Education as Translation:
Toward a Social Philosophy of Translation
By Salah Basalamah (University of Ottawa, Canada)
Translation has been considered an equivalent to intercultural communication as long as it has been contemplated within the confines of linguistic and cultural paradigms. However, because culture is considered the broadest of these two paradigms, it has rightfully been defined in multiple ways and at multiple levels in order to fit more elaborate and wider frameworks. For instance, as dichotomous structural boundaries have faded away in favor of hybridity and métissage, it has been argued in anthropology and in cultural and postcolonial studies (around the notion of cultural translation most notably) that culture is in and of itself a translational phenomenon. This means that the framework of education is itself a place where culture as an intellectual practice and process can be transmitted. Culture considered as education, and education as a space of predilection for the transmission/translation of culture.
The goal of this paper is to reflect on issues involved in what could be termed as educational translation, studied both retrospectively and prospectively. Raising the issue of education not only as a space of communication but also as a sort of transformation of the human mind (both its values and its principal orientations) is inevitably an attempt to determine which social blueprint is expected at the end of the educational process in translational terms. The cases of the German Romantics, Joseph Jacotot and Henri Le Saux will be the main illustrations to our reflection.
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Translation has been considered as an equivalent to intercultural communication as long as it was contemplated within the confines of the linguistic and the cultural paradigms. However, if culture would be the broadest framework of the latter, it has rightfully been defined in multiple ways and at multiple levels in order to fit more elaborate and wider paradigms. For instance, it has been argued in anthropology, in cultural and postcolonial studies—around the notion of cultural translation notably—that culture is in and of itself a translational phenomenon as dichotomous structural boundaries have faded away in favor of hybridity and métissage (Wolf 2002; Bachmann-Medick 2006; Buden and Nowotny 2009). This means that the framework of education is itself a place where culture as an intellectual practice and process can be actually transmitted. Culture, then, is considered as education, and education as a space of predilection for the transmission/translation of culture.
Now in the vein of the enlargement of the cultural paradigm, there have been several instances in various disciplines where translation as a metaphor has been used to represent genetic decoding (molecular biology), transfer, exchange and implementation of knowledge (medical research), change of internet protocol address (networking), TV or radio retransmission (broadcasting), property transfer or legal transplantation (law), and political regime change (political science). Even in casual conversations, translation is used as a figure of speech to express the transformation of an idea into something concrete. Hence, one can say that translation is moving toward a paradigm that would be encompassing enough to consider translation not only as an object of study beyond language and culture but, more importantly, as a paradigm itself (Ricœur 1996; 2006) in order to serve as a lens to look through and study various transformative phenomena, one of which would be education.
This paper reflects on questions and examples involving what could be termed as educational translation, considered both retrospectively and prospectively. To raise the issue of education not only as a space of transmission but also as a means of transformation for the human mind (both its values and principal orientations) is inevitably an endeavor to discover which social blueprint is expected at the end of the educational process. Intercultural communication—hereinafter translation—is not simply a competence to articulate cultures and mediate them, it is the very process by which education is actually handled and experienced at the same time.
After a short overview of the evolution of the concepts of translation and culture in the interdisciplinary contexts of the humanities and social sciences, this paper will first articulate the broad lines of translation as a philosophical paradigm and then illustrate the latter with three cases of education as an (inter)culturally transformative phenomenon in a global context.
What do we mean by translation?
Given the context of globalization and the resulting de facto interconnectivity among multiple sources and destinations, the relativity of points of view regarding the topics exchanged—as well as the heterogeneity of the perspectives, understandings, and interpretations—become unavoidable. In other words, since this multiplicity of languages, narratives, and perceptions takes place in a globalized world; since the semiotic space provides the means of achieving the greatest impact on the masses today; and since people cannot coexist without acting together for the good of themselves and the greatest number, what type of foundational undertaking, one that is both multiple and combined, could be promoted to the rank of concerted global action in the realm of education? The short answer proposed in this reflection is translation, but it is necessary to start by understanding the object of study and the breadth of its scope.
What is understood as translation here depends on the goals assigned to it. If a conceptual instrument is necessary to understand the intricacies of a mediated education process, it is just as important to ensure that the concept that designates it applies appropriately to its referent. We usually face a problem when a notion used outside of its principal meaning consists in the non-obvious character of its figurative usage: the literal meaning is generally qualified as ‘primary’, being the one that most immediately comes to mind, whatever the context. The figurative usage is considered secondary because it is both less frequent and less direct, i.e., it requires the detour of a displacement of meaning between two different conceptual domains: the (more concrete) source and the (more abstract) target. This is the very definition of a “conceptual metaphor” (Kövecses 2002: 6). It is this paradox of the secondary nature of the figurative (compared to the literal) meaning combined with the recurrence of the metaphor that determines the unique characteristic of translation. On the one hand, the translating action is located “downstream” from what is commonly known as the “original creation” and is therefore secondary. On the other hand, it not only participates in the actual development of our conceptual system, but also the word “translation” is linked etymologically to metaphor (analogic/comparative process linking/assimilating two objects): One of the terms from which translation comes in ancient Greek is metapherein. Translation is therefore, and as a starting point, metaphorical by definition.
A number of disciplines are turning to the concept of translation as metaphor because of its heuristic power to represent and clarify the phenomena of transmission and transformation beyond the linguistic domain. Relying on the knowledge and experience gathered in linguistics, fields such as anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, marketing, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies are using the concept of translation to describe the processes of interpretation, adaptation, and displacement of cultures, powers, or even people. So the study of the translation concept in the metaphorical sense consists in considering distinct objects—whose meanings are perceived from different perspectives or fields of knowledge. But it also consists in transforming them from reciprocal points of view and observing the types and degrees of changes brought about as well as probable modifications in content and form as a result of the translational action.
Translation metaphors are multiple and cover several aspects of the translational process that can be organized into three main and complimentary categories. The first is communicative, which is made up of two interdependent sections. On the one hand, as in the hermeneutical tradition in philosophy, translation is equivalent to the act of understanding, interpreting, and grasping. On the other hand, it is the corresponding process which consists of making understood, expressing, (re)formulating, or clarifying signs and meanings through the use of other signs and symbols. Thus, in the hermeneutic tradition from Heidegger to Gadamer and Derrida to Ricœur and Steiner, translation has represented both aspects of the communicative process:
Translation is formally and pragmatically implicit in every act of communication, in the emission and reception of each and every mode of meaning, be it in the widest semiotic sense or in more specifically verbal exchanges. To understand is to decipher. To hear significance is to translate. (Steiner 1998: xii, emphasis added)
This means that translation occurs at the stage of the very expression of our thoughts and their transformation into sounds, phonemes and signs, as well as at their meaningful integration into others’ minds, understandings.
The second category is transformative, referring to the process of progressive or sudden change that occurs between two distinct states of the same object or individual. To illustrate this, one could point to the idea of translation as political reform, which conceives of the alternation of political regimes, ideologies and their respective discourses as instances of political transformations of one and the same political jurisdiction (Cain et al. 2003). Likewise, this kind of political philosophy can be linked to the idea of mutually translating the causes of different groups toward a common struggle, which is substantially inspired by the works of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. The latter considers that socio-political movements cannot deal with the hegemony of liberal globalization without forming “chains of equivalence” (Mouffe 2000; 2005; Mouffe and Laclau 2001), i.e. translations of various democratic struggles against a common adversary. Through articulating disparate political forces, the formation of the chain consists in agreeing on the smallest common denominators in ideology and strategy in order to effect a transformation and thereby form an “agonistic” opposition (not ‘antagonistic’ as considered by Carl Schmidt 1996) in view of fighting the designated political enemy democratically (Basalamah 2008).
The third and last category is both transactional and recursive. Translation is transactional inasmuch as it plays a role in managing difference, in negotiating between poles of meaning that, in a last phase of the transformation, must reduce tension and find a balance. Translating therefore consists in making at least two shapes, objects, or individuals converge and negotiate their coexistence. To do so, one cannot be satisfied with only unidirectional movement in the process of searching for stability but should instead seek a succession of convergences originating from all parties. Thus, after the first transactional movement, the next one will follow and so on recursively until the point of equilibrium and rapprochement between the parties involved is found. This is, for example, Habermas’s logic of “communicative action” (1985) or Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” (2004), in which recursive translation represents the ever-renewed process of looking for common understanding or consensus.
Through its three complementary and overlapping facets, translation conceived of as a philosophical paradigm takes on considerable social and political functions that are finally being recognized beyond the traditional linguistic and cultural frameworks (Basalamah 2010; 2012). But what do we mean here by paradigm? Although definitions could be found in many different sources, one that was privileged for the purposes of this paper comes opportunely from the field of education:
A paradigm is the fundamental lens through which we view our environment. The paradigm that governs our thinking about a given system is the theory that determines the invariant features that shape the system and defines how to succeed within the system. Usually a paradigm is so ingrained, so rooted in our familiar sense of the way things are, that we hold it unconsciously, without either choice or deliberation. (Tagg 2003: xiii)
In fact, similar to the etymological meaning of ‘theory’ (theoria is to observe, to perceive), a paradigm enables us to literally see new objects and interpret them according to the new framework of reference.
The historian of science Thomas Kuhn has even gone further in describing the change of scientific paradigm and its effects: “Rather than being an interpreter, the scientist who embraces a new paradigm is like the man wearing inverting lenses.” (1970: 121-122) For Kuhn, until the said paradigm becomes the accepted worldview among scientists, the field has to undergo a “crisis” that pits competing paradigms against each other (1970: 153-154;158) to such an extent that they are deemed “incommensurable” (102). Although it is not suggested that this is the case in translation studies or in any discipline of the humanities and social science, the fact is by including the social and political dimensions of the transformative process of translation in the purview of the proposed translational paradigm—instead of being confined to a linguistic-cultural-based one—we are drawn into a primarily relational conception of translation. A conception that is at the heart of the discursive formation of the new political identity of the postmodern subject and constituted by the logic of equivalence (Laclau and Mouffe 2001: 130-131). And one that would be also illustrative to Salman Rushdie’s famous quote:
The word “translation” comes, etymologically, from the Latin for “bearing across.” Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained. (Rushdie 1991: 16)
Rushdie hence illustrates the fluid nature of the translational identity as the very fabric of our being, which seems to be woven and supplemented by its continuous decentering and overcoming beyond oneself.
Translation understood this way as well could be of paramount usefulness to perceive and conceptualize many transformational phenomena where the objects of translation are actual social and/or political players. The interaction between teachers and learners is a case in point.
Education as translation
Education as formation
If we consider the Western history of translation as predating the actual discipline of translation studies, stretching from Cicero to the wake of the end of WWII, there is one particular historical period that has shed a great deal of light on the notion of translation as I would like to present it in this paper: eighteenth and nineteenth-century German Romanticism. As a matter of fact, authors such as Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Schlegel, and Hegel have defined the concept of Bildung as both the German counterpart of Kultur and the degree of formation of an artwork, that is “the way in which the culture interprets its mode of unfolding” (emphasis in original). Berman (1992) has attempted to show how “translation (as a mode of relation to the foreign) is structurally inscribed in Bildung” being both a process and a result (43). Moreover, through Bildung more broadly “an individual, a people, a nation, but also a language, a literature, a work of art in general are formed and thus acquire a form, a Bild” (43-44). As it is a temporal process punctuating moments and stages in history, “Bildung is a process of self-formation concerned with a ‘same’ unfolding itself to attain its full dimension […] the movement of the ‘same’ which, changing, finds itself to be ‘other’” (44, emphasis in original). A Hegelian experience in the broadest meaning of the term.
The way German Romantics conceived of Bildung as formation is a pervasive organic metaphor. In effect, similar to the creation and evolution of an artwork, “Bildung is always a movement toward a form, one’s form—which is to say that, in the beginning, every being is deprived of its form” (Berman 1992: 44). Moreover, using organic images such as the virgin that becomes a women, the child that becomes an adult, and the bud that becomes a flower are all metaphors indicating that Bildung “deals with a necessary process” (44), although paradoxically entailing freedom at the same time. In this sense, the concept is understood as a temporal process encompassing the various stages of gaining experience and knowledge, much like in education. To go through a formative development can be likened to a translational elaboration from one’s initial state of being/knowledge to a further enlarged one. Although the state of innocence (or virginity) may be considered as an ideal, the fruitful expansion that can derive from the relation to the foreign/unknown is even more desired (Berman 1992: chapter 2).
It is Berman (1992) who links the preliminary understanding of Bildung as translation to the concept of the novel as the primary literary form that has symbolized the mediating characteristic of translation:
Goethe's Wilhelm Meister is the story of the education of the young hero, a formation which passes through a series of mediations and mediators, one of whom is significantly called the "Foreigner." Because the foreign has a mediating function, translation can become one of the agents of Bildung—a function it shares with a series of other "trans-lations" which constitute as many critical relations to the self and the foreign. (Berman, 1992: 46)
Thus, translation epitomizes the educational formation process through which “agents of Bildung” undertake the journey toward their maturation and self-fulfillment. When undertaking the decentering step of going out toward otherness in general, cultures like their proponents undergo a translation process leading to their growth and “expansion,” according to Herder (Berman 1992: chapter 2).
Education as mutual transformation
Similar to the movement of Bildung, the formal education process unfolds into a transformational experience whereby learners and instructors translate themselves from one state to another. According to Cook-Sather (2001), a science education researcher who relies heavily on the translation metaphor, preservice teachers search for their own voices by listening to the voice of the students in order to redefine themselves and acquire their identity as teachers (186):
These embodiments of translation of text and self, like the range of definitions of translation, are particularly appropriate for capturing the constant re-conceptualizations and re-renderings that constitute the active process of becoming a teacher. When one becomes a teacher, one changes one’s condition; one makes a new version of one’s self; one makes oneself comprehensible to others in a new sphere; one is, in some ways, transformed. (Cook-Sather 2001: 181-182)
Not only does the preservice teacher learn to become an actual teacher and to cope with her new identity and voice, both the experienced teacher and the learner undergo a translation process literally and metaphorically at the same time:
In the literal sense, when one undertakes a formal educational experience, one must learn to recognize a new vocabulary, think in new ways, speak and write using these ways of thinking and these new words. If one engages in the process fully, one translates oneself in a more metaphorical sense: A learner who genuinely engages in well-designed formal education changes her condition, makes herself comprehensible to others in a new sphere, makes a new version of herself, is transformed. (Cook-Sather 2006: 333)
In fact, as long as the instructor is practicing education, she is engaged in an inescapable transformative process that cannot be separated from that of the learner.
A dialectics further illustrated in the example of Jacotot, a French teacher who taught in Holland in the 1830s and “caused quite a scandal […] by proclaiming that uneducated people could learn on their own, without a teacher explaining things to them, and that teachers, for their part, could teach what they themselves were ignorant of.” (Rancière 2010: 1) This radical view of education, where equality becomes a condition for the emancipation of the learner from her dependence on the instructor’s explanation, is actually founding its tenets on the translation paradigm:
Thought is not told in truth it is expressed in veracity. It is divided, it is told, it is translated for someone else, who will make of it another tale, another translation, on one condition: the will to communicate, the will to figure out what the other is thinking, and this under no guarantee beyond his narration, no universal dictionary to dictate what must be understood. Will figures out will. (Rancière 1991: 62)
According to Rancière, teachers do not transfer knowledge to their students; they help them emancipate themselves from the power relation and inequality of the “knowledge-to-come” or the ‘explanation’ worldview considered as an illusion to a relation of interdependent equality. It is a transformation process that teachers and students undergo together through the mutual translation of their respective thoughts and understandings. The drive of the self to understand the other and the desire of both to reformulate their respective appropriation of the object of knowledge is a translational movement that is similar to the concept of “adaptation” in the field of intercultural competence, i.e. a process of “interdependence and alteration of behavior in episodes of interaction, such that the actions of one interactant influence the actions of the other interactant(s) in the context” (Spitzberg and Chagnon 2009: 6) and vice versa.
This reciprocal disposition to transform through a mutual willingness to understand is translational in the very words of Jacotot, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Rancière 1991):
Understanding is never more than translating, that is, giving the equivalent of a text, but in no way its reason. There is nothing behind the written page, no false bottom that necessitates the work of another intelligence, that of the explicator…Learning and understanding are two ways of expressing the same act of translation. There is nothing beyond texts except the will to express, that is, to translate. (Rancière 1991: 9-10)
In the era of post-metaphysics and the axiom of equality, the hidden meaning that used to be mediated by the prophets of knowledge is now the transactional and open property of both the learner and the trainer. Hence, the very process of communication between the agents of education, i.e. both teachers and students, is not achieved through transfer, but rather through mutual transformation.
The challenge that Jacotot is proposing to take up is that of any hypothetical intercultural situation where representatives of different cultures and languages (like him and his Dutch students trying to read Fénélon in French) would be willing to communicate but are prevented by what is commonly seen as the “language barrier.” But his thesis is that impediments to communication are the very motivation for people to be striving to translate each other by using their remoteness to a shared space of understanding:
But what, brings people together, what unites them, is non-aggregation…People are united because they are people, that is to say, distant beings. Language doesn’t unite them. On the contrary, it is the arbitrariness of language that makes them try to communicate by forcing them to translate—but also puts them in a community of intelligence (Rancière 1991: 58).
This is almost exactly what philosophical hermeneutics—mainly Gadamer (2004)—have been saying using the metaphor of translation to explain the recursive process of mutual understanding in a conversation. Similar to translation, the action of comprehending is always incomplete, resistant and irreducible as there is no way to fully grasp the other’s utterance in its dematerialized cognitive state but through the deciphering process represented by discourse in communication. As a matter of fact, Gadamer presents the other as Anstoss, i.e. obstacle/clash and impulse/impetus at the same time (2004: chapter 5), which means that the interaction with the other is impossible. At the same time however, it is the necessary prompt for all the different parties to converge around the search for intercomprehension.
Conversion as educational translation
In terms of transformational learning, the French Christian monk Henri Le Saux of the early 20th century was another case in point (Baumer-Despeigne 1983). After leaving his monastery in Northwestern France for India, he endeavored to deepen his Christian spiritual experience in the caves of Arunachala and the Himalayas. In 1948, along with Benedictine priest Fr Jules Monchanin, who invited him to
form the first nucleus of a monastery (or rather a laura, a grouping of neighboring anchorites like the ancient Laura of Saint Sabas in Palestine) which buttresses the Rule of Saint Benedict—a primitive, sober, discrete rule. Only one purpose: to seek God. And the monastery will be Indian style. We would like to crystallize and transubstantiate the search of the Hindu sannyāsī [renunciation]. Advaita [non-duality] and the praise of the Trinity are our only aim. This means we must grasp the authentic Hindu search for God in order to Christianize it, starting with ourselves first of all, from within. (As cited in Oldmeadow 2008: 8)
As any missionary type of undertaking, the spiritual translation was initially conceived of as predominantly unidirectional—i.e. to Christianize Hinduism—despite the openness to the compelling call of Indian spirituality (Baumer-Despeigne 1983).
Then the determining encounter with Sri Ramana Maharshi, one of the most influential saints of his time, occurred in 1949 at Arunchala, the cave of the holly mountain of Lord Shiva. The impact was powerful and his meeting with the Sage had such an impact that Le Saux became himself a swami (a religious teacher of the Advaita Vedanta). In fact, Le Saux “was no longer primarily motivated by the ideal of a monastic Christian witness in India but was now seized by the ideal of sannyāsa as an end in itself.” (Oldmeadow 2008: 11) And as a result of this sojourn in presence of Ramana, instead of converting/translating Hinduism to Christianity, Le Saux was himself translated into Swami Abhishiktananda (his Hindu name).
At the same time, he admittedly never renounced Christianity either, which has given him the benefit of both spiritual traditions, but only after overcoming the tensions of his dual belonging.
Abhishiktananda, with heroic audacity, chose to live out his life on that very frontier, neither forsaking Christianity nor repudiating the spiritual treasures which he had found in such abundance in India. . . .It was a position which was to cause him much distress and loneliness, and a good many difficulties with some of his fellow Christians, be they ecclesiastical authorities, priests and scholars, or acquaintances. (Oldmeadow 2008: 16)
To be torn apart between two worlds is exactly the fate of most translators and multicultural beings, to the extent that one of the most commonly spread metaphors of translation is that of the bridge to which Le Saux has also identified:
It is precisely the fact of being a bridge that makes this uncomfortable situation worthwhile. The world, at every level, needs such bridges. The danger of this life as “bridge” is that we run the risk of not belonging to either side; whereas, however harrowing it may be, our duty is to belong wholly to both sides. This is only possible in the mystery of God (Le Saux as quoted in Baümer 2004 by Oldmeadow 2008: 16-17).
Although apparently static, this image of the bridge nonetheless reminds us of the Hegelian experience of the Romantics when considered more dynamically through more spiritual and plastic representations of the inner world where the spatiality of the path linking the two sides of a gulf becomes the temporally lived reality between two states of consciousness.
For Abhishiktananda advaita, in the first place, is not a recondite doc- trine but an immediate experience of a mystery—the mystery of God, the world, and man himself. It is an “experience” like no other certainly, and one most difficult to conceptualize or communicate. . . .It is an “inner” awareness of the Real (Self/Ātman-Brahman/God/Divine Presence) in which all dualities disappear, including that of “experience” and “expe- riencer,” of subject and object. It is quite beyond the reach of either the senses or the mind. It can only be described symbolically and metaphorically: it is a “blazing discovery,” a “consuming fire,” an endless “pillar of fire,” “a cataclysmic transformation of being,” “a shattering” of all one’s previous understandings, a fathomless abyss, “an interior lightning flash.” (Quoted in Stephens 1984: by Oldmeadow, 2008: 137)
The “cataclysmic transformation of being” is then this deep revolution that is similar to the one experienced by the cultural learner when discovering the other’s unusual perspective and finally understanding its beauty or validity—with the difference though that it may be a significantly longer process than that of the mystic.
The mystical experience, as described by countless saints and sages through the ages, results in absolute certitude about the supra-sensorial Reality to which the experience gives access. It is almost always associated with luminosity and with bliss. The mystical experience-proper triggers a radical and spontaneous self-transformation which ineradicably changes the trajectory of the life in question. (Oldmeadow 2008: 147)
In accordance to Herder’s theory of translation (Berman 1992: chapter 2), the contact of the foreign necessarily leads to one’s development and expansion—sometimes even against one’s own conscious or premeditated resolve. In that sense, the paradox of Le Saux’s example reveals that the deliberate translation of oneself would entail the result of eventually becoming translated.
Despite all the postcolonial suspicions that portrayed translation as an unequivocal accomplice of the colonial powers (Bassnett and Trivedi 1999: 3), these examples show that, on the contrary, it can be considered an instrument of liberation from inequalities and subjugations that could be found not only in politics, but in the inevitable servitudes of the realm of (spiritual) education as well.
If the German Romantics taught the world that translation is a source-oriented activity where the passage through the experience of the foreign is the condition of possibility of any progress, they have however not overlooked the fact that translation is by definition ethnocentric (Berman 1999) and is primarily meant to develop the self. Despite the ethical translation tradition initiated by Berman (1992) and Venuti (1998), then spread by philosophers like Ricœur (2006) and Jervolino (2008), the development of one’s own cultural or spiritual identity and knowledge—what we would like to brand as educational translation—is nothing of an egocentric undertaking. On the contrary, especially if we think of the formation of a local scholarly language:
Je suis convaincu qu’on ne peut enseigner la science que dans la langue nationale, c’est-à-dire dans la langue que les gens utilisent dans leur vie quotidienne, la langue vivante de la société. [I’m convinced that we cannot but teach science in the national language, that is in the language that people use in their daily lives, the living language of society.] (Rashed 2004: xxvii, my translation)
To actually build one’s own scientific knowledge and culture requires educating and acquiring knowledge in the familiar environment of one’s own dominant language, i.e. by translating science and putting into practice intercultural competence in a way that would integrate it and appropriate it to the degree that it eventually becomes homegrown.
The claim of any invention or novelty starts with the appropriation of another’s initial idea retranslated in one’s own terms, language and context. Because translating entails recognizing that all original production is made, in the terms of Bernard of Chartres, by “dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants” (Saresberiensis 1955: 167)—i.e. on the basis of previous transmissions—education becomes the conduit of novelty every time it occurs at the light of its new conditions of production. To educate is to translate newness at each communicative occurrence.
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©inTRAlinea & Salah Basalamah (2020).
"Education as Translation: Toward a Social Philosophy of Translation", inTRAlinea Vol. 22.
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