Home » ProSeminar in Anthropology » 2013: Exploring the Canon » The Construction of a Global Imaginary: translation as a means of measuring canonicity in cultural anthropology

The Construction of a Global Imaginary: translation as a means of measuring canonicity in cultural anthropology

The Construction of a Global Imaginary: translation as a means of measuring canonicity in cultural anthropology

April 26, 2013

Shijing Zhang

Anth E500: Proseminar in Social and Cultural Anthropology

Assignment 1

As pointed out by Marcus, the contemporary notion of the canon is constructed not only “to defend tradition and authority”, but also “to conceptually circumscribe authoritative knowledge” to invalidate “the category of authoritative knowledge itself in the interest of some not as well conceptualized, but certainly more open and pluralist, conditions for producing knowledge” (1991: 385). In anthropology, it is true that some equally “influential” and “ground-breaking” works are excluded from the category of the canon and are not widely read as some people thought they should have been (depending on their subjective definition of canon), but the existence of recognized canonical works does help create shared knowledge among people within a disciple and across disciplines, or among people from different cultural backgrounds despite existing geographic boundaries. This shared knowledge, in my point of view, help construct the emergence of a global imagined community in which certain concepts, theories, and ideas bind together people from diverse backgrounds (Anderson 1983:15) and shape their values or attitudes towards their own societies as well. The construction of the canon could thus be perceived as an enabling vehicle for people from a variety of cultures and societies to engage globally, change the local sociocultural dynamics and create globalized forms of anthropological knowledge.

A canonical work in anthropology, therefore, based on the construction of such an imagined global community, is one that speaks to all peoples regardless of their ethnicities, languages, cultures, or academic backgrounds in its own particular style, which is found to be both local and global, specific and general. Such a work would help facilitate the role of anthropology as a global discourse that integrates a wide range of cultural practices and social structures of power, which in turn facilitate the development of a transnational public sphere in which global actors in this imagined transnational community share their critical reflections and engage in rational debates. This might contribute to the creation of the conditions for an egalitarian dialogue between the West and the East and as a result, the traditionally demarcated line between ‘we’ and the exotic ‘other’ is blurred and re-defined.

With this in mind, this project attempts to measure the canonicity of cultural anthropological works through understanding what globalizing ideas or theories in anthropology are shared and valued in this global imaginary from the 70s to the present time. Since a work has to first conquer language barriers before it reaches a wider global audience, translating a work into different languages then becomes an inevitable step for it to achieve its global acknowledgement. This project proposes translation as a way of measuring canonicity in cultural anthropology. The questions that the project seeks to answer are: could a canonical work be measured by the languages into which it is translated? Are what some of us perceive to be “canonical” works well embraced and valued by people speaking different languages?



The sample used in this project is Dr. Richard Wilk’s list of required readings in his course “Proseminar in Social and Cultural Anthropology”. As the readings form part of our anthropological training at Indiana University, it would be valuable to see if what we gained from these readings can contribute to the discussion within a global public sphere that lays the ground for a transnational knowledge network.


Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Fabian, J. 1983 Time and the Other. Columbia U. Press.

Latour, B. 1993 We have never been Modern. Harvard University Press.

Mintz, S. 1986. Sweetness and Power. Penguin USA.

Roslado, R. 1993. Culture and Truth. Random House.

Scott, J. 1985. Weapons of the Weak. Harvard University Press.

Smith, L. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies. Zed books.

Wolf, E. 1984. Europe and the People Without History. University of California Press.



The project adopts a two-pronged approach: first, to find out cross-cultural influences of an author by searching interlanguage links on the authors’ personal Wikipedia pages, and second, to trace the spread of influence of a work on its global audience by tracing its number of translations. The data gathered is entered into a spreadsheet and listed in charts.

The methods of gathering data are as follows: 1) the website of the author of a book or the book page on the publisher’s website; 2) the Index Translation tool published by UNESCO; 3) Amazon websites for different countries; 4) public library websites; 5) Google translate. I put the English name of a book into Google Translate, and search the generated translations of the title. It turns out that a big chunk of the data is found this way; 6) Wikipedia page.

The quickest and most reliable way of gathering the data for this project is probably through contacting the publishers (not taking into account the illegal unlicensed translations). Since none of the publishers replied to my email, and since the data found via other means is far from comprehensive, it is questionable that the results are accurate reflections of the canonical status of these works. Also, since each of the books was published in different years (The publication date of Outline of a Theory of Practice and that of Decolonizing Methodologies even have a 22-year gap in between), a comparison of the number of translations does not necessarily lead to the inclusion or exclusion of a work in/from the category of canon in cultural anthropology.


Results (please see the appendix for the charts)


1. Authors with most Wikipedia interlanguage links

Bourdieu has the most interlanguage links on his personal Wikipedia page—45, followed by Latour, who has 17; and Wolf, 10. James Scott and Sidney Mintz have five or less than five interlanguage links available. Only English description could be found for Smith. Fabian does not have a Wikipedia personal page.


2. Most-translated book

The finding does not differ too much from that of the previous one except for Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice. Latour’s We have never been Modern is found to have the largest number of translations available–22. Wolf’s Europe and People without History comes second by having 11 translations, followed by Mintz’ Sweetness and Power with 10 translations, Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice with 7, and Scott’s Weapons of the Weak, 6. At least 5 translations were found available for Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies. Fabian’s Time and the Other has 4 translations compared to the zero finding of his Wikipedia page and Rosaldo’s Culture and Truth comes last by having 2 translations.


3. Languages into which the works are translated

Among the eight sample books, seven of them have been translated into Spanish, lacking only Time and the Other. Six of the books have been translated into Italian, four into German, Portuguese and Chinese, three into French, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Polish, Hungarian and Greek.


The above findings suggest that Bourdieu and Latour, among the eight influential scholars, are the most “canonical”. Counting the translations of a work could show, to a certain extent, the worldwide recognition of an author. If taking into consideration that a translator does not get considerable material rewards for his/her efforts, it could be inferred that a book that has been translated into other languages must have some certain precious values in it; in this sense, therefore, the translation of a book is a good measure of the canon.

However, since the data in this study is not complete and the figures are not entirely reliable, the ranking shown here cannot fully represent the canonical status of an author or a book in cultural anthropology. As Mcelhinny, Hols, Holtzkener, Unger & Hicks mention in their article “Gender Publication and Citation in Sociolinguistics and Linguistic Anthropology”, “the determination of scholarly talent, like other forms of talent, will always be embedded within social relations (… lines of power and alliance rather than measurable aesthetic criteria).” (2003: 321), The power relations within and without academia would always influence the embracement of a work due to the author’s academic and national affiliations. Sometimes the translation of a book is largely dependent on socio-political relations between countries, which would in turn pose an impact on the academic exchanges between countries having different languages. Also, it is possible that some of the Wikipedia interlanguage links might be created by English speakers who also know other languages. The same could be true with English speakers translating books into other languages they know.

The study could be improved through first examining each work separately so that a relatively more comprehensive analysis of its global influence could be made based on professional affiliations of the author, the publisher, the translators, the geographic spread of the work, years of translations, etc.. The ranking of translations of works might yield more reliable results if the works in comparison are on similar themes and were published during a similar period of time.












Chart 1: List of authors by number of interlanguage links on personal Wikipedia pages


Chart 2: List of anthropological works by number of translations


Chart 3: List of languages into which the works are translated




Anderson, Benedict

2006 Imagined Communities: Relections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.


Dowding, Keith

2011 Encyclopedia of Power. Electronic document, http://knowledge.sagepub.com/view/power/n42.xml, accessed March 4, 2013.


Marcus, G.

1991 A Broad(er) Side to the Canon Being a Partial Account of a Year of Traveling among Textual Communities in the Realm of Humanities Centers and Including a Collection of Artificial Curiosities. Cultural Anthropology 6 (3):385-405.


Mcelhinny, B., with M. Hols, J. Holtzkener, S. Unger and C. Hicks

2003 Gender Publication and Citation in Sociolinguistics and Linguistic Anthropology. Language in Society 32(3): 299-328.



2003 Index Translationum. Electronic document, http://www.unesco.org/xtrans/bsform.aspx, accessed February 16, 2013.