‘Present-ing’ the past: the politics of Translation History

Keynote speaker: Hilary Footitt




The intellectual journey of Translation History passes through research related to texts, to the agency of translators, and more recently to insights derived from material culture, transnational studies and ecology. In the background of this trajectory there remains a lively debate about the disciplinary location of Translation History and its relationship with both History and with Translation Studies.

This paper seeks to contribute to the discussion by shifting attention to the historical contexts themselves, and specifically to the cognitive power relations enacted through perceptions of “foreignness” as an aspect of translation’s ‘dynamic embeddedness in circumstance’ (Warner, 2019). How is “foreignness” created in particular international encounters, and what are the media/frames through which it is constructed? Instead of being conceived as a process of investigating potential connections, Translation History thus becomes the highly political practice of addressing power relations

As an illustrative case study, the paper will examine Western colonial interventions in Afghanistan from the nineteenth century through to the recent evacuation in 2021. It will argue that Afghanistan is translated anthropologically by the West, in frames which are a-linguistic. Over the years, a static understanding, developed within the paradigm of the nation-state, has produced a ‘zombie narrative’ (Crews, 2021) of successive colonial defeats, with translators and the language-d characteristics of communities within the country or in the Afghan diasporas largely set aside.

The paper suggests that Translation History conceived as an ethnographic history of perceptions of “foreignness” may serve to challenge conventional representations of temporality and context, enabling us to position Translation History as a unique means of ‘present-ing’ the past (Denning, 1994).