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Cross-cultural Translation Studies as Thick Translation

Theo Hermans (University College London)

Let me begin with two specific examples. Both will have a familiar ring. I do not intend to
discuss either example in any detail. They merely serve to illustrate, however briefly, the kind of
problem I am trying to address.
My first case concerns Aristotle, and more particularly John Jones book On Aristotle and
Greek Tragedy (1962, 1971). In the history of readings, of interpretations, and therefore also of
translations of Aristotles Poetics, Jones book is regarded as a landmark which altered our
modern perception of the way in which Aristotle conceived of ancient Greek tragedy. Crucially,
Jones demonstrated that Aristotle did not operate with a concept of a tragic hero in an
individualized or romantic or Hamlet-like sense. Instead he argued that Aristotle thought of
tragedy in situational terms, and that a notion like the change of fortune, so crucial in
Aristotles description of tragedy, should be understood not in a personal but in a situational
sense. Jones pointed out, for instance, that Aristotle does not speak of the change in the heros
fortune (as e.g. Ingram Bywaters 1909 translation has it) but simply of the change of fortune,
the reference being to a state of affairs rather than to the stage-portrayal of one mans
vicissitude (Jones 1971: 14-16).
A different understanding of Aristotles meaning means a different translation. A translation
into English may then need to make an extra effort to wrap itself around the specificity of the
Greek words as understood, or understood anew, by the modern commentator. Jones shows his
awareness of this in his rendering of one of the terms that crop up in connection with
anagnorisis, the recognition of the fatal error in a tragedy. The current Penguin version of the
Poetics, which in this instance has not followed Jones, translates Aristotles definition of
anagnorisis as
a change from ignorance to knowledge, [which] leads either to love or to hatred
between persons (Dorsch 1965: 46; my underlining, TH).
Jones translates the definition rather awkwardly as
a change from ignorance to knowledge, and thus to a state of nearness and
dearness [philia] or to a state of enmity, on the part of those (Jones 1971: 58;
my underlining, TH).
His comment picks up the Greek term philia, which, he says,
I render, hideously, state of nearness and dearness in my determination to avoid
love, the word favoured by English translators (ibid.).
Jones reason for so emphatically sidestepping the seemingly obvious rendering of philia as
love becomes apparent when he quotes a fellow classicist, Gerard Else (Aristotles Poetics: the
Argument, 1957), who explains why love will not do as a translation of philia:

[philia] is not friendship or love or any other feeling, but the objective state of
being [philoi], dear ones, by virtue of blood ties. When Oedipus recognizes
Laius that is, realizes who it was he killed at the crossroads he changes from
ignorance to knowledge, and at the same moment, since Laius was his father, he
moves into a state of [philia] his feelings do not count as much as the new
situation into which he has moved with his shift from ignorance to awareness.
(Else quoted in Jones 1971: 58).
Another, more recent translation of the Poetics, by Richard Janko (1987), speaks of
recognition as
a change from ignorance to knowledge, and so to either friendship or enmity
(Janko 1987: 14; my underlining,TH)
While Janko has gone for friendship, his annotations, which are more than double the length
of the actual translation, point out that the Greek term philia is much stronger than the English
friendship and has connotations of kinship by blood, marriage or ties of hospitality (Janko
1987: 95-6). These additional glosses help us appreciate why Jones felt pressed to steer clear of
standard dictionary phrases and opt instead for state of nearness and dearness, despite the
hideousness; they also remind us that in cases like these we cannot read the translation without
simultaneously consulting the notes and critical apparatus.
I was put on the trail of Jones re-reading of Aristotle by Lawrence Venutis The Scandals
of Translation (1998) - although Venuti highlights other examples than those given above.
Towards the end of his discussion Venuti remarks that all these readings, including Jones, are
necessarily partial and localized: they are what he calls domestic representations (Venuti 1998:
70) a useful phrase. What he means is that Jones was a child of his age, and was quickly
recognized as one. Indeed, when Venuti checked the contemporary reviews of Jones book, he
found several that linked Jones approach to Aristotle with the prevailing philosophical climate
of Existentialism:
As reviewers suggested, Jones concept of determinate subjectivity reveals an
existentialist manner of thinking that enabled him both to question the
individualism of classical scholarship and to develop an interdisciplinary method
of reading, not psychological but sociological and anthropological (Venuti
1998: 70).
Venuti concludes by suggesting that
Jones study was able to establish a new orthodoxy in classical scholarship
because it met scholarly standards for textual evidence and critical argument, but
also because it reflected the rise of existentialism as a powerful current in postWorld War II culture. (Venuti 1998: 70-1)
I am not in a position to judge whether Jones reviewers were right in positing a link between
Jones and existentialism, whether all or most or only some reviewers made the connection, or
for that matter whether Venutis explanation of why Jones view came to be widely accepted
hits the mark or constitutes simply another domestic representation. I mention this aspect only
to emphasize that the process of reading other peoples readings of individual texts has no end

and of course anyone reading this is entitled to wonder about my reading of Venutis reading of
Jones reading of Aristotles reading of the nature of ancient Greek tragedy.
Let me sum up this first example. My point in revisiting Jones reinterpretation of Aristotle
was to indicate, first, the difficulty and complexity of the cross-cultural and historical
interpretation of terms and concepts, even when the exercise is applied to such canonical texts
as the Poetics; secondly, the fact that this revisionary enterprise is an ongoing process extending
into the here and now and on into the future; thirdly, the inevitability of translation as the
companion of cross-temporal and cross-cultural interpretation; and, fourthly, the pertinence of
what Venuti refers to as domestic representations and what hermeneuticists might call the
interpreters historicity, with all the particular pre-judgements and horizons of expectation that
come with them. While these pre-judgements and horizons allow us to recognize or to
construe - similarity in what is different and other, they also generate their own forms of
dyslexia, enlarging certain aspects or kinds of similarity while creating blind spots elsewhere.
Yan Fu
My second example involves Chinese, a language and tradition I am wholly ignorant of. The
case concerns the celebrated set of three terms occuring right at the start of the General
Remarks on Translation with which Yan Fu prefaced his rendering of Thomas Huxleys
Evolution and Ethics in 1898. The terms have been rendered into English in a number of
different ways. The issue I want to highlight is not so much what the best translation might be,
but what would be needed to give me, as an outsider, access to the range and depth of meaning
of the terms.
The terms, transliterated, are xin, da and ya. A quick, random sampling of translations into
English can be tabulated as follows:
to be faithful,

expressive, and

elegance of style
or elegance

C.Y. Hsiu 1973: 4

Hung & Pollard 1998: 371
Wang Nin 1996: 43
Liu Miqing 1995a: 3
Huang Yushi 1995: 278
Ma Zuyi 1995: 382
Gilbert Fong 1995: 582
Elisabeth Sinn 1995: 441
Wu Jingrong 1995: 529
Wang Zongyan 1995: 560
Wang Zuoliang 1995: 999
Fan Shouyi 1994: 152
Yuen Ren Chao
Xing Lu 1998: 10
Venuti 1998: 182

It may look as if there is a reassuringly large amount of agreement between the renderings on
offer, but when I put that observation alongside the remark by one critic that for Yan Fus terms

da and ya, so far at least eight and fifteen interpretations are on record respectively (Liu
1995b: 1034), I wonder how much the apparent agreement among the translations conceals.
That nagging doubt only increases when we see Yan Fu himself rehearsing his key terms later
in his preface and, in the process, evoking both Confucius and the Book of Changes:
The Book of Changes says that rhetoric should uphold truthfulness [xin].
Confucius says that expressiveness [da] is all that matters in language. He adds
that if ones language lacks grace [ya], it will not travel far. These qualities, then,
are the criterion of good writing and, I believe, of good translation too. (Yan Fu
quoted in Wang Zuoliang 1995: 999)
As the passage shows, and as several critics (e.g. Liu Miqing 1995a: 9) have noted, Yan Fus
terms carry textual echoes taking us back two thousand years and more. Indeed there are studies
available in English which explore this historical dimension and delve into the reasons for Yan
Fus conservative choice of style as a writer and translator (Wong 1999; Chan forthcoming).
In overwriting Yan Fus terms with English labels we obliterate these echoes - or worse.
Venuti, for example, equates Yan Fus third term with fluency. In view of the intertextual
import of Yan Fus term on the one hand, and, on the other, the very specific load with which
Venuti has charged the word fluency in his own work, this translation seems limiting at best.
The fact that at least one critic (Yuen Ren Chao) saw fit to render Yan Fus second term as
fluency does not help matters either.
But the question remains: where do we locate Yan Fus concepts in the web of western
terms, and what would be an appropriate vocabulary or conceptual grid to render them? The
author of a recent comparison of ancient Greek and Chinese rhetoric pits Yan Fu against Walter
Benjamin (Xing Lu 1998: 10) and, to my mind at least, seriously misrepresents Benjamin when
he writes:
Of these three principles, faithfulness is considered of utmost concern to the
translator, even at the expense of expressiveness and elegance. In Walter
Benjamins opinion, however, this emphasis on fidelity is no longer serviceable.
He argues for a revised theory of translation based upon the notion that
translation is a process of interpretation rather than a mere reproduction of the
original meaning. Accordingly, translation is not a one-to-one correspondence or
mere substitution of words and sentences from one language into another.
Therefore, a translator should be primarily concerned with appropriation as
opposed to fidelity. (Xing Lu 1998: 10)
Because I do not think Benjamin says anything like what Xing Lu makes him say, this attempt
to place Yan Fu by contrasting him with a western theorist misfires as badly as Venutis hasty
appropriation. Perhaps the question of how to represent Yan Fus concepts in the terminology
currently available to Anglophone translation studies is not quite as simple as the apparent
agreement of terms proposed so far suggests. Assuming Yan Fus concepts can in principle be
explicated, should we perhaps take a leaf out of Jones book, sidestep standard vocabulary and
embrace something hideous?


Let me leave these examples behind and try to formulate the more general problem. It is at least
twofold. First, there is the problem of grasping, understanding and gaining access to concepts
and discursive practices, including concepts and practices of translation, in languages and
cultures other than our own. Secondly, there is the fact that the cross-lingual and cross-cultural
study of concepts and discursive practices, including concepts and practices of translation,
requires the use of translative operations. We need to translate in order to study translation.
Both issues are familiar territory for anthropologists and historians. In recent decades a
number of ethnographers and historiographers - Edward Evans-Pritchard, Edmund Leach, Talal
Asad, Quentin Skinner, Hayden White and Franois Hartog, among others - have marshalled
notions of translation to clarify their own cross-cultural interpretive activities. In the world of
literary criticism and cultural history Wolfgang Iser has lately been describing interpretation as
a form of translatibility (Iser 2000). Steven Mailloux 1998 essay Interpretation and Rhetorical
Hermeneutics likewise defines interpretation as acceptable and approximating translation
and Mailloux shows political as well as epistemological alertness when he immediately goes on
to ask: (1) Approximating what? (2) Translating how? and (3) Acceptable to whom? (Mailloux
2001: 40). I will return to Mailloux later, and in what follows try to keep both the political and
the epistemological aspect on board.
First a few words about the epistemological aspect, and the self-reflexive moment in it.
Among earlier attempts to reflect on the methodology of the cross-cultural study of concepts
and its relation with translation, it is worth recalling I.A. Richards book Mencius on the Mind
(1932). In it, Richards developed what he called a technique of multiple definition, which
amounted to a description of the natural history of meanings of particular terms (Richards
1932: 127), in other words a wide-ranging semantic and historical exploration of the uses to
which certain terms had been put. He applied the technique to a number of ethical and
philosophical terms used by the ancient Chinese thinker Meng Tzu (Mencius), presenting the
reader with a combination of interlinear cribs and lengthy glosses on key terms.
Two decades later Richards reviewed his cross-cultural mapping tool in his book Speculative
Instruments (1955), especially in the essay Toward a Theory of Comprehending - which,
interestingly, had first appeared under the title Toward a Theory of Translating. We compare
things, Richards observes, in certain respects, and we select those respects that will serve our
purpose. How effective these respects are will emerge only in the act of comparing; or, as
Richards disarmingly puts it: we make an instrument and try it out (1955: 21). In that sense the
comparison, as a move towards comprehending, also continually inspects its own procedure,
because it is only by trying out a certain instrument that we can develop our comprehending of
what it is with which we seek to explore comprehending (Richards 1955: 22; also Richards
1932: 12). Any similarity thus established is therefore a function of the respects that were
selected for comparison in the first place. Comprehending, as the positing of similarities, is
continually thrown back on an examination of the instrument which enables the similarities to
be perceived. A comprehending that ensues from comparison must begin by realizing the
contingent nature of comparing.

This was also one of the conclusions which Rodney Needham reached in his Belief,
Language and Experience (1971). Needhams book, another extensive reflection on the
modalities of cross-cultural translation, leans towards both philosophy and ethnography; it takes
its cue from Edward Evans-Pritchards study of the beliefs of the Nuer in southern Sudan. Like
Richards, Needham knows that there is no ideal metalanguage in which the invariant of the
cross-lingual and cross-cultural comparison could be expressed (a point also made, incidentally,
in Umberto Ecos recent Experiences in Translation). The absence of such a metalanguage
forces us to reconsider the language in which we do conduct the analysis. The cross-cultural
mapping, comparison and translation of concepts, it seems, can hardly avoid being selfreflexive.
When we then turn more specifically to the cross-cultural study of concepts and practices of
translation, we encounter the additional paradox that, as I mentioned before, this form of
translation studies must enlist translation to study concepts and practices of translation. Or, as
Lydia Liu expresses it in the introduction to her Translingual Practice, a cross-cultural study is
itself a translingual act and as such it enters, rather than sits above its object (Liu 1995: 20).
This awareness brings on a self-reflexive stance. In the absence of a fixed external point from
which to ascertain the adequacy of our renderings, we can only, pragmatically, try out certain
instruments and see what they allow us to see and to what extent they remain open to critical
If this is a pragmatic stance, it feeds into and is in turn fed by the philosophical antifoundationalism associated with the work of Richard Rorty, todays best-known neo-pragmatist.
For Rorty it makes no sense to speak of statements as being true in the sense of a matching, or
mirroring, between those utterances and the external world. Language does not give us access to
the essence of things. We can never know whether our statements and formulas have wrapped
themselves correctly around phenomena or not. We can however say that certain vocabularies
apparently allow us to handle certain aspects of the world more effectively. As Rorty puts it:
the fact that Newtons vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotles does
not mean that the world speaks Newtonian (Rorty 1989: 6). If predicting the world is the aim,
then it pays to work with Newton rather than Aristotle; that does not mean that Newton is
therefore more true to nature than Aristotle.
Two things follow from this. Firstly, in the cross-cultural translation of translation we should
drop the idea that what we are aiming for is a full and accurate representation of foreign
concepts of translation, that the accuracy of this representation could be measured in a way that
would allow us to compare representations and choose the best one, and that once we have
arrived at the correct representation the matter can be closed. Once we drop that idea, we are
ready to accept that what we are about is the creation of vocabularies which will enable us to do
certain things, such as mapping concepts of translation cross-culturally and at the same time reexamining the prevailing vocabulary of the kind of translation studies that we use as a tool to
perform those mappings. In proposing that we drop the aim of full and accurate representation
of foreign concepts I am not suggesting a lowering of scholarly standards or a form of
intellectual defeatism. I am recommending the pragmatic recognition of the impossibility of

total description, and replacing the chimera of complete understanding with the critical
inspection of the vocabularies we employ to conduct the cross-cultural hermeneutic exercise.
Secondly, as a translingual act the cross-cultural study of translation obliges us to propose in
our own language terms that need to cover the foreign terms, thus continually positing our terms
implicitly or explicitly, tentatively or not, as approximations of, as matching, as equivalent to,
those foreign terms. In doing so we run into the more political kind of questions which Lydia
Liu poses in her book when she asks:
In whose terms, for which linguistic constituency, and in the name of what kinds
of knowledge or intellectual authority does one perform acts of translation
between cultures? (Liu 1995: 1)
Similar questions have been asked about the human sciences in general; they are questions
about the conditions under which knowledge is produced, who that knowledge is directed at,
and how this production and reproduction of knowledge affects the structure, status and
development of individual disciplines (Hopper 1995: 65-66).
Ryle, Geertz, Appiah
It is not easy, perhaps not even possible, to answer all these questions, but we can attempt to
devise approaches and methods that create room for them. It is for this reason that one profitable
way of practising the intercultural translation of translation seems to me to lie in what Kwame
Anthony Appiah, in an essay first published in 1993, has called thick translation (Appiah
The term thick translation is grafted on Clifford Geertzs characterization of the work of
the ethnographer as thick description, a notion Geertz introduced in a programmatic essay
(Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture) that served as the preface to his
Selected Essays of 1973. The essay, and the collection as a whole, was intended to counter what
Geertz at the time saw as the poverty of the Structuralist reductiveness and schematism in
Geertz borrowed his term thick description from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle (Geertz
1973: 6-7; Ryle 1971: 465ff and 480ff). He recalls Ryles story about two boys rapidly
contracting the eyelids of their right eyes. Is one of them, or are they both, deliberately winking
or involuntarily twitching? Could they be parodying either a wink or a twitch, or just rehearsing
winks for later use? Establishing which is wink and which is twitch not only requires detailed
engagement with the phenomenon and its context, but also considerable interpretive effort, if
only because, as a cultural category, a twitch is as much a non-wink as a wink is a non-twitch.
Culturally speaking the two concepts are parasitic on each other (Ryle 1971: 474). Moreover,
the way in which winks and twitches mutually define each other in a particular culture is
unphotographable. Distinguishing and identifying winks and twitches requires us to negotiate
the gap between what is manifest and what is implied (the terms are Isers; Iser 2000: 98). Thick
description is the term for that detailed engagement and interpretive negotiation.
Applying this line of thought to ethnographic work, Geertz stresses both the interpretive and
the constructivist nature of the ethnographers descriptions. There are several aspects to be

singled out here. First, the point at issue in the ethnographers thick description is not so much
whether the end product is a complete and accurate account of a particular society - Geertz
subscribes to a Rorty-style pragmatism - but whether it allows us to appreciate both what is
similar and what is different, and exactly in what ways or, to rehearse Richards term, in what
respects things are described as similar and different. Secondly, such a description involves a
self-conscious moment - indeed in a footnote Geertz, writing in 1973, lamented the lack of selfconsciousness about modes of representation in anthropology (1973: 19); there would be no
need of that today, but god knows there is a need for it in contemporary translation studies!
Finally, thick description requires the universalizing urge of theory to be kept in check. What
matters in thick description is, in Geertz words, the delicacy of its distinctions, not the sweep
of its abstractions (1973: 25). As one commentator phrases it, thick description privileges the
many over the one (Inglis 2000: 115).
For all these reasons thick translation seems to me a line worth pursuing in the crosscultural study, interpretation, mapping and translation of translation. It seems well placed to
address both the epistemological complexities and the political implications of cross-cultural
translation studies, in that it is capable of bringing about a double dislocation: of the foreign
terms and concepts, which are probed and unhinged by means of an alien methodology and
vocabulary, and of the describers own vocabulary, which needs to be wrenched out of its
familiar shape to accommodate not only similarity but also alterity. Especially this latter
operation requires a measure of imaginative and experimental vigour. My emphasis on this
double dislocation will hopefully also make it clear that I think of thick translation at least in
part as a critique of current translation studies, and not as a generalized form of description or
translation (which also means that my use of the concept differs considerably from Appiahs) .
As an instrument of cross-cultural translation studies, thick translation has the potential to
counter the flatness and formulaic reductiveness of the jargon of translation studies, and foster
instead a more diversified, richer vocabulary.
There is a further aspect. To the extent that thick translation works from the bottom up rather
than from the top down, it seeks to avoid the imposition of categories deriving from one
particular paradigm or tradition. At the same time its anthropological streak should prevent it
from turning into the well-meaning but smothering embrace one associates with the fusion of
horizons of the hermeneuticists. It is only a mild exaggeration to say that thick translation
contains within it both the acknowledgement of the impossibility of total translation and an
unwillingness to appropriate the other through translation even as translation is taking place.
At the risk of sounding facetious or propagandist, let me list some advantages such an
approach might hold:

it advertizes the fact that translation, interpretation and description are played out in the
same discursive space; it remains aware that, in Lydia Lius words, as a translingual act
itself, it enters, rather than sits above, the dynamic history of the relationship between
words, concepts, categories and discourses;

it highlights the constructed nature of the similarities and differences it establishes;

it is more interested in what Geertz called the delicacy of its distinctions than in the
sweep of its abstractions;

it seeks to disturb the prevailing vocabularies of translation studies by importing other

conceptualizations and metaphorizations of translation, thus querying the assumptions
underpinning Western translation theory and its contemporary avatar, translation

as a highly visible form of translating it flaunts the translators subject position,

counteracting the illusion of transparency or neutral description, and introducing a
narrative voice into the account, thereby arming it with an explicit viewpoint.

There are several ways of envisaging thick translation as a practice. One of these, although it
may not exactly seem the most obvious parallel, is to think of it as something not wholly unlike
Erasmus New Testament. That was a translation engulfed by footnotes, annotations,
explications and digressions in a way that would have delighted Nabokov, but, unlike
Nabokovs Onegin, its abundance of detail and diligent exploration of the depths of the
originals meaning and context was not geared to the validation of one particular mode of
translating. Rather, its patient but relentless probing of and swirling around the originals terms
signalled their inexhaustibility, and hence the tentative nature of the understanding informing
the translation. The towering annotations dwarfed the actual translation, underscoring both their
own necessity and the hollowness of the pretense that one linear text could adequately match
another. At the same time Erasmus also conceived of his work as a corrective (in his own
terms, a castigatio) of the reigning version, i.e. Jeromes Vulgate. In that sense thick translation
possesses the potential to function as a critique of contemporary translation studies, their easy
but self-serving assumption that whatever translates as translation is translation, and their
eagerness to rush into generalizations, laws and universals at the expense of the complex
entanglements of concepts and practices of translation in their environment and history.
An alternative way, one that is perhaps closer to home and more firmly anchored in
contemporary theory, is to think of thick translation as a form of what Steven Mailloux calls
rhetorical hermeneutics (Mailloux 2001). I mentioned Mailloux earlier as a critic who
describes literary interpretation as translation and whose interpretive translations assume the
shape of critical essays. A distinctive feature of Mailloux rhetorical hermeneutics is its
orientation towards what he calls the rhetorical politics of interpretive disputes (2001: 44). In
other words, this brand of hermeneutics is less concerned with the traditional hermeneutic
relation between interpreter and text than with investigating the ways in which texts and their
authors engage in debates, in power struggles, in competing claims and counterclaims. In our
case this would mean translating and unpicking not just vocabularies of translation but also the
conflicts and alliances in which these vocabularies are deployed. Such analyses, however, do
not forget that the researchers distinctions, descriptions and translations themselves also form
part of a scene of conflict - just as the present essay, too, seeks to initiate critique in the interests
of a reconsideration of the kind of disciplinary knowledge produced by cross-cultural translation

studies. In that sense Mailloux rhetorical hermeneutics also chimes emphatically so - with
anti-foundationalist pragmatism: there is no transcendental position from which to judge the
rightness of a particular translation, but some translations and some vocabularies allow us to do
certain things better than others. It could be the task of a cross-cultural translation studies to
work towards the creation of such new vocabularies to speak about translation in different

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