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Institute of Advanced Study

Translating Cultures: Purpose, Process and Consequence

Translating Cultures: Purpose, Process, Consequence

Professor Jonathan Long (Modern Languages and Cultures) 

Dr Marga Diaz-Andreu (Archaeology)


The premises of this project are twofold. The first is the so-called 'cultural turn' in research on translation, which recognises that translation cannot be reduced to a series of semantic operations, but needs to be understood much more comprehensively as a form of cultural exchange and mediation. The second is the fact that Durham possesses a highly distinctive constellation of scholars - across a variety of departments - whose research interests involve the translation of languages and cultures. It is this that will allow the project to make a significant intervention in a wide range of overlapping scholarly debates, its distinctiveness being also a function of its sheer ambition. 'Translating Cultures: Purpose, Process, Consequence' seeks to address fundamental and wide-ranging questions concerning translation in its myriad forms, including the translation of cultural practices between different communities of speakers and practitioners, and posing fundamental research questions that of necessity require a multi- and interdisciplinary investigation that Durham is uniquely positioned to prosecute.

The importance of an interdisciplinary investigation into the translation of cultures cannot be overstated at a time when globalisation and the digital revolution increasingly raise questions of inter-cultural communication and translation between media. The current project is positioned at the interface with these global social concerns. Furthermore, interdisciplinarity requires translation of idiolects and discursive conventions if it is have any conceptual coherence and epistemological value. The current project responds, too, to this problem, which will become increasingly relevant as funding bodies and institutions embrace an interdisciplinary research ethos.

Central to the project will be a strategic approach to future planning. The establishment of networks within and beyond Durham is a key aim, as is the development of competitive funding applications to provide a secure and sustainable basis for these networks. The project has been formulated, in part, in response to two strategic programmes emerging from the research councils: the AHRC's Translating Cultures and RCUK's Connected Communities.

The project seeks to address the following research questions:

  • Purpose: What is the socio-cultural purpose of translation?; Why might cultures have to translate?
  • Process: What technical and creative processes are involved in the various kinds of translation, and how do they change depending on the type of translation?; How do material conditions (in terms of e.g. medium, institutional and infrastructural frameworks, economic conditions) determine translation practice and process?; How do those involved in translation conceptualise process?
  • Consequence: What effects of power does translation produce?; How do acts of translation impact within and beyond the societies in which translation occurs?; How are translations received and/ or assimilated by their target societies?

During 2011-12 the three research questions will be explored in a series of three themed workshops (in Michaelmas and Epiphany 2011-12).  

Translating the Past into the Present

Convenors: Ingo Gildenhard, Classics & Jamie Tehrani, Anthropology

This workshop will address the processes of translation involved in historical enquiry - which is arguably itself a translation process. Translation involves a transformation and negotiation, with the ostensible aim of rendering useable and comprehensible that which is, or appears to be, remote, alien or incomprehensible. The translation process itself is, however, dialectical, initiating an encounter that goes beyond mere assimilation/domestication of the unfamiliar, to act in unpredictable and potentially far-reaching ways on translator(s) and recipients of the translation. This applies not only to synchronic encounters between cultures and languages, but to diachronic encounters involving the perception and interpretation of temporally remote objects, texts and life-traces.

The workshop will take as its starting point a presentation of current research by internal members of the group, and proceed to an exchange concerning shared problems and methodologies. The workshop will address the possibilities, preconditions, costs and benefits of bringing the past into the present - as well as the various modalities in which this happens in contemporary society, not least the determined insistence on the reconstruction of historical meaning that underwrites the modern knowledge industry.

Translation as Process

Convenors: Dario Tessicini and Federico Federici, Modern Languages and Cultures

The workshop will discuss theoretical notions and practical aspects of translation as a process, both technical and creative. It is envisaged that contributions will be cross-disciplinary and span translation history from antiquity to modern times. Starting from some of the assumptions about the translation process, in particular those concerned with its literary status and cultural value, the workshop will reconsider conventional scholarly wisdom and attempt an original assessment of the role and significance of translation, and the process by which we define it, in the history of European civilization.


The Reception of Translation

Convenors: Margarita Diaz-Andreu, Archaeology and Tom Allen, Law

How is translation received by audiences? It is often assumed that both objects and texts translated and transferred are transmitted to the intended audiences in full. This workshop aims to discuss, however, how the understanding of translations is often altered not only by the process of translation, as suggested in the first workshop above, but also by the nature and the circumstances of the receivers. The translated object and message is mediated and situated, and therefore moulded by both intended and also un-intended audiences. It can be invested with new meanings and becomes irreversibly altered by the new users. Moreover, the newly product thus construed can be employed strategically by them with intentions and consequences never envisaged by the original creator(s) and/or in the process of translation. The discussion of all these issues in an interdisciplinary arena will enhance our understanding of the complex nature of translation at the very end of its process, when we look into the consequences of translation.


The themed workshops will feed into the culmination of the project, namely a two-day international conference, bringing together Durham colleagues and distinguished scholars from other universities nationally and internationally. The conference will be structured around keynote addresses by invited speakers from the UK and overseas. It will also be genuinely interdisciplinary, seeking broad-based and theoretically-orientated answers to the research questions guiding each of the project's three strands.

An integral part of the conference will be a follow-up session for each strand, the purpose of which will be to set out a clear strategic framework for the future development of the relevant research strand with a particular emphasis on impact and grant capture. Input from external speakers and fellows will be expected, and may range in kind from advice on project development and funding bids to full and active participation in an emerging network.

The end of the period funded by the IAS will be marked by a prospective planning event in which the legacy of the project will be established on a firm footing. The conference follow-up sessions will have pinpointed likely foci for funding applications, and teams will be identified who will progress these applications, taking into account the external funding environment. The workshops will have given Durham scholars a broad insight into translation-related research activity across the University, thereby facilitating identification of likely collaborators, and the planning event will formalise links and allocate tasks.