Panel 22: Translation and the future of the humanities (Sarah Maitland)

Since James Holmes called on translation studies to start examining its own subject, the study of translation theory and practice has played an increasingly visible role. More and more institutions have incorporated translation studies and translator training into their curricula and a European Masters in Translation network now acts as a quality label for qualifying programmes. Outside the academy, translation’s role goes further. As Martin Fuchs points out in Translation Studies in 2008, we now recognise translation as a key dimension of social life, where difference is seen alongside exchange and negotiation. Since the cultural ‘turn’ away from a search for the uncomplicated transit of meaning from one text to another, he writes, the focus has been the refusal of “the notion of separate worlds or contexts of praxis, and of an intermediary which, in a successful or an uneven way, attempts to bridge the gap between these worlds” (2008, p. 22). Could this translational thinking also find an application in other areas of the modern humanities? What does the ‘bridging’ of gaps look like in the interpretive practices we associate with many of the social disciplines?

The great exponent of twentieth-century philosophical hermeneutics, Paul Ricoeur, writes that the task of interpretation:

“is to conquer a remoteness, a distance between the past cultural epoch to which the text belongs and the interpreter himself. By overcoming this distance, by making himself contemporary with the text, the exegete can appropriate its meaning to himself: foreign, he makes it familiar, that is, he makes it his own.” (2004, p. 16).

As ‘bridgers’ of gaps and interpreters of texts, translators never really occupy an ethically neutral space ‘in-between’ but are instead rooted through their hermeneutic and professional judgements in critical contexts that influence how they appropriate meaning to themselves. With the acute awareness of the interpreter’s positionality that the study of translation brings, critical positions seemingly free of ideological bias come undone when viewed through the lens of translation. It is with this sensitivity to contingency – as a hermeneutic practice, realised within specific contexts of production and reception, for different reasons and for different audiences – that translation can benefit a modern humanities seeking ways to combine enhanced critical reflection with contextualised analysis, aware of its influences and limitations.

This session is places the centrality of translational approaches discernible across the interpretive disciplines alongside the relative marginality translation studies enjoys as a discipline within the humanities, and invites speakers to address translation as a method of critical thinking paradigmatic of humanities practice. It will create a space for academic dialogue on translation as constitutive of humanities practice, and will question the extent to which translation studies remains on the periphery of investigative methodologies employed within the interpretive disciplines. In advancing this conversation, this session seeks to assess if, and how, translation studies can help shape greater awareness of the centrality of translation thinking within the social disciplines. In focusing on the degrees of interpretation, judgement and creativity we witness in the translator’s practice, it seeks to contribute to on-going debates about the future direction of the humanities. Questions to be addressed include:

  • What aspects of translation practice are reflected across the humanities?
  • What are the key challenges facing humanities departments today?
  • How can translation studies better articulate the centrality of translation thinking in the social disciplines?
  • What accounts for the relative marginality of translation studies?
  • What challenge does the rapid growth of translation studies in academic departments pose for the existing subjects its complements?


Fuchs, M. (2009) ‘Reaching out; or, Nobody exists in one context only. Society as translation’. Translation Studies 2, 1, 21-40.

Ricoeur, P. (2004) The Conflict of Interpretations. Continuum: London.