Erynn Masi de Casanova

Ethnography as Translation, Translation in Ethnography

Erynn Masi de Casanova, University of Cincinnati

Ethnography, a term used to refer to both the use of in-depth participant observation in research and the written report that results, is often described metaphorically as “cultural translation.”  As an ethnographer, I translate the social reality of the research participants for my audience.  In my interdisciplinary field of Latin American Studies, many ethnographers conduct research in a language other than English yet write up their results in English, so the process of research and writing always involves linguistic translation.  The privileging of academic Standard English in ethnographic texts published in the U.S. and elsewhere creates dilemmas for ethnographers whose subjects speak “foreign” languages.  I plan to bring my new knowledge of translation studies to bear on the content analysis of book-length ethnographies on Latin Americans published in English.  Along with Tamara R. Mose, I investigate how ethnographers typically deal with language difference in their texts.  We draw attention to the scarcity of discussions of translation in these border-crossing ethnographies.  We argue that ethnographers should address translation—both cultural and linguistic—in their writing.  Language is intimately connected to power dynamics in the field, and ethnographers’ decisions about how to represent language can indicate rigor and thoughtfulness about their position vis-à-vis participants. 

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