Ethnography (not) in Translation

As I desperately scramble to prepare my syllabi for the new semester (our winter break falls on the lunar new year), I run into the same problem I’ve dealt with every semester since I began teaching in Taiwan: hardly any ethnographies (or social science textbooks for that matter) are translated into Chinese.

This is not a problem unique to me, the only non-native speaker in the department; all the Taiwanese professors share the same frustration. Almost all of my colleagues are educated in the US or Europe and wrote their dissertations relying heavily on English language sources, almost none of which have been translated. They naturally want to teach using the materials that they are familiar with from their own studies. (At another time I plan to write more about the ways we and our students cope with this situation, such as when students resort to scanning entire chapters, or even books, and running them through machine translation software which spits out pure gibberish. But for now I want to focus on the issue of translation.)

Whether texts are old or new, famous or obscure doesn’t seem to matter. What is translated seems to largely be a matter of the personal whims of the translators. In some cases I’ve been told that the translations which do exist are so bad that student’s prefer to use the English (although I’ve yet to see a student read the English version when a translation is available).

Looking for numbers on the web, all I could find were a number of articles bemoaning how parochial Americans are, with translations comprising only about 3% of the literature and poetry published in the US (1999 numbers). My guess is that the percentage in Taiwan is higher than that, and there are books from China as well although some students make faces when forced to read simplified characters. Although the bookstores are full of translated fiction, nonfiction is another story, and ethnographies are nowhere to be found.

I think there are serious implications for how non-English speakers learn Anthropology, which touch on the theory/ethnography discussion emerging out of Strong’s last post. While teachers often complain that Taiwanese students don’t get “theory” and don’t know how to think critically, it is precisely the grand works of theory and critical thinking which seem to get translated – not the ethnographies which make up the vast bulk of anthropological writing.

What to do? It would help if there was a simple way to see which books have been translated. Finding translations is an art of its own, requiring some fancy use of Google’s advanced search features. But more useful might be setting up some kind of translation wiki like what my friend has set up for the China Study Group website.

9 thoughts on “Ethnography (not) in Translation

  1. Two thoughts:

    1. What are the economics of translating academic texts into Chinese, and how do these affect availability? Probably there’s a different answer in Taiwan and in the PRC. (Heck, if I thought I could make my living doing it, I would be somewhat tempted to give up the professor gig.)

    2. Do you think that your students are any more or less theory-resistant than students at a comparable US institution? The ready availability of the texts suggests that there’s some other reason they’re not reading them. I think theory is a hard sell to those who don’t already drink the kool-aid, and I would like to figure out how we as profs can make the case for the kind of deep examination of assumptions that constitutes theory (as well as its potential to bridge otherwise unrelated bodies of data) without seeming like professional navel-gazers.

  2. I would have to add that the “theory” I like is deeply intertwined with ethnography and other sorts of empirical material (eg history). I remember reading Giddens in a graduate seminar and our entire class (of anthropologists) came to class with “what is all this terminology? how can you tell whether it means anything until you try to use it to talk about something.” I guess that answer in teaching is to somehow try to teach the theory in the ethnography–thought that might leave you out of luck Kerim.

  3. I have had similar, and similarly frustrating, experiences with linguistics students I have worked with in Peru. Literally none of the works that I think these students need to read, and that they proactively *want* to read, are translated into Spanish. Nor are they likely be, for the economic reasons alluded to by Kate. Academic publishing is sufficiently marginal a business that its hard to see anyone making the investment to translate these works. And the consequences are serious: these students are effectively shut out of the last several decades of academic discourse in linguistics (the same holds for cultural anthropology).

    The only feasible solution I see is one that students themselves can implement:multilingualism. For good or ill, English has emerged as the lingua franca for many academic disciplines, just as in other times, French, German, and Latin were. Of course, this is cold comfort to the students in Kerim’s classes right now…

    Which brings to mind, of course, an aprocryphal Roman Jakobson story. Once, the story goes, Roman Jakobson was teaching a course on Russian linguistics at Harvard. Everyone wanted to get into the course, to learn at the knee of the great Roman Jakobson, leading to many problems. As a solution, Jakobson decided to teach the course in Russian. As expected, the number of attending students dropped suddenly. However, one bright-eyed student, hungry for knowledge, expressed his dismay and explained to Jakobson that he really, really wanted to learn what Jakobson had to say, but he just didn’t understand Russian. To which Jakobson replied (the linguist who told me this story did this with a great accented voice): “You are a linguist, try.”

    (Another version I have heard replaced Russian with Bulgarian, which the multilingual Jakobson was also fluent in.)

  4. 1)Due to the population in China, even academic books make money. The problem is how much money the publishers want to make.
    2)Ch-E and E-Ch translation is much more difficult than, say, French-English or English-French. And translators of serious works are very badly paid. Good translation is usually done by retired professors who are not busy, who like translation (as an art in China) and don’t care about money.
    3)To be honest, if I have to write same academic papers both in English and Chinese, the two versions will be significantly different. I wouldn’t translate them from one language into the other. I would rewrite them because the readers are different, the way of talking is different, even the relevancy of the content is different. What counts for theory? Whose theory? I like Marta E. Savigliano’s words:
    “For a latina woman intellectual, methods and theories are a question of politics and not the other way around. Intellectual competition and access to the academic market soon turn out to be a trap.”

  5. I find myself wondering if translating key materials into local languages isn’t the kind of project a foundation or government organization might support. If demand isn’t high enough to support a commercial publishing venture, it might still be possible to get someone to fund, for example, translation of a library of classic books and articles for educational purposes.

    The tricky bit will be finding qualified scholars willing to take time from their own research to invest the time and effort it would take. What may be needed here is a reformation in the kinds of work that count for promotion.

    I observe that in my wife’s former field, Japanese literature, a common form of research is a translation of a famous work, combined with a long introduction that situates it historically, includes biographical notes on the author, analyzes the structure, and reviews works illustrating influence and criticisms. Something along these lines could be very valuable, indeed, to students who need not only to read the piece itself but also to know its context.

  6. I feel your pain, Kerim. And would love to see or even help with the wiki project. There is what looks to be a pretty comprehensive list of ‘grand theory’ in translation at:

    This discussion brings to mind Shelly Rigger’s review of the Pol Sci literature on Taiwan in which she observes that a methodological division of labor seems to have emerged in that field where foreign scholars are doing most of the qualitative work while indigenous scholars are doing most of the quantitative. Whats up with that? I thought the native philologers were supposed to provide deep-rock data mining and the neocolonial number crunchers were the guys in white suits with the measuring scales …

  7. How about thinking of it this way? The foreigners are still surprised by things the natives take for granted, so they ask better qualitative questions. The natives already know a lot more about what’s going on, so they are ready to move on quantitative issues, “how much?” instead of just “what?”

    Or, of course, it could have to do with basic education much stronger in math that makes it easier to do quantitative stuff in graduate school overseas, while sophisticated qualitative thinking requires a higher level of foreign language competence….

  8. Wow. That’s a great list. Thanks Jeff!

    John: It is not uncommon to see positivism strongly emphasized in authoritarian development states like that of the early KMT. But so many Taiwanese scholars have now been trained abroad that I’m not sure Rigger’s characterization still holds water…

  9. Kerim, you may be right. You’re certainly closer to the scene that I am. I was, however, thinking of people who would have been trained outside Taiwan and might have found it easier to follow a quantitative path because the math was relatively easy for them while the language of qualitative analysis, not so much to read as to write, was very hard.

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