Translation Economy

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.

5 thoughts on “Translation Economy

  1. Well, USA is the exception here. Translation of texts is more usual in other parts of the world. Two examples of multilingual online-journals in Europe:
    Cafe Babel:
    Something similar could be realized in anthropology as well!

    But the development in Norway goes rather the other way round. Fewer and fewer papers are written in Norwegian, more and more in English.

  2. I’d be curious to see hard numbers on how many books are translated by French or German publishers in a given year. The article I link to was responding to a UN report which dispaired at how little was translated into Arabic by pointing out that the US doesn’t do much better. My guess is that you will only see significant output in places where there are large government subsidies to support it. I think more and more Europeans are simply producing content in English. I know my brother, who teaches computer science in France, worked very hard to do his very first presentation in French when he got the job, only to discover that everyone else presented in English!

  3. We are working on Chinese-English translation and annotation software at, and there isn’t much funded reseach available for use. What little corpi/wordbanks exist are almost all priced for large institutional subscribers. We could probably collect enough to buy someone a cup of coffee.

    Industrial competitiveness matters, so it’s understandable that many governments structure research grants in ways that encourage the control and commercialization of IPR. This approach has negative repercussions for smaller and independent projects like ours, however. And I think that in the case of languages it is a particular pity, as there is a stark disconnect between the needs of those studying languages and the end goals of many research programs.

  4. And does anyone know where one might find the translated works that we do have available? It is so tedious to find anything current, nearly impossible so far. Specifically, I’m looking for French works translated into English but I need their original versions too. This could practically qualify as a workload of fully thesis proportions. Any help finding these texts would be much appreciated!

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