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Postmodernist Anthropology and its Impact on Translation Practice Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 7th, 2019

It would be fair enough to state that translation in its practical use appeared together with the appearance of the mankind. Not only finding the lexical equivalents, but also interpreting one’s thoughts and ideas, and conveying the meaning of different signs were the tasks of translation at that time. Nowadays the process of translation is even more complex, and simply knowing two languages does not make one a translator.

What is more, with the development of the humanity, more and more translation problems occur, and the number of skills needed to translate is increasing constantly. As it can be seen, translation is realized by humans and for humans, which means that these two notions are inseparable. For this reason, the interdependence between the translation and anthropology, the study of humans, is hard to overestimate.

Indeed, one of the fundamental tasks of anthropology is understanding different cultures, which “inevitably involves either the translation of words, ideas, and meanings from one culture to another, or the translation to a set of analytical concepts” (Rubel, 1).

This means that translation in all its forms is crucial for anthropology. On the other hand, translation cannot exist separately from anthropology; knowledge of the cultural background is as important as knowledge of language grammar for a good translation. That is why, the translator’s practice is always connected to the anthropological studies.

However, despite the interdependence of the two disciplines, there was a period in history, when anthropological ideas and translator’s principles encountered. Specifically, the post-modern anthropology denied the possibility of effective learning about other cultures.

For instance, the post-modernist ideas in the field of anthropology were based on the opinion that “anthropology could recognize, respect, and celebrate differences between cultures, only, it appears, by effacing differences within cultures” (Coombe, 191).

In other words, postmodernist anthropologists defended the point of view that any attempt to learn and understand other culture is destined to fail, as far as there is no way of comprehending the other culture other than being a part of it.

This excluded the traditional need for translation, in which the attempts to understand cultures were crucial. Thus, such tendencies in the anthropological theory had a great impact on the development of practical translation patterns.

It may seem that the occurrence of the mentioned ideas in anthropology decreased the importance of translation. Indeed, if the scientists focused on studying a local culture, there was no more need to translate from and to other languages.

In addition, the cross-cultural and comparative studies became less spread, leading to a lower level of cultural exchange. However, in reality these changes did not reject the translation, but changed it considerably.

First of all, while describing the influence of the postmodernist anthropology on translator’s practice, it is worth mentioning that the deeper understanding of the native language was developed.

Studying the local culture allowed the anthropologists collect much information about the language history, its development, differences in use in various regions, etc.

As a result, the ethnographical background of the language was investigated, including the etymology and origin of the words. This suggests that the translators were first of all linguists, who had a sense of their own language. This quality is crucial for translation into the translator’s native language.

What is more, due to the decrease in the cross-cultural exchange, all the languages became “purer”. This means that the languages were isolated from the borrowings, internationalisms, and barbarisms, which allowed preserving the ethnic flavor and original sounding of the language.

In contrast, nowadays the process of globalization suggests that every language is overfilled with the words, which have the same meaning in every part of the world. From this point of view, it can be said that the translation according to the principles of the postmodern anthropology became rich in relation to national coloring.

As far as the postmodern anthropology was practiced all around the world, this process has “purified” all the languages. This created a firm foundation for the further cultural exchange, which was on its peak a bit later. One more peculiarity of the translator’s practice was that the translations had a more local orientation.

While earlier the translations seek to “address different audiences and meet different expectations” (Hansen, 34), now they oriented their works at a certain type of audience. In other words, with the narrowing down of the culture studies, the translation efficiency has increased.

The translators therefore did not address their works to the audience that was aware of the cultural differences between various communities anymore; they knew that the members of the audience were rather bounded with the traditional models of world perception, determined by their own culture.

Based on the evidence given below, it may seem logical that the task of the translator is to render the meaning of the source language message into the target language; however, the cultures of the two nationalities should not be mixed.

As some anthropologists noted, from the point of view of cultures, the translators should preserve “the idiosyncrasies of both the domestic and foreign cultures in their common ground, i.e. in pure language” (Muller, 74). However, this concept differs from what we call a translation nowadays.

Indeed, today the translator’s practice demands making a research about the traditions and history of the other nation; moreover, descriptive translation, where the cultural differences are being decoded, is often preferred to the word for word or faithful translation. This can be explained by the fact that the fullest translation is the one that renders the original meaning rather than simply gives a corresponding vocabulary variant.

In order to prove what had been previously said, several examples can be given. The expression “Uncle Sam” is well-known to all the Americans; however, how should it be translated to an audience in an Uzbek village? Another case is the Russian name Vanka, which is often used to address an infantile and unserious man.

In other languages there is no such equivalent, so for example to English this word would be translated simply as “clown.” Obviously, not taking into consideration the national peculiarities and ethnographical differences puts the translation at risk of being irrelevant and misinterpreting.

All in all, it should be said that the translation as a practical application of language and anthropology as a study of civilization are mutually dependent. The postmodernist anthropological ideas influenced the translation practice in a way that involved separating cultures one from another rather than integrating them into one.

On one hand, this tendency was rather positive in terms of national coloring preservation and vocabulary organization. On the other hand, it was rather limiting because of its rejection of multi-cultural exchange. Thus, this approach, as any other approach in science, cannot be considered as neither ultimately misleading or totally sufficient.

Works Cited

Coombe, Rosemary 1991, “Encountering the postmodern: new directions in cultural anthropology”. Canadian Association of Sociology and Anthropology, vol. 28(2).

Hansen, Gyde, Malmkaer, Kirsten, Gile, Daniel 2003. Claims, changes, and challenges in translation studies. EST Congress, Copenhagen.

Muller, Klaus 1995, “Transferring culture in translation – modern and postmodern options”. Traduction, Terminologie, Redaction, vol.8 (1), p.65-83.

Rubel, Paula, Rosman, Abraham 2003. Translating cultures: perspectives on translation and anthropology. Berg, Oxford.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Postmodernist Anthropology and its Impact on Translation Practice." June 7, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/postmodernist-anthropology-and-its-impact-on-translation-practice/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Postmodernist Anthropology and its Impact on Translation Practice'. 7 June.

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