Ringvorlesung, Translating norms: strengths and weaknesses of a concept


  • Date: Feb 5, 2015
  • Time: 18:00
  • Speaker: Prof. Peter Burke
  • University of Cambridge (UK)
  • Location: Campus Westend der Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main
  • Room: Casino, Cas. 1801
  • Host: The Cluster of Excellence “The Formation of Normative Orders” in cooperation with the Max-Planck-Institute for European Legal History

‘Cultural translation’ is one of a cluster of concepts such as ‘transfer’, ‘exchange’ and ‘hybridization’, that has come into use to describe cultural change (in domains such as language, architecture, music, religion and so on). Like its competitors, it has advantages and disadvantages. The model of translation between languages has at least two advantages. Compared with ‘transfer’, it emphasizes the point that what travels changes. In the second place, the model has the advantage of emphasizing agency, the conscious adaptation of a text to a new context. Of course the model itself needs adaptation when it is used to discuss other kinds of cultural change, for example the work of missionaries in a culture very different from their own. There are obvious differences between translating forms, as in the case of architecture, and translating knowledge or ideas, when the problem of contradiction may arise. The problems of translation from one region to another, from one medium to another and from one domain to another are rather different. Translators like other people follow norms in their work, while norms like forms or ideas can be translated. In the case of law, one thinks of the problems of translating laws from one language to another, of the translation of oral custom into written law, and of imposing laws formulated in one context or culture in a different context or culture. Despite its advantages, the model of cultural translation is not universally applicable. Like other paradigms, perhaps all paradigms, it casts shadows as well as light. What it does not illuminate (essentially changes that are not the result of conscious action) requires other concepts such as ‘hybridization’ or ‘habitus’.

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