Working with Translations in the History of Political Thought

Translating Political Languages

A slightly different, but related question is how well political languages translate. Pocock’s political languages are units in themselves describing different conceptual worlds, e.g. the languages of Renaissance humanism and classical republicanism, the language of the ancient constitution and of the common law etc. If texts employing these languages are translated, the languages themselves need to remain recognisable. This might involve making considered linguistic choices and consistently using the same recognisable terminology or a political language might get lost in translation.

For a translation of a political language to be successful, however, the conceptual world they describe also need to make sense in both the original culture and the target culture. Within Western Europe with its shared cultural heritage and frame of reference, it might be possible to translate the language of classical republicanism from one vernacular into another. But it might be difficult to translate the same conceptual language into a non-European language and into a context which does not share the same cultural frame of reference.

The challenge of my current research project on the translation of English republican and Commonwealth works into German is to find out to what extent an identifiable English republican/ Commonwealth language was translated into German, or if indeed the translation of this distinct body of English works made it less distinguishable or recognisable as it was taken out of its original context and employed in another.

The question then is not just how well words, but the concepts and conceptual worlds they describe translate from one language and one culture into another. And this is where German Begriffsgeschichte or conceptual history comes in.


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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