Via Lorenz, I see that the latest Anthropology News article by Brazilian anthropologist Gustavo Lins Ribeiro is freely available online. In it he seeks to offer an alternative vision of the knowledge economy which breaks down barriers between the various national anthropologies which have emerged over the past century. Although there is some flow from these various national anthropologies to the English speaking world, he would like to see more horizontal flows of knowledge:
We need to foster the visibility of non-metropolitan works of quality and enhance our modes of exchanging information. Translation of different anthropological materials into English is important to help diversify knowledge of the international production of anthropology. But unidirectional translation is not enough. If we want to avoid linguistic monotony, we also need to increase the quantity of heterodox exchanges and translations. German anthropologists should be translated into Japanese, Mexicans into German, Australians into Portuguese, Brazilians into Russian, and so on.
A noble goal, which I wholeheartedly endorse, but it is also necessary to consider just what a tall order this is. It costs the EU a billion dollars a year to translate all official documents into the various member languages. The entire US publishing industry only manages to translate about 330 books a year into English. Volunteer translations on the web can help, but I have yet to see any such site that produces a significant volume of output. For instance, there is a huge gulf between the various language versions of Wikipedia – the one place where we would expect the web to work best in this regard. And we all know just how far machine translation still has to go …
Which isn’t to say that it can’t be done. Government subsidies, better machine translation, and collaborative online software can all help. But for the time being I think we will still depend on individual scholars who have the skills to serve as a bridge across the linguistic divide. We should remind people just how valuable those skills are, and why it is worth the significant time and costs to train scholars in those skills. And not just scholars, but diplomats and our defense forces as well.