IFK_RESEARCH FOCUS

CULTURES OF TRANSLATION

Cultural studies/Kulturwissenschaften should truly be called cultures studies/Kulturen-Wissenschaften, since they are concerned with cultures as plural and dynamic life-forms characterized by processes of movement, exchange, delimitation, transfer, and reciprocal influence and interpenetration. The multiplicity of social, political, and religious persuasions articulated in six to seven thousand languages worldwide has a corresponding array of translation strategies: from interpretation (consecutive, simultaneous) to the translation of gestures, written or audio-visual documents. Contexts and genres are relevant, whether in diplomacy, law, religion, administration, science, and literature. Strategies of translation include, to name just a few, the search for universal languages; constructed languages, such as Esperanto; transculturally comprehensible systems of signs and visualization (pictograms); globalizing effects of the circulation of images and music (which was already characterized as a world-language in Romanticism); and, not least, the search for digital translation algorithms and computer programs.

The network of early European cultural studies/Kulturwissenschaften was not just founded on the striking multilingualism of its protagonists, but also on manifold cultures of translation. It is remarkable how little attention these cultures of translation and their histories have attracted—particularly in the context of European integration and the Bologna Process. Furthermore, translators often occupy precarious positions within the academe. This is in spite of the fact that cultures of translation make important contributions to the genesis of transnational identities and to the emergence of a shared (or at least potentially shareable) cultural memory. Thus, significant individual achievements in translation could be discussed as a linchpin of the new research focus on cultures of translation. Further topics could include debates about translation theories (e.g., the distinction between source-language and target-language translation); questions about untranslatability and the untranslatable; the historical significance of mistranslations; or attempts at self-translation, calling to mind Samuel Beckett’s lament about “the usual wilderness of self-translation” in a letter to Alan Schneider, the director of Film (1965) with Buster Keaton.1

Translation should of course be thematized not only in the strict sense of linguistic translation, but also against the backdrop of an expanded concept of translation (analogous to the expanded concept of art postulated by Joseph Beuys), which sufficiently accounts for the histories of society, media, and technology, among others. This includes, e.g., attempts to render architectural structures, landscapes, images, or musical compositions in texts, sign diagrams, and codes (and vice versa). In this context, older discussions about total works of art (Gesamtkunstwerke)—as attempts to integrate text, image, and music, e.g., in opera and film—can be revived. Cinematic reform efforts, most recently in the Dogme 95 manifesto, have frequently called for an aesthetic reductionism. In his Notes on the Cinematographer, Robert Bresson wrote: “When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer. A sound must never come to the rescue of an image, nor an image to the rescue of a sound. If a sound is the obligatory complement of an image, give preponderance either to the sound, or to the image. If equal, they damage or kill each other, as we say of colors.”2

In the context of an expanded concept of translation, priority should also be accorded to Postcolonial Studies’ discussions about the notion of “cultural translation” (with reference to Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator”), to findings from Animal Studies, ethnology, education, or psychotherapy, as well as to the harmonization of law and work with refugees and traumatized individuals. In short, the new research focus is designed to explore and expand the contours of a “translational turn,” as Doris Bachmann-Medick called it a decade ago.3


  1. Letter from Samuel Beckett to Alan Schneider, 7 November 1962. Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider, No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider, ed. by Maurice Harmon (Cambridge, MA, 1999), p. 131.

  2. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, trans. by Jonathan Griffin (Copenhagen, 1997), pp. 61-62.

  3. Cf. Doris Bachmann-Medick, Cultural Turns. Neuorientierungen in den Kulturwissenschaften, 3rd ed. (Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2009), p. 253.