Professor Kirsten Malmkjaer, University of Leicester


In every literate culture, texts of various types and genres and in various forms play central roles in presenting and representing the culture to itself and in defining its cultural others.

Such texts can be of many different genres, but paradigm cases tend to be religious, political (constitutions, inaugural speeches, speeches to a people by its leaders in times of crisis; manifestos, posters), literary (including children’s literature, travel writing, poetry, plays, films, poetry, painting, songs) historical and journalistic. The key concepts that they help to define include for example, childhood, adulthood (and the relations between them), citizenship, freedom and personal identity (and the relations between them), nationhood, foreignness, democracy, dictatorship (and other political “states”), and the sacred.

Such concepts typically vary across languages and cultures, and their variance comes to light especially clearly, and sometimes only, in translations, both in the language of the translation, and in paratexts such as translators’ prefaces, post-scripts and notes. These can highlight perceived translation difficulties and the reasons for them, and the solutions adopted and the reasons for those. They can highlight the reasons for re-translations, revealing perceived miscommunication or felt needs for greater precision – perhaps because previous translations were kept deliberately vague at key points; and re-translations can also reveal approximations of the varying concepts to each other.

The aims of the project are (i) to identify a selection of key cultural texts from a selection of cultures; (ii) to identify key concepts used in these texts (iii) to examine the treatment of such concepts in translations and re-translations of the texts into different languages (iv) to trace the development of the concepts through key cultural texts in translations and re-translations; all this with a view to (v) enhancing our understanding of how cultural exchange and transmission with regard to the concepts identified function in a variety of circumstances and periods, with a view to learning from this what kinds of conceptual adjustment may be made to ease migration and intercultural communication and to enhance our ability to learn from our cultural others.

The identification of such concepts has significant policy relevance, because as Chomsky (1979: 38-39) has pointed out, there is a danger that liberal-democratic political states, which do not prohibit the expression of contentious views, may instead ‘fix the limits of possible thought: supporters of the official doctrine at one end, and the critics … at the other’. Translations may show us the essentially contested nature of certain concepts across cultures; and recognising the essentially contested nature of some concepts may go a long way towards altering the nature of our discussions of them. As Gallie (1956: 193) puts it:

‘Recognition of a given concept as essentially contested implies recognition of rival uses of it (such as oneself repudiates) as not only logically possible and humanly “likely”, but as of permanent potential critical value to one’s own use or interpretation of the concept in question; whereas to regard any rival use as anathema, perverse, bestial or lunatic means, in many cases, to submit oneself to the chronic human peril of underestimating the value of one’s opponents’ positions. One very desirable consequence of the required recognition in any proper instance of essential contestedness might therefore be expected to be a marked raising of the level of quality of arguments in the disputes of the contestant parties.’

By looking for patterns of similarity and difference in the treatment in translations of these concepts across time, locations and modes, we may learn what constitutes success and failure in people’s attempts to adjust and accommodate mutually.


University of Mainz conference page

RCUK Gateway to Research