Thinking through the untranslatable

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Kevin Carrico as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Kevin is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for US-China Issues, having completed his PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at Cornell University in 2013. His research focuses upon the implications of Han nationalism for ethnic relations in China. He is a contributor to Cultural Anthropology’s special issue on Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet, and his translation of Tsering Woeser’s Self-immolation in Tibet is forthcoming from Verso Press in 2015.)

I recently finished translating a book, Tsering Woeser’s Self-Immolation in Tibet (Immolation au Tibet, la honte du monde), in a project that combines the two main components of my career path thus far: translation and anthropology. Prior to my graduate work, I was a translator of Chinese and French documents in Shanghai. And now as an anthropologist, I still engage in the occasional translation of texts that I consider uniquely insightful. This brief essay is an attempt to think through the relationship between these two activities via my recent work on self-immolation in Tibet.

Prior to entering the translation industry, the distant and thus romanticized notion of translation conjured images of simultaneous interpreters at the United Nations, talking frantically into earpieces or banging away at keyboards to facilitate communication for a global community. Soon after entering the industry, however, I found that professional translators spend a considerable amount of time sitting at their desks and staring at screens as they translate one inane document after another. Now that I have finished this washing machine manual, should I get started on this blueprint for the annual city carnival’s layout, or just save that for tomorrow? I often found myself leaning towards the latter option.

I thus eventually made the transition to anthropology, a discipline which draws upon many of the same skills employed in translation, such as linguistic competence, familiarity with the sociocultural and political context, and the ability to read (or listen) between the lines… albeit in considerably more interesting settings. Despite my own admitted hesitation to draw a simple parallel between the two activities, there is indeed much that they share in common. Each takes difference and makes it comprehensible, finding commonality. The main difference is that anthropology should ideally employ these skills towards more contemplative ends than translation: an ideal that does not however always match the everyday reality of academic life.

Nowhere have I encountered greater challenges for my translation skills and analytical capabilities than in the study of self-immolation in Tibet. Since 2009, more than 135 Tibetans have chosen to set their bodies on fire in protest against the current situation in Tibet. As these events have unfolded, I have attempted to write on this topic, as well as translating some of Tibetan scholar Tsering Woeser’s thoughts on this phenomenon. Whether writing or translating, this is a topic that has brought me far away from the mundane world of washing machine manuals and blueprints, challenging me to think through and make sense of a most extreme experience.

Self-immolation would seem to be an absolute, even untranslatable form of difference: as I sit here before a computer screen on a November day in the middle of Oklahoma, there are few phenomena in life that could seem more remote than someone’s conscious decision to set their body alight and the unthinkable bodily experience that follows. This remoteness would seem to highlight the promise of both translation and anthropology, which can begin to bring us closer to other people’s worlds, whether through the translation of self-immolators’ final statements, or through the analytical attempt to answer the most pressing questions of why, and where to go from here. Yet alongside this seeming promise, I have found in the process of translating and writing that self-immolation creates fundamental challenges for the articulation of these events in words, which reliably fail in relation to the act under description.

This unique challenge of putting words to this act has however been uniquely productive for recalibrating my perspective on the relationship between writing and thinking. In contrast to the founding assumptions of both translation and anthropology, I have begun to think that sometimes what the world needs is not necessarily more words. After all, how many words have been spoken or written about Tibet over about the years? The discussion is far too often expressed through such abstract and even fundamentally alienated notions as historical sovereignty, economic development, territorial control, or even conspiratorial narratives about the “Dalai Lama clique.” Such concepts provide solace that we know what we are talking about and, one after another, are comfortingly very easy for me to translate back and forth between languages without much thought.

Parallel to the distance between my everyday life and the act of self-immolation, however, we must also note the fundamental distance between largely hollow and self-reproducing modes of communication and the concrete experience on the ground in Tibet producing the act of self-immolation. Self-immolation is an act that is impossible to translate because it requires no translation, taking us beyond words, so many of which have already been voiced on the topic of Tibet. Writings on Tibet often exist in a cycle of polarized and self-reinforcing opinions and accompanying identifications. Instead, self-immolation gives us a very visible and visceral experience of human suffering without vengeance against others, an inerasable image of fundamental humanity beyond language.

What self-immolation and other such extreme experiences require of us, then, is not necessarily more writing, but rather more thinking. Actual thinking, usually the source of initial interest in an academic career, can easily be lost in the realities of this career, with its daily deluge of emails, class preparation, job applications, revisions, and the rush to publish. Leaving the translation industry in search of more room for contemplation, I have ironically found that sometimes in academia there is even less time for thinking. The challenge of self-immolation, and the discovery that anything that one says or writes seems to never fully live up to this act, has produced a unique pause in this flurry of activity that has been strangely liberating, highlighting contemplation not only as an essential part of the writing process but also as a productive end in and of itself.

In his Psychoanalysis of Fire, Gaston Bachelard proposes that contemplation and even the pursuit of knowledge itself originate from the human relationship to fire. This relationship between fire and thought, he argues, can be seen in the hypnotic and contemplative gaze directed towards the relatively mundane embers of a fireplace. The flames that have been ignited across Tibet have provoked and will continue to provoke observation, contemplation, and commentary from scholars and other concerned individuals around the world, to help us better understand the realities of Tibet today. But the challenge of thinking through these flames has taught me an equally important lesson: as scholars in a cut-throat academic industry wherein communication never rests, in the hurry to write or lecture or argue for our viewpoint, sometimes we lose sight of the importance of the fundamental act of contemplation. These remote and untranslatable events on the Tibetan plateau, then, have also helped me to rediscover, in and beyond the act of writing, the place of silent contemplation.



Series Navigation<< On Ethnographic Unknowability
Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

One thought on “Thinking through the untranslatable

  1. But the challenge of thinking through these flames has taught me an equally important lesson: as scholars in a cut-throat academic industry wherein communication never rests, in the hurry to write or lecture or argue for our viewpoint, sometimes we lose sight of the importance of the fundamental act of contemplation.

    A beautiful and important thought. The limits of language may be an ancient issue, especially for those of us who study China and its peripheries and recall the warning in the Dao De Jing that the Dao that can be named is not the real Dao. The classical responses to this predicament are poetry and silence. Those with an interest in constructive things to do in a classroom should read Kevin’s article, “The pedagogy of controversy in the field of China Studies: teaching the Cultural Revolution,” which appears at the top of the list of his publications on

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