Translatability and the scripting of other peoples’ souls



This article is corrected by:

  1. Errata: Corrigendum Volume 24, Issue 2, 213, Article first published online: 29 July 2013

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If anthropology aims at ‘understanding “others” ’, then obviously anthropologists must be interested in the meaning of what those ‘others’ say. But to understand what speakers of a language other than our own say, we need to know what exactly the words and grammatical categories of that other language mean. This article argues that translating indigenous categories into academic English does not allow us to capture indigenous perspectives and leads to what Geertz calls ‘scripting other people's souls’. Focusing on cognitive and cultural categories from Australian Aboriginal languages usually linked with English labels such as ‘kinship obligations’ and ‘odd-numbered generations’, the article shows how the ways of thinking encoded in these languages can be explicated from the insider's point of view, in simple words and simple sentences directly cross-translatable into the indigenous languages themselves.