as in the animateness of the Hopi word for "cloudw)?
It is, no doubt, possible to find English sentences that act as truth
functional equivalents to Hopi statements -aboutclouds (as in the case of
gavagar') without doing justice to what Whorf identifies as a key feature
of the Hopi concept of *o.'mSw' (Whorf 1956e:79). Consider the two T-

(1) 'o.'mSw* is true, in Hopi, if and only if there is a cloud

(2) *o.'mSw' is true, in Hopi, if and only if there is a living cloud

T-sentence (1)satisfies Davidson's criterion of matching sentences

according to truth conditions. An English speaker and a Hopi speaker
would utter these respective statements under the same external
conditions, T-sentence (2), however, reveals more about the Hopi
meaning that Whorf is concerned to capture but results in a T-sentence
that may be true in Hopi but is either false o r has no truth assignment
in English. The second T-sentence would not be uttered under the same
external conditions as the first. If we are willing to accept T-sentence
(1)as an interpretation of the Hopi statement, with a footnote describing
the differences in the concept wcloud, should w e still accept the T-

The "cloud' exarple i s interesting bemuse it represents a concrete case in uhich the approaches taken by
klorf and Davidson significantly diverge. The statement 'a cloud is passing before the m,' in order to be interpreted,
according to Davidson, requires that speaker and interpreter agree not only on the presence of an external situation,
but on important features concerning vhat a cloud is [induding that clouds are made of water vapor)jDavidson 1987:167).
If Yhorf is right, there i s Little or no agreemt between Bglish and Bopi speakers concerning rhat a cloud is.
sentence itself as a complete interpretation? To what degree is the
interpretation contained in the footnote? If w e accept T-sentence (2) as
an interpretation, we have two further problems. First, not only is it
clear that the Hopi mean something quite different by 'o.'mSw' than is
captured by the English wcloud," but, just as importantly, if clouds are
the sorts of things that can be considered Living, then they must also
mean something substantially different captured by the English
"Living." In both cases, further explication o r interpretation is required
to produce a complete interpretation than is provided by either T-
sentence. Whorf provides this explication, but does so ethnographically
rather than by elaborating a series of matching sentences in the two
languages. 14
Consider also the problem of making sense of the Yoruba claim that
they carry their heads or souls in a stick. No doubt there are wntexts
that provide for uncontroversial transIations of statements Like "there is
a headw or "there is a stick"; the difficulties for interpretation arise
when, given these established translations of the component terms, the
Yoruba appear to claim, under other circumstances, that they carry
their heads in sticks. Davidson acknowledges that there may be
problematic complex beliefs of this sort. H e does not expect agreement to
b e pervasive, just that it be the norm. It is simple statements of the
former sort that constitute the norm. Davidson could object that 1 have
focused on troublesome statements and insist that the truth-functional
disparities between t h e m can always be resolved by T-sentence
translations of other statements in the soure language, This response
reflects Davidson's commitment to holism, But holism cuts both ways. It
is important to recognize that translations of simple concepts cannot b e
treated as stable building blocks when complex statements involving
those concepts generate translation difficulties. When a translator learns

Dorit Bar41 points out that it is not standard practice to atterpt to ratch truth conditions vhere it
aepears that straightforuard translation has failed.
Uen translation frm a source 1e- into a target language fails, exqianations and descriptioas of why and
how it does, uhile conducted in the target language, typically do not take the fon of pairing of source
discourse with conditions of truth lodated in the target 1-e. (k-OnL994:160)
that the Yoruba claim to carry their heads in sticks, this perplmcity
requires reassessing our understanding of their concept of "headw and
"stick." For m o s t English speakers, a head is not the kind of thhg that
can wind u p in a stick, nor a stick the kind of thing that can hold a
Any interpretation of the sentence in question amounts to a r e
interpretation of the supporting sentences. It is possible that many
statements will be interpretable a m r d i n g to Convention-T and yet that
different speakers represent the world in substantially different ways..
Davidson's radical interpretation does not exhaust the possibilities for
translation and does not preclude substantial difference between belief
systems. I suspect that I am reintroducing a semantic e l e m e n t to
interpretation where Davidson thinks one does not belong. I can see no
other way to fully appreciate the implications of holism. Translation m a y
not be a process of identifying the semantic content in foreign
expressions, but it does impose semantic content on them.
Davidson's theory of translation fails to take account of Quine's
"coIlateral informationwand the full implications of meaning holism (that
motivate the indeterminacy thesis) because he focuses exclusively on
examples of relatively easy translations of structurally similar sentences
between closely related languages. In addition, t h e actual translation
practice of anthropologists does not appear to f i t the model of
translation that Davidson treats as paradigmatic. Even if one followed it,
convention-T would not sufficiently mnstrain translation or provide the
guidance necessary for choosing among possible translations. Translators
routinely appeal to evidence beyond truth conditions to establish
interpretations of other beliefs. As Davidson argues. radical
interpretation is not translation, yet a great deal more goes into
providing an interpretation of a foreign belief than can be accounted
for by Davidson's convention-T.
Consider again the translation of the Zande boro mangu as "witchn
when interpreted in the form of a T-sentence, Among the options a
translator might consider the following:
(I) "Bore manguw is true if and only if x is a witch.
(2) Wore manguwis true if and only if x has a certain
substance in their intestines.
(3) wBoromanguwis true if and only if x has the ability to
iU effect other people telepathically.

While each translation is justified by some of the claims the Azande

make about boro mangu, each tells u s something quite different. I have
already argued that the first translation is misleading; stated in
isolation it makes much of the behavior and other beliefs of the Azande
appear irrational even though "witchwis a fair tentative translation of
boro mangu. The second makes reference to external conditions on the
basis of which the Azande sometimes identify "witcheswbut it is an
extremely narrow translation; it reflects almost nothing of w h a t Evans-
Pritchard has claimed the Azaade mean by boro mangu and has no
parallel truth-functional rdation in English. The third identifies a
significant feature of the meaning of boro mangu as described by
Evans-Pritchard, b u t makes the T-sentence plainly false from the
standpoint of Western empiricism. In any case, without the support of
related explanations in the Zande belief system the Azande appear to be
irrational. For the sake of brevity of formulation and ease of
communication, w e want to say that the Zande boro man@ somewhat
distortedly equates with the English "witch," although this implies that
the Zande entertain at least one false belief. B u t w e can only do this if
w e go on, as Evans-Pritchard does, to explain the sense in which boro
mangu and "witchware substantially different. That is, Evans-Pritchard
makes this shorthand translation plausible only by providing a detailed
account of the entire practice to elucidate what the Zande mean by boro
mangu. The ethnography brings to bear aIl collateral information on the
translation of a set of beliefs. In this, Evans-Pritchard relies on an
explication of Zande practices and beliefs that goes well beyond a
Davidsonian specification of truth conditions. In short, anthropology is
translation done holisticaLly.
Nothing I have said, so far, amounts to a rejection of Davidson's
theory- Dandson acknowledges that any account which equates radical
interpretation with translation is substantially Limited.

These remarks are only roughly mrrecL A theory of truth for a

natural language must relativize the truth of a sentence to the
circumstances of the utterance, and when this is done the truth
conditions given by a T-sentence will no Ionger translate the
described sentence, nor wilL it be possible to avoid using w n ~ p t s
that are, perhaps, semantid, in giving the truth conditions of
sentences with inderdcal elements. More important, the notion of
translation, w h i c h can be made precise for artificial languages on
which interpretations are imposed by fiat, has no precise or even
clear application to natural languages. (Davidson l987:171-172).

But it is precisely these shortmmings, these inabilities to relate

radical interpretation to the activity of translation of natural languages,
that compromise his arguments against the very idea that there wuld be
significantly different conceptual schemes. Davidson can only d r a w this
conclusion iP he can assume that Tarski's truth Functional semantics can
b e extended to interpretation within a natural language and again
extended to translation between natural languages and fl the application
of Convention-T exhausts the investigation into the interpretations of
foreign statements, t h a there can be no sense made of the idea that
there are substantially different conceptual schemes, The argument may
b e valid but his own reflections on the Iimitations of the statements that
serve as the antecedent conditions should lead u s to question whether it
is sound,
Davidson's attempts to extend a Tarskian analysis to natural
languages and analyze translation syntactically fails because the very
correspondence relation that Tarski establishes by definition is precisely
the relation in question when translating between natural languages.
Davidson can restore the necessary truth defining relation only by
denying the possibility that members of different cultures m a y represent
their worlds in substantially different ways- His theory requires this
denial; transIation practice does not.
Davidson agrees with Quine in holding that, because wmeaningw
cannot be unambiguousIy determined intra- or inter-linguistically, it
cannot be "transferredw literally. However, to say, as Quine does that
meaning defies determinate trans&Wbnis not to say that it defies a
more substantial i n t e r p r e f a t i m . Indeterminacy does not necessarily entail
the sort of interpretive reductionism endorsed by Quine nor the
semantic minimalism endorsed by Davidson. Only by supposing that
radical interpretation constitutes the whole of the project of translation
does it become necessary to deny the possfbillQ of substantial
differences between representations of the world, The theories of
indeterminacy embraced b y Quine and Davidson are motivated by the
implications of meaning holism yet, fhey o n . iuvestigate the interpretive
li'mitai3ons that follow from meaning holism, how it functions to preclude
determinations of meaning. T h e y Fail. however, to investigate the ways in
which holism opens translation, provides added evidence for richer
interpretations. Although the meaning of the evidence that
anthropologists rely on in constructing ethnographies is
underdetermined, they clearly show that it is possible to provide richer
interpretations by extending, in practice, the unit of translation to the
entire belief system.

Charitably Uncharitable

Because both Quine and Davidson concentrate their analyses of

translation on individual statements, they find it neasssary to appeal to
the principle of charity in order to delimit the possibilities for
interpretation. The Other is represented as uttering a series of
potentially unrelated propositions most of which must be true. Since
"meaningw is ambiguous, truth preservation becomes the foundation of
communication. If applied pervasively, however, the principle of charity
imposes unnecessary and unreasonable constraints on interpretation of
the beliefs of the Other.''
- --

bong the problem uith such criteria of tmth or rationality include the possibility that most agents
sirply are not rational by philosophically fonalized standards. ! b y critics have suggested that the principle of
charity is an inappropriate @ide to translation because it requires a premption of rationality that #st agents
sirply do not meet. ifeudersw, b g a r d , Hisbett and Stich refer to studies done by 'hersky and Kahnarm (1974) and
Nisbett and Ross [1!80) in order to support the dlir that people sdda act accord@ to the rules of logic or ratiod
Any approach to translation w h i c h makes the principle of charity
central is called into question by Ian Hacking. H e objects that the key
concepts of indeterminacy, incommensurability, and conceptual schemes
cannot be adequately explicated in terms of truth conditions- According
to Hacking, both Quine and Davidson rely on the notion of bivalence-
that a proposition is either true or is false. in their assessments of the
nature of translation. Hacking argues, by contrast, that the operative
consideration in translation ought to be positivity--whether or not a
certain proposition is in the running for truth-or-falsity, The framework
that makes a statement a candidate for truth-or-falsity, Hacking calls a
"style of reasoning," and the goal of translation is to come to
understand what sorts of things others reason about, what they
consider to be candidates for truth-or-falsity as opposed to what they
hold to be tfue, Statements such as "the poison oracle has revealed x to
be a witchwor "I carry m y head in a stick" are better understood, not
as false in English, but as subjects w e simply do not reason about- To
understand the context that makes such things candidates for truth-or-
falsity is to understand another style of reasoning.
The reason Davidson rejects the idea of a conceptual scheme is
because he insists that translating a foreign statement is to be
accomplished exclusively b y matching truth assignments. B y focusing on
positivity rather than bivdence, Hacking inverts Davidson's reasoning.
Davidson answers the question of cultural difference based on his
theory of translation. Hacking accepts cultural difference and then
attempts to explain translation. While Hacking does not equate his

behavior. If this is right, then any principle for interpretation requiring rules construed in t e n s of ratioaality wiLl
be too strict. Thagard and Nisbett provide a large nmber of exiuples where it is necessary to uuderstand sowone (even
within oar om culture) as violating standard principles of logic because a) such principles are often violated and b)
language can have fuactions other than the cammication of truths fl'hagard and Nisbett 1983:253-261). At best, only a
very aodest or judiciously applied principle of charity is acceptable. Critiques such as those lodated by 'bersky and
i(ahnrmand Hisbett and Ross draw attention to the sense in which Davidson's theory is heavily intellectualist. He
analyzes every staterent as i f i t wst be hlte~retedas a proposition [either true or false) about reality and holds
that mch statements should be consist& and adhere to basic rnles of logic. Vhile this point is not genane to ly
argument, it is a pouedul and influential critiqne.
wstylesof reasoningw with QuineCs uconceptual schemes,w16 he suggests
that taking the goal of translation to be an attempt to come to
understand different "styles of reasoning" constitutes a shift of
emphasis that reopens the possibility of a certain type of r e l a t i ~ i s m . ' ~
Hacking states:

My relativist w o r r y is, to repeat, that the sense of a proposition

p, the w a y in which it points to truth or falsehood, hinges on the
style of reasoning appropriate to p, Hence we amnot criticize that
style of reasoning, as a way of getting to p or to not-p, because
p simply is that proposition whose truth value is determined in
this way,.,.
For my part, I have no doubt that our discoveries are 'objective',
simply because the styles of reasoning that w e employ determines
what counts as objectivity. M y worry is that the very candidates
for truth or falsehood have no existence independent of the styles
of reasoning that settle what it is to be true or false in their
domain. (Hacking 1982:49)

Hacking characterizes the goal of translation as ummmunication of

w a y s to thinkwrather than as the transmission of truths or meanings
between languages. Given this, he can circumvent the methodological
concerns w i t h incommensurability that motivate Davidson's appeal to the
principle of charity; he observes that, even in English, we have many
frameworks for understanding and interpretation that do not depend on
the preservation of truths, Lack of agreement in truth-assignments does

Hacking distinguishes his 'styles of reasoning" fro Qaine's 'conceptual schenese because opine takes the
defining mark of a concept& scheme to be the set of beliefs held true. A 'style of reasoningu is characterized by what
sorts of statments are candidates lor truth-or-falsehood. A belief system containiag the belief 'there are vitches"
might be rarked as a different conceptual schere f r a one in which the belief "there are no witches' appeared. These two
belief sgsters light be the sare 'style of reasoning,' however, if the latter, although decided in the negative, uere,
nonetheless considered a real possibility.
This type of relativism balances the idea of substantial differences between representations of the world
vith the possibility of mintaining the idea that a style of reasoning bears sore real connection to the uorld and does
not necessarilg entail ineaensatabilitg. BacLiry states:
Although whichever propositions are true rap depend on the data, the fact that they are candidates for being
true is a consequence of an historical evmt. Conversely the rationality of a style of reasoning as a uay of
bearing on the truth of a class of propositions does not seer open for independent criticisr, because the very
sense of ultat can be established by that style depends on the style itself. (Hacking 198256)
not necessarily imply incommensurabiii~and/or untran~latibilit~ .I8
Hacking's analysis of the cross-cultural encounter thus preserves the
possibility of substantial mnceptual differences that may, nonetheless,
b e comrnuni~ated.~~
Another Line of criticism generated b y Davidson's truth-functional
account of translation focuses on the semantic implications of the
possibility of alternative truth schemes. Stephen Stich criticizes the
principle of charity on the grounds that alternate referential schemes
might produce alternate truth schemes? In order to understand the
implications of this point, it is important to understand Davidson's
notion of objectivity. Davidson's objectivism i s founded not primarily on
arguments against relativism but on arguments against skepticism, It is
impossible, according to Davidson, that w e truly engage in the type of
pervasive skepticism entertained by Descartes, In order to think a t all,
w e presuppose some notion of objective truth: "an awareness, no matter
how inarticulately held, of the fact that what is thought may be true or

Richard Rorty rodels translation on the notion of cross-cultural conversation rather than conceptual re-
description. He too transcends the probler of incmensurability by re-characterizing the Cunctioa(sJ of langmge a d
the goal of translation.
Only if one shares the logical positivists' c1ah tftat ve all carry around things called W e s of language'
which regalate what we sag uhen, viU one suggest that there is no vay to break out of one's culture.. ...
alternative cultures are not to be thouat of on the mdel of alternative gwetries. Alternative geaetries
are irreconcilabIe because they have axiomatic structures, and contradictory axioms. They are desjjped to be
irreconcilable. Cdtnres are not so desigued, and do not have axiimatic structures. (Rorty 2991:25-26)
In short, substantial conceptual differences and difficulty of translation do not iaply incmensurability unless
one takes the goal of translation to be the rappiug of sentences held true.
Peter Vinch, recall, interprets Zande witchcraft practices as being prirarily motivated by ethical concerns
and appeals to our ethical notions in order to explicate this different style of reasoning. ihorf appeals to analogies
uith c y c l i d recurrences in order to explicate hw the Hopi reason about tire. Each interprets the Other not by
paralleling truth assignments between languages, but by explicating differences through an appeal to a multitude of ways
that we reason about other latters. Truth is not the standard of every style of reasoning even within English.
Such is largely concerned with the (traditiooauy a r e 'cognitive science') issue of translating lental
states to propositions. The problers he encounters are strikingly sirilar to those discussed i n issues of translation
between languages and the argments apply equally there. This is to be expected, as he is basically addressing the
problm of Qnineanindeteninacy vithia a language. The parallel argument is treated by Quine althonth be ephasizes the
problem encountered in translatiq betreen languages. W e the eaphasis is different, it is no great distortion to
speak of Stich's analysis as i f it were about translation in general.
falsew (Davidson 1995:205). In short, w e must think in t e r m s of
propositional content and w e must understand that our beliefs might be
made false by the world. This is only possible, however, if w e take
many, or most, of our beliefs to be true- Datridson goes on to state:

To apply a concept is to make a judgement, to classify or

characterize an o b j e or event or situation in a clertain way, and
this requires application of the concept of t r u f h since it is always
possible to classif'y or characterize something wrongly. (Davidson

In presenting an example with a List of propositions that need to

be held true in order that the falsity of a particuIar proposition might
be entertained, Davidson reveals an aspect of meaning which Stich takes
to be central to the problem of Wanslation (even on a truth functional
account). Davidson states:

If you wonder whether you are seeing a black snake, you must
have an idea of what a snake is. You must believe such things as:
a snake is an animal, it has no feet, it moves with sinuous
movement, it is smaller than a mountain. If it is a black snake,
then it is a snake and it is black. If it is black it is not green.
Since you wonder what you are seeing, you m u s t know what
seeing is: that it requires the use of the eyes; that you can see
something without touching it, and so on, I do not wish to give
the impression that there is a fixed List of things you must
believe in order to wonder whether you are seeing a black snake.
The size of the list is very Iarge, if not infinite, but membership
in the list is indefiite, What is clear is that without many of the
sort of beliefs 1 have mentioned, you cannot entertain the
proposition that you are seeing a black snake; you cannot believe
or disbelieve that proposition, wish it were false, ask whether it
is true, or demand that someone make it false. (Davidson 1995:211-

Considerations of this sort are effective at disarming radical

skepticism but complicate the problem of translation. While members of
different cultures utter different sentences in the presence of black
snakes, the fact that this makes both sentences true in their respective
languages under similar conditions, by no means guarantees that the
judgements expressed in these situations are a t all s i m i l a r . Two speakers
(of different languages) muld mean something quite different by
wsnakeenTruth has an inescapable semantic element that need not be
constant across cultures, Stich makes this point by e n s i o n of Quine's
analysis of translation: he argues that the indeterminacy of meaning and
the inscrutability of reference recognized by Quine affect the criteria of
what counts as true in a given language- Referential terms can be
mapped onto the world in various ways, acarding to different
interpretation schemes, and different referentid schemes (hypothetically
referred to by Stich as reference*, reference**, reference*** etc,) can
lead to different truth mnditional interpretations (truth-conditions*,
truth-conditions**, truth-conditions*** etc-),Stich considers, in some
detail, the proposition "Jonah was a MoabiteeWWhether or not one takes
this sentence to be true depends, not on the presence of a particular
entity, but on how one understands the referential function of the word
"Jonahw (Stich 199l:ll5-118), Kripkem concerns about what essential
features determine reference (Le., whether Jonah would b e "Jonahw if no
one ever survived three days in the belly of a whale) allow different
referential mappings that impose different truth conditions on &aims
about While Davidson circumvents problems of reference in
translation, Stich points out that, in cases like this, referential schemes
(no matter how indeterminate) partially determine truth-conditional
The problem w i t h Davidson's rejection of the idea of a mnceptual
scheme becomes clear upon reflection of Stich's observations, Davidson

Our attempt to characterize languages or conceptual schemes in

t e r m s of the notion of fitting some entity has come down, then, to
the simple thought that something is an acceptable conceptual
scheme or theory if it is true... And the criterion of a conceptual
scheme different from our own now becomes: largeIy true bl~tnot
translatable, (Davidson 1984:194)

B y considering the possibility of different referential schemes,

Stich endeavors to show what Davidson denies--that there may be
entirely different ways of representing reality that "fit the factsw (are
true), yet do not gracefully translate into others*
Davidson accepts that the "truth of sentences remains relative to a
languagew (Davidson 1984=198),but w h a t he fails to inmrporate into his
theory of interpretation is the notion that any cross-cultural comparison
of systems of thought depends less on the contrast between true and
false W*efs, but rather must take account of the contrast between
true*, truef*, true*** etc. beliefs, Indeterminacy is not simply a product
of the fact that a particular sentence m i g h t be true amrding to one
translation scheme and false according to another (with the proper
adjustments) but rather that there are countIess ways to map sentences
as "truen according to different criteria of truth. In short, the problem
is not w h e t h e r to translate seemingly true beliefs as true or as false,
but rather whether to translate seemingly true Wefs as true*, true**,
true*** etc. O n e could easily accept Davidson's argument for objectivity
and still leave open the possibility that the set of statements held true
in different cultures differ substantially. As in the anthropological
examples so far discussed, such amsiderations refocus our attention
away from the truth status of statements like "there is a cloudw (in
Hopi), "there is a witchw (in Zande), or "there is a headw (in Yoruba),
toward the need for explication of w h a t is a cloud, witch, or head in
these respective languages. In detailed ethnographies, anthropologists
aspire to tell us more about the latter than provide truth-functionally
equivalent statements in our Iauguage.
The awareness that, even within our own language and cultural
framework, w e engage in different styles of reasoning; exploit different
referential schemes and appeal to different standards of justification
leads Hacking, Stich, and others to reject the principle of charity as a
foundation for interpretation. They endorse, instead, Richard Grandy's
"principle of humanity." As Grandy describes this principle,

We have, as a pragmatic wnstraint on translation, the condition

that the imputed pattern of relations among beliefs, desires, and
the world be as similar to our o w n as possible, This principle I
shall caU the principle of hum-ty. (Grandy 1973:443)

He develops this principle through a consideration of the ways in

which the principle of charity is far too strict, arguing that translation
should preserve, not truth, but simiIarities in the ways language users
arrange and justify beliefs. H e recognizes that the justification of
beliefs is often not based on appeals to truth or the results of empirical
testing, wnsequently, w e should not assume, for the purposes of
translation that the Other holds beliefs that are mostly true according
to logical and philosophical standards of truth. W e should, instead,
interpret the Other as holding beliefs much like ours and as linking
those beliefs in a multitude of ways like we do-
T h e principle of humanity expands the possibilities for interpreting
others, recognizing that language has m a n y uses or performs many roles
other than conveying true propositions about the world? It is an
acknowledgement that it is possible to think, use language and confront
reality in a way that is objective, by Davidson's standards, and yet not
amclude that this implies that a vast number of beliefs are shared by
members of different cultures- It allows for the Wanslation of difference
as different rather than false.

Determining the Indeter-te

Hacking and Stich point toward a representation of the project of

translation that operates not in opposition to that discussed by Quine
and Davidson, but beyond the limits they place on txaaslation, While
both Quine and Davidson criticize reductionist strategies for theorizing
about translation, both retain an evidential reductionism that renders
interpretation hopelessly thin, providing few resources for
characterizing the richness of the beliefs conveyed in translations. In
practice, anthropologists say a great deal more about the beliefs of the
Other than either Quine or Davidson's accounts allow. To what do these

The difference between charity and hmanity is trivial if one assoes that the target language is strictly a
tool for conveying truths and is largely (objectively or extra-1ingWicaIly) snccessfnl. There is a substantial
difference bet- the tuo principles uhen one reflects on the dti-functioning of the target language. The principle
of charity actually contains tvo claim: the Other most think like us adour beliefs ast be largely true. The
principle of humanity holds only that the Other mst fhid or use language in my of the s a rays ~ that we do. This
principle rrrains saevbat anbivalent concerning the truth status of beliefs and to what degree langage nsers adhere to
f o d principles of logic and rationality.
rich interpretations apped in order t o substantiate their translations?
David Henderson addresses precisely this question by asking what,
exactly, counts as success in translation for Quine and Davidson. While
Quine seems to admit oniy the possibility of partial o r inmmplete
translation, Davidson's criterion of success in translation is, on
Henderson's account, a particular1y demanding onen (Henderson
1994:174). Quine recognizes a measure of conceptual distance between
cultures depending on the apparent difficulties and distortions of
translation; for example, it may be possible to describe the beliefs of
mother even when it is impossible to accurately translate those beliefs
into statements in the target language. Quine recognizes this to be an
indication that substantial differences obtain between cultures: "the
merit to which w e have to employ gerrymandered constructions in our
home language in translating them provides a m e a s u r e of linguistic
differencew (Henderson l994:l7S, 192 quoting Quine 1981a:41). Quine
clearly accepts that translation may be partial and rely on
circumlocutions; Davidson, by contrast, does not accept the possibility of
partial failure of translation.
Henderson argues that this disagreement represents two different
types of translation. Davidson appeals to what Henderson describes as
"direct &anslation": it takes place where structural similarities between
languages permit easy identifications between sentences (e.g. where "der
schnee ist weiBW can be translated as "the snow is whitew). B y contrast,
examples like those drawn from the work of Whorf and Evans-Pritchard
defy this directness; translation in such cases must work indirectly or

There might be deep differences in theories that would result in

many of the central concepts of the one theory having no ready
parallels in the other... one would need to reconstruct, within the
expressive resources of the target language, something of the
theory (and central concepts) being translated. .. I call sut$
translation reconstructive translation (Henderson 1994:175)

Recunstmctive trauslation, according to Eendersoa, is used rhen no concept in the target language lopears
to provide an nnproblenatic equivalent. He suggests that translators are then forced to appeaI to the 'expressive
resources"ool their own language in order to approxiute a description of the beliefs in question. This is, again, to
acknowledge that language provides lore possibilities lor description than literal propositions about reality and that,
Mangu is such a concept according to Henderson. While it bears
s o m e resemblance to Western witchcraft, as I argued in chapter two,
there are countless ways in which it defies this resemblance. Not only
does English lack a ready-made concept to adequately translate mangu,
but the differences between the role played by this Zande concept and
that played by wwitchcraftwin the West has implications for our
understanding of Zande logic that are also lost in translation. Henderson
argues that such cases are the rule rather than the exception in
anthropological work (Henderson 1994:183)- The use of ready made
concepts in the target language may distort the practice of the Other in
significant ways, making the foreign beliefs appear irrational or false, In
such cases, the only way to provide a plausible translation is to
elaborate a detailed ethnographic account that situates the concept
within the broader social context.
Henderson argues that reconstructive translation satisfies
Davidson's criteria of languagehood, but that admitting this type of
translation "undercuts the central Line in Davidson's objection to the
idea of conceptual schemesw (Henderson 1994:187), Significant mnceptual
differences preclude "directwtranslation but do not preclude translation
of any kind. Although it is not acknowledged by Davidson,
reconstructive translation makes it possible to communicate significantly
different concepts between languages. Dorit Bar-On, like Whorf,
investigates examples in which direct translation fails (because of
substantial conceptual differences) but expLicative accounts succeed in
conveying the meanings of significantly different beliefs.

While it is arguable in each of the above cases that translatability

suffers, w e were able to provide, in each case, an adequate gloss
conveying the content of the material deemed untranslatabIe, To
this extent, w e have demonstrated grasp of the concepts
expressed by the untranslatable material; so they cannot be said
to be inaccessible to us. This indicates that there is no direct
route from non-intertranslatability to conceptual inaccessibility.
(=-On 1994:154-155)

even within a lmguage, there are ung uays to [rare a representation of the world. The translator often appeals to
metaphor or analog (consider again the way Vborf describes Hopi 'they or ccubines aspects of available concepts (as
in the vay Evaas-Pritchard descrik m.
Successful direct translation may impIy a closeness of conceptual
schemes whereas the need for pervasive reconstructive translation m a y
indicate substantial conceptual distance. This is exemplified in the
translations provided by Whorf and many anthropologists, in their
attempts at translating the beliefs of the Other as substantially different
and yet cornmunkable,
The principle of charity is only necessary as a methodological
constraint if a l l translation practice is identified with direct translation.
Henderson suggests, instead, that a "principleof explicabilitywshould b e
the methodological guide for translation. This allows for translation that
conforms to the principle of charity only in the early stages of
translation, in what Henderson refers to as "first approximation
translations (Henderson l98?:227). When translators move on to consider
more complex and divergent beliefs, they are compelled to modify
translations of simple ones in an attempt to explain the differences they
encounter that seem to defy direct
There are t w o points 1 want to make about Henderson's distinction.
First, if the principle of charity is operative only in the early stages of
translation (if at all), then there can b e no a priori constraint imposed
on the potential degree of cross-cultural difference that can be

This claim that the principle of charity is operative only in the early stages of translation dram
attention to a lisgniaed, explicit assraption in Hollis' analysis, and iaplicit in Midson's, that i t is irpossible to
make changes to a translation uual once one uses translated sentences as an aid to the translation of others. Bollis
does, and Davidson seers to, a s m e that there is a certain group of sentences (a type or class) that translate
according to principle and then cannot be rodified in Light of later evidence since these serve as premises for later
translations. Henderson's suggestion that the principle of charity is only operative in the early stages of translation
arounts to an acknowledgerent that no translated sentence is h e to revision.
In reference to the exaaple that Qaine so often used, on Davidson's mdel, we wonld be justified in translating
gaviigaias 'there is a rabbit' since the assigneat of truth values is the same for both languages. 'Undetached rabbit
parts9nd 'rabbit stages' are not options since re have no use for truth assignments for these in English. Suppose,
h m r , that further investigation into this other cnlture revealed that these people distinguished, in their language,
things that have a greater value as holes, and things that have a greater value as a s n of parts. They light have a
single ward €ora carplete coin coilection (which English expresses as a collection of puts) and express other things,
uhich English categorizes as wholes, as a collection of parts (like sae old cars). In translating their statements, the
translator may uant to convey this distinction (especially if the other language contained different vords for cars mre
valuable as vboles and cars wre valuable as parts) by finding a way to represent s a e collections as wholes and wholes
as collections. Suppase that rabbits, for these people, Ere of greater d u e once 'parted-out' and hence f e l l under
this category. It might, in this case, be better to translate lawai,on further reflection, as "detached rabbit
earts."e original ("charitable') translation wuld be in need of modification given greater fariliarity with the
language and the beliefs of the Other.
recognized- The assumption that the principle of charity serves only
heuristic purposes implies that it m a y or may not be vindicated b y any
particular linguistic confrontation, Second, if the project of translation
moves beyond the Limits envisioned by Davidson, then T-sentence
translations must b e recognized to be not just first stage interpretive
approximations, but misleading translations in many cases. The failure to
engage in reconstructive translation where there is a substantial
disjunction between mncepts in use results in a misrepresentation of
the belief(s) in question; charity requires, during the initial stages, an
imposition of meaning on the foreign phrase that can only be refined
through subsequent reconstructive translation. T h e indeterminacy of
meaning may preclude fitera1 representation of foreign beliefs, but it
does not preclude misrepresentation.
Motivated by the necessity of reconstructive translation, cross-
cultural accounts of belief systems evolve into ethnographies rather
than bilingual dictionaries. And, while ethnographic interpretations
remain as indeterminate as dictionaries, they do reveal, more clearly, the
nature of the cross-cultural representation that is a product of
translation. Robert Feleppa has proposed a re-conceptuaIization of
translation that reconciles the anthropological practice of ascribing
meaning to foreign beliefs w i t h Quinean commitments to the theoretical
indeterminacy of meaning? Feleppa argues for a wconstr~ctive semantic
anti-realismw (Feleppa 1988:214) which satisfies the interpreter's
inclination to attribute mntent/meaning to the beliefs of the Other
without being ontologically committed to the existence of linguistically

Feleppa atteapts to relate the long-standing debate in anthropology snrmmding the eticlexic: distinction to
Qnine's indeteninacy thesis. Roughly speaking, emic concepts are those that are cdtnrally specific (and are often held
to be nutranslatable); etic concepts are lhose that are seen as cross-cultnrallg applicable (or universal). The mean
question related to this distinction is 'Can one ever translate an eric concept?' or 'Can one represent the wrld as the
Other represents it?' This, amding to Feleppa, i s the question that rests on a u s taken idea about dat translation

In light of the iadetenirucy pmbJers we have considered, ue sirply have no warrant for believhg that any
concept expressed in the receptor l a w e or the metalanguage is eric in the senses typically mployed.
(Feleppa 1988: 202-3)
But neither i s there reason to suppose that there are p d g etic concepts either. Clnce translation is
reconceptnalized, there is really no substance to the distinction.
independent meanings- On this account, the attribution of meanings to
the statements made by others are as much a product of our own
language and purposes as theirs.

So much of the manual of translation is determined by the explicit

codifications of usage among speakers of the receptor language
(as well as of wanthroplogesew), that it m a k e s no sense to ask that
the manual come to capture the native's "inner meanings" as well.
AJl the empirical and formal criteria of adequacy that one could
demand of it necessarily involve its successful and maximally
efficient employment by "outsiders" to the source culture. It is
written by and for them The ethnographer, qua ethnographer, is
a collective bargaining agent, out to best coordinate the interests
of members of t w o cultures, in keeping with established
procedures of his o w n anthropological culture, (Feleppa 1988:207)

Feleppa, like Quine, sees the proper form of expressing a

translated sentence not as "x in language A means (or is synonymous
with) y in language B" but rather "x is best translated as yo" Zn this,
he accepts m e and Davidson's central insights while also ernphasking
that translation is fundamentally a prescriptive rather than a
descriptive endeavor.

What is important is that w e are not to be misled by their

apparent form into thinking that by using them w e are stating
facts about w h a t source-language speakers mean, or, for that
matter, into thinking that one is o n t i d y committed, by virtue of
their use, to the existence of meanings as entities shared or
meanings as entities transmitted. (Feleppa 1988:174)

Feleppa's reconstrual of the nature of translation, like that of

Quine and Davidson, bypasses a number of the problems con-ning the
possibility of accurate representation of the Other by shifting emphasis
away from the idea of "representation," Despite indeterminacy, it remains
possible to explicate the content of mmplex beliefs so long as this is
understood to b e constructive of meaning; translations produce not
descriptions of what others mean independently of our interpretations,
but rather suggestions of how w e ought to understand the Other. Quhe,
and perhaps Davidson, would accept this, but Feleppa moves well beyond
their minimalist positions, emphasizing the richness of meaning that can
b e ascribed to the beliefs of the Other while at the same time
acknowledging that these translations are not hypotheses like physical
theories, In particular, when recommendations and interpretations
diverge, they need not be seen as incommensurable w i t h one another. It
is this prescriptive dimension of translation on which I will focus in
developing a constructive account of the project of translation in the
following chapters.
According to either of the m o d e l s of translation proposed b y Quine
or Davidson, there can never b e enough evidence to seffle on one,
correct transiation, Because, for bofh. this compromises the very idea of
preexistent meanings within a Ianguage, translation is re-characterized
(as made clear by Davidson) as an interpretive endeavor that neither
transfers nor matches meanings but creates a system of meaning in the
act of interpreting other beliefs? The examples or hypothetical
situations upon which they build their theories are, however, very
unanthropological. The translator who communicated with the help of a
T-sentence translation manual would, no doubt, do just fine at finding
public restrooms, conversing about the weather and avoiding black
snakes. This translator is. however, again like MacIntyre's tourist.
Henderson tries to show that, as the actual translator in the field
progresses beyond the initial stages of learning the language of the
Other (beyond the limits of the T-sentence manual), additional evidence

Wle kvidson resists the possibility of relativism by postulating a pervasive sirilarity between
languages, his attack on the idea that translation involves a kind of recovery of leaning also carprorises the idea that
a 1e- c d d be vieved as a stable (pre-interpreted) strncture. The thesis of linguistic relativisa is rendered
solawhat loot not because (as Davidson swests) there can be no substantial difference betueen beIief systms, but
rather becaase (as Davidson also suggests) this idea depends on tbe notion that meanings can be fixed within various
languages and then taken to have deteninate waning only relative to that language. hdeteninacy caprorises the idea
of recovery, questions the idea of linguistic structure, and, hence, pmblmtins the idea of cunceptd or ontoiogicd
Ybat ve have shoun... is not that reference is not relative bat that there is no intelligible vay of
relativizing it that justifies the concept of ontological relativity. The relativization lnst appear in the
language in which the relativized predicate mnrs (and hence cmot be to that 1e- or to a theory for
that language). (Davidson 1984:238)
If other belief system are the prodoctsof interpretation rather than the vbjecfsof translation, then it mkes no
sense to speak of preexistent leanings relative to a pre-existent strnctms. Davidson, as a result, questions the very
idea of a "language' i f such a thing irplies a structure of w a s (Davidsan 1986:442-446).
is amassed. One learns about relevant socia.t practices, history, and the
extended uses of concepts. As one acquires a proficiency with such
collateral information, the translation manual takes a form less like a
cross-linguistic di&-ona.ry (of words or sentences) and more like a
detailed ethnography. As FeIeppa emphasizes, the translation manual is
constructive and prescriptive of a meaning system to be imposed on the
beliefs of the Other.
If these characterizations are correct then the central focus of
translation theory should concern what happens when one proposes a
translation scheme in spite of indeterminacy. Because translation is a
prescriptive activity, the nature of translation is inseparable from the
issue of the ethics and the politics of representation.
Chapter Six - Anthropology in Question

Sbme paradax uf o w nafure leads us, when once we have made

our fellow m e n the objects of our m g h t e n e d interest, to go on to
make them the obJIectS af our pi& then of our wisdom, &&*mate&
of our meraon,
- Lion& Trilling

Anthropologists translating other belief systems generally

acknowledge a degree of indeterminacy of translation but focus critical
attention not only on the theoretical inability to accurately represent
the beliefs of the Other but, as importantly, on the various e f f e of
representing the Other through translation, In each of the preceding
chapters, I have tried to show that translation is inextricably
ethnographic, hence it will be productive to turn to the contemporary
anthropological critique of ethnographic representation in order to
further elucidate the nature of translation. Much can be gained b y
focusing on the question "what is ethnography?"
Motivated by the emphasis on language and interpretation
associated with Boas, Sapir and Whorf in the 1930's. anthropologists in
the 1960's turned to a more interpretive approach to culture that
Likewise focused on linguistic differences. B y focusing on the practie of
representing the Other, this "interpretive turnwdrew attention away
from the object of anthropology (the Other) and directed it toward
written ethnography, away from the subject written about to the
activity of writing. While philosophers had questioned the very idea of
determinate translation, anthropologists questioned the possibility of
accurate representation of other cultures. B y the late 1960's. this self-
reflexive scrutiny of the discipline of anthropology became widely
influential, threatening to undermine not only ideals of objectivity in
anthropological amounts but anthropology's very rds0n d s t r e .
The 1969 coIIection Reinventing AnthropoIo~,edited and introduced
by D e l l Eymes, provided a fomm for ammentary on the developing
crisis of representation in anthropology. Questions about the functions
served by cultural representations motivated anthropologists to reassess
premises that had served, historically, as a foundation for ethnography.
The contributors to this edited volume identified a number of dimensions
of this problem. but offered little in the way of solutions. During the
1970's and 1980*s, a widening circle of anthropologists responded to this
crisis, generating an important body of work in which they both deepen
the crisis and begin to make substantive suggestions about what might
b e done.
In this chapter I will consider the central problems identified by
the contributors to the Eymes volume, and then trace the evolution of
anthropological thinking about cross-cultural representation through the
1970's and earIy 1980's. The contributors to the Hymes volume opened
this process of reassessment by telling u s how not to read another
culture. Later critics lay the groundwork for a new understanding of
cross-cultural interpretation, eventually c a l b g into to question the very
idea of "reading" the Other. A new reading of "readingwemerges in the
work of Clifford Geertz, Roy Wagner, Johannes Fabian and Edward Said,
setting the stage for the mntroversial 1986 coIlection of essays: Writing
Culture- Through a selective retracing of key developments. 1 hope to
show two things. First, because translation must be understood
ethnographically, the philosophical problems of translation and the
anthropological problems of cross-cultural representation should be
recognized as one and the same, I draw insights from these
anthropological debates in order to propose a new understanding of
translation that frees the Other from the exclusionary principles that
presuppose the superiority of Western frameworks for understanding.
Second, the importation of postmodern literary theory into anthropology
has done as much to confuse important issues as shed Light on problems
of representation. While contemporary anthropologists make effective use
of deconstructive method. a misunderstanding of deconstruction and the
postmodern critique of representation has led to undervaluing the role
of the Other in cross-cultural representation. Taken to extremes, self-
reflection becomes pure narcissism and anthropology is left with only
itself as its object. By charting the transition from reflexivity of the
kind advocated by H y m e s to the acceptance of a thoroughgoing
postmodern social science, I hope to identify constructive options that
leave open the possibility of stepping back from the skeptical erasure of
the Other and reclaim the idea that IransIations do "represent," even if
not Literally,

Fading Foundations

In the introduction to Reinventiag Anthropology, Dell Hymes

scrutinizes the intellectual and political/economic contexts in which the
theories and methodologies of modern anthropology were established,
especially in Britain and the United States. What he reveals is a
dependence upon an outdated philosophy of history and theory of
rationality that found its full expression in evolutionist anthropology
and epistemology. Anthropologists of the 1960's had recently made an
effort to overcome explicit evolutionism and overbearing rationalism
without really questioning the foundations that gave rise to these
Much of the work that Hymes included in Reinventing Anthropology
is quite dearly motivated by moral and political concerns about the
superiority thesis that follows from the underlying rationalism and
evolutionism of the discipline, Anthropologists were concerned with the
contradictions they encountered in practice between their role as
ambassador and advocate for the Other, and the ways in which their
practice was implicated in the systematic oppression of the Other, the
troubling realization that they had participated in portraying the Other
as a "primitive," Those contributing to Hymes' collection were intent on
purging their practice of any remaining vestiges of cognitive
evolutionism. They were concerned that, rather than having brought the
Other closer through authentic cross-cultural understanding,
anthropology had inadvertently distanced and marginalized the Other,
Hymes and his contributors focused their critical attention on those
aspects of the practice that they saw as responsible for this distancing.
A dominant theme in Reinvenfing AnfhropoIogy is the effect that
the goal of objectivity has had on anthropology. Stanley Diamond traces
the history of anthropology's commitment to achieving a wscientificn
understanding of other cultures. On this account, the desire for an
accurate and objective representation of other ways of Life requires
reducing another belief system to a set of essential characteristics
which is then made familiar by being related to an era from our own
past. In this way, the Other is represented as a primitive on a time Line
that culminates in our own advanced society.

In order to objectify the other, one is, at the same time, compelled
to objectify the self..,. In the hardening scientific perspective,
primitive characteristics are regarded as remote in t i m e and space;
they are at the base of the evolution toward civilization; and
n been identified as a milinear, inevitably
c i ~ t i o has
progressive movement. (Diamond 1969:401,413)

The idea that other cultures are placed outside of the local present
of the ethnographer as a result of the methods by which they are
represented motivates H y m e s and others to analyze the specific devices
b y w h i c h the Other is marginalized, Much of Hymes' introduction, for
instance, focuses on the way in which the discipline of anthropology is
shaped by the structure of academic departments and teaching methods
(Hyrnes 1969:36-48).' The ways in which other cultures are represented
and the way in which these representations are understood is thus
shaped by the structure of academia (at a local scale) as w e l l as by
aspects of Western culture, language, history, and epistemology (on the
large scale). These critics suggest that the primary task of anthropology
must be to investigate the effects of one's own culture (or sub-culture)
on our representations of other cultures.

'l'his attention to the structure of acadeaic institutions, the effects of the pragmatic constraints on
receiving a graduate degree, teaching position, or tenure, as well as vhat gets accepted for publication in journals
etc. has becae a central issue in rmderstanding the oatare of the ethnographic text and hence the representation of the
Other. See also Harcns [ W ) , R a b b (1986:254, & l99l), Said (l9W!2l), Uwer (l9Ri:lO8-llZ), Fabian (I983:94,l2l),
Ceertz (i!83: l%-I63), Marcus and Fischer [l986:2l-2I1 31) and Atkinson (1990:g).
Another critique of this wscientismwis developed by Bob Scholte
who, in "Toward a Reflexive and C r i t i c a l Anthrop~logy,~ looks toward the
future of anthropoIogy and charts a tentative path toward solutions to
the crisis of representation. He captures the central message of the
collection: "we must first subject anthropological thought itself to
ethnographic description and ethnological understandingw (Scholte -

1969:437). In the next three decades, many anthropologists would do just

this, following the lead of Clifford Geertz in whose work this self-
reflexive critique has found its fuller expression-
Geertz's work has been both controversial and influential in this
turn toward a ref1exZve and critical anthropology. W h i l e h i s early work
can be placed fairly decisively within the school of symbolic
anthropology, he later reconsiders what it m e a n s to "readwthe Other,
and raises questions about whether "symbol systemswexist independent
of their interpretations. This amounts t o a reassessment of the project
of translation. The development of his thought clearly displays the
motivation for this reconsideration.
In his 1972 essay, "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,"
Geertz provides what he calls a "thick descriptionwof a particular
practice in Balinese society. The details of the ethnography are not
important; what is important, for my purposes. is the sorts of
descriptions that Geertz provides and the status he attributes to these
descriptions. B y "thick description," Gee- means to suggest that his
accounts are richly detailed and multi-layered. There are f e w aspects of
Balinese culture that he does not seek to Iink to the cockfight. There is
no intention that is hidden, no symbol too opaque to be read. The
"thickn description provides the deep meaning of a practice and/or
belief system.
Geertz continually d r a w s attention to his ability to crack the code
of this foreign belief system, revealing the C O M ~ Obetween ~ this
symbolic activity and the facet(s) of culture it is taken to represent. It
becomes possible to tell the story of the other culture as it really is--
to provide an "examination of the cockfight as a link to what the
Balinese 'is really like'" (Geertz 1972:ZOO). Through examination of
"concrete evidence.. . both extensive and unmistakablew(Geertz l972:223),
he attributes a wide variety of detailed and descriptive emotions,
intentions, hopes, and desires to the participating BaIinese- B y the end
of his account, Geertz has woven a detailed web of signification that
shows how the complex BaLinese persona and nearly aU aspects of
Balinese life are expressed s y m b o l i c a l l y through the cockfight.

Drawing on almost every level of Balinese experience, it brings

together themes--animal savagery, male narcissism, opponent
gambling, status rivalry, mass excitement, blood sacrifice--whose
main mmection is their invoLvement w i t h rage and the fear of
rage, and, binding them into a set of rules which at once c0nt;lins
them and S o w s them pIay, builds a symbolic structure in which,
over and over again, the reaLiw of their inner affiliation can be
intelligibly felt- (Geertz 1972~236)

It is dear that Geertz understands this symbolic structure to exist

within the Balhese culture, independent of his interpretation. In fact,
on his amunt, any practice in any culture should reveal its symbolic
structure to the careful, trained reader:

But whatever the level at which one operates, and however

intricately, the guiding principle is the same: societies, like lives,
mntain their own interpretations.One has only to learn how to
gain access to them, ( G e r t z 1972:240)(itaLics mine)

H e r e is as clear a statement of the goal o€ symbolic anthropology

as one might find: to read the social reality expressed in the foreign
symbol system; to "gain access tow the already present (to the qualified
reader) interpretation; to become the Other, and then bring their story
back "as it is."
Geertz's comments in this essay display a blatant, almost naive,
ethnocentric realism. Many of the intentions attributed to the Other are
transparently Western (and quite modern). Despite the style of this
portrayal, Geertz is attentive (in theory) to the problems of
representing the beliefs of the Other so effortlessly and
unproblematically. In his 1973 essay, "Thick Description: Toward an
Interpretive Theory of Culture,w Geertz is careful to consider some of
the recently addressed problems with representations of this sort,
revealing a tension between the work of anthropology and what he (and
most everyone) takes to be its goal-
" C ~ l t u r e ,according
~ to Geertz, is semiotic--a "web of significationw
(Geertz 19735)--and the job of the anthropologist is to provide a
reading of the meanings that mmprise this web. But, where Geertz had
previously modelled his account of interpretation on the metaphor of
reading a book, clear and concise, here, he develops a more complicated
account of "reading," The symbolic anthropologist's idea of ucultureas
textw is loosing its objective, pre-interpreted stability,

Analysis, then, is sorting out the structures of signification,-. a

somewhat misleading expression, for it makes the enterprise sound
too much like that of the cipher clerk when it is much more like
that of the literary critic.... Doing ethnography is Like trying to
read (in the sense of uwnstruct a reading ofn) a manuscript--
foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherences, suspicious
emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in
conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of
shaped behavior, (Geertz 1973:9,10)

Geertz's reading of reading undergoes a transformation in the

1970's, from a model represented metaphorically by the activity of the
cipher clerk, a Literal transcription of a preexistent m e a n i n g , to a model
based on the activity of the Literary critic, an interpretative creation of
a system of meaning. With this transformation, Literary theory enters the
arena of anthropology focusing attention on the question, what is it to
read the Other? Anthropology's textw becomes -unstable through
"fadingn and nsuspicious emendationsw,and appears not to &st "as a
textn entirely independent of the reader. The introduction of Literary
criticism a s a model for reading further destabilizes the text, not by
revealing ways in which a system of meaning is m o r e cryptic than it
first might have appeared, but by revealing ways in which reading and
writing, the written and the read, cross one another--destabilizing the
independent, autonomous acistence of each. The "textwof the Other
becomes a thing created in the act of trying to read it. With the
introduction of literary theory, attention turns from "the Other as textn
to "the Other bewme text," to the activffy of textualking the Other,
In his 1983 collection of essays Local KhowIedge, Geertz is primarily
mncerned to investigate how this shift from understanding the
interpreter as cipher clerk to understanding interpretation based on the
model of Literary criticism ePfects anthropology, B y this time, literary
criticism and interpretive anthropology have evolved in ways that lead
Geertz to give up the idea that another society can be treated as a pre-
existing "textwavailable to be read by the anthropologist. Culture is the
outcome, rather than the object, of interpretation. As Geertz points out,
this re-evaluation of interpretation has the ethnographer, "looking less
for the sort of thing that connects planets and pendulums and more for
the sort that connects chrysanthemums and swordsn (Geertz 1983aA9)-
Through a series of case studies, Geertz traces the effects of
anthropology's common literary tropes and styles of writing on
particular representations of ather cultures, thus calling into question
the very idea of unbiased representation. Representations of the beliefs
and practices of members of other cultures are shaped as much by the
Literary tropes used in constructing a .interpretation as by any
wncrete evidence that might support an interpretation.
Even though this new understanding of cross-cultural
interpretation implies that there are no pre-interpreted beliefs of the
Other that might be Literally read, Geertz resists what others often take
to be the strong relativist implications of his position. Geertz
acknowledges that a form of cultural relativism is the outcome of this
rereading of reading. However, he insists that this relativism is not a
debilitating impediment to understanding an Other whose beliefs are
foreign to the point of opacity; rather, it is the very mndition of
Otherness. Geertz's relativism is captured by the simple claim that the
beliefs of the Other are inevitably distorted in translation2

I do not uant to dwell mch farther on the realio/reIativim debate since i t is largely irrelevant given
this refraring of the probla. That debate centers on the status of representations, and depends (either ray) on the
possibility of independently existing wanirys, &ether or not ue can look behind the 'interfering glossesg to the
'real' aeaning. Ceertz virtually steps outside of the debate by defending not 'relativis', but rather 'Anti-Anti-
Relativisr' (Ceertz 1989).
The case against relativisa is better expIained, according to Ceertz, by an na~~nstified fear or dismfort with the
supposed implications of the thesis rather than any strong case rade for the realist position. It is widely understood
[feared) that relativism implies a sort of ' a n y t b g toess nihilio, that, without *real"astraiats on hov we think
The truth of the doctrine of cultural (or historical--it is the s a m e
thing) relativism is that w e can never apprehend another people's
or another period's imagination neatly, as though it were our own.
The falsity of it is that w e can never genuinely apprehend it at
all. W e can apprehend it well enough, at least as well as w e
apprehend anything not properly ours; but w e do so not by
looking behhd the interfering glosses that connect u s to it but
through them. (Geertz 1 9 8 3 ~ 4 4 )

By the 1970's and 1980's. critical attention had turned f r o m the

object of anthropological study to the "interfering glossesw that shape
interpretation. Detailed case studies during these two decades
contributed to a greater insight into the nature of these distortions.

In order to characterize the self-reflexive turn in anthropology

that was inspired by Hyrnes and Geertz among others, I will consider the
work of three key critical anthropologists: Roy Wagner, Johannes Fabian
and Edward Said, My aim will be to elucidate key points relevant to the
issue of representation and build upon t h e m to further characterize the
nature of translation. Roy Wagner focuses on the effects of delineating
an object of study labelled "culturen characterized as a monolithic,
translatable entity, unambiguously represented. Johannes Fabian
investigates the literary and conceptual devices by which the Other is
characterized and made familiar, Edward Said takes a critical look at a
particular body of representations and the political implications of
common conceptual oppositions embedded in the very methods of
traditional anthropology.
In The l!hvention of Culture (1975). R o y Wagner shows how the idea
of culture is not the subject of investigation but is rather the product

and what we call knwledge, there are no constraints at all. Once interpretation takes the place of representation in
anthropological theory, there is no leaning 'behindYo be a realist or relativist about. In just the way that Davidson
and Quine love beyond the standard oppositions that ground that debate, (leertt's eaphasis on the 'interfering glossesm
theaselves directs attention tovard the activity of interpreting the Other, confronting neither realism nor relativia,
but translation.
of our confrontation w i t h different ways of living and making sense of

Culture is made visible by culture-shock, by subjecting oneself to

situations beyond one's normal interpersonal competence and
objectifying the discrepancy as an entily. (Wagner 1975:9).

"Culturen is not a thing discovered, but an entity created and

defined in opposition to oneself; the invention of culture is as much an
act of self-definition as a description of other ways of Life. A
representation of a particular culture consists not of amounts of
individuals with beliefs, intentions, etc., but of a representative, static
set of rules and beliefs. The Other must be reduced to a common
denominator or "group mindwand their beliefs represented as essential
features, tha; which defines the Other as other? The other wculturewis
an idealized abstract construct:

The idea that some of the recognized contexts in a culture are

basicu or "primary," or represent the winnate,wor that their
properties are somehow essentially objective or real, is a cultural
illusion, (Wagner 1975:41)

Not only is the Other constructed through the invention of culture

but the self, too, is abstracted and essentialbed through this two-way
construction. Each culture, reduced to a aommon denominator, represents
and embodies a history, an accumuhtion of inventions, achievements, and
representative beliefs. It acts as a prop for the definition of the self.
Tulturewbecomes not merely a set of beliefs and lifeways, but a
general telos, more an ideal than a collective body of practices or group
of people. A s a telos, the idea of culture contains substantiat

Paul Radin vas f d g auare of the pmbleas encountered in the idea of representing the thought of 'another
cultnre' as early as 1927. Be observes that mst anthropological wrk is prerised on the idea of a 'group-mind' and that
such an assmtion can only result in iniulegnacies of the account (Badin 192796). W g Schnltz's p r h y criticia of
Benjamin llorf is that he too gives the Eopi only a 'group voice' (Schultz 1990:76-77). The asmption is that one is
interpreting a monolithic thing, a culture that #rely expresses itself through the voices of individuals. In Ems-
Pritchard's account as well, ue are told what "the Azande"k1ieve and not vhat any individual Zande says. Wagner
constantlp draus attention to the distortions necessary in moving f r a the specific individual voice [of the
ethnographic eucormter) to the general group voice of the ethnographic account ad hou the idea of culture is a product
of that rovaent betmu experience and representation.
epistemological presuppositions. Cultures are represented as paradigms,
as definable, rulegoverned ways of confronting reality and, hence, as
systems of ideas much Like scientific theories. As the study of other
cultures, anthropology had always depended on the assumption that
culture is a preexisting, static, homogeneous, defined entity. It is an
assumption that Pollows from the goal of representation.( Because this
invention of culture shapes the representation of the Other, Wagner
characterizes anthropology, not as the study of other beliefs or ways of
living, but a s "the study of man through the assumptrbn of culturem
(Wagner lWFc35)(italics mine).
By constructing an abstract representation of another culture that
reduces the differences within that culture to differences between
cultures (between "usm and VhemW),the Other m m e s a contrastive
object of comparison understood as a stage in the telos of Culture: the
structure of contrasts requires that it be located on a continuum, as
having made greater or lesser progress toward the set of inventions
and achievements that defines "Culturew as such. If anthropology is to
conform to scientific ideals, the unsystematic, two-way dialogue that
actually constitutes the ethnographic encounter must be reduced to a
systematic, univocal representation of the Other.

A cultural tradition that mediates the dialectic through

collectivizing relations and expressions learns to create and
understand a basically dialectical world in Linear and rational
terms..., It is because our tradition of thought emphasizes the
"maskingn of dialectical relations through collectivizing action that

This '9ttatic"aspect of representation has becue a c n there. It vas veli characterized by Bob Scholte in
the ReiOP.eofirlgAoflimpoIogpcollection.The idea of representation is inthatelg Linked with the effort to rodel
anthropology on the methods and goals of the natural sciences. Wysical theory quires that the laus of nature (and the
descriptions and explanations of naturaI processes) rerain static. 'Scientis' in the social sciences lakes this same
requireaent the very condition of hadedge.
Yhw scientim is raised to the encapassing status of a philosophical systea, its ultirate purpose becaes
the ratiooaI explanation of a determinable reality in accord with dversal principles and objectire
t echniqnes. (Scholte 1969: B 6 )
We there had already been a trend in the social sciences to break f r a the wdel of the natural sciences, that
break had not involved a re-evaluation of the goal of explanation. The idea of accurate, static description, or
representation, remhed.
our self-image of culture has c o m e to be applied indiscriminately
to the lifeways of others. (Wagner 1975:125,132)

The primary problem for anthropology, according to Wagner, is that

the Other is necessarily marginalized by the very attempt to understand
another The translation of another "belief system" (as an
abstract and static enti-) into our framework for understanding makes
what is different (that which was used to deLineate another culture in
the first place) into something inferior or false. The Other, reduced to
wcultuTe,wis classified w i t h i n the linear, progressive Line of
accomplishments that define our culture. As such, the Other can only be
represented as an evolutionarily inferior version of ourselves. The very
idea of Culture contains an evolutionary framework acmrding to w h i c h
all belief systems must be seen as different ways of understanding a
single reality.

When w e use these controls in the study of other peoples w e

invent their cultures as analogues not of our whole culture and
conceptual scheme but of part of it. We invent them as analogues
of Culture (as "rules, nnorms, grammars, ntecbnologies"),the
conscious, collective, "artificialw part of our world, in relation to a
single, universal, natural, "reality. Thus they do not contrast
with our culture, or offer muter-examples to it, as a total system
of conceptualization, but rather invite comparison as "other waysu
of dealing with our own r e dfy.... What w e can perceive of the
realities they have learned to invent and Live in is relegated to
the "supernaturaln or dismissed as "merely symbolic.",...If w e
insist on objectifying other cultures through our reality, w e make
their objectification of reality into a subjective illusion, a world of
" m e r e syrnb~ls,~
other nclassificationsnof what "really is there."
(Wagner l975:142,144)

While Wagner is primarily concerned to investigate the

epistemological assumptions that legitimate this method of investigation
as well as the historical conditions that brought it about, what he makes
clear is that the assumptions of cultures and the representations they
entrench condemn the existence of the Other to "in texts." The Other is
a product not of intra-societal investigation and communication but of
anthropological textuahing, "Culturemexists only as a set of
representations in texts.
textual constructs that implement implicit temporal relations between the
anthropologist and the society studied. These representational strategies
create a paradox between the subjective intimacy (the nearness) of "1
was therew accounts, and the [distant) objectivity that says "thereu is
far and past,

On the one hand w e dogmatidy insist that anthropology rests on

ethnographic research involving personal, prolonged interaction
w i t h the Other. But then w e pronounce upon the knowledge gained
from such research a discourse which construes the Other in
terms of distance, spatiaL and temporal, The Other's empirical
presence turns into his theoretical absence, a conjuring trick
which is worked with the help of an array of devices that have
the common intent and function to keep the Other outside the
Time of anthropology. (Fabian 1983xi)

Fabian traces the history of the idea and use of "timewin the West
from its Judeo-Christian, sacred, tdeological formation to its
secularization and then scientific universalization. His a i m is to give an
account of the concept of t i m e that provides a foundation for
contemporary anthropological research (Fabian 19832-17). A s Wagner
suggested, the idea of a unidirectional, linear time, combined with that
of culture, embodies an evolutionist theory which also provides the
framework and justification for an evolutionary epistemology. Fabian
focuses attention on the implicit teleological element in Christian notions
of time (evolution toward salvation) and of the enlightenment telos of
reason (the perfection of understanding). This understanding of time
motivates and justifies the practice of structuring and taxonomizing
history in terms of epochs or evolutionary stages that lead to the
present self. The self in Western culture thus occupies a privileged
temporal position which simultaneously places the anthropologist (and/or
Western man) ahead in time and above in thought, Anthropological
accounts implicitly proceed by locating other cultures in one or another
of the evolutionary epochs defined by the history of Western thought.
thus distancing the O t h e r from the "presentw of the anthropologist.
Fabian refers to this distancing as a udenial of coevalnesswby which he
means "a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referent(s) of
a~thropologyin a time other than the present of the producer of
anthropological discoursew (Fabian 1983:31), B y creating a text of the
belief system of the Other, their culture is defined in terms of and
displaced to an earlier stage of our own past,

Once other cultures are fenmd off as culture gardens or, in the
terminology of sociological jargon, as boundary-maintaining
systems based on shared values; once each culture is perceived as
Irving in its Time, it becomes possible and indeed necessary to
elevate the interstices between cultures to a methodological
status.,., The very notion of m n t a b h g waUs and boundaries
creates order and sense based on discontinuity and distance.
(Fabian 1983:47,52)

A s an example of this denial of coevalness or "allochronismw

through the delineation and categorization of d t u r e s , consider again
the effect of Evans-Pritchard's characterization of Zande beliefs and
practices as involving "witchcraft." This taxonomizing representation
draws on European history for a wntext that has already been
surpassed by modern, rational, non-superstitious thought- Fabian's
analysis suggests that this allocation of the Azande to a primitive past
is a product of the particular practices of translation or representation
by which Evans-Pritchard attempted to make sense of their beliefs.
h~ the same way that a static, reified "culture" provides the
foundation for the traditional focus of anthropological analysis as
identified by Wagner. an evohtionarily inferior past Other provides the
framework for anthropology according to Fabian. In the end, such an
approach cannot represent a co-present Other who simply reasons
differently; it can only succeed in redefining the self in opposition to a
less rational, primitive Other, A s Fabian observes, " primitive being
essentially a temporal concept, is a category, not an object, of Western
thought (Fabian 1983:18). In the end, the Other serves as a contrastive
prop that affirms the superiority of Western thought. The Other is not
found to be irrational, but postulated as such in advance of any
ethnographic inquiry. Again, the activity of representation requires that
each culture be assigned a unique location on a Linear, evolutionary time
line that leads up to the ethnographer's present.
When modern anthropoIogy began to construct its Other in t e r m s
of topoi implying distance, difference, and opposition, its intent
was above all, but at least also, to construct ordered Space and
Time--a cosmos--for Western society to inhabit, rather than
"understanding other culture^,^ its ostensible vocation. (Fabian

Fabian's sohtion b the problem of anthropological representation is

strikingly similar to Wagner's, H e argues that anthropology is not
necessarily in need of new descriptions of other CUItures, but of a new
w a y of communicating between d t u r e s and recording the products of
those mmmunications, Anthropological coevaIness requires a method in
which the beliefs of the Other are not translated into a representational
system that imposes its categories onto another culture but, rather,
proceeds by means of a dialogue between societies that subverts the
marginaIizing dichotomies embedded in standard methods of

Coevalness aims at recognizing contemporality as the condition for

truly dialectical confrontation between persons as well as societies.
It militates against false cionceptions of dialectics--all those
watered-down binary abstractions which are passed off as
oppositions: left vs. right, past vs. present, primitive vs. modern,
Tradition and modernity are not wopposedw(except semiotically),
nor are they in nconflict,w (Fabian 1983:154-155)

For Fabian, it becomes necessary to focus not only on specific

representations of other d t w e s , but on the producti'ozz of cultural
representations (Fabian 1983:162). Rather than treating traditional
anthropology as the unbiased accumulation of knowledge about other
cultures, Fabian shows that the exclusion of the Other through temporal
distancing is a npoliticaI actw [Fabian 1983:~).the product of an
oppressive method and style of representation: "geopolitics has its
ideological foundations in chronopoHficsw (Fabian l983:144). B y
marginalizing the Other temporally, textualhtion excludes the Other
politically. It is the political force of this style of representation that
was so clearly elucidated in Edward Said's influential book, Orientalkm
Said analyzes, in detail, a concrete example of the sort of
representational marghdization discussed by Wagner and Fabian- H e
challenges anthropologists and cross-cultural researchers in other fields
to take a hard look at the textual devices they use to represent the
Middle East and the political effects of those representations. Rather
than claiming that a particular society has been misrepresented o r
mistakenly characterized, the standard strategy of debate over aciding
representations, Said accuses Western scholarship of a style of
representation that necessarily excludes, distances, and eventually
subordinates the Other, The tradition of "Orientalismu is not just the
history of representation of a particular society, but more importantIy, a
glaring example of "a style of thoughtw that represents the Other in
(negative) opposition to oneself. "The Orientw is neither a place nor a
people, but an image created through the use of oppositional dichotomies
and then attributed to a people. It is a product of substantial
ontological and epistemological assumptions that separate us and our
world from them and theirs textually (Said 1978:2).

Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose

structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe,
the W e s t , wusw)
and the strange (the Orient, the East, "themw),.--
In a system of knowledge about the Orient, the Orient is less a
place than a topos, a set of references, a congeries of
characteristics, that seems to have its origin in a quotation, or a
fragment of a text, or a citation from someone's work on the
Orient, or some bit of previous imagining, or an amalgam of all
these..,, The Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system
of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought
the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later,
Western empire. (Said 1978:43,177,202-3)

Both Wagner and Fabian emphasize that the textual delineation of

the Other follows directly from the ontological centering of the self and
exploits a number of (then) foundational dichotomies, for example,
between the rational and the irrational. the developed and the
undeveloped, the advanced and the backward, and the moral and the
immoral, The Other becomes a product not of empirical investigation, but
rather of this self-centering activity- The Other takes on a purely
negative value (Said 1978:286) and appears corrupt both morally and
epistemologically, a characterization that provides justification for
imperialism and political oppression of other cultures. Through
textuali7;rtion. the Orient takes the shape of its designated oppositional
type or classification and takes on a reality through the text i n spite of
the subject,

PhilosophicaUg, then, the kind of language, thought, and vision

that I have been calling Orientalism very generaIly is a form of
radical realism; anyone employing Orientalism, which is the habit
for dealing with questions, objects, qualities, and regions deemed
Oriental, will designate, name, point to, fix what he is talking or
thinking about w i t h a word or phrase, which then is considered
either to have acquired, or more simply to be, reality..,.
That O r i e n t a l i s m makes sense a t all depends more on the West
than on the Orient, and this sense is directly indebted to various
Western techniques of representation that make the Orient visible,
clear, "therew in discourse about it. And these representations
rely upon institutions, traditions, conventions, agreed-upon codes
of understanding for their effects, not upon a distant and
amorphous Orient. (Said 1978:72,22)

Through analyses of countless excerpts from the Literature of

Orientalism, Said shows that t h e construction of a wculturalvoicew must
erase the voice of the individual cultural other. The very goal of
providing a representation of other wcultures,wmust silence the
individual Other. According to Said, it is only through the absence of
anything that could be considered Yhe real Orientwthat such a
representation could persist,

There is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a re-

presence, o r a representation, The value, efficacy, strength,
apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient
therefore relies very Little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on
the Orient as such, O n the mneary, the written statement is a
presence to the reader by virtue of its having excluded,
displaced, made supererogatory any such real fhl'ng as "the
Orient. (Said 1978:21)

Said might easily have provided counter-interpretations to dispute

those that are prevalent in the standard literature on the Middle-East,
but he does not do this, Engaging the debate in this way, would only
perpetuate the essenti;llifl'ng/munter-essentiakhgstyIe of debate
typical. of the field. B y critiquing the style of representation typical of
Orientalism, Said seeks not to invent mother culture, but to call into
question the style of debate common in anthropology. Said's analysis is
not another construction of the Other, but a de-construction of an
essentializing style of representation that guarantees that the Other
cannot b e heard* Orientalism is the product of Wagner's "culture

M y whole point about this system is not that it is a

misrepresentation of some Oriental essence--in which I do not for
a moment believe--but that it operates as representations usually
do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific
historical, intellectual, and even economic setting. In other words,
representations have purposes. (Said 1978~273)

The only solutions Said offers to the political problem of

representation involve destabilizing "fieldswof research like OrientaIism,
and raising methodological self-consciousnessw (Said 1978:326). These
are more substantial proposals than they might first appear. What Said
has done in this work is to deconstruct the history of a
representational paradigm. H e is not textuakhg or re-textualizing the
Other, but detextuahhg the method of representation of the Other; in
effect, he is intent on freeing the Orient from its textualhation, This
requires, a t least as a preliminary measure, not a rereading of the
Other, but a re-reading of reading, Said suggests that the lesson to be
learned is "to be sensitive to what is involved in representationw (Said
1978:328). The value of this work lies in its power to destabilize a
deep-rooted tradition of representation and cultivate methodological self-
Each of these authors, Wagner, Fabian, and Said, draw attention to
the sense in which "culturen is created as an object of study and to
the ways in which the representation of another culture marginalizes the
Other while counter-inventing the self. Each also elucidates some of the
constructs and devices by which anthropological textualhation--the
process of generating written, systematized translations of the beliefs of
the Other--serves to essentialize the Other- Finally, each suggests that
the solution to these problems of cross-cultural representation is to be
found by focusing critical attention on the act of production of the
ethnographic text; they call for the investigation of "writing" culture,
and for critical practices that destabilfie academic disciplines as the key
to understanding what is involved in "reading" culture.

W r i t i n g Culture

This critical focus on the produdon of ethnographic aca,unts and

the effects of t e x t u a k h g other "culturesw was vividly represented in
1986 in Writing Culture: The P a S m and Politics of Ethnography, a
collection of essays edited by James Clifford and George Marcus, that
characterizes the state of anthropology in the late 1980's in much the
way Hymes' Reinventing Anthropology did in the early 1970's. In an
important sense, the contributors to W r i t i h g Culfure attempt to answer
the questions posed nearly twenty years earlier by the contributors to
Reinventing AathropoIogy. By the mid-1980'~~critics could take
advantage of the new language of literary criticism to articulate their
concerns as well as the range of earlier analyses of textualizing
techniques investigated b y the anthropologists discussed above-
In the introduction to Writing Cultzwe, James CIifford summarizes
the lessons learned not only from the recent self-reflexive trend in
anthropology but also from increasingly popular cross-disciplinary work
that was, b y the mid-1980's. destabilizing academic fields, Like others,
he suggests that the main amtribution of this critical work was to turn
attention to the activity of text m a k i n g and text reading, to "highlight
the constructed, artificial nature of cultural accountsw(Clifford 198&2).
Clifford focuses on the ways in which representations of other cultures
are shaped by the type of textual swucture or Literary allegory chosen
to frame the ethnographic account- As anthropologists develop an
awareness of how Literary tropes shape cross-cultural representations,
they acquire a new kind of responsibility; as Said argued, the
translation of the Other into a type of story subject to culturally
specific literary mnventions has moral and political implications.

The maker of ethnographic texts cannot avoid excessive tropes,

figures, and allegories that select and impose meaning as they
translate it.,.. all constructed truths are made possible by
powerful wLiesuof exclusion and rhetoric, Even the best
ethnographic texts--serious, true fictions--are systems, or
economies, of truth, Power and history work through them, in
ways their authors cannot fully controI,.-, Ethnographic truths are
thus inherently parti%&-committed and incomplete. ... But once
accepted and built into ethnographic art, a rigorous sense of
pat-tiaKtycan be a source of represmhtionai tact- (Clifford

This is precisely the focus necessary for developing a theory of

translation that has the resources to address the issues beyond
indeterminacy that I introduced a t the end of the last chapter, In order
to elucidate this moral dimension of representation, or what Clifford
referred to as orepresentation& tact," many of the contributors to
Writing Culture undertake careful analyses of the particular tropes and
allegories that are common in ethnographic writing- As a first step
toward understanding the ethics of representation and the textual
marginalization of the Other, it is necessary to understand the
anthropologist's construction of textual authority. Vincent Crapanzano
and Renato Rosaldo focus on the question of how ethnographic authors
construct their own authority. The devices that establish the authority
of the ethnographer are often ones that assert his- presence in the
field. A t the same time, the particular kind of authority in question-
that of objective truth--requires that the ethnographer be absent in the
sense that his/her presence must not reveal the subjectivity of the
interpersonal nature of the cross-cultural encounter that distorts and
compromises the authority of the representation. The anthropologist must
both have been there (in reality) yet have been absent (textually), The
textual strategies that effectively mask the subjective seLf of the
ethnographic observer, however, work to subordinate the Other, both
politically and epistemologically, to the objective self (as author).
Objectification, through the construction of authority, establishes the
ethnographer's system of beliefs as the standard against which the
rationality and veracity of the beliefs of the Other w i l l be measured. For
all the reasons set out by Wagner, Fabian and Said, objectification
creates a static caricature of the Other and relegates them to a pre-
modern evolutionary category. B y removing the (subjective) self
textually, "the narrator invokes the w i l l to truth in order to suppress
the document's equally present will to powerw (Rosaldo 1986:81)-
Revealing the textual strategies that mask the subjectivity of any
ethnographic account serves as an effective first step toward
confronting the politics of representation.
In his other contribution to Writing CuZture, "On Ethnographic
Allegory," CLiQford emphasizes how the use of textual tropes and
allegories to seucture ethnographic accounts is both distorting and
necessary. Translating the beliefs of the m e m b e r s of another culture is
accomplished by writing the O t h e r into a literary framework, hence the
Other can only be represented wallegorically,nwhich, in itself. must
undermine the very idea of objective representation.

Ethnographic writing is allegorical a t the level both of its content

(what it says about cultures and their histories) and of its form
(what is implied by its mode of -;1Ji7;1tion). (Clifford 1986bz98)

Taking Marjorie Shostak's Ni' as a case-study, Clifford analyzes

the ways in which the choice and use of a representational allegory
constitute the meaning of the account.5 Again. the beliefs of the Other

The choice of this wrk as a case study rakes an avhmrd aission in #kit& Cblture wen lore @parent. In
the introduction, Clifford defends the mission of any leahist essays fror the collection (Clifford 1986a:ld-21) on the
basis that existing lainist works have Little bearing on the specific topic at hand. In chapter seven, I will discuss
an important work constructed as a response to Clifford and Marcus' aission of the M n i s t perspective: kiting
Cdture (1995).
Clifford's critiqae of Shostak can be (and has been) taken in at least tw ways. It can be taken as an example of
an overbearing use of allegory that hopelessly (and unnecessarily) distorts the beliefs of the Other or, i t can be taken
as an exiuple of the unavoidable use of allegory significant in that the necessary distortions are clearly visible i n
this account. A careful reading, I tbink, exonerates Clifford of the foraer icterpretation. Be uses Nisa to demnstrate
that all ethnographic armunts have this effect, that eveq amuut is a "joint pndnction,' the 'p~~bleaatic outam of
intersubjective dialogue, translation, and projection"(Clifford 1986b:109).
Harcas and FiscLr also treat Shostak's Esa at length as a case of a neu direction in anthropology that
a the confines of traditional representation and ackaoyledges its aun constmctedness (Hamsand
(partially) breaks f r
Fischer 1986:j7-59,IO8-l09).
must be translated into a presently adsting, conventional, allegorical
structure. It is, therefore, not the case that the beliefs of members of
one culture are translated into the language of another; what is
accomplished in cross-cultural interpretation is, rather, a conceptual/
linguistic crossing of cultures. By focusing on the ways in which the
literary tropes confer meaning on another belief system, Clifford reveals
the sense in which the ethnography is a "joint production" in which
Shostak's imposition of literary structure shapes the very meaning of
Nisa's statements. Shostak portrays Nisa as an average !Kung woman (as
profoundly other) whiIe a t the same time translating her beliefs in terms
of a "Western feminist allegorywthat makes them familiar and gives them
meaning, Translation in terms of this allegory at once provides a
framework for understanding the beliefs of the Other and distorts those
beliefs; their meaning, in translation, cannot be separated from Shostak's
choice of allegory. Bemuse the imposition of allegorical structure is a
necessary precondition for translation, the choice of a Literary trope
precedes the ascription of meaning to the beliefs in question.6
These insights about the roIe of allegory in representing the
beliefs of the Other have crucially important implications. They make it
clear that the meanings of symbols and statements that are presumed to
characterize a practice (such as witchcraft) are not built up from the
translations of individual sentences, but are, to a great extent, a
product of the type of story told and, these "types of storiesware

Crapanzano, in 'Eenes Dilm,n analyzes three types of distortion that take place through translation into
thee different narrative allegories. Bg looking at the arks of Catlin, Goethe, and Geertz, Crapanzano attwpts to
elicit the strategies by rhich each author establishes ethnagraphic authority and persuades the reader that their
interpretation is the truth. Tbese allegories both give leaning to the events described as veil as establish the
ethnographer as a detached observer in a position to rake objective claims. Yet, even uhile grounding the
interpretation, the casting of such foreign events and the determination of their leanings through these allegories,
vhich serve to establish athority, sinltaneously subvert it. "AuAuthority"dissipates as soon a the distorting effects
of the ailegory becme clear.
In all three instances the events described are subverted by the transcending stories in uhich they are cast.
They are sacrificed to their rhetorical function in a literary discourse that is far rmved Ira the
indigenous discourse of their occurreme. (Crapanzano I986:76)
themselves cultural constructs! There are no "simplewtranslated units
with which one could then construct an explanatory account. If this is
correct, then the translation of every individual sentence proceeds
under conditions of indeterminacy (a m e a n i n g deficiency, as Quine and
Davidson would have it), yet the postulation of a translation scheme
generates an interpretive meaning surplus. Interpretive understanding
is not built up from an accumulation of evidence or by means of an
appeal to the determinations of meaning in specific sentences; it is
a c c o m p l i s h e d in the act of translating whole belief systems- Translated
sentences convey more semantic content than the author or translator
can control by attempting to establish accuracy by "direct translationR
component parts, This is dear in the analysis of witchcraft developed in
chapter two.

These kinds of transoendent meanings are not abstractions or

interpretations "addedwto the original nsimplewaccount. Rather,
they are the mnditions of its meaningfulness. Ethnographic texts
are inescapably allegorical, and a serious acceptance of this fact
changes the ways they can be w r i t t e n and read.,,, A recognition
of allegory emphasizes the fact that realistic portraits, to the
extent that they are woonvincingwor "rich," are extended
metaphors, patterns of associations that point to coherent
(theoretical, esthetic, moral) additional meanings. (Clifford

As Wagner, Fabian, and Said have suggested, it becomes necessary

to think of the Other as a construct rather than as an autonomous
being that exists, independently, in the form represented. The
contributors to Writing Culture focus on the textual aspects of this
winvention.wWhile an e x t r e m e l y valuable investigation into the nature of
representation, however, the focus on text has, to some degree, de-
emphasized the actual Other, as primary subject, from the ethnographic

Tbis is a point that 1 viU elaborate further at the end of this chapter. We few of the aathors in Yrithg
lhltnre address translation problem specificdlly, rnch is hplied by Clifford's and siular accounts. A key feature to
understanding an ethnographic account or translation mt coacern the Literary allegory or trope uhich it is translated
intu. Tdal Asad, in his contribution to LSitAg Ihltore, does have a great deal to say, houever, concerning theories of
translation that take sentems to be the primary onits of translation. That sort of analysis necessarily ignores the
effect that structure and allegory have on be1ief ascription through the translation of individual sentences.
account- Even though such c r i t i c i s m reveals s o m e of the ways in w h i c h
the Other is mismnstructed, it brings the Other no closer to our
understanding, replacing distance with fiction, and threatens to divorce
ethnography altogether from factual accounting,

Allegory prompts us to say of any cultural description not "this

represents, or symbolizes, thatm but rather, "this is a (morally
charged) story about that." What one sees in a coherent
ethnographic account, the imaged consin~ctof the other, is
connected in a continuous double structure with what one
understands, (Clifford 1986b:100,101)

Does this mean that the Other is a pure fiction and that
ethnography is about nothing outside itself and its own texts? If there
is no "representation," if there is nothing represented, then it appears
that there is no actual subject. And without this, there is nothing to be
right or wrong about, It is possible to generate a multitude, perhaps an
infinity, of stories about another culture by exploiting countless
divergent allegories all of which seem equally constructed, equally
fictional and equally "real," Initially, Clifford seems to embrae this
radical indeterminacy,

Once aU m e a n i n g f u l levels in a text, including theories and

interpretations, are recognized as ztllegorical, it becomes difficult
to view one of them as privileged, acmunting for the rest.
(Clifford 1986b:103)

But, if all is objectively undecidable, does it follow that each story

is as good as any other? Has the deconstruction of ethnographic
authority led to the mmplete erasure of the Other and of all grounds
for evaluating the adequacy of ethnographic accounts? If this conclusion
is unavoidable, what then is the status of translations of foreign belief

The Post-modem Tura

The type of deconstructive reading that became influential in

anthropology in the 1980's. has led some theorists to embrace a
characteristically post-modern position on ethnographic theory. WhiIe
most contributors to W r i t i n g Culture could not properly be labelled
postmodern, Stephen Tyler does combine a critique of anthropological
representation w i t h postmodern literary theory in an effort to show
what a *postmodern anthropologywmight involve. In wPost-modern
Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document," Tyler
treats culture a s a literary text to be interpreted and attempts to purge
his ethnographic accounts of the monophonic authority to which so many
authors attribute the exclusionary effects of anthropological writing. He
argues that the postmodern ethnographic account must make explicit the
(traditionally repressed) dialogic elements of its production.

Because post-modern ethnography privileges wdiscoursenover

"text," it foregrounds dialogue as opposed to monologue, and
emphasizes the cooperative and collaborative nature of the
ethnographic situation in contrast to the ideology of the
transcendental observer. (Tyler 1986:126)

B y resisting the impulse to synthesize the beliefs of the Other into

a coherent descriptive account, Tyler hopes that the postmodern
anthropologist can avoid the marginalizing pitfalls of representation; in
fact, his ambition seems to be to avoid representation altogether. While
Tyler's statement of these goals is consistent with much that has been
said by others, he goes further than those described above, suggesting
that the "point of discourse is not how to make better representation,
but how to avoid representationw (Tyler 1986:128). Tyler then considers
what alternative goals remain for anthropology. According to Tyler,
post-representational ethnography is not a m a t t e r of describing another
culture at all, but of evoking fictive imagery:

Evocation is neither presentation nor representation. It presents

no objects and represents none, yet it makes available through
absence what can be conceived but not presented, It is thus
beyond truth and immune to the judgement of performance.... A
post-modern ethnography is a cooperatively evolved text
consisting of fragments of discourse intended to evoke in the
minds of both reader and writer an emergent fantasy of a possible
world of commonsense reality, and thus to provoke an aesthetic
integration that will have a therapeutic effect. (Tyler 1986:123,125)
Whether or not such a recharacterization of anthropological goals is
consistent w i t h postmodern Literary theory, it raises disturbing
questions about the practice of anthropology; it seems that Tyler has
entirely divorced ethnography from any r n l l ~ l ~ to o athe concrete
world of the Other. relegating it to the realm of self-referential,
entertaining, enlightening fiction,

The whole point of "evoking" rather than "representingw is that it

frees ethnography from mimes& and the inappropriate mode of
scientific rhetoric that entails "objects," "facts," "descriptions, "
niuductl~ns,n"g e n ~ t i o n s , ""verification, "experiment, "
"truth, and like concepts that, except as e m p t y invocations, have
no parallels either in the experience of ethnographic fieldwork or
in the writing of ethnographies. (Tyler 1986:130)

Although Tyler's critical analysis provides important insights into

the textual devices by which ethnographic representation has
marginalized the Other, most anthropologists would feel that this
sacrifice of the role of the Other is too great. There is a substantial
difference between Clifford's deconstructive call for "representational
tactt'and Tyler's rejection of representation, Most anthropologists
continue to believe that their amunts are, in some sense, a b u t other
W h i l e wpostmodernismw
is nearly impossible to define because of the
broad range of approaches it encompasses, the form of postmodernism
generally incorporated into anthropology most often produces the
undesirable effect characteristic of Tyler's analysis. In the next chapter,
I will address other (less destructive) ways postmodern insights might
be adopted by anthropologists. Unfortunately, Tyler's version is the
prevalent model, In Post-Modernism and the Soci;al Scl'ences, Pauline
Rosenau attempts to clarify the implications of postmodernism for
ethnography and, in the process, discusses the appropriateness of
approaches like Tyler's. Drawing from the works of virtually all w e l l
known self-proclaimed postmodernists, she characterizes postmodern
interpretation as a kind of Quinean indeterminacy run rampant where
there is no basis, objective or pragmatic, to choose between, as in the
gavagai example, "rabbit" and "undetached rabbit parts," or, for that
matter, between 'rab bitw and "microwave oven."* Rosenau argues that
the Lack of interpretive mnstraints characteristic of a postmodern
approach reduces social science to an "anything goeswrelativism that
a n s w e r s to nothing in the world and accepts no responsibility.

In the end the problem with post-modern socM science is that

you can say anything you want, but so can everyone else, Some
of what is said wiU be interesting and fascinating, but some will
also b e ridiculous and absurd. Post-modernism prqjvides no means
to distinguish between the two. (Rosenau 1992:137)

W e admirably thorn@, dming fm such a broad nay of authors likdr obscures are than i t clarifies.
As she defines it, ~e label 'post-mdernislR refers to a blatantly inconsistent set of approaches to interpretation
[this shodd be expected a it is tantammt to cabhing all of the vieus tbat fall under & ' heading 'mdecaist and
then call i t a %toryn).
Following a presentation of this broad range of suhstantiallg different approaches to interpretation, she bsically
coabines them all and then delineates two types of posbodernist which she labels 'skeptics' and 'affirmatives' (Rosenau
1992:15). The former allw the perceived free play of interpretation to reduce the project to nihilistic
neaniaglessness, W e the latter atterpt to raintain a irarevork that allows for at least s a e justification for
political action and a displaced fon of representation; in essence, she reduces the skeptical position to uihilia or
"anfihing goes"rdativia, and the af fimative position to roanticia or mdane subjectivism.
This is not an mcaon conclusioa for those vho atterpt to read psbodernisl as a 'theory' and reduce i t to
a "method.' In other wrds, aany critics see the absence of well-defined theoretical/ rethodological constraints as the
absence of any constraints vhatsmer. She draws I r a a nmber of soarces to present a 'deconstructive lethod' that
includes the folloving guidelines (Rosenau 1992:121). I repeat a substantial excerpt of it here i f ody because i t is a
strmning example of the distortion produced by this reduction, and a rather clear example of uhy such an approach should
be so widely resisted when presented i n this [om:

-Find an exception to a geaediziation in the text and pub it to the 1 s t so that this generalization
appears absurd; in other wrds, use the exception to undenine the principle.
-Interpret the ar-ts in a text being deconstructed in their rast extreae [on.
-Avoid absolute s t a t m t s in deconstrncting a text, but cultivate a sense of intellectual excitment by
u k h g staterents tbat are both startling and sensational.
-Deny the Iegitimcy of all didlatolies because there are duays a fev exceptions to any generalization based
on bipolar tens, and these can be used to undenine them.
-Hothing is to be accepted; nothing is to be rejected. It is extre#Ly difficult to criticize a decanstructive
argument if no clear viewpoint i s expressed.
- W e so as to penit the greatest norber of interpretations possible; ambiguity and ambivalence are not to
be shunned but rather cultivated. Obscurity lay "protect from serious scmtiny~tEllis1989: 140). The idea is
"to create a text Withoat finality or cmpletion, one with vhich the reader can never be finished.'
-Bploy new and unusual teninology in order tbat Yfariliar positions rag not sea too familiar and othenrise
obviously relevant scholarship uy not seea so obviously relevant"((Bllis 1989: 142).
-@Neverconsent to a change of teninoJoq and duays insist that the vording of the deconstrnctive argument
is sacrosanct.' &re familiar fodations undenine any sense that the deconstmctive position is unique and
distinctive (Ellis 1989: 145)
This set of d e s reads like a bad parody and drastically misrepresents uhat my [or lost) post-lodernists are
trying to reveal about the activity of interpreting the Otber.
Given Rosenau's characterization of postmodernism, it is not
surprising that she concludes that it is inappropriate for the social
sciences- The skeptical, n.h. *k h'c postmodernist she defines, is not
widely represented in anthropology, as critical reactions to Tyler (who
probably qualifies as one of Rosenau's postmoderaists) make clear. In
Literary studies, the activity of interpreting texts in ever more inventive
ways has become something of a self-contained, bourgeois pastime in
which academics intentionally Limit their attention to the idiosyncracies
of Ianguage and of each other's texts- Rosenau is acutely attentive to
the insulation of academia from the world that makes possible these
practices and their distorting effects. While the production of
ethnography is deeply conditioned b y academic structure, it need not
be, and indeed typically is not, as blatantly self-referential as Literary
analysis, The obsessive self-referentiality that Ebsenau has identified in
some examples of postmodern interpretation could be as destructive of
anthropology as the unreflective ethnocentric objectivism it is meant to
counter. But, this characterization b y no means exhausts the range of
anthropological practices that have been inspired by critiques of

This is not to say that ethognphg does not s a e t h s degenerate into pureIg textual reference [as Literary
criticin does precisely becanse its object is generally limited to other texts]. Said seers to suggest that traditional
Orientalisa has done just that [Said 1978:21). Yet Said suggests that this degeneration is a product of
aodemist/stmct~ststyles of representation. Tyler sees the crisis of representation and its self-referentidity as
the end of the story, but most critics see the Other as distorted or displaced in interpretation rather than erased.
Said is clear in feeling that deconstructing the text that refers only to other texts frees rather than dliinishes the
voice of the Other. It is the rodernist text that erases the Other t h r o e essentializing. Armrding to Said,
deconstruction reintroduces history and poLitics into representation. That destabilizing pressure is narrative and is
obtained through a re-read@ that disrupts those comentions which suppress narrative:
Against this static spster of 'sgachrouic essentialism' I have called vision because it presumes the &ole
Orient can be seen pmoptidy, there is constant pressure. The source of pressure is narrative, in that i f
any Oriental detail can be show to rave, or to develop, diachron~ris introduced into the system. Wat semed
stable-and the Orient is spongrous uith stability and unchanging etewty--nw appears unstable.
Instability suggests that history, uith its disruptive detail, its cnrrents of change, its tendency toward
growth, decline, or dramatic louerent, is possible in the Orient and for the orient. Bistory and the narrative
by uhich history is represented argue that vision is insufficient, tbat 'the Orient' as an unconditional
ontological category does an injustice to the potential reality for change. ...Narrative, in short, introduces
an opposing point o l vim, perspective, consciousness to the rmitarg web of vision; it violates the serene
Apollonian fictions asserted by vision. [Said 19'18:240)
O n closer analysis, Rosenau's characterization of deconstruction,
despite her critique of postmodernism, appears far less destructive than
she claims. iier own amount illustrates the consWuctive potential of
these practices.

Deconstruction involves demystifying a text, tearing it apart to

reveal its internal arbitrary hierarchies and its presuppositions. It
lays out the flaws and the latent metaphysical structures of a
text. A deconstructive reading of a text seeks to discover its
ambivalence. blindness, logocentricity, It is "the careful teasing
out of warring forces of signification w i t h i n the t e x t w (Johnson
1980:5). Lnstead of sorting out the central arguments of a text,
deconstruction amnines the margins (Hoy 198% 44); but at the
same t i m e this effort penetrates to the very core of the text and
examines w h a t it represses and how it is caught in contradictions
and inconsistencies. (Rosenau 1992:120)

It should be apparent that this practice of textual demystification

is exactly the strategy of analysis recommended b y Wagner, Fabian, and
Said, the outcome of which is by no means purely negative, While Said,
for example, does not take the further step of proposing new
representations, he and other critics like him do succeed in displacing
old representations in ways that provide a context for new, more self-
consciously situated and accountable modes of representation, An
essentially deconstrmctive style of interpretation has been exploited by
many anthropologists since the time when K y m e s and others identified a
need to lqreiaventnanthropology. Inasmuch as this growing tradition has
not been destructive in the ways feared by Rosenau, it is misleading to
c l a i m that the "post-modern turnw in anthropology represents a
subversive and radical revolution?' This is only plausible if one takes

Regna Darnel1 characterizes Clifford aad hrcos' implication that s a e radicd change has taken place in
anthropology overniot as the "rhetoric of discontinuity.' The self-proclaimed anthropological postrodernists 'reject
the interpretive intelIectd genealogy@(Damell1995:4). In other wrds, the raent is read outside of its oun histow
as a Knhnian paradig shift that distorts the red issue. Very feu of these arrthropologists are professing to give up
same version ot representation (except possibly Tyler). Dunell snggests that the reaction to YnntQf Chltnn? (and the
cmon characterization that i t represents a *postnodern* tnm) is lore a product of the fact that the book's readership
extended beyond the discipLine (rather t b i ~aaythhg it had to say about the state of anthropology) and thereby became
subject to other friuewrks for interpretation that granted credence to this 'rhetoric of discontinuity.' A healthy step
back frm the careless nihilistic conclnsions following the focus on the text resitnates a great deal of &at is said
here as an mtmioaof the work done by Qms, Geertz, Said, and Fabiau rather than as a diaissal of the object of
the critique of representation to justify the unquaLified rejection of any
referential connection to t h e world. Given that deconstruction has not
undercut cross-cuItural representation to the point of m a k i n g it
arbitrary fiction, the question becomes, how should this comection
between the text and the Other b e re-established when all obj&ve
constraints on interpretation have been rejected?

New Interpretive Constraints and the Re-emergenoe a€ the Otber

TyIer a l m o s t never considers specific a r n u n t s of other cultures in

his most radically deconstructhe critiques of representation in
anthropology. Ironically, his almost exclusive focus on the nature of the
ethnographic text serves to alienate the Other as the subject of the
texts, Clifford, on the mntrary, displaces, b u t never gives up the
(co)presence of the Other. According to Clifford, ethnography is a "joint
productionw (Clifford 1986a=107). As such, he insists that ethnographic
accounts can no longer be seen as "objective" measured against an
extra-contextual standard of truth, but neither are they pure fictions in
the sense of being "false" or purely self-referential. Despite the
inescapable distortions of representation, he argues,

Such accounts may be complex and truthful; and they are, in

principle, susceptible to refutation, assuming a-s to the same
pool of cultural facts, But as written versions based on fieldwork,
these accounts are clearly no longer the story, but a story among
other stories. (Clifford 1986b:109)

Like most of the contributors to Writing Culture, Clifford does not

altogether deny the anthropologist's ability to write about other

During the sare year as fiL@ Mtm, Marcus and Fischer (both cuntributors to that collection) published
Bnthropology as Iblfwal Critique: do Erperkutal m f 21tbe K i ~ences.We topically shilar to the essays
in Yrifiag Mfure, this rock carefully reads the recent trends in anthropology his toricalIg, sn#gesting,

This experiwltal trend is not really new in its concerns and airs. It is merely a falfillrent of the long-
established contributions that anthropology, through ethnography, has p d s e d to wke. [Warens and Fischer
societies, even if the sense in which they do this is problematized by
critiques of traditional forms of representation:' Nor are these writers
willing to grant that, because ethnography is, in an i m p o r t a n t sense,
creative fiction, a partial product of prevalent Literary conventions, that
any story w i l l do, In practice, the loss of a pureiy referential function
does not reduce ethnography to "anything goesw relativism. Clifford
dearly distinguishes between postmodern literary theory and
anthropological practice and attempts to delimit the range of stories one
can tell about other cultures that are acceptable.

Are not the readings themselves undecidable? C r i t i c s Like D e Man

(1979) rigorously adopt such a position, arguing that the choice of
a dominant rhetoric, figure, or narrative mode in a text is always
an i m p e r f e c t attempt to impose a reading o r range of readings on
an interpretive process that is open-ended, a series of displaced
"meaningsww i t h no full stop. But whereas the free play of
readings may in theory be infinite, there are, at any historical
moment, a limited range of canonical and emergent allegories
available to the competent reader (the reader whose interpretation
will be deemed plausible by a specific community). These
structures of meaning are historically bounded and coercive.
There is, in practice, no Tree play." (Clifford 1986b:llO)

Precisely because ethnographic accounts are situated w i t h i n

specific historical, political (and other conventional) frameworks (Clifford
1986b:119), they are constrained not only by semantic and linguistic but
also by ethical and political considerations. That is to say that a much
broader range of constraints bear on the translation of other beliefs
than Quine or Davidson tmk into account. These constraints are also
narrower than Tyler envisions, delimiting the free-play of interpretation.

Sociologist Pad Atkinson, bt Zl?e E&bgraph.ic~ f i o a also , eaphasizes the partially retained
referential function of ethnographic writing in spite of the p o s W e r n critique of traditional meaning theories:
The post-Sanssurean recognition that the linguistic sign is 'arbitrary' does not condem us to the viw that
ue have lost everything in a sea of whirsical or random seriosis.. .. the recognition of the textual
conventions of ethnography, then, does not rob it of its referential value. (Atkinson f990:176)
Also, in lrbdwstaadiag Bthnodrapbfc Teats, Atkinson accepts poshadem insights, relating h tem to ethnographic
vork and interpretation, yet cautions against the idea that ethnography is entirely self-referential (Atkinson 199250-
51). An auareness oC the effects of textual conventions does not erase the Other entirely. The Other is not entirely in
texts theaselm, but is referred to tho@ texts.
While there may b e a multitude of ways to interpret the beliefs of the
Other, not any story will do.
The emphasis on the politics of interpretation is central to Paul
Rabinow's mntribution to WriZihg Cul- his analysis of representation
reflects the mncerns of earlier critics Like Hymes and Said, He develops
his own deconstructive analysis of the foundations of traditional
representation and, at the same time investigates the ethical constraints
that would operate in a reconstructed responsible anthropology. To this
end, Rabinow considers the critiques of representation developed by
Richard Rorty and Ian Haddug, arguing that these amounts miss an
important feature of cross-cultural representational practice.' They fail
to adequately consider the "politics of powerw that structure every
representation of another culture. bbinow draws on the work of Michel
Foucault to show that every interpretation takes place within the
context of a political relation between the cultures that represent and
are represented, Rabinow draws on Foucault for a more detailed account
of the historical/poiitiCZtl constraints to which Clifford refers, without
going so far as to suggest that historical context Limits interpretation to
"no free-play," as Clifford suggests, Rabinow recognizes that the
postmodern critique of representation does not entail the relativism of
limitless play. Where political and historical factors underpin
justifications of the tactics commonly used to represent other cultures,
the ethnographic O t h e r emerges as a product of ethical and political
relations that are both intercultural and academic, This inevitably
generates representational distortions which Rabinow acknowledges, while
at the same t i m e identifying an arena of debate in which systematic
critical comparison of representations is possible.

The ethical is the guiding value, This is an oppositional position,

one suspicious of sovereign powers, universal truths, overly
relativized preciousness, local authenticity, moralisms high and
low. Understanding is its second value, but an understanding

This wars as a substantial oversight priaarily tca the standpoint of ethnography. In aLl fairness, both
Rorty and Backing dwdop their vieus in the context of a critiqne of the philosophy of (physical) science. Politics is
not so cIearly an issue in such utters. The turn to Foucault is necessitated by considering these probias in reference
to anthropology here politics has been acknowledged as a considerable factor.
suspicious of its own imperial tendencies. It attempts to be highly
attentive to (and respectful of) difference, but is also wary of the
tendency to essentiaIize difference. (Rabinow (1986~258)

Rabinow, thus, endorses an ethnographic method that is

representationd yet is sensitive to the political aspects of
representation. Literary "free-playw is tempered by nrepresentational
tact," now construed explicitly in terms of political and ethical
accountability: uwhile tropes are available for all to use, how they are
used makes all the differencew(Rabinow 1986:256).
What 1 find promising in Rabinow's analysis is not so much the
specific account h e gives of the constraints bearing on ethnographic
interpretation but, rather, his argument for recognizing the relation
between deconstructive reading and politics. Rather than eliminating the
potential for a politicized representational strategy, deconstruction is
the very condition of "representational tact-" Deconstruction unmasks
the implicit political d e m e n t s of a particular representation and allows
the ethnographer to engage them responsibly, translating the beliefs of
the Other with an awareness of the broader effects of that translation,
This is the interpretive middle ground between traditional modernist
styles of representation that systematically obscure the political
dimension of their construction of the Other and Tyler's anti-
representational postmodern wevocation." Both, in effect, silence the
Other. Rabinow offers an alternative that potentially restores the
presence of the Other to the ethnographic text.

Return to language

The attention directed by deconstructive critics to devices of

textualization and the constraints that operate in this process makes it
clear that the prospects for understanding the Other have less to do
with the epistemological status of their beliefs and more to do with the
linguistic distortions that take place in translation, T h e central issue is
to understand the movement from spoken word to written text, from
field to &assroom, from the language of the Other to the language of
the anthropologist's audience. Clifford Geertz had already urged this
shift of attention to translation in 1983 in "Towards an Ethnography of
Modern Thoughtw:

The reaction to the cognitive relativism formulation of the issue...

has been to move the issue out of the cobweb world of mentality
and restate it in terms of the more tensile one of meaning ... (It)
has more and more come to be regarded as having to do w i t h
puzzles of translation, with how meaning in one system of
expression is expressed in another--cultural hermeneutics, not
conceptive mechanics (Geertz 1983d:149-151)

In short, it becomes necessary, ironically, to return to the original

concerns of the rationalim debates in order to understand the sense in
which ethnography is neither Literally represented "factn nor "anything
goesn fiction.
Tala1 Asad is the only contributor to Writing Culture who explicitly
relates the problem of cross-cultural representation to the interaction of
languages in translation. In "The Concept of Cultural Translation in
British Social Anthropology," he criticizes any theory of translation
constructed on the assumption that translation takes place sentence by
sentence (such as those endorsed by Gellner and Davidson). This
approach fosters an intellectualism that requires the testing of
individual propositions for rationdim, obscuring what he takes to be
foundational ethical and political considerations. He insists that
translation Is not accomplished by the application of a method or formal
rule to individual statements, rather, translators come to understand
systems of meaning as they come to Live another form of life (Asad
1986:149). In this, they learn the contextual assumptions that shape the
meanings of particular mncepts and sentences, As such, the translator
does not apply a " methodn but develops a skill in the use of the
languages concernedw (Asad 1986Sl). Once the ethnographer has
learned to participate in another form of life and speak another
language fluently, in the attempt to translate the beliefs of the Other
into a target language, he/she must attend not to the rationality of the
other belief system, but to the power relations between the two
languages in translation. Aware of the political nature of representation
and the distorting effects of cross-cultural interpretation, the translator
should pay special attention to the "flexibilitym of the target language-

The good translator does not immediately assume that unusual

difficulty in conveying the sense of an Men dismurse denotes a
fault in the Iatter, but instead critically examines the normal state
of his or her own language. The relevant question therefore is not
how tolerant an attitzzde the translator ought to display toward
the original author (an abstract ethical dilemma), but how she can
test the tolerance of her own language for assuming unaccustomed
forms, (Asad 1986:157)

Asad suggests that, with respect to flexibility, some languages are

inherently weaker and others stronger: the weaker are more Likely to
succumb to modification when languages collide in the act of translation.
In contemporary translational interactions, Western languages are
typically the stronger: in cross-cultural communication, it is non-
Western, especiaIly third world, languages that are most Likdy to be
transformed. Language strength, in this sense, is in large part a
function of the political and economic strength of the language speaking
community. The expansion of Western industrial capitalism "transforms
not only modes of production but also kinds of knowledge and styles of
Life in the third world. And with them, forms of languagew (Asad
1986:158). Asad illustrates these points by reference to the substantial
transformation that Arabic has undergone as a result of the proliferation
of English and French works that have been translated into Arabic while
the reverse effect is almost non-existent.
Asad also suggests that sWuctura1 features of a language impose a
sternness or flexibility, open or close interpretive possibilities. Recall
that Benjamin Whorf criticizes the inability of English to do justice to
Hopi beliefs: while, by contrast, MacIntgre argued that modern European
languages are better equipped to accommodate other views. It is also
possible that the "strengthw of a language has as much to do with the
intent of the translator as with the structural features of the target
language. The implicit goal of Hollis' transhtions, for instance, is to
establish a basis for epistemoIogicd comparison; they are intended to
critically judge the beliefs of the Other. In cases Like this, English is
uncompromised, unaltered by the translational process, In the case of
Eastern religious beliefs that have been poputarized in the West, on the
other hand, translators were explicitly concerned to understand how
significantly different beliefs might expand or modify their own ways of
t h h k h g about the world; their goal was, at least in part, to transform
target language/culture beliefs rather than to catalogue and judge the
beliefs of the Other. As such the translation of the precepts of Eastern
religions into English required substantial re-conceptualization through
Linguistic transformation. In this, the power of one's own language to
impose meaning on the other was intentionally relinquished in an effort
to come to understand another form of Life. Whether one accepts that
some languages are, to some degree, inherently more flexible than
others, it shouid be clear that, in individual applications, the strength
of the target language may be intentionally compromised or fortified
depending on tbe purpose(s) of the translation.
These observations about the relative strength of a Ianguages in
translation and on the goals of the cross-cultural representation draw
attention to a more substantial Linguistic power relation at work in
anthropology: the relation between Western academic languages and
others (broadly understood). Anthropologists translate the
languages/b&ef systems of others for very specific purposes. Their
translations are designed to play a specific role in a scholarly arena
which is governed by well-defined rules that specify how ethnographic
texts will be discussed and judged. This academic activity is founded on
the assumption that the Other can be accurately represented and that
language sewes as a vehicle for conveying cultural meaning. The
languages of these dismurses are well-fortified and precise; they have
evolved or are designed, to resist distortion in cross-linguistic
encounters. ft is the very rigidity and exactness of academic Ianguage
that effectively marginalizes the beliefs of the Other.
The stiffness of a powerful established structure of life, w i t h its
own discursive games, its own "strong" languages, is what among
other things finally determines the effectiveness of the
translation, The translation is addressed to a very specific
audience, which is waiting to read about another mode of life and
to manipulate the it reads according to established rules, not
to learn to live a new mode of life, (Asad 1986:159)

Incorporating the voice of the Other into ethnographic, academic

texts, in the way recommended by many contemporary critics poses a
threat to dominant theories of cross-cultural interpretation, not because
of how w e might be forced to re-interpret or re-evahate what members
of other cultures believe, but rather because their voices have no role
within the academic game. If the beliefs of the Other are to be subject
to the rules of academic debate, then they must be represented as
static, objective entities. The principle of charity, and other
methodological principles that w e r e meant to ensure the accurate
representation of the Other were not endorsed by translators, but by
theorists; They are instrumental to the types of translations required b y
academics who are concerned to assess the truth or rationality of
foreign beliefs in their own terms. What the critics of representation
contest is not simply a method of depicting other cultures, but also the
role of such depictions, the very style of debate by which they are
assessed and interpreted in academic contexts. 14
In refocusing attention on the politics of .translation, Asad combines
considerations concerning the role of language strength in interpreting
other beliefs, the srtructure of academic debate, the implications of
philosophical critiques of representation, and the politics of cross-
cultural communication.

The way ethnographies are read is less a product of the way they are written than it is a product of the uay
they are taught and discussed in Wversity. Asad ends his critique of Cellner's uork by asking uby, it there are so
my pmblas vi th the content of the work, does it continue to be a central piece in introductory anthropology classes?
His ansuer has more to do with the structure of teaching and testing letbods than it does with anything presented in the
piece, The hole idea of testing in school is based on the idea of objeclively correct anmers to central questions.
That structure dictates a r e a m style that reinforces the tendency to objectify the Other.
The process of "cultural translationn is inevitably enmeshed in
conditions of power--professional, national, international, And
among these conditions is the authority of ethnographers to
uncover the i m p l i c i t meanings of subordinate societies. Given that
this is so, the interesting question for enquiry is not whether,
and if so to what extent, anthropologists should be relativists or
rationalists, critical or charitable, toward other cultures, but how
power enters into the process of wCUItural translation,* seen both
as a discursive and as a non-discursive practice. (Asad 1986:163)

In the p r m s , Asad displaces the traditional oppositions between

objective and subjective, re* and relativist that have long structured
debate about translation, refocusing attention on to the question of
Linguistic power relations and the deformations and transformations that
languages go through in translation. H e also makes a case for shifting
the focus of concern from the ethnographer's personal authority to the
wsocialauthoritywgranted the ethnographic work (Asad 1986:163); he
thus broadens the focus of critical analysis from the author and the
ethnographic text itself to the c o m m u n i ~of text users becoming
increasingly diversified.
The popularity of interdisciplinary study as w e l l as the growing
number of m e m b e r s of other cultures studying in Western universities,
disrupts the ethnocentric foundations of traditional ethnographic theory
by disrupting the homogeneity and stability of the reading community.
N o longer can the author of an ethnographic study be assumed to
"representwother cultures; that representation is de-authorized in the
very process of its dissemination in a multi-vocal reading community-
Geertz had, somewhat sarcastically, observed that the academic
community had maintained its representational authority only because of
its homogeneity; its illusions of objectivity and universality faced no
disrupting alternative voice.

Indeed, when w e get down to the substance of things, unbemused

by covering terms Eke "literature, "soci01ogy, " or "physics, most
effective academic m m m u n i t i e s are not that much larger than most
peasant villages and are just about as ingrown. (Geertz 1983d:157)
Indeed, more than fifty years earlier, P a d Radin had suggested
that the professional academic is typically raised and trained in such a
way as to almost systematically preclude the possibility of understanding
another form of life:

Paradoxid as it may s e e m , it is nevertheless a fact that f e w

people are, on the whole, so unfitted by temperament to study the
s i m p l e r aspects of the life of primitive people, and by implication
their emotional and intellectual manifestations, as the average
scholar and university trained ethnologist. (Radin 1927:ll)

In the end, it is only through cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary,

self-reflexive disruptions of the homogeneous reading/writing community
that the voice of the O t h e r can b e restored to the ethnographic account.
This represents a middle ground between represented object and fictive
subject, the alternatives that have long structured anthropoIogica1
debates over representation, Ln order to understand more fully the
possibilities for reconceptualizing translation that these developments
open up, I turn next to consider, in greater detail, the effects of these
substantive disruptions of representational practice.
Chapter Seven - Translation as Cultural Criticism

'Tis wit. "Ilz the beghning was the W o r d , *

1 pause, to wonder what b here inferred-
The Word 1 Z-ot set supreme& Mgh:
A new translatim I will try.
I read, if by the s p H t I am taught,
T B sense: "In the begizming was the Thought.
This o m g I o e d to weigh again,
Or sense may suffwfrom hasty pen-
Does Thought create, and work, and rule the hour?
'Twere best: "Ln the begiaDiog was the Power-"
Yet, while tbe pen is urged wltb willing ffagers,
A sense af doubt and hesitancy lingers.
T h e spirit m m e s to guide m e in m y need,
I write, "In the beginning was the Deed. "
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe - Faust
T h e act, io wit&craft, is the word-

Jeanne Favret-Saada - Deadly Words

Goethe's Faust ponders a number of possible translations for one of

the most familiar passages in the Bible while also considering just what
is conveyed through the act of translation. M y focus on the form,
function and nature of translations of foreign belief systems has
proceeded along this same path: from word to thought to power to deed.
Translation theory is hopelessly incomplete if it does not take into
account the power relations that structure not only the cross-cultural
encounter, but also the academic activity of making and using, writing
and reading, translations,
Quine and Davidson's indeterminacy thesis and the crisis of
representation in anthropology make it clear that it is no longer
possible to suppose that translations convey Literal representations of
the beliefs of the Other. On the other hand, ethnographies must be
about something, Tyler's "postmodern evocationw relinquishes the role of
the Other in anthropological amounts of foreign belief systems, As I
argued in the last chapter, it will only be possible to develop a realistic
theory of translation after achieving a better understanding of what
translation accomplishes by attending to the actual practice and power
dynamics of translation as these obtain in academic contexts,
If translation is understood to be fundamentally ethnographic, the
analysis of individual beliefs and their rationality takes on only
secondary importance (at best, at worst it is impossible); individual
Linguistic units can only be understood in the context of a rich
ethnography and w i t h reference to the purposes of specific translations.
Critics judge W e f s that no one holds if they insist on ignoring o r
denying the distortions generated by cross-cultural representation,
James Clifford's re-characterization of ethnography brings into
focus ways in which translation disrupts linguistic and cultural
boundaries and, at the s a m e time, suggests that translation should be
conceptualized as this disruption. Given m y analysis of the debates
about translation in philosophy and anthropology in the previous six
chapters, it is not unreasonable, at this point, to provide a definition of
"translation" that is generated by simply substituting the word
"translationw for the word "ethnographyw in Clifford's characterization
of ethnographic practice.

Ethnography is actively situated b e t w e n powerful systems of

meaning. It poses its questions at the boundaries of civilizations,
cultures, classes, races, and genders. Ethnography decodes and
recodes, telling the grounds of collective order and diversity,
inclusion and exclusion. It describes processes of innovation and
structuration, and is itself part of these processes. (CIifford

To effectively build on these insights, I propose to focus on the

inter-cultural power relations that affect translation, following Tala1
Asad's suggestion (discussed in the last chapter) that there is a f o r e
of language, that languages compete in translation, and so that
translation is, in short, a linguistic "play of force." It is inattention to,
if not the systematic masking of, this force that renders traditional
translation theory hopelessly distant from contemporary anthropological
translation practice* M y aim is to give an account of translation that
takes fully into account the "forcewof language in a l l of the senses
identi.ied above,
In order to do this, I: first consider, new studies of specific
translations that suggest how the cross-cultural encounter can be
rendered less ethnocentric (or lango-centric) and, more specifially, how
translators can better represent other belief systems by intentionally
abdicating the force of the target language. Second, to better
understand what is conveyed b y transIations, 1 will be concerned to
come to t e r m s with the imposition of meaning on the beliefs of the
Other. Finally, I will consider further the implications of recent
disruptions in the homogeneity of Western academic reading culture. M y
aim here is to give an account of the translational practices emerging
under these conditions and suggest how it is possible that translations
function as displaced representations of another belief system or
culture, neither erasing nor essentialking the Other*

The Language of the Inquisitor (or Inquisition?)

Talal Asad's analysis of +heforce of languages in translation

reveals not only the ways in which some cross-cultural encounters are
constructed under conditions of inequality, but also how, under these
conditions the language of Western academia emerges as one of the most
forceful languages of all. Each academic discipline has evolved by
developing an increasingly specialized vocabulary, resulting in esoteric
linguistic formalhation that is intended to reduce ambiguities and
eliminate misunderstandings. The successful academic learns to critique
theories or works in sanctioned ways and this amounts to developing
specific linguistic skills and resources for describing and judging
theories or systems of thought. Academic language is critical language.'

John hpnto's &T' a Posbetaphysical RationaIity' is an insightfd read@ into the aspects of rodern
academia, and the role played by nethod and theory uithin that context in relation to criteria and assesslents of
rationality. Be suggests that a pasbetaphysical notion of rationality, W e it is desperately needed in the social
sciences, is resisted precisely because it threatens the stnrcture and privile~eof acaderia. The academic, as rational
The (sub)language that emerges is uniquely infIexible and dominant in
intra-linguistic encounters, no less than in cross-linguistic encounters.
In these one-sided Linguistic confrontations, concepts expressed in
almost my natural language will appear, to some degree, incoherent,
ambiguous and irrationaI, Sets of statements expressed in non-academic
English suffer the same Pate as beliefs expressed in foreign languages
in tran~lation.~
An important consideration in assessing the relative power of
languages in translation will b e the contexts in which the target
(sub)languages have evolved and the purposes they serve. Critical
language is critical- Natural languages are shaped by many forces; in
the case of Western languages, the sublanguages of science have
brought about significant modifications in their linguistic resources and
functions, The idea that statements made by the Other can be translated
into such a language and manipulated by its rules without compromising
their meaning constitutes a critical judgement that reflects a profoundly
unequal linguistic power relation.
This linguistic corollary to ethnocentrism suggests that the target
language can accurately express the various utterances of the Other

center, is threatened by any decenterhg (Caputo 198?:209-235). In other rords, a critique of rationality is
sinmItaneously a critique of a c a d ~ a .
Xan-cross-cultad speculation on rationality and rational decision mkiq have become highly esoteric
fields, requiring the develo~entand extensive use of rathematics and specialized artificial languages. The linguistic
rift carved by these debates is really not so mch between Eqlish and other natural lauguges, bat rather, betueen
artificial and natural languages (standard English included). fiat is often missed is that lang of the specialized
sublanguages within philosophy and cognitive science are not, strictlg speaking, 'natnd' lauguges.
It is revealing that the expression "it's academic' has cae to lean 'it has no practical bearing on anything-r
'it doesn't really tatter." many cases, the 1-e of acadenia is so refined as to seriously threaten its relation
to, or translation into, any natural or ordinary language. It is this feeling that aotivated Vittgenstein (and
Yittgensteinians) to speak of 'ordinary 1e- philosophy' as opposed to analytic philosophy.
Foundation assnrptions concerning proper criteria of justification, consistency, and theoretical content all
contribute to the situation that any translation of a natural language [which is not, by natm, ere-systematized) , into
a language systen that is constructed in accordrace with uell defined rules of systmticity, w i l l neeessarilg portray
the former as smehnr deficient or corrupt. Bopr Keesing, for instance, has provided a number of in-depth analyses
vhich focus on anthropologists' atteupts to translate the beliefs of the Mber into a specifically acdoku'c frame of
reference or understanding [Keesing 1987). Keesing erphasizes the traaslational distortions caused by the prevalent use
of metaphor in natural languages, in order to drav attention to rays of speaking about phew#wn in comn EagEsh,
that nearly everyone accepts, that mild not, homer, stand the test of rationality that acaderic translators generally
hold up to the Other. Literally interpreted, Feu people appear rational.
without modification, This grants the target language implicit authority
over the language of the Other. Where criticism is the hidden agenda,
translation becomes the instrument of a kind of modern day inquisition.
The linguistic force implicit in academic t r e a t m e n t s of witchcraft Like
Evans-Pritchard's is made explicit in a topically related linguistic
confrontation w h e r e the agenda was judgement in a quite Literal
juridical sense,
Carlo G h b u r g has investigated an example of forceful conflict in
translation in the form of a number of witch trials that took place in
Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In ~ ~ h t b a f f l e s ?
Ginzburg suggests that the condemnation of the beliefs and practices of
F r i u h peasants who faced the Inquisition was a product of the way in
which the Church translated some central Friulian concepts, H e argues
that it is possible to trace changes in the w a y the Friulian "benandantiW
used these concepts in response to pressures exerted by Catholic
Inquisitors as they attempted to understand (and condemn) these
Ginzburg suggests that the benandanti, who were descendants of
early agrarian cults, had very dear ideas about the meaning of their
spiritual activities, In the sixteenth century, Friulian peasants born w i t h
the caul were marked as having an ability and a responsibfity to
protect the crops. They did so by travelling spiritually, at night, in the
form of an animal, to baffle evil witches w h o sought to destroy their
crops- The Catholic Inquisition investigated the benandanti on the
supposition that, in engaging these battles, they were involved in the
practice of witchcraft. By their own accounts however, the benandanti
opposed themselves to witches, The Catholic church, ignoring this

It is mth noting that the o r i m title of this wrk is untmlatable tor the same reasons that the
Inquisition could not easi3g translate the practices of the culture in qnestion. The Italian title, IBeoaodanli, has no
parallel in EagIish. 'handanti' refers to a character whose role had waning only within these agrarian cults. The
benandanti travels spiritually at night in the form of an a n i d to battle evil forces that right threaten the crops.
The ten is nearly literally translated as "€hose vbo do ueU' or "good-doers"(Ciazbarg 1985:xi), but this translation
coveys nothing of the supemturd aspects nor goals of the benandanti. 'Witch"wuld certainly f a i l to convey the
benevolent intentions of the benandanti. Batting any appropriate translation of 'benandanti, ' the transIators s@Iy
chose the altogether different title 'Night battles."
distinction, initiaLized a series of trials of Friulian peasants that
spanned more than a century,
Because the Inquisition had no conceptual apparatus that would
allow for a distinction between those engaged in supernatural activities
with witches and witches themselves, and because the benandanti
claimed to travel at night in animal form to do baffle in the service of
angels, the Inquisition found it necessary to categorize their activities
as "witchcraftn and translate their claims as beliefs in witchcraft, Those
engaged in supernatural activities of this sort are witches, and witches
are evil, The Inquisition refused to compromise its own linguistic
categories to accommodate what the benandanti took to be significant
differences, consequently the stories told by the benandanti could only
be understood as instances of stories that the Inquisition already knew
and accepted.

As they sought to control, by articulating it, the painful sense of

profound disorientation experienced during their lethargies,
witches and benandanti alike spoke of the spirit leaving the body
in the guise of a cat, a mouse, or some other animal (these w e r e
the metamorphoses discussed a t such length b y theologians and
inquisitors), But this experience could not b e successfully
conveyed, and the statements about the departure of the soul
from the body w e r e condemned. The confessions of the w i t c h e s
and benandanti w e r e wilfully incorporated into the inquisitorial
schema with its contrary concepts of a real tangible sabbat and
one of fantasy and imagination, (Ginzburg 1985:21-2)

Given the inflexibility of their categories, the Inquisition could not

but condemn the benandanti as witches, It was, to a great extent, the
way in which the beliefs of the benandanti w e r e translated that
constituted a judgement against them. No investigation could exonerate
them because the concepts used to represent their beliefs already
contained the judgement that their beliefs were corrupt. Even more
interesting, Ginzburg finds that the beliefs that the benandanti held
about their own activities came to agree with the assessment of the
Inquisition. During the hundred years in which the benandanti w e r e
persecuted, they came to adopt the characteristics of the diabolical
sabbat and of the "witch" defined by the Christian ontology. In other
words, in the confIict of cultures between the Friulian peasants and the
Catholic Inquisition, the benandanti became witches. Most important, this
transition seems to be, a t least in p a r t a consequence of the linguistic
force of the Catholic concepts. The Catholic Inquisition took the
initiative of translating the beliefs of the benandanti, and in the
process, it was the benandanti who were transformed by the linguistic
encounter. Ginzburg concludes that the emerging association between the
"benandantiR and the traditional to a significant degree. "took
place on the Linguistic planew (Ginzburg 1985:81).
In "The Inquisitor as Anthropologist," Ginzburg finds it not
unreasonable to draw parallels between the activity of the Inquisitor
and the activity of translation more generally- O n this account,
translation is a matter of fordully incorporating the beliefs of the
Other into a dominant ontology through language in the act of
translating. To the extent that anthropologists fail to recognize and
temper the distorting force of the target language through conceptual
self-scrutiny, translation becomes a political and ontological
confrontation in which the Other risks not only being misunderstood,
but also transformed in an act of political and conceptual colonization.
As Asad had suggested, the weaker language (or CuIture) is modified
under pressure from the stronger in this baffle of languages in
translation. It is this type of conceptual confrontation in which t h e
categories of the target language are held constant that gives rise to
representations in which the beliefs of the Other are characterized as
"primitive" and confused. Although Evans-Pritchard was far more
respectful of the beliefs about witchcraft that he studied than were the
Catholic inquisitors, the belief system of the Azande did not fair much
better in his a m u n t than did that of the Benandanti when confronted
by the Inquisition. Evans-Pritchard's unreflective faith in the
objectivity of his own Linguistic categories and his failure to attend to
the conflicts inherent in his translational practice results as surely in
the portrayal of the Other as a deviant as did the explicit judgements
In light of this, the question becomes, how can one translate the
substantially different beliefs of members of another culture without
transforming those beliefs into analogues of deviant practices within
one's own world view? E the categories in one language are not to
transform the concepts of another, it is necessary to be aware of and
intentionally compromise the force and the rigidity of one's own
language. Where that force is uncompromised, the Other can only be
conceived of as irrational, primitive, or badly translated (or not
translated), if they are recognized to be different in any important
respects, Where the conceptual authority of the target language remains
intact, the Other always becomes a witch of sorts--a bIasphemer against
God or Rationality.
Ginzburg presents two possible approaches to translation. T h e fist
is that of the anthropologist as inquisitor, an approach that is grounded
on an assumption of Linguistic and conceptual universality not unlike the
bridgehead postuIated by HOES and Lukes. This approach exerts a
linguistic force on, and results in the distortion of whatever it is that
w e try to understand. Understanding becomes a kind of conceptual
subjugation. The other approach is that of the anthropologist as
Linguistic negotiator, one who turns an eye to the categories of the
target language as much as to those of the source language and
explicates conceptual differences, attentive to the ways in which the
beliefs of the Other defy easy translation.

In 1Yi@fkffles,%burg provides a great deal of the diaIo@e that took place betueen the h d a n t i and
the inquisitors. In rang instances, the force of the incmpatibility of concepts and the p m r of one frame over another
are dear in the €on that the dialogue takes:
The archbishop asked OLio 'hou he iryined that the sod could go off and leave the body behind. ' The
benandante did not seer to perceive the difficulty. 'The sod which is in the body goes and the body rmains,
and then it returns to tbe badg.' 'Yaa mst tell the truth,' retorted the judge, 'about this separation of the
soul and body uhich is not possible and therefore is a Lie.' [Cinzburg 1985:138)
Wle this is a rather dramtic example, we cur see this very attitude in the dialogue as characteristic of the
exarples monly addressed i n the rationality debates. !tiny of Hollis' coaents, for instance, are only slightly more
Beyond Ethnocentrism

In earlier chapters 1 considered a number of positions that endorse

the methodological necessity of maintaining a degree of ethnocentrism in
any anthropologid encounter. Through a consideration of the politics of
interpretation, the force of language, and the purposes of translation, I
have tried to reframe the issue of ethnocentrism as what might be called
the problem of wlango-centrism.wLango-centrism is the translational
manifestation of ethnocentrism- Where our linguistic categories remain
unanalyzed, uncompromised and are treated as an unproblematic,
objective point of reference for translation, it b a m m e s impossible to
adequately understand another Ianguage o r world view, Perfect lango-
centrism, as exemplified by the Inquisition in Ginzburg's example,
hopelessly distorts the voice of the Other, A t the same time, however, it
is never possible to entirely abandon the categories of one's own
language; this would defeat the purpose of anthropology w h i c h is to
represent the beliefs of the Other in terms that are in some way
understandable to us, W e cannot step entirely outside of our native
language (where translation is the god) any more than w e can step
entirely outside our native ethnos. What w e seek is some method that
allows us to "suspendw the force of language while translating. This is
clearly related to the more often discussed prospects for suspending
one's ethnos in the cross-cultural enwunter.
David Couzens Hoy addresses various aspects of the problem of

ethnocentrism in anthropology in "1s Hermeneutics ~thnocentric?~'' He

accepts that cross-cultural interpretation is hermeneutic in nature-he
characterizes it as a cross-cultural conceptual negotiation-and argues
on this basis that the ethnocentric aspect of hermeneutics often takes
the form of an implicit commitment to the goal of realizing finality or

'Heneneutics,"a a theoretical positioa or a p p d , is no easier to discass than "psbodernis"iif only
because of the vast range of theories that fa11 under this heading in the literature. Approaches range fm Cadam's
interpretive negotiation that ideally resalts in an eqailibriu or "fusion of horiwms~decisivelywdernist) to John
Caputo's 'radical henenentics' vhich bears close affiliation to lany approaches decisively postadem. Space and
purpose do not penit a detailed analysis of heneneutics. I use the t e n here in the loose sense (as Boy seem to) to
mean, generally, any nefotiating style of interpretation.
interpretive equilibrium. A m o r ding to Hoy, hermeneutics must remain
ethnocentric in only one respect: the anthropologist must begin the
project of interpretation from the standpoint of their own cuIture.
Hermeneutics m a y become ninsidiousIy ethnocentric." however, if the goal
of interpretation is to ensure convergence on one's own way of
representing the world. This is the interpretive corollary to Henderson's
critique of the principle of charity in translation. The fact that w e s t a r t
with certain assumptions by no means implies that w e must continue to
maintain those assumptions through the entire interpretive project. The
problem of lango-centrism arises in parallel manner, if translation
proceeds on the assumption that investigations into different ways of
speaking about the world can be expected to reveal substantial inter-
linguistic convergence on categories and concepts already contained in
the target language, I: have argued that this implicit expectation
underpins transhtion theories that legitimate the distortions which
ensure that the Other will be systematically misrepresented.
B y contrast, a number of oonditions that make cross-cultural
understanding possible have emerged in the critiques of representation
considered thus far. These include, crucially, a presupposition of non-
convergence that Boy makes explicit=

It is not insidiously ethnocentric to maintain, as hermeneutics

does, that it is inevitable that interpreters see the world through
their own self-understandings. What is misguided is instead the
further expectation that every other understanding of the world
converge on one's own,.,. M y contention is that hermeneutics is
best formulated, not by presupposing the eventual convergence of
every other under standing with one's own self-understanding,
but, on the contrary, by resisting the invidious consequences of
this presupposition, (Hoy 1991:156)

Hoy's argument for non-convergence implicitly calls into question

the very idea of a stable "ethnos," an assumption that is also challenged
by Wagner and many of the contributors to W r i t k g Culfure, To
effectively resist the idea of ontological mnvergence it is important also
to resist the idea of linguistic convergence in translation, The very
possibility of cross-cultural understanding requires the compromise of
ethnos through the compromise of Ianguage. And this requires giving up
the idea, as Davidson has suggested, that language is a stable pre-
interpreted meaning system, Translation is one a d v i t y that transforms
language, This transformation needs to be emphas-d rather than
masked. Just as migration disrupts ethnos, and wmmunication disrupts
culture, so too translation disrupts language,
The very condition of cross-cultural communication then is an
abdication of the idea of stable frames of reference, whether culture or
language. If each culture is conceived as a distinct, self-contained
meaning structure, an interpretive closure is already imposed that
reduces cross-cultural communication to Linguistic wnffict (Thornton
1992:16). As Arjun Appadurai notes, the idea of an ethnos (and, no
doubt, the idea of a language) already confines the Other and,
simultaneously, the Self to a defined and inescapable mode of thought.

What it means is that natives are not only persons who are from
certain places, and belong to those places, but they are also those
who are somehow iooarcerated, o r confined, in those places,-. they
are prisoners of their "mode of thoughtu, (Appadurai 1992:35)

This is precisely what is to be found, according to Appadurai, in

Evans-Pritchard's representation of the Azande (Appadurai 1992:36),
Those, like Hollis, who explicitly endorse the methodological necessity of
ethnocentrism (and so implicitly endorse lango-centrism) and advocate a
method of interpretation based on a non-self-refIexive principle of
charity, not only relegate the Other to Horton's "axrnic palm treeu but,
at the same time, confine themselves to the "cosmic university? The
very spatial imagery of translation as a movement across is deceiving
inasmuch as it suggests that one language can be adequately mapped
into another while the two languages remain separate undisturbed
entities. Those who endorse non-reflexive hermeneutic interpretation
theory fail to recognize, from the mythical metaphor that prefixes the
label of their theoretical approach to translation, that Hermes is more
than a messenger:
Hermes (is)the deity of this intermediary re- the go-between
and trickster, patron of thieves, translators and interpreters,
m a s t e r of tricks and transformations. (Assmann 1996:98)

Likewise, the translator is less a cross-linguistic mailman, and more

a thief, a m a s t e r of tricks and traasformatibns, And what could the
translator steal, deceive, and deform but language itself? Translation is
not a transcription pIagued by linguistic deformations, but must rather
be understood as this deformation itself,

Paternity and W i t c h c r a f t Reamsidered

What would translation look Like if one took seriously these critical
insights about the conditions of cross-linguistic representation? In order
to envision a new form of transiation, it will be useful to take a closer
look at examples of translation where the translator has, through
linguistic self-reflection, managed to suspend significant target language
categories and take account of substantial translational deformations, In
order to consider an alternative approach to making sense of seemingly
irrational beliefs, it will be useful to return, one last time, to the
problem of the knowledge of "paternityn among the TulAy River Blacks,
Carol DeIaney adds yet another twist to the Spiro-Leach debate. so
often discussed in the "rationality debatesmbecause it clearly displays
the conflict between inte11ectualist and symbolist approaches to
representing other cultures. Recall that Lukes accepted Spiro's
intellectualist reading (in Lukes 1982) whereas Turner found reason to
Favor Leach's symbolist reading (in Turner 1980). While parties to the
debate have proceeded by making increasingly sophisticated appeals to
new readings of evidence, the t e r m s of the debate have not changed
significantly because the underlying theory of translation remains
unquestioned, The central problem has remained, "are the Tully River
Blacks ignorant of physiological paternity or are they simply expressing
their knowledge of it symbolically?" The way this question is answered
justifies one or another translation of the key wncepts, DeIaney shifts
the focus of attention away from the way in which the Tully River
Blacks mnceptualize childbirth and family relations to the w a y Western
cultures conceptualize these aspects of social and reproductive life- Her
approach is resolutely comparative and self-reflexive; any determination
of the meanings of the beliefs to be interpreted must be predicated on
an analysis of the meanings of the concepts that might be used to
translate those beliefs- Meaning holism functions not only as an
interpretive constraint on the beliefs w e seek to understand, but also as
a translational on ours-

Paternity is a concept, the meaning of which is derived from its

interrelations w i t h other concepts and beliefs; it is not a kind of
categorical entity, the presence or absence of which can be
established empirically- Because paternity was envisaged as a
physical rather than a conceptual relation, the debate was
undermined from the start. (Delaney 1986:495)

This observation concerning the status of our own concept of

"paternityu emphasizes the ways in which, in spite of claims to the
contrary, Hollis and Lukes' analyses implicitly depends on a
correspondence theory of meaning- They take it for granted that the
Tully River Blacks are mistaken about the facts of patrilineage, and in
this they assume that our concept "paternityw is a natural category,
which has its distinctive referential meaning independent of any context
in which it plays a role. The question then b e c o m e s whether their
beliefs are rational despite being false; do they play a part in a
coherent system? In every instance of interpretation, Hollis and L u k e s
choose examples where the beliefs in question s e e m clearly false and
then a t t e m p t to show that the only way they can be understood is to
show that they nonetheless function wherenay in an interrelated system
of beliefs- They assume that the Other is ignorant of some plain fact, so
that the task for translation/interpretation is to show how this
ignorance could arise and persist- What Delaney shows is that this
question only arises if it can be assumed that, in fact, the beliefs they
have are about "paternity." Delaney suggests that it is the
anthropologist who translates in this way, not any member of the other
culture, that is ignorant about the "factswof paternity, The non-
reflective translator assumes that.

Paternity is automatically a natural fact, unlike maternity which

was held to be a m a t t e r of observation, Paternity is also an
inference, but an inference that, given reasonable intelIigence and
observation over time, most people presumably would make,
(Delaney 1986:495)

In order to show that these naturalizing assumptions are

problematic, DeIaney carefully explicates the beiiefs about procreation
held by Turkish villagers; they make explicit the conceptual metaphor
that underlies Western beliefs concerning paternity. The Turkish concept
of paternity that Delaney considers derives its content, in part, from a
monogenetic theory of procreation; the male is assumed to beget the
child by providing the "seedmor substance of the child, while the
female is understood to serve primarily as a planting ground or "field,"
This monogenetic theory is further justified, in turn, by other beLiefs
constitutive of the monotheistic framework from which it is derived- In
the act of procreation, m a n acts analogously in the role of God, the
creator. While less explicit in other languages, it is this metaphor, s h e
suggests, that grounds the English concept of paternity.
Delaney's approach initially resembles a symbolist analysis, however
she makes a decisive break w i t h such approaches when she calls into
question the very conceptual categories in English that are presumed to
provide an adequate translation of concepts expressed symbolically in
the language of the Tully River Blacks, Leach's attempt to explain these
foreign beliefs by analogy to the symbolism of the virgin birth misses
the mark because he fails to question the foundational monogenetic
framework from which the English concept "paternityw derives its
meaning. The concept of the virgin birth, like the Western concept of
natural paternity, presupposes Western notions of physical paternity.
What must be held in suspension is not simply the belief that certain
relations are obviously paternal but. more importantly, the English
meaning of "paternitywitself. While Leach and Spiro take different
positions in their interpretations of beliefs held by the Tully River
Blacks, the concept of paternity they invoke remains the same, They fail
to recognize that poIytheistic theories of procreation, like that held by
the Tully River Blacks, need not contain the same or, indeed, any
concept of paternity predicated on the idea of "father the creatormu

W e cannot assume identical meaning a priori, One needs to know

what the associations are and how they are articulated with a
whole system of beliefs about the world,,..
Procreation is approached as a cultural construction that
expresses and reflects categories and meanings of specific
cultures, Paternity and maternity are concepts embedded in such
a s y s t e m from which they cannot be abstracted. The meaning of
paternity is not, I believe, primarily physioiogical; instead, the
bio-physical elements are utilized for expressing social meaning,
for example, gender, authority and kinship.,..
Notions of procreation and the roles of the male and female (and
others) in the process are not separate from the cultures in which
they are found and the meanings that are given to them,
Procreation, as I have constructed it, has to do with symbols,
meanings and beliefs by which Life is thought to come into being.
f Delaney 1986503,495,506)

This example suggests that the problem of attributing seemingly

irrational beliefs to others w i t h which many authors have struggled, m a y
arise, not just from a failure to understand the Other's concept when
translated as "paternity," but also and, as importantly, from a
misunderstanding of our own concept of paternity, When translators fail
to notice the w a y s in w h i c h the Western concept is implicated in a
system of concepts that have meaning only within a monotheistic culture,
the point of departure for analysis of the beliefs of the Other is an iU-
founded assumption that they are mistaken about paternity, and that
this is what requires explanation when, in fact, their beliefs may not
depend on any such concept.

The anthropologist's ignorance of (or lack of attention to) the

m e a n i n g of paternity in their own culture has made opaque what
should have been transparent and created confusion with regard
to other people's beliefs about procreation. (Delaney 1986:509)

It does not follow from the fact that the Tully River Blacks have
no concept adequately translated as "paternitywthat their beliefs about
procreation are uninterpretable. A detailed ethnography makes it
possible to mnvey a great deal about what the Tully River Blacks
believe about procreation, so long a s these beliefs are not represented
f y . , ,t@
propositionally as wtheTully River Blacks believe that p a t e ~ ~ l l *is
While Delaney addresses the difficulty of translation and the
necessity of Linguistic self-reflexivity, she does not explicitly consider
the issue of just what information (or misinformation) is wnveyed by a
translation constructed without attention to this linguistic self-
reflexivity. No doubt, a great many conceptual subtleties are lost when
the TulIy River BIacks' beliefs are inappropriately translated in terms of
the English concept "paternity,* subtleties that might be recovered in a
richer ethnographic account, Quine and Davidson both argue that there
will always be inadequate evidence upon which to justify a particular
translation and so conclude that translation is unavoidably
indeterminate, But, once a translation is offered in the form of
propositions that represent a belief or set of beliefs, the semantic
distortions that give rise to the debates over the rationality of the
beliefs of the Other are best understood a s problems that result from
the overdetermioafi'on of meaning through translation, In the example
just discussed, the use of the English concept *paternityn to represent
the beliefs relating to procreation held by the Tully River Blacks,
brings an extended network of meanings in Eoglish to bear on these
beliefs, creating a semantic overflow that generates many of the
inconsistencies identified by critics,
This semantic overflow is only apparent in the context of the
ethnography in which conceptual differencles are explicated, It is only ia
this context that one might use the word "paternalwwithout facilitating
the misrepresenting distortions caused by the overdetermination of
meaning through translation and motivate debates that rely on
assumptions derived from the excess semantic content generated.
Undoubtedly, a translation method or tactic of the kind engaged in by
Delaney would have ensured a better understanding of Zande beliefs
concerning what was misleadingly identified as "witchcraft,* and might
have cut short the long running debate about their rationality,
Barry Hallen and LO. Sodipo offer another example of ethnographic
translation that makes effective use of linguistic selfc-reflexivity and
defuses the well worn translation paradoxes of rationality in relation to
Yoruba witchcraft beliefs. In Ahowledge, Bdkef & W i t c b m a f t : Aoalytz'c
Experiments in African Pliil-~phy, they analyze, with speciaZ attention
to the implications of m e ' s indeterminacy thesis, the standard
translations of some key theoretical concepts, from Yoruba to English, in
order to come to t e r m s w i t h the degree of indeterminacy (or, in some
cases, mis-determinacy) that takes place in the course of such
translation, Both are Western trained academics but of African origin
(one is, in fact, Yoruba). They undertake an investigation of the
meanings of key theoretical concepts and beliefs related to Yoruba
witchcraft practice that becomes, at the same time, an investigation into
the very nature of translation. As in Delaney's analysis, they find that
it is only by clearing up problems inherent in the way w e conceptualize
translation that they can come to t e r m s with problems with the
translations of particular Yoruba concepts.

A basic confusion about the nature of language, of meaning, and

of theory has produced a thoroughly muddled, but generally
assumed theory of witchcraft, and a misrepresentation and
misunderstanding of its supposed equivalent in Yoruba culture.
(Hallen & Sodipo 1986:13)

Hallen and Sodipo begin by exploring some unacknowledged

differences between the English concepts of "knowwand "believewand
their supposed Yoruba equivalents me and gbzigb6. They develop a
detailed reading of current (quite technical) Western meanings of wknoww
and "believewas these are used by English translators (HaUen & Sodipo
1986:45-60). and compare this to the conditions under which Yoruba use
the concepts md and gbzigb6 (p.60-72). They pay particular attention to
similarities and differences in the way the distinctions between
knowledge and belief in English, and me and gbdgb6 in Yoruba, are
deployed in their linguistic contexts (p.76-81). Their method, like
Delaney's, is not a matter of simply analyzing the concepts of the Other,
but requires Linguistic self-reflexivi~;they are concerned to explicate
differences in the respective application of these concepts and come to
terms with the context-dependency of the English terms offered as
transktions as w& as the Yomba t e r m s they are meant to translate.
Hallen and Sodipo conclude that, while no translation is fully
determinate, "beliefw is, arguably, a bad translation of gbdgb6. In an
oral tradition, the distinction between knowledge and belief largely
depends on the way one acquires rdevant information: "Me is linked to
firsthand, direct experience, and gMgM to secondhand experience or
testimony" (Hallen & Sodipo 1986:71). Given differences in the
circumstances under which the concept gbagtt6 is used compared to
those under which the English term wbeliefwis used, they argue that
gbagbd is better translated as "agreeing w i t h what one hearsw or
'agreeing to accept what someone saysw (Haen & Sodipo 1986:64,83).
This analysis suggests (at least) two ~~nclusions. First, Hallen and
Sodipo acknowledge some degree of indeterminacy in translation but do
not share m e ' s conclusions about the extent to which translation is
underdetermined b y evidence! Although self-reflexive conceptual
analysis does not offer grounds for a determination of a single, correct
translation, it can provide a basis for correcting s o m e bad translations
and for interpreting complex beliefs in a foreign language- It is possibIe
to describe how a concept is used and to d r a w attention to differences
between its use and the use of apparently similar concepts in the target
language. While M e n and Sodipo hold that no single (English) word
translations of md o r gba'gb6 are dose to accurate (Hallen & Sodipo
1986:83), they do believe it is possible to elucidate these concepts
through comparative ethnographic analysis. Again, individual concepts
and propositions remain untranslatable, but ways of thinking are at
least amenable to interpretation. Hallen and Sodipo provide a re-
interpretation of key concepts, but because theirs i s a linguistically
self-reflexive ethnographic translation, these concepts remain partially

They state:
Wt ue dispute with Qlline is the &m of indeteninacy sMeting%r English language translations of the
Yoruba leanings uuderlying these two tens.... Theoretical translation is extrerelg difficult but it is not so
radically indeterminate. Neither is it totally determinate. It falls saeuhere in betveen, and my vary v i t h
the t e n , (Kden and Sodipo 1986:82,84)
untranslated (or, rather, translated a t great Iength).
The second conclusion Hden and Sodipo draw takes the form of a
question they pose to ethnographers (they s p e c i f i d y mention Evans-
Pritchard) who do not take full acamnt of the difficulw of translation,
To illustrate this c r i t i c i s m , they consider one further concept that
ethnographers of the Yoruba assume is shared w i t h English language
speakers and ask the question, do the Yoruba believe in itchcr craft?^
Anthropologists who attribute w i t c h c r a f t beliefs to the m e m b e r s of
the cultures they study almost always assume that the main difference
between us and them is that we do not believe, and they do believe, in
the existence of witches. The presupposition here is that w e have a
mmmon understanding of what it is to hold and act upon witchcraft
beliefs* Hallen and Sodipo show that, just as there is no cross-cultural
universal common understanding of nbelief,wso to, the Yomba word &ii,
(commonly translated as "witchcraftw)is used in substantially different
ways from the English t e r m "wit~hcraft.~'

In the Western tradition witchcraft--being called a 'witch'--

referred to more than behavior. It was meant to say something
about the state of the person's ides, or soul, for lack of a
better word,.,. When the on&?g ' speak of a person being
they generally do not use a form of the verb 'to be'.,. (they) do
not say that a person is 4f6, They say that he has &jE or that h e
uses &E,.. What this suggests is that the onikt5gh conceive of
the person initidly as a basic, ordinary, spiritual component that,
depending upon the destiny chosen, can expand into various
dimensions of special abilities, talents, or powers.... It seems more
representative of Yoruba meaning to leave as an attribute of
the person rather than as a special fype of person. ( W e n &
Sodipo 1986112,115)

Ballen and Sodipo point out that the pmblm of translation i s further q l i c a t e d by the fact that experts
in the English speaking world cannot agee on any set of characteristics or a particular Mdel that would lit the
description %itch.' (Wen & Sodip 1986:88-92). In short, not only are ve unclear on the meaning of the t e n to be
translated, neither are ue clear on the meaning of the ten used to transIate, because there is no agreed upon
definition of vitcbcraft in the Vest.
The 0d13@ are cansidered t6e mre knowledgeable awng the &rs of the Yoruba cuttnre. The label is
sometimes translated as Wtchdoctor"bbut Hallen and Sodipo suggest that 'raster of nedicinea might be better (EaI2en
and Sadip 1986:10). Wen and Sodip carefully characterize their relationship vith the m3&h to Wizethe
sense in which their ethnography is coIlaborative rather than a detached study of the beliefs of the Other. They state:
'we wanted to relate to the onr3&h wre as colleagues than as infomantsa (Ifallen aad Sodip 1986:lO).
Hallen and Sodipo conclude that the negative judgements made by
anthropologists and philosophers alike about those to whom they
attribute witchcraft beliefs depend upon misleading transIations that
mask important differences of the sort identified above. Translating
Yoruba beliefs about &ii a s being about witches masks the sense in
which a t refers to a transitory attribute rather than a permanent
condition. This is a feature that onIy emerges in an ethnography and is
lost when translated a s an isolated proposition. Translated without
attention to the ethnographic context or extracted from that context by
critics, such statements cannot be said to reflect Yoruba beliefs at all.

Deeply rooted assumptions a b u t the universality of meanings

('knowledge', 'belief', 'witch') and the correlative production of
misrepresentative translations of Yoruba meanings said to refer to
the 'same' things, have led to fundamentally false interpretations
and analyses of Yoruba thought. (Hallen & Sodipo 1986:122)

Evans-Pritchard begins to acknowledge these Limits when he

defends his use of "free translationu as opposed to literal translation
(on the basis that the latter would be nonsense):

If Evans-Pritchard feels that his exposition would become virtually

unintelligible if it incorporated Literal translations of Zande texts,
it is fair to conclude that he has not been able to work out an
English-language translation manual adequate for translating Zande
verbal behavior that occurs in the company of mangu, soroko and
ngua... The cumulative effect of these queries that have grown
out of our discussion of free translations is to make one wonder
how Evans-Pritchard is able to write off the question, 'What does
the native believe?' has a unique and correct answer. (Hallen &
Sodipo 1986:27,28)

Like so m a n y others, Evans-Pritchard explicitly denies and yet

impLicitly assumes the possibility of perfect translation. The need to
embed the interpretations of key concepts in a detailed ethnography
makes it clear that a translation manual of synonymous concepts or
direct translations of propositions is not sdficient to convey the
meanings of foreign beliefs. The belief that such a manual provides
adequate interpretations of other beliefs is only possible on the
assumption that the ethnographic context is semantically irrelevant.
The translations that I have discussed in this chapter display their
own limitations. Neither Ginzburg, nor his English translators, provide a
simple term to translate "Benandantiw;DeIaney offers no single term in
English to label the role of the father in mnception for the TuUy River
Blacks; H a l l e n and Sodipo offer no one English concept to replace
"witchn as a translation of Yoruba Yet, they all offer partial
translations that provide some insight, not only into the meanings of
foreign terms and concepts, but into the meanings of the target
language concepts that are used in the translation- This two-way, self-
reflexive, linguistic critique provides a rich understanding of complex
foreign concepts but a t the same time transforms the concepts in each
language. In each of these cases, the translator/ethnographer has made
a conscious effort to abdicate the force of the, target language in order
to better understand the beliefs of the Other. It is because they
relinquish the conviction that target language concepts constitute an
objective frame of reference that the target concepts themselves are
reshaped in the process of acmmmodating the foreign concepts. It is
this practice of linguistic double-critique that serves as a new model for
translation: on this model, translation is understood, not as a transfer of
semantic elements from one language into another, but as a critical
double negotiation between the languages and CUItures in translation. It
is this activity, because of the linguistic transformations it brings
about, that threatens the stability of language and the definabzty of
ethnos by constantly and somewhat unpredictably changing each in the
act of translation.

The Play of Ianguage in Translation - Derrida

Understood as cross-linguistic literal semantic transfer, translation

is grounded on the idea of an "original": a pre-interpreted orighary
text or set of preexistent Linguistic meanings. Dekmey's critique of the
rationality debates reveals the key feature of the model of translation
that underlies these disputes about the determination of the meaning(s)
of the beliefs held by the Other, Translation is generally understood as
the process by which meaning is transferred from one signifying system
to another, but, more importantly, that latter system (the target
language) must, on the standard model, also bear a reIation to an
"original onew9 or some monolithic transcendental meaning system
according to which it derives its stability and objectivity. This
underlying original oneness might take the form of an independent
Reality, Rationality, God, Realm of Forms, Natural kinds, Objective
conceptual scheme, Truth, or any other from a number of historically
appealed to monoIithic objectifying ideals, Ehsed on the idea of an
original meaning system, the implicit relations between languages in
translation stands as follows:

Language A Language B Language C

(of one language
into another) English

relation to =>
signified One

llleida Asslann h discussed this idea of the 'themgoverning translation theory in 'The Curse and the
Blessing of Babel; or, looking back on Universalisns.' Ber clah is that dl discussion on translation, both objectivist
and relativist, until very recently, has d i e d on the idea of the One as its regulative principle (either for or
against the h e ] .
Until very recently, vhat 1wuld call the regulative ideal of the One was considered as the necessary
frillmrk for intercultural translation. Today, we are beginning to realize that it was precisely this ideal
that has prevented it .... As long as the concept of hmnity uas regulated by the One, interdtnral
cammication uas reduced to the choice of either destruction or fusion. (Ass= 1996:85,99)
Edwk Geittder has also dram attention to the idea of a pre-hterpreted original meaning syster and this
dependence, in translation theory, on a transcendental One:
The existing 'sciences of translation8 tend to be largdy based upon concepts rooted in religion, C e ~ n
idealis, archetypes, or universal language.... Far fra being scientific, these approaches tend to hold a
transcendental, utopian conception of the translation as reproducing the original. (Gentzler 1993:72)
Each foreign belief system is represented as rational only insofar
as the two translational relations (Rl and R2) prove transitive.
Assessments of rationaiity can be viewed as the measure of that
transitivity. In their re-evahations of the project of translation, Quhe
and Davidson effectively criticize the notion that the language of the
Other might be understood as such a fixed, pre-interpreted meaning
system, thus questioning the determinability of XU. Y e t the application of
the principle of charity rests on the assumption that the target
language has a specidl status; the principle of charity can only be
appIied on the assumption that the target language bears an
unproblematic relation to a context independent standard of rationality.
In short, as above, English is assumed to hold a position not of one
language among many, but of the originary Ianguage. Re-evaluations of
translation like those elaborated by Delaney, and W e n and Sodipo,
explicitly question the special status of the target Ianguage through a
method of translation that works self-reflexively (thus questioning the
determinability of R2). Such critiques focus on an aspect of translation
that had been largely unacknowledged--the metaphysics of translation.
In chapter six, I discussed two instances of the importation of
postmodern literary theory into the social sciences (Tyler and Rosenau)
and suggested that these uses of postmodernism are counterproductive
for anthropology. I consider one more "postmodern" approach here
because I believe, by contrast w i t h Tyler, Jacques Derrida does offer
valuable insights for understanding translation practices as exemplified
by Delaney, Hallen and Sodipo and many others. In chapter six, I also
suggested that reinterpretations of traditional anthropology of the sorts
produced by Wagner, Fabian, and Said w e r e clearly examples of
"decon~truction.~ It should now be possible to read Derrida, in relation
to the specific purpose at hand)' in a way that lends greater content

I state, % relation to the specific parpose at handn because I want to read a feu selected wrks of
Derrida's as i f they uere singularly about translation. We this is, no doubt, an oversimplification and may produce a
distorted interpretation [it wPld not be the first), I think it very uselal to incorporate this work in such a way
while swwfiat artificially ignoring the other irplications and facets of Derrida's philosophy that mtivate so mch
disapproval as well as the sorts of ris-interpretations that I discussed in chapter six. It would, no doubt, be a
Pascinatiag project to trace the distortions that Derrida' s philosophy bas uadergone through t ramlatian not only
betwen languages but between discipmes as a product of such narrowly centered readings. In any case, space and
to the nature of the linguistic distortion that is translation and further
characterize that project, It is arguable that a great deal of Derrida's
work is first and foremost about translation-
In "Plate's Pharmacym,Derrida discusses at length the translation
of one word from Plato's dMogue Phaedrus and the role its translation
has played in the history of Western Because Derrida's
work has found its way into many academic disciplines in widely
divergent forms, it is worth reemphasizing what this investigation into
the translation of this particular word is meant to demonstrate:

Hence, for example, the word pharmakon. In this way w e hope to

display in the most striking manner the regular, ordered polysemy
that has, through skewing, indetermination, or overdetermination,
but without mistranslation, permitted the rendering of t h e s a m e
word by "remedy," "recipe," "poison," "drug," "philter,"etc- It
will a h be seen to what extent the malleable unity of this
mncept, or rather its rules and the strange logic that links it
with its signifier, has been dispersed, masked, obliterated, and
rendered almost unreadable not only by the imprudence or
empiricism of the translators, but first and foremost by the
redoubtable. irreducible diff icuIty of translation. ... With this
problem of translation w e will thus be dealing with nothing Iess
than the problem of the very passage into philosophy. (Derrida

Pharmakon serves as a model for the ambiguity that is inherent in

any translation of a significantly foreign concept. Derrida does not treat
it as a special case, a rare ambiguity, rather, he claims that it exhibits

purpose justify, I hope, ay narrow focus.

Barbara Johnson describes the ambiguitg of the vord that Derrida sets out to translate in her introduction
to Derrida's Disseriaafioa:
It can be said that everything in Derrida's discussion of the daedm hinges on the translation of a single
word: the uord phamkon, which i n Greek can mean both 'remedy' aud 'poison.'. .. Yet translators, by choosing
to render the word sawtires by M y ' and saetires by 'poison,"have consistently Mdeduhat in Plato
rerains mdecidable, and thus influenced the come of the entire history of 'platonisr.' (Johnson I98l:xxiv-
It is just this same tgee of decision throtyb traaslatioa titat has produced us-cbiuacterizations of other belieEs
by ignoring the difficnlty of translation. In just the s a way that the waning of Platonis has been detenined as the
result of suppressing the abiguity of translation, the leaning of 'witchcraftw is detenined lad judged irrational.
the play of language in all such translation, The discussion of the
translation of wwitchccaftwbeliefs in this chapter exhibits obvious
parallels to this same translational linguistic ambiguity. Anthropologists
have repeatedly drawn attention to the sense in which a multitude of
target language mncepts might act as partial translations of specific
foreign ooncepts, b u t none do so perfectly- Derrida acknowledges this
problem but is further concerned, not only to reveal the essential
indeterminacy of translation but also, and more importantly, to
investigate the effects of determining (or, forcing a determination on)
what is, by nature. indeterminate- Derrida asks, not "is translation
indeterminate?" No doubt, it is. Rather, Derrida asks the post-Quinean
question "what happens when w e determine that which is
indeterminate?" "What happens when w e translate?"
Derrida's critique of analytic philosophy is an analogue of his
philosophy of translation. By focusing on the product(s) of the
irreducible difficulty of translation (specific, partial, imperfect
translations) Derrida criticizes the questions that framed the rationality
debates. It is only by masking the difficulty of translation, by
unreflectively determining indeterminacies, that w e can presume to
assess the truth or rationality of the beliefs of the Other, Just as for
the concepts central to ancient Greek philosophy that attract Derrida's
attention, so for the concepts central to Zande or Yoruba philosophy:
confronting the difficulty of translation m u s t precede philosophical
Cross-linguistic analysis of rationality proceeds on the

Jeanne Famt-Saada, in her study af coateqorary witchcraft practices of the people of the m e in
France, notes that, in anthropologicaI works, translational difficulties are often noticeably absent from the text
because of their appeamce in pre ad post text entries.
Thus scientific status or objectivity is osuaIly made visible in the split betveen the stating subject of
ethnography, and the set of staterents on the native cnltare: in other wrds, in the difference between
forward and text. pavret-Saada 2980:26)
la a sense, the translational distortions are aved fra the objective descrietive text into the personal and
subjective forward. The true ethnography, in a sense, takes place in these rargins or becores a fomd to a non-
existent text. fn these textual margins, the relationship between the ethnographer and the subject as w l l as the
relationship between of the target language and the source Ianguage are not reduced for the purposes of providing a
systemtic description of the beliefs of the Other. Redl that, the only place in Evans-PritW's book &re ue learn
that the Azande have been colonized and med into settlerent carps by the British is in the forward. Similarly
assumption that perfect translation is possible. According to Derrida,
there can be no w p h i I ~ p hof y translationwuntil one comes to t e r m s
w i t h the "translation of p h i l ~ ~ p h y . w ' 3

The philosophical operation,,, defines itself as the fixation of a

certain concept and project of translation.., understood as the
transport of semantic content,,. There is no philosophy unless
Wanslation in this latter sense is possible, Therefore the thesis of
philosophy is translatability in this mmmon sense, that is, as the
transfer of a meaning or a truth from one language to another
without any essential harm being done..,, T h e origin of philosophy
is translation or the thesis of translatability, so that wherever
translation in this sense has failed, it is nothing less than
y-nilosophy that finds itself defeated. (Derrida 1985b:lZO)

It is in this sense that translation is the "passage into

philos~phy.~ As wrationaKtywis a philosophy, it is a misordering to
attempt to base a theory o r method of translation on a concept of
rationality. Such a misordering necessarily ignores the irreducible
difficulty of translation elucidated by Derrida as weU as the
anthropologists that I have discussed in this chapter. T h e fact that
Derrida's philosophy is presented in a form less "analyticn than those
that I have considered so far reflects, in part, his desire not only to
describe this difficulty of translation, but to display or re-produce it in
the languages in which his work is published; he deliberately writes in

aarginal, Evans-Pritchard addressed his confrontations uith the difficulty of translation in the afterward and
appendices. The linguistic (and other) factors that cmprorise the possibility of impartial interpretation are
intentionally placed oatside of the text in order to maintain the illusion of objectivity and/or literal representation.
It is only by forcing these difficulties out of the text that i t appears possible to judge the properly represented
beliefs of the Other.
Gentzler notes this refocus of erphasis uhen one takes seriously the activity of translation.
With the focus of philosophical investigation redirected fm identity to difference, frua presence to
sngplerent, r n text to preface, translation assmes a central rather than secondary place. (Centzler

Wost every theory of translation is based, vhetber irplicitly or explicitly, on some philosophical, seaantic,
linguistic theory. The trend, begm by Quine, to foreground translation as necessarily prior to other such endeavors,
finds its £dlexpression in the vork ot Jacques Derrida. We very fev critics wold be v m
i to read the
philosophical progression leading ap to Derrida as including Quine, with respect to translation, Derrida is clearly
addressing the pmblea of indetemhaq in coPjmction uith issues that arise as a result of translating in spite of
such indeterminacies.
a smle that w i l l m a k e the difficulties of translation apparent. This is
not, as is often held, a unique style of writing that, itself, produces
anomalies in translation; transIation always exhibits this difficulty,
Derrida's s t y l e calls attention to (rather than creates) the diff*anceL4
of translation.
Derrida's "Living On-Border Linesw calks attention to the inherent
difficulty of translation both b y engaging in the activity of translation
and b y supplying a paraLId c o m m e n t a r y on that translation, Derrida
discusses the ways in which, for instance I ' m & de m o r t defies any
translation that w i l l maintain the connections that this expression has, in
French, to the piece in which it serves as a title.15 Any translation of
the phrase wiJl both lose s o m e t h i n g essential and gain something
excessive in this title's relation to the piece. And yet, imperfect as it
will be, the translation does take place; it is generally translated as
"Death Sentence." B y analyzing this case, Derrida simultaneously
confronts the difficulty of translation and the effects of translating in
spite of this difficulty. Derrida's parallel cross-critical
commentary/translation simultaneously exposes the difficulty of
translation and attempts to answer the question, " w h a t is translated?"
From "Living Onw:

Dif firance is a t e n that, itself, cannot be translated. Derrida pIays on the siriIarities, in Fmch, of
the verbs 'to differu and 'to deferu to colbine Saussure's 8differenceWth the idea that waning is indefinitely
deferred- both description and case of the difficulty of translation.
Joseph Grahar mkes tMs same observation concerning the attaet to translate the title of one of Derrida's
essays. Grahan notes the mwidable distortion that wuld f o l k f r a an attempt to translate 'Des Tour de Babel' by
alludiag to a lev of the cormecticms that d d be lost in any Rnglish translation:
'Des Tours de BabelWe title can be read in various wags. Aes reans 'sole'; but it dso means 'of the, "
Yrra the,Qr maboutthe.Vomcudd be tows, twists, tricks, turns, or tropes, as in mm of phrase.
Taken together, des and tows have the same sound as de'tour, the rord for detour. To nark that economy in
language the title has not been changed. (Derrida 1985a:206J
The first inclination at a translation might be 'The Tower of Babel8 yet this auld fail to traaslate irportant
cormections and plays on 1e- tbat d a t e irportantly to the content of the essay and relate the lyth of Eabel to
the twists, tricks, t m s , and tropes of language.
1 know, 1 am already in some sort of untranslatability. B u t I'U
wager that w i l l not stop the procession of one language into
another, the massive movement of this procession, this mrtege,
over the border of another language, into the language of the
other. (Derrida 1979:77)

And from the parallel "Border Linesw:

It is not untmmsiatable, but, without being opaque, it presents a t

every turn, 1 know, something to stop {arr&!@ the translation: it
forces the lranslator to transform the laaguage into w h i c h he is
translating o r the wrec&~er m d u m , " to dePorm the MtiaI
contract. itself in constant deformation, in the language of the
other... for the problems that I wished to formalize above a l l have
an irreducible relationship to the enigma, or in other words the
r e i f ;of translation. (Derrida 1979:88-89)

W e "Living-On" reveals the excesses and deficiencies of possible

translations, the inevifable distortions produced, "Borderlinesw provides
a self-reflexive confrontation w i t h the deformations of languages in
translation that compromise linguistic borders. Derrida's anthropological
Linguistics arrives, by different route, a t the s a m e predicament,
concerning translation, as Delaney's modified linguistic anthropology. In
order for the translator to refrain from exerting the linguistic force
that hopelessly distorts the beliefs of the Other, the translation must
display its own difficulty.
B y not only discussing the difficulty of translation, from a
theoretical standpoint, but by also acting out the scene of translation
within his essays, Derrida is able to reveal the play of language
commonly suppressed in traditional anthropological and philosophical
accounts of the project of translation, Special attention to the activity
of translating forces the translator to confront their own linguistic
centering tendencies. Derrida's deconstruction of one tradition or piece
of Literature after another is a continual confrontation with translation
that is (rather than is about) a model of translation that retrieves the
voice of the Other from behind the Iinguistic masking of cultural
difference through non-reflexive translation. Derrida does not offer
deconstruction as a "theorywof translation, he translates
deconstructivdy. This is precisely the process by which Said, Wagner.
Delaney. HalIen and Sodipo produce their translations.16
Like the anthropologists discussed earlier, Derrida concludes that
"transfer"is the wrong operative concept for a model of translation.
Making explicit the difficulty of translation and abdicating the force of
language in translation recasts the project of translation as an activity
of linguistic transformation.17

Difference is never pure, no more so is translation, and for the

notion of translation we would have to substitute a notion of
tramformatz'on= a regulated transformation of one language by
another, of one text by another. We will never have. and in fact
have never had, to do with some "transportwof pure signifieds

Peggy K i d kt s i z e s this aspect of Derrida's wrk in her htrodnction to 'Des Tours de Babel.'
Deconstrnction is deployed both as a theory of translation which Wenges the M t s of that philosophical
concept and as a practice of translation uhich exhibits, rather thaa conceals, its onr Lhits. (Derrida

Pauline Rosenu's appraisal of postmdernisa (see chapter six) mst probablg £oLlmfro her attempt to reduce it
to a theory about cross-cnltnral interpretation rather than understanding it as a rethod by which one right better
amrapfish that task. To erphasize again, it is dearly what laay anthropologists, not taken to be nihilistic
relativists, are already engaged in.
Volfgang lser speaks of the same 'living on% reference to cultare rather than language. In his analysis,
i t becoaes even more clear hw the idea of a stable, unmprarising, essentializing ethos precludes the possibility of
translation, and hov translation disrupts the idea of ethos.
The Life of celture realizes itself in such recursive loops, and it begins to dry up whenever the loop is
dismntirmed by elevating one of the achiements ot i t s interchange into an all-encapassing Eon of
representation. Representation nms counter to translatability, dose ongoing transfomtions are brought to a
standstill by equating culture uith one of its conspicuous features. (her 1996b:258)
Noticeable also, in this extension of Derrida's analysis of translation, is a similarity to Said's critique of
Orientalisr . her opposes 'coranicationVto "representation'% a snqrisiagly shilar way to that found in Said's
work. S~llwhatironically, the 'living o n 9 f culture is possible ody with the death of the idea of self contained,
stable culture.
A cross-caltnral discourse distinguishes itself fro asshilation, iacorparation, and appropriation, as it
organizes aa interchange between cnltures in vtrich the cultures concerned uill not stay the same.. . In this
respect the cross-celtnrd discourse is a reas of m W y supportive self-regeneration of cultures and
provides an opportunity to extend their life s p a . (Iser 1996b:262-3)
la each analysis, it becoles clear how "living-on' calls into question 'border-lines'hnd how the very idea of a
stable culture, language, or rationality is the 'death sentence' of translation.
from one language to another, or w i t h i n one and the same
language, that the signifying instrument would leave virgin and
untouched, (Derrida 1981b:ZO)

As Barbara Johnson has suggested, every piece of Derrida's writing

is, among other things, a play of translation. Central in every
deconstructive reading is an analysis of the deformations and
transformations that language undergoes in the activity of interpretation
or translation, In an important sense, Derrida's primary subject is this
translational distortion.

Derrida's work, in fact, has always already been (about)

translation,.. Derrida's theory and practice of &riture, indeed,
occupy the very point at which philosophy and translation meet,...
Derrida's entire philosophic enterprise, indeed, can be seen as the
translation process at work in every text. In studying the
diff&ance of signification, Derrida follows the misfires, losses, and
infelicities that prevent any given language from being one-
(Johnson l985:144,146)

Prmnstrtlction and Social Science Rea,~l~l*dered

Derrida most clearly addresses the implications of his

deconstructive approach to translation, and the applicability of such an
approach to the social sciences, in "Structure, Sign, and Play in the
Dismurse of the Human Sciences," Here, he argues that the history of
the human sciences has involved, among other things, a long series of
transitions from one theoretical structure or center to another (Derrida
1978:279), yet the process of that structmation, that centering activity,
has always been conceaied.18 The centering activity has always been
represented as a revelatzon of an already present center (previously
mistakenly identified) rather than as a constructive of

Vincent Crapantano's &pmes'Dilm 4 Met's &sire i s an insight fd reading of the activity of
"ccentering' in anthropologicd accounts. Sherry Ortner's 'Theory in AnthropoIogy since the SixtiesYs a detailed
reading of the recent history of' theory in aathropolog as a mtin~edtrade of one center or structure for another. Any
historical work that folIows transitions from one frarevork, paradig, or interpretive strategy to another (sametires
inadvertently) reveals this 'stmcturality of structure.'
centering. The disruption of meaning through translation and
interpretation, however, compromises the idea of a f i i pre-eralstlng
center or universally appropriate theoretical structure.

Structure--or rather the structurality of structure--although it

has always been at work, has always been neutralized or reduced,
and this by a process of giving it a center or of referring it to a
point of presence, a fixed origin..., (until) the moment when
language hvaded the universal problematic. the moment when. in
the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse...
The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain
and the play of signification infiitely- (Derrida 1978:278,280)

It is, ironically, the displacement of this idea of fixed, present

center, the acknowledgement of this structuration activity brought about
by the investigation of translation, that finally makes ethnography
possible- This is ironic because theorists Like Gelher and Hollis suggest
that ethnocentrism is the condition that makes anthropology possible. An
anthropological reading of anthropology reveals its activity to be not
one of representing (social) structure, but of (Linguistic) structuration
of representation. Ethos (as center) is compromised precisely because
centrism-the idea of a fixed, originary center-is revealed to be a
metaphysical construct.

In fact one can assume that ethnology a m l d have been born as a

science only at the moment when a decentwing had come about: at
the moment when European culture-and, in consequence, the
history of metaphysics and of its concepts--had been dislocated,
driven from its locus, and forced to stop considering itself as the
culture of reference... the critique of ethnocentrism-the very
condition for ethnology--should be systematically and historically
contemporaneous with the destruction of the history of
metaphysics. (Derrida 1978:282)

Metaphysics, ethnocentrism, and (traditional) ethnology are

intimately linked inasmuch as all presuppose the idea of the Self as an
atready present, objective, transcendental center (in this sense "ethnoW
and *centrismn are redundant). Acknowledging the play of signification
as Derrida does, through translation, threatens metaphysics because it
threatens clentrism.
Derrida reveals the w a y in which, in any translation or
interpretation, the center is placed. Without a fixed center to stabilize
translation, logos is supplemented w i t h graphos, replacing ethnology
with ethnography--a writing, always at the same t i m e displacing ethnos.
In this sense, every ethnography is a literary supplement, or an act of
supplementarity. The goal of fusion, universalization, or totaliattion is
undermined and replaced by the movement of suppIementarity. This is
why, in "Living-On," the translation is paralleled by the supplement
"Border-lines"; by incorporating supplement into text Derrida questions
the distinction between supplement and text, This compromise of fixed
center, the a-centricity or de-centering of structure, undermines
The continuous trade of center for center in the history of
anthropology is, in part, a product of this play of language. Theoretical
stability is never achieved because Linguistic stabiLity is never achieved,
Every attempt a t grounding a center creates a surplus of meaning or
interpretive possibilities. In short, every translation produces an
uncontrollable excess of meaning,

This movement of play, permitted by the lack or absence of a

center or origin, is the movement of s~ppierneatarit~ One cannot
determine the center and exhaust t o w t i o n because the sign
which replaces the center, which supplements it, taking the
center's place in its absence--this sign is added, occurs as a
surplus, as a supplemeof, The movement of signification adds
something, which results in the fact that there is always more,
but this addition is a floating one because it comes to perform a
vicarious function, to supplement a lack on the p a r t of the
signified. (Derrida 1978289)

Anthropologists inevitably engage in this decentering activity just

by virtue of negotiating a confrontation of cultures and languages in
translation; this inevitably involves a compromise of stable ethnos,
Translation is revealed as an act of structuration that transforms the
Self and Other, the creative act of continually re-inventing the Self and
Other through a conflict of languages in translation. Unless the
translator acknowledges this supplementarity rather than represses it,
the excess or overdetermination of meaning in translation contributes to
the production of a mistranslation, Deconstructive translators like
Delaney, Wen and Sodipo, negotiate meaning excess into an account
that linguistically decenters the Self.
M a n y critics read Derrida as endorsing an wanythinggoesw theory
of interpretation; indeed, some of his followers and translators have
done just this, In fact, the linguistic destabilizing of a fixed center or
structure for interpretation need not lead to llnlimited relativism,
solipsism, or nihilism, Supplementarity enters, not as the end of
meaning, but as an m e s s of meaning produced in the act of transhtion.
While deconstruction rev* the activity of structuration b y
acknowledging that semiosis is unlimited, this does not imply. as Rosenau
seems to have assumed, that any interpretation will do. Unlimited
semiosis refers to the characteristic of language/meaning that transforms
through every translation or repetition through contexts, indefinitely,
unpredictably, and uncontrollably. It does not mean that sense can be
manipulated in any way. Derrida does not endorse the end of meaning or
sense, but rather seeks to investigate its transformations, its
Ftather than undermining the possibility of cross-cultural
understanding, as many have suggested (e-g.Rosenau), or undermining
the possibility of politics as a ground for cross-cultural c r i t i c i s m , the
deconstructive interpretation finally displaces marginalizing
representation, opening up the possibility of politically self-conscious
accounts.19 In other words. rather than reducing cross-cultural
understanding to a-political relativism, deconstruction moves cross-
cultural interpretation into the realm of politics by drawing attention to
the devices that ground the very political activity of centering. A very
important political aspect of interpretation involves attention to the
activity of structuration and, as discussed in chapter six, the

Joseph Crahar notes this erpbasis in Demda's "DesT o m d e Babel."krrida brings to the sarface the
historical and political aspects of translation over and against the modernist teleological and theological aspects that
uurk against cross-cultad anderstandiag. Any appeal to the h e (cod, fusion, or universal rationality) i s only as
political as tyranny. Deconstrnction wrks as a revelation of repressed politics and opens up the possibility of re-
engaging political relations. Such an analysis clearly reflects the politid virtue of a work like Said's, that
confronts oppressive politics in hope of creating a :rarework for a fair political interaction.
suppression of any explicit attention to the activity of structuration
works as a suppression of politics,
By teasing out the assumptions that ground accounts of other
cultures, and laying bare the distortions that take place in translation,
the deconstructive translator reframes the relationship between the
anthropologist's culture and the culture under study. Barbara Johnson
points out how suppression of the activiw of interpretive centering is
itself a pre-judgement that undermines the possibility of political
negotiation, Cross-cultural judgement grounded in unreflective
translation reveals more about an interpretive self positioning than
anything about the beliefs of the Other.

What every act of judgement manifests is not the value of the

object but the position of the judge within a structure of
exchange. (Johnson 1980:107)

The deconstructive translation decentters the judge, creating the

possibility for political negotiation. Translation, as this transitional,
transformational act, then, is not merely a means to understanding the
Other in potentially political terms. but is itself politics. The centering
of a reading is a judgement, a political positioning, and while centering
strategies vary, they are not arbitrary, The loss of objectiviw does not
condemn the cross-cultural interpreter to pure subjectivity but rather,
as Johnson suggests, to history and ethics. Suspension of the self-
centered ethnos or language opens up interpretive possibilities; it
reveals the p o l i t i d force of translation and forestalls the &-too-
political judgement against the Other, opening up a political negotiation
with the Other,
On this model, interpretation is neither predictably constrained nor
unpredictably chaotic; insofar as translators confront the politics
inherent in the play of language in translation it becomes possible to
negotiate a middle ground between the polarized options entertained by
most of the critics I: have considered thus far. This requires a linguistic
reflexivity that displays the difficulty of translation, as well as
awareness of the political aspects of interpretation that focuses attention
not solely on the writing culture, but also on the reading culture, It is
within the reading culture that many have identified another disrupting
or distorting force operating upon the translation of the beliefs of the
O t h e r that further re-politicizes cross-cultural representation.
The focus of m y constructive account of translation has been the
decentering of the Self and the target language through a
deconstruction of the devices that textually marginalize the Other in
written ethnography. A parallel decentering movement is evident in
Western academia itself as its composition g r o w s increasingly
heterogeneous. Geertz's claim about the ingrown nature of academic
culture may have rung true decades ago, but an influx of practitioners
as w e l l as ideas from other cultures and from diverse standpoints within
the home cuIture provides a basis for the critique of traditional
approaches within individual disciplines,
One of the important ethnos fortifying elements contained within
traditional academia was its homogeneity, The idea that the Other might
be judged according to criteria embedded in one's own style of
reasoning is easy to maintain when the members of the judging
community share a common cultural background. The confrontation with
the universaIity of this standard frame of judgement is facilitated by
Western academia's recent influx of members of other cultures or, what
Clifford has refers to as the "intertextual predicamentw (Clifford
1986b:ll6-11?). Western academia is no longer the self-contained,
bourgeois, whitemale, exclusive society that has always defined it in the
West. It is only in the last thirty or so years that growing numbers of
members from other classes, cultures, and genders have entered the
academic arena, The voice of the Other is restored to the tact not only
through a re-evaluation of interpretation and text production, but also
by a diversification of the text-interpreting community.
Said's work exempWies this recent trend in anthropology where the
previously (&)represented, silent Other writes about their culture of
origin from within the context of Western tradition. Hallen and %dip0
produced important re-interpretations of controversial beliefs held by
the Yoruba. I t is important to understand that none of these w r i t e r s
have chimed special interpretive privileges as members of the cultures
being interpreted, but rather represent themselves as standing in a
unique position to de(30nstruct the theoretical edifices that have always
fortified anthropological representations against such reconstructions.
They are Madntyre's boundary inhabiting interpreters who, by
straddling borders, deconstruct them.

Five years after the publication of Writitzg Culture, the School of

Academic Research in Santa Fe published another collection of essays
that assess the state of anthropology: Recapturing AnthropoIogy. edited
by Richard Fox- A primary concern of the contributors to this collection
is to chart a course forward from the insights of Writing Culture taking
the critique of representation seriously but at the same time salvaging
the roIe anthropology can play in providing an understanding of other
cultures. Nearly every coneibutor turns -/her critical attention to
academia,20focusing not so much on how the anthropologist constructs
the O t h e r , but on how academia constructs the anthropologist. H e r e ,
concern with textual style and production has become secondary t o a
preoccupation with text reception and use, the other political arena of
representation. Another dimension is added to the politics of
representation compromising the distinction between inscription and
In her contribution to Recapturing Anthropology, L i l a Abu-Lughod
draws attention to the unique position of anthropologists of non-Western
origin in critiquing Western representations of the Other. They, again,
inhabit MacIntyre's "boundary positionw between language worlds (see
chapter three) and thus stand between o r cross insider/outsider
dichotomies. The position of such anthropologists is unique not because
they have a privileged insight into the minds of the Other, but because,
on Abu-Lughod's account, they have "a blocked ability to amfortably
assume the self of anthropologyu (Abu-Lughod 1991:140). This disruption

See especially Fox, Rabinw, and Ah-Lryhod 11991).
of the long-established coherent self, clearly defined ethnus, or seI€-
justifying mother tongue, s i m u k a n e o u s ~disrupts the possibiLity of
providing unambiguous, objectFve representations of the Other and
facilitates suspension of the Linguistic categories used to translate the
beliefs of the Other. The displaced self writes (and reads) agaiost
clearly defined, static language and culture. T h e cross-cultural
boundary inhabiting anthropologist k a m e s hyper-aware of the
centering process that is typically masked and of the capacity of the
translator to re-center the Self or Other in the context of the cross-
cultural encounter. This disruption of the homogeneity of the reading
culture and the resulting sensitivity to the activity and politics of re-
centering discourse is nowhere more dear in contemporary philosophy
than in recent feminist theory.
Recent feminist theory has been one of the dominant forces in
generating the confrontation with traditional representational
frameworks, Like mntemporary anthropoiogical theorists and Derridian
deconstructionists, feminist theorists directly confront the concealed
politics of representation, Postmodern theory and aligned practices of
decentering the self have been taken as both an ally and foe by
feminists concerned with the politics of representation;21either way the

Mimela di hnardo writes at length on the 'paradox of postrodernis' in an introduction to a collection of
essays on f a s t anthropology. On one hand, the feminist critic finds deconstrnction to be a valuable tool in
critiquing the patriarchal centering of Yesteta culture. (In the other hand, i t is also possible that the f a s t qenda
constitutes a centering that could itself be deconstructed. In other words, the f a s t is left without an objective
justification for her position. Yhile d i Leanudo is particularly sensitive to this conflict (as vell as tEie trend in
postnodernisa to divorce criticism fror the vorld), a great deal of her anxiety over postdernisr stem from the view
that i t is, necessarily, just as Bosenau had concluded, another kind of nihilia. She states:
Post-structnralisr is anti-science, antitheory.. . It denies the existence of social order or real hman
selves, declariat the death of the subject ... It can only deconstruct.. . there is no place for any ~raLly
evaluative or politically colitted stance vithin the disintegrating logic of poststructuralisr. It is
Fundamtally nihilistic.... Pasbodernis entails an 'mbrace of modification, a Nietzschean embrace of
the instant, a trivial and lighthearted rejection of politics\.. [the) poststrncturalisl/ postrodernisl
stance is itself innately solipsistic. [di Leananlo 1991:24,26)
If one takes seriously the segment of postmodern theory that I have addressed in this paper, this criticis~is
misplaced, I)econstnrction mu be read as lordly d w t i v e and as a mas to a politically caitted stance. It is,
possibly, the only reans to rove beyond the traditicnal cultural version of solipsism: ethoceutria. Reflections on
translation have s h m that ~1~kmi9mtivatesthe "death of the sabject' (objectifying or erasing the Other). It is
only by displacing the self that the Other becores present.
parallels between feminist philosophy and the recent postmodern and
anthropological critiques of representation are unmistakable, Micaela di
Leonardo charts these debates, making it clear that it is history and
ethics that provide political grounding for the feminist reading, and it
is this political aspect of interpretation that provides an important link
to anthropological theory- It is this link that I would like to investigate
as a final reflection on the political dimensions of translation.
In "The Postmodernist Turn in Anthropology: Cautions from a
Feminist Perspective," Frances Mascia-Lees, Patricia Sharpe, and Colleen
Bailerin0 Cohen suggest that anthropologists would do better to turn to
feminist theory as a framework for a new model of ethnography rather
than to postmodernism. They note that feminist writers address the same
issues of representation and theoretical entering that have concerned
contemporary anthropologists. In addition, feministc have been
consciously and self-critically writing from the position of the Other for
quite some time; certaidy this is a dominant theme in feminist literature
that substantially p r e d a t e s W r i t i n g Culture. While both critical
anthropologists and feminists are concerned to deconstruct tradition,
their work is structured by a political engagement that is not shared by
postmodern Literary c r i t i c i s m ,

Anthropology is grounded in politics: it aims to secure a

recognition that the non-Western is as crucial an element of the
human as the Western and thus is skeptical and critical of
Western claims to knowledge and understanding. ... Precisely
because feminists move beyond texts to confront the world. they
can provide concrete reasons in specific contexts for the
superiority of their accounts (Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, Cohen

This critique of popular postmodern literary c r i t i c i s m focuses on

the claim that the politics of the Self/Othe. encounter is made secondary

Linda Butcheon notes that what dmns traction meals is the relationship between the aesthetic and the political,
which is precisely rhat hrmania (and modernis) mppresses (Eutchwn 1988:200). Main, deconstruction is seen to open
up the possibility of politics rather tban as neglecting it.
D i Leoaardo's fear is c o n in the literature (both in reaction to postrodernisl and relativism). it is the fear
that Ceertz identified in 'Anti mi-Relativisg-the feeling lbat if one does not have an objective justification for a
certain reading, then one has no justification at aU.
to the politics of academia and that postmodernists have, to an important
degree, undermined their own cl;u'm to credibility; the postmodern
literary critic never really engages the world, M y argument here, as
above, is that this objection tells against the form of postmodernism that
found its way, through its various translations and mistranslations, into
American academia, The uparadox of postmodernism" (see ftnt 21) is not
so paradoxical if deconstruction is understood to b e a practice that
engages the world through a re-decentering of politics, as in a work
like Said's, rather than as a negation of politics, as in a work Like
Tyler's- Nor is it a paradox if one takes into account uses of
deconstruction as a methodology for translation that requires linguistic,
self-reflexivity about the politics of cross-cultural interpretation.
Margery Wolf likewise investigates the politics of interpretation and
warns against the lessons that are all too often drawn from postmodern
Literary theory as well as the spiraling critical trap that a great deal of
postmodern c r i t i c i s m has wound for itself by lyrically divorcing itself
from the world. She offers three readings of her experiences living in
Taiwan. She too emphasizes the developed sensitivity of the feminist
writer to the representational and political oppression of the Other (Wolf

Experimental ethnography so obscure that native speakers of

English with a Ph.D, in anthropology find it difficult to
understand is written for a small elite made up primarily of first
world academics w i t h Literary inclinations. T h e message of
exclusion that attaches to some of these texts contradicts the
ostensible purpose of experimental ethnography, to find better
ways of conveying some aspect of the experiences of another
community, (Wolf 1992138)

In either case, through modernist unreflexive representation or

postmodern literary evocation, the w r i t e r masks political relationships by
compromising the voice of the Other. Advocating either extreme
threatens to eliminate anthropology altogether! According to Wolf,

Wolf criticizes the recent obsession with experirentation of writing styles as losing si@t of the
aotivation for displacing old form of representation (Wolf 1992:Sl). Experiwnting with ethnographic ton or style rag
have taken a wrong lesson fra krrida. The point is not to divorce wit& frm aoy kind of representation whatsoever
power is a necessary dimension of ethnographic writing just as Clifford
suggested and Derrida demonstrated, Power cannot be eliminated from
the ethnographic encounter, so it must be made explicit. mitigated, and
used responsibly,

1 see no way to avoid this exercise of power and at least some of

the stylistic requirements used to legitimate that text if the
practice of ethnography is to continue.., Whether or not an
anthropologist believes she creates, interprets, or describes
culture, she must recognize that she creates wOtherswas the
result of her work, and that she must bear some responsibility for
those Others, ( W o l f 1992:ll-12)

Feminist critics claim special insight, not only into the politics of
the Sel.f/Ckher negotiation b e t w e e n cultures, but also w i t h i n academic
disciplines. A recent feminist critique of Writing Culture focuses
attention on w r i t i n g conventions and the politics of the West vs. the
Rest, like those discussed, but also on multifaceted power relations of
representation as used within the academic context, In the introduction
to Women Writing Culture, Ruth Behar soundly criticizes Clifford et, al.
for, even while providing an astute critique of representation, failing to
understand the relationship between that critique and f e m i n i s t theory*
Participants in the earlier School of American Research seminar had, no
doubt, failed in one very important respect to question every centering
tendency compromised by this critique of representation.
If the focus on our "writing culturew has shown anything, it is the
necessity of disrupting the single-voiced homogeneity of that culture
that must precede the possibility of coming to understand the cultural
Other, The self-reflecive turn that ultimately undermines the dichotomies
that facilitate objectification and misrepresentation of the Other must
focus both on the cultural SeM vs, Other (West vs. Rest) negotiation
between cultures as well as the implicit academic Self vs. Other (Upper-
class w h i t e male v s Rest) negotiation w i t h i n the reading c u b e . The

by constrncting accounts rapant rith Forced ambiguities bolstered by cryptic and confusing Literary styles, but to
carefully display the variability and instability of particalar representations. Anthropology needs to relate to
solething outside of itself. It i s only the aature of fwt the existence of) that relation that is called into question.
methodological tactics and effects of feminist theory, academic
diversification, and p o s t m o d e r n interpretation undersmre the importance
of displacing the self in the project of coming to understand the Other.
The focus of translation theory, as I have tried to show, must both
include, and move beyond, a concern with the relation between
ethnographer, subject, and the text produced; it is crucial to consider
the larger community of text users. Each is a juncture at which the
centering activity of interpretation might be reveaIed and held
suspended in order to facilitate understanding. It is no coincidence that
Deborah Gordon concIudes Women W n * t h g Cultum by expIoring the
commodification of academia, the changing purposes of academics and
uses of academia, the ways in which the academic subculture operates,
and the views members have of academia and their own practice. What
recent feminist theory brings back into the anthropological debate is an
awareness of the politics of these centering tendencies as they operate
within academia and through its relations to the rest of the world, and
a s they underpin the force of language in representation. A post-
postmodern political re-decentering, likewise, is neither relativist
erasure nor realist objectification. The feminist critique of Western-
white-male-Self as center is, from the standpoint of translation, an
extension of the linguistic disruption of the masked centering tendency
that characterizes traditional forms of cross-cultural representation and
facilitates misrepresentation.
Every decentering is always also a re-centering. This is
unavoidable, as Derrida and these feminist critics have argued. But this
realization is not inconsistent w i t h the work done by many
postmodernists; feminists and anthropologists should not reject
postmodernism because it calls into question the quest for an o b j e i e
foundation to stabilize this process of recentering. A deconstructive
reading or translation makes one aware of the politics of writing and
creates a context in which one can be more conscious of the play of
force involved in translation, Precisely because readings are situated
historically and ethically, there is the possibilfty of defending a
particular political reading. When this doubly critical method is not
applied, interpretation acts as a masked potitid force that is all-to-
often the final word. The political debate is over before it begins.
The notion of ethnographic responsibility needn't become hollow
s i m p l y because objective foundations have crumbled. On the wntrary,
translation, as represented in this chapter, requires renewed attention
to questions of accountability. It neither incorporates the Other nor
rejects the Other, but acknowledges cultural difference through a self-
refierdve, comparative investigation into Linguistic difference. Feminist
theory has grown and transformed through its translational encounters
w i t h different theoretical approaches and disciplines without
compromising politics or a connection to the world. Critical anthropology
has done the same, but not by following Tyler in eliminating
representation for self-referential evocation, nor by substituting poetry
for description, nor b y reverting to realism and reinforcing traditional
claims to universal rationality. Rather, the promise of recent
anthropological approaches to translation has been realized by
compromising the essentialized Self through self-reflexive, cross-cultural
encounters, by reevaluating what it means to give an account of
another way of life, and by taking responsibility for the partiality of
the representations generated by these encounters. If there is a
"principlewof translation, it is one of Linguistic humility.
Chapter Eight - Conclushn: The Irreducible D i f f i c u l t y of
Translation, or, lhnsktbn R e V d u a t e d

There is, it s e e m s to us,

At best, on& a lirm'ted value
In tbe knowledge derived from experience,
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in evmy moment
And every m o m t is a new and shOCkiDg
Valuafibn of aLI we have been. We are only undeeived
Of that w M ' , d=*vihg, wuld no longer harm....
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
T.S. Eliot - &st Coker

The Italian saying, "traduttore, traditore," loses many of its

etymological, semantic and phonetic wmections when translated into
English as wtranslator,traito~.~ Yet, in English, "traitorw still has its
etymological connections w i t h "traditionw (both from the latin "Widere" ) .
Both signify a "handing overw or a "giving across." Tradition is the
handing down of Lifeways to successive generations wifhin a culture; it
is that w h i c h sustains an ethnos and resists change- T h e traitor, on the
other hand, betrays tradition as a "traderwof v i t a l information, an
activity that compromises the stability of political borders and the
integrity of self-contained ethnos. Trade, as w e are increasingly aware
in a shrinking capitalist world, contaminates all cultures* The translator,
as traitor, thus works against the repressive, self-verifying tendencies
of tradition. The message that the Other whandsacrosswto the
translator or target culture ideally disrupts the receiving medium or
language. A well-intentioned traitor, rather than the mechanical
transcriber, is the model of the cross-cultural communicator, of the
translator. Having engaged a number of debates focused on cross-
cultural representation and translation, I will now summarize what I take
to b e a more accurate representation of translation than the model
underlying the traditional debates.
As 1 have tried to show, that which is translated is transformed in
the process and transforms the languages and traditions in contact- J.H-
Miller notes the disruptive effect of translation on tradition:

Those who seek to assimilate a foreign theory and put it to new,

indigenous uses have imported something like a Trojan horse or
something Like one of those mmputer viruses that turn resident
programs to their alien and disruptive uses, ( M i l l e r 1996:211)

Much of what is problematic in traditional transiation theory results

from a preoccupation with component elements of Ianguage and belief
systems (the word, sentence, or individual text) and with the products
rather than the process of translation, Translation theory ought to focus
on the relation between languages, and the effects of translation on
language and culture,
Translation theory redirected in this way will inevitably
problematize the very ideas of "languagewand "culturew and, finally, the
process of theorizi&g translation itself, In at least one sense, "theory"
is a form of resistance to precisely the linguistic and cultural
polyvocality (or bricolage)' that this opening of translation brings into
view. An interpretation or translation is one voice among many. The
construction of a theory is an attempt to delimit not just the reading,
but the reading community- That is, the goal of most theorizing about
translation is to circumscribe the play of interpretation; theory often
legitimates the repression of polyvocality by appeal to One true voice,
one truth, one language, or one rationality. As I have Wied to represent

h e r characterizes bricohge in a uay that bears sirilarities to the suspension of language that I have
suggested i s essential to a good translation.
A bricolage operates by d i n g assertions and simltaneo~~~lytrying to spotlight ofiat they exclude. Stances
have to be adopted and suspended. Frames for understanding have to be devised and a t the saw time marked off
frm what they are want to repment, as there is no grandstand vim f r a uhich to define interchnge betwen
caltnres. [her 1996a:302)
Themy," it might be said, is the project of artidatiug such a 'grandstand view.'
them, "theoryw and "translationware, in some ways, in tension with one
another, Just as the translated text, variously interpreted, acts a s a
virus contaminating the stability of the receiving Linguistic system, so
too each new translation compromises the possibility of a systematic,
analytic wtransiationtheory,*
This is, of course, not to say that speculation on the nature of
translation is frivolous or unproductive, If 1 am right, such speculation
is required of the politically conscious cross-cultural interpreter. Yet
such speculation will be misguided if its aim is to produce an axiomatic
approach that can determine how the words or sentences of one
language are to be translated into another. wTranslationtheoryw in this
sense is no more or less than the recommendation that transiation
should b e ethnographic, linguistically self-reflexive, and mnducted with
political and ethical sensitivity. As Talal Asad suggests, translators use
a skill rather than appIy a theory. Beyond a few very generd
guidelines for approaching the problem of translation with the right
precautions, the activity itself proceeds on a case by case basis rather
than by following a case-independent set of rules. The flexibility
required for responsible cross-cultural communication is facilitated by
holding that the maxims of translation are open-ended and ethical rather
than precise and epistemological.2
The principle of charity is the methodological culmination (become
theory) of the appeal to "the Onewin philosophical translation theory.
T h e principle of humanity fairs little better as underlying assumptions
about humanism, human evolution, or the privileged cognitive status of
Western scientific culture often reduce it to the principle of charity.
The proper principle for cross-cultural interpretation or translation, if
one is fond of principles, is a principle of Lin-c humilr'* This
requires that the translator be prepared to compromise the target
language in the act of translation,

This is not, of course, to say that the translator does not aake nse of a great deal of theory pertaining to
sociology, psychology, econaics, religion, and any of a large number of theoretical fields, not least of all language
theory. It is to say that the alicatiw of this theory to the process of translation is lediated tbronst~the sirple
ethical aaxi~sof translation that I have proposed.
It is this Linguistic abdication of essentialized Self, represented
over and against the Other, that I have made central to a redeveloped
conception of translation. It was, no doubt, for want of a more
substantial theory of translation and a more robustly scientific approach
to cross-cultural representation that Hollis, Lukes and others attacked
the seemingly relativist position endorsed b y W i n c h . They raected any
treatment of cross-cultural interpretation that renders judgement
ungrounded. The gaal of translation, as I have construed the project, is
not judgement but understanding. The failure of Literal transIation in
the form of testable propositions that accurately represent the beliefs of
the Other does not preclude partial ethnographic translation according
to which the Other might be adequately understood. That understanding
is, however, potentially tainted by the ways in which the target
language contains a belief system embedded in its very structure. Any
representation of the beliefs of the Other is shaped by the language
that they are translated into, Failure to address the effects of the
target language structure on cross-cultural belief translations nearly
guarantees misunderstanding.
The theory of the indeterminacy of translation proposed by Quine
and Davidson effectively subverts traditional translation theory and
provides a foundation for a new understanding of the nature of
translation. The operative question, in the aftermath of indeterminacy, is
"what is one to make of translation given that it takes place in spite of
indeterminacy?" M y analyses of contemporary anthropological theories of
cross-cultural interpretation, in chapters six and seven, and m y
narrowly focused reading of Derrida are meant to provide an answer to
this question. These self-reflexive analyses transcend the polarized
oppositions between rational and irrational, realist and relativist, literal
and arbitrary dichotomies that frame treatments of translation, In Light
of these more "practice groundedw analyses, the operative question, is
not "what principles govern or constrain translation?" Translators, in
practice, simply do not appeal to a set of regulative principles when
interpreting the beliefs of the Other. Translators already translate. The
important question is, then, "what takes place in the act of translation?"
What happens when one makes a determination of that which is
indeterminate? These questions redikect attention from the matching of
linguistic units to the broader dynamics of the confrontation between
languages in translation, and to the reading community that makes use
of translations. Practice and politics supersede theory and epistemology
as attention is turned, as Goethe had poetically observed, from the word
and the thought to the power and the deed.
Contemporary anthropologists, unLike Evans-Pritchard, confront the
difficulty of translation by focusing not only on source language
statements and categories, but self-reflexively on target language
concepts and categories as well. Delaney, Hallen and Sodipo structure
whole ethnographies around the difficulty of translating central
concepts, ethnographies that do as much to critique and analyze
concepts in the target language as they do to critique and analyze
beliefs held by the Other. If my analysis is correct, this is the only way
in which a non-margin-g translation of the beliefs of the Other
might be constructed.
Another key feature of this comparative method is its refusal of
demands for interpretive closure or stability. Derrida, and translators of
Derrida, take special care in confronting the irreducible difficulty of
translation and often leave problematic t e r m s untranslated. Many
anthropologists are, likewise, attempting to describe the practices of the
Other whiIe leaving key t e r m s in the source language untranslated.
Patrick McNaughton's The Mande Blacksmiths is an excellent example of
the attempt to adequately describe beliefs very similar to those held by
the Azande by refraining from translating problematic concepts and, as
a result, precluding the imposition of Western scientific categories that
necessarily falsify the beliefs of the Other. McNaughton describes the
practices and beliefs of the nyamalrala without ever translating them as
"w i t c h e s .n3

Such refusal to translate largely precludes debates about the rationality of such practices, since one then
creates (or re-creates) a context for waning rather than chooses a ere-lade one. !tcNm@tonspecifically addresses the
b i t s of oar own teninology and acknowledges that the distortions produced by tmslatiq key tens w d d be t w great
(!lcNaughton 1988:LI). &awl for the Wde, is an nnderlying aetaphysical force that uorks on a l l natnial and social
relations tpp.16-18). Ma is the word lor handle. Therefore, the &mkala is shply one rho has a handle on this
By not translating the beliefs of the O t h e r into the uncompromised
categories of the target language, McNaughton and others who translate
self-reflexively and ethnographically engage in a method of
interpretation that avoids playing inquisitor, fordng an incorporation of
the Other into one's own linguistic frame. By foregrounding that which
defies translation through Linguistic &-reflexivity, the ethnographer
exonerates the O t h e r of pre-judgement and allows one's own language to
bend and grow. I have tried to show how the language of academia and
the structure of academia are especially conducive to this inquisitional
practice if engaged unreflecfively- The scholar's goal of producing a
single unambiguously correct representation in a strong, specialized
language is the antithesis of ethically responsible translation.
Following m y analysis, it could be said that Gentzler's
characterization of Derrida's "theorywof translation describes the
necessary shift of focus that I am recommending.

Derrida's translation "theorywis not a theory in the traditional

sense--it is not prescriptive nor does is propose a better model of
transporting. Instead, it suggests that one think less in t e r m s of
copying or reproducing and more in t e r m s of how Ianguages relate
to each other, (Gentzler 1993:167)

Philip Lewis has also concisely characterized this new focus of

concern for translation theory:

For the translator. the problem here can no longer be how to

avoid the failures--the reductive and redirective interpretations-
that disparity among natural languages assures; the problem is
how to c o m p e n s a t e for losses and to justify (in a graphological
sense) the differences--how to renew the energy and signifying
behavior that translation is likely b diffuse. (Lewis 198542)

Translations are neither objectivly determinable nor subjectively

arbitrary, rather they are a "political play" that requires, above all, the

metaphysical pouer (even this short definition is inadequate as a translation without rider knowledge of the nature of
the uhandle"or the 'paver@). Clearly there is no concept in English that translates this idea. KcNaugftton's discussion
of h d e beliefs, then, does not mounter the pmblers that Bollis et al took to be keg to ham-hitchard's muat.
It shodd be clear by now, that neither the h d e nor the Azande believe in 'witchcraft,'
exercise of what Clifford described as "ethnographic resp~nsibility.~
And, while the ethnographer must shoulder a substantial part of that
responsibility by acknowledging the irreducible difficulty of translation,
it must also be shared by the academic reading community, A promising
focus of translation theory is the increased attention being given to the
idiosyncracies of previously isolated academic disciplines by new trends
in cross-disciplinary work. This cross-disciplinary communication, too, is
an activity of translation. As texts move across Lines (whether between
Zande and English, French and English, or anthropological English and
philosophical English), they are re-interpreted, reread and re-written--
dis-placed through translation, The effect is often no less transforming
than in interLinguistic translation. The self-referential complacency of
each discipline is infected by the invasion of this Trojan horse, virus,
or pharmakon t h a t opens up the politics of translation over and against
traditional theory.
Translation is more give than take; it requires a bending of one's
own language to accommodate the Other and to understand cross-
cultural difference, A self-conscious and responsible translation
methodology seeks to understand the Other without imposing Western
epistemological standards on them through language. Cross-cultural
understanding is only possible when calling attention to the difficulty of
translation and sometimes its impossibility.
Tanya Luhrmann concludes her study of contemporary witchcraft in
England in a fashion that stands in stark contrast to Evans-Pritchard's.
Rather than questioning the epistemological status of the beliefs of the
Other, the open and self-refhive nature of translation draws attention
to the surreptitious linguistic limits that w e often place on ourselves,
and potentially allows us to, as Benjamin Whorf had hoped, transcend
those limits.

Understanding the difference between cultures and within them

brings us moral humility in the face of human adaption. It also
brings us closer to the Delphic imperative under which w e
struggle. (Luhrmann 1989:356)
The debates surrounding t h e beliefs held by members of other
cultures are undermined from the start by the dismissal of the difficulty
of translation. Semantics, epistemoIogy, and philosophy itself. come after
translation, To, again, misappropriate a passage from Derrida: With
translation we confront,-- "nothing less than the problem of the very
passage into philosophy,w
Translation, in f-his spirit, is cultural criticism in the recent sense
of "criticism? Because the Other is not a text, but a person (or people),
it is ethical criteria that are methodologically operative in the act of
translating, So translation is (e)valuated or re-evaluated; i t is
communication that acts as commentary on the Self and the Other
simultaneously, displacing and disrupting both. Confronting the
difficulty of translation is a way to confront and accept difference-
both linguistic and cultural,
Abu-Lughod, Lila
1991 Writing Against Culture. In Recapturing Anthropo10gy: Workiog
in the Presenf,ed, Richard Fox, School of American Research
Press, Santa Fe pp-137-162
Appadurai, Arjun
1992 Putting Hierarchy in Its PIace- In Rereadiag Culfural
Anthropology, (ed,) George E, Marcus, D u k e U n i v e r s i t y Press,
Durham and London, pp.34-47
Asad, Talal
1986 The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social
Anthropology, In Writing Culture: The Poetics and PoIr'tics o f
Ethnography. (ed.) James Clifford and George E, Marcus.
University of California Press. Berkley. pp.141-164
Assmann, Aleida
1996 The Curse and Blessing of Babel; or, Looking Back on
U n i v e r s a l i s m s , In The TranslatabiLity of Cultures: Figurations
of the Space Between. (eds.) Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Lser
Stanford University Press, Stanford, pp.85-100
Atkinson, Paul
1990 The EthograpMc Imaginatibn: Textual Cmstru&bns of R d t y .
Routledge, London
1992 Understanding Ethnographic Texts. Sage Publications, Inc.

Bar-On, Dorit
1994 Conceptual Relativism and Translation. In Language, Miod and
Epistemology (eds. ) Preyer, Siebelt, Ulfig Kluwer Academic
Publishers. Netherlands pp.145-170

Barnes, Barry and David Bloor

1982 Mativism, Rationalism and the Sociology of Knowledge, In
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