Translating Cultures, or thinking about intercultural value

The juxtaposition of ‘translating’ and ‘cultures’ brings into contact two keywords essential to our understandings of what it means to be human – and illuminates the meanings of each of these terms in the process.  The AHRC ‘translating cultures’ theme is a reminder that translation is a process that extends far beyond languages, and one that can help us understand communication within, between and across diverse cultures in a world that is seen to be increasingly characterized by transnational and globalized connections. At the same time, the theme underlines the extent to which cultures are to be understood as open, dynamic and evolving entities, meaning that it becomes extremely suggestive to see translation not just as a form of their communication across various boundaries, but also as a phenomenon integral to their very formation and configuration.

The now almost ninety projects associated with ‘Translating Cultures’ – as well as a wider constellation of other AHRC awards in cognate areas – seeks to explore the role of translation, understood in its broadest senses, in the transmission, interpretation, transformation and sharing not just of languages, but of a full range of phenomena that constitute cultures, including values, beliefs, histories and narratives. The study of translation is at the same time a means of understanding the mechanisms whereby arts and culture contribute to the lives of individuals and society more generally – and is, as a result, integral to explorations of cultural value and cultural engagement. Central to ‘Translating Cultures’ is sustained attention to the dynamics of how we experience culture, investigating in particular the place of translation in the aesthetic, linguistic, cognitive, ethical and political dimensions of cultural encounters and intercultural contact.

A number of projects have permitted exploration of the direct experience of culture and the arts, particularly in frames that involve mediation between and across different national, linguistic and cultural contexts: fellowship projects have focused, for instance, on the translation of Eastern European fashion into Western Europe, on the integration of Indian cultural sound emblems into new electroacoustic music, on translating the poetry of the Holocaust, on postcolonial visual arts emerging from the Maghreb as a site of transcultural encounters, on the place of sculpture in painting (and in what are seen as intermedial translations in Renaissance art); research networking awards have extended this range of geographical and cultural contexts further, encompassing the study of Chinese film festivals, exploration of the ways in which media content is translated and adapted across cultural borders, the place of translation in the performance and experience of music, and – in the field of theatre – study of how China and Chinese culture have been presented in intra-cultural, intercultural and transcultural theatre productions (and how languages and translations play a key role in the ways in which stage productions form or alter people’s perception of others’ cultures). Other projects have considered cultural diplomacy and the role of linguistic and intercultural knowledge in the work of NGOs, and the work of the theme has recently been greatly enhanced by the addition of eight new innovation awards devoted to, inter alia, translating the literatures of small European nations, child language brokering, translating science for young people, cultural exchange between the UK and Brazil, translation and the legislated mediation of indigenous rights in Peru, translation and the language of autobiography in India, translating the deaf self, and the ethics of cultural translation in Northern Irish urban festivals.

Project partners range from museums to theatres, art galleries to cultural festivals – and a particularly exciting innovation linked to the theme is the creative arts hub of the ‘Researching Multilingually’ large grant, committed to exploring the ways in which artists and musicians can translate the findings of research to wider audiences. Such collaboration and co-design is central to the theme, not least because a key aim is to explore the role of translation both in processes of artistic and literary creation, and as an active contributor in the development of new knowledge and understanding.

As these examples suggest, many of the ‘Translating Cultures’ projects have international and intercultural dimensions, engaging with debates and discussions in other parts of the world and bringing knowledge and insights gained to UK-based research. Another large grant, on ‘Transnationalizing Modern Languages’, investigates cultural exchange within communities and between individuals across time and space, providing a specific focus on modern Italy and on the various experiences of mobility that are integral to its recent history. But the theme also stresses the ways in which research into translation is not always outward-looking, and has become central to understandings of the contemporary UK. The value of multilingualism as a social and cultural resource (and not, as is often the perception, as an impediment) was the subject of a recent collaborative panel on community languages held at the British Academy as part of the BA/Guardian UK-wide Language Festival, an annual programme of events established to celebrate the UK’s diverse cultural heritage. The discussion was linked closely to the concerns of the ‘Translating Cultures’ large grants, ‘Translation and Translanguaging’, which is committed to exploring the linguistic dimensions of everyday encounters in four urban environments, analysing the new forms of language that are emerging from culturally superdiverse situations, a phenomenon highlighted by the linguistic mapping made possible by the 2011 census in England and Wales.

‘Translating Cultures’ intersects, in creative and suggestive ways, with the Cultural Value Project, highlighting the role of translation in enhanced reflectiveness, underlining the potential benefits – especially in terms of tolerance and self-understanding – of improved appreciation of other cultures, and stressing the urgent need in the twenty-first century to understand the diversity of human experience and values. As such, central to the theme is an explicit sense of intercultural value: focused on what Mary Louise Pratt has called ‘the pleasures and pains of living multilingually’; committed to Timothy Radcliffe’s  call for the university to a lead in teaching society to ‘learn to talk to strangers’; and associated in particular with the challenges and benefits associated with exploring other cultures – and perhaps, more accurately, with studying the ways in which translation reveals how diverse cultures are entangled in a variety of intricate configurations.

Charles Forsdick

AHRC Theme Leadership Fellow, Translating Cultures

@charlesforsdick /