Translation and translatability

Exploring interpretation, translation and meaning across language, culture, and borders.
Translation studies look at the way in which ideas are communicated across cultures and language and how meaning is derived from words and actions in spite of translation barriers.

Our researchers engage with translation to answer an array of historical and contemporary questions: With the reintroduction of mass travel, are literary traditions converging? How does the Monkey King get performed in Indonesian? How did the Jesuits’ doctrine of the immortal soul read in Chinese? Where are the boundaries between influence and theft, or hoax and homage? How do practices of translation challenge or reinforce existing geopolitical, gender, sociolinguistic, and political orders?  

The question of translation and of translatability is a question of the ethics and full humanity of the other, the recognition that terms cannot coincide but must be aligned. 

Humans are constantly interpreting—what was that sound? How does this pattern work? Why are you looking at me like that? Our interpretations, once expressed, generate further chains of thought in others. Speaking and listening are both attempts to order existence and to convey it to others.  

Those who speak the same language imagine they understand one another, and the plausibility of communication always trumps the doubts, but those who know they cannot know require intermediaries. 

Every language, despite its riches, is poor alone when set against the cornucopia of culture.

Translation gathers in all metaphors of transformation and still leaves you at the threshold, chewing the proverbial pencil, scribbling always the necessary and impossible alchemical formulae that make the one thing, presently, another thing, that says it is not another.

Our access to the world, our participation in the species, is predicated on the deceitful liberation, the mendacious gift, of translation.

Our projects

Led by Associate Professor Francesco Borghesi (University of Sydney and the University of Modena), Professor Yixu Lu, Dr Daniel Canaris and Meynard. The Jesuit translations of the Confucian canon not only provided the first European window into Chinese philosophy but also changed the intellectual and cultural history of Europe.

This project, supported by an ARC Discovery grant, examines the rich history of these translations and their dissemination, and interrogates how Confucian ideas influenced the development of Enlightenment philosophy.

It will produce the first comprehensive history of these translations and make them available to anglophone scholars with primary and secondary sources in various European languages and Chinese.

The project will advance our understanding of the personal and textual networks through which the first substantial philosophical exchange was conducted between Europe and China.

Led by Dr Beatriz Carbajal. Research in intercultural competence has identified challenges in the accurate recognition and expression of emotional meaning across languages.

This project examines basic emotions (joy, surprise, anger, disgust, fear and sadness) in the colloquial Spanish language through contributions from the disciplines of pragmatics and prosody.

Its stages include their linguistic characterization, addressing issues in their recognition in spontaneous communication, creating a reference corpus and designing pedagogical guidelines as well as applications for Spanish language learning. 

Led by Associate Professor Christine Ji. This project aims to tackle the pressing issue of the social invisibility of the translation profession, a persistent problem that threatens to hinder the development of a critical knowledge-based industry in Australia within a rapidly changing international social, economic and cultural context.

The project is expected to offer insights into the emerging international translation system and inform policy makers and the general public about the challenges and opportunities of developing this profitable and resilient service industry.

Led by Dr Musafumi Monden. This is an extensive, collaborative research project with the University of Queensland and University of Tasmania, examining contemporary Japanese girl culture and its interconnecting media formats using theories of shōjo (literary girls in Japanese) developed in Japan.

In doing so we draw on a particular branch of Japanese girl studies that have made girlish imagination and the agency of girl readers its subject; this is in contrast to the body of work that analyses the shōjo as a vehicle of male (sexual) desire, objectification and consumption.

As the latter approach has tended to dominate English-language scholarship on the girl and the shōjo, this project addresses this imbalance, making the largely underexplored, girl-centred work more accessible to Anglophone audiences.

This project has been funded in part by Australia-Japan Foundation Grants and The National Library of Australia Japan Studies Fellowship.

Led by Dr Benjamin Nickl, with Chris Müller, Macquarie University, Helen Wolfenden, Macquarie University. Real is Not Real Enough is an audio or sonic translation project that translates and adapts the remarkable writings of Jewish German philosopher Günther Anders from page to sound.

The project’s research space is hosted by the Goethe Institute and the initial podcast production was made possible with generous funding support from the Goethe Institute and the Austrian Embassy.

The aim of this interdisciplinary research project is to follow Anders’ prime agenda, to find the right tone for the wrong ears—expressing a new reality with an old language.

A research companion podcast called Unpacking the Real that gives experts from various disciplines a space to use the original podcast experience and its truths as a point of departure for their research narratives is in the works and will be published in 2023.

Led by Dr Josh Stenberg. This project studies and translates the performance accounts of actors of Kunqu, recognised by UNESCO in 2001 as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, one of the oldest and most refined traditions of the family of genres known as xiqu or “Chinese opera.”

Having survived the turmoil of the Chinese twentieth century, the artform’s musical and performance traditions are being passed on by senior artists in several major cities of the Yang-tze River basin as well as Beijing.

Led by Dr Josh Stenberg. This project translates Chinese-language literature, including PRC fiction writers Su Tong and Cao Kou and the poets Jiang Tao and Huang Fan as well as Taiwanese and Southeast Asian authors. It also researches the practice and history of translation from and into Chinese, with a special focus on Southeast Asia, on drama, and on self-translators. 

Led by Dr Yoko Yonezowa. This project is a cross-linguistic investigation of address practices in Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

One of the linguistic characteristics of address practices that these three languages have in common is to show the speaker’s respect towards a superior.

While the project outlines how common Confucian cultural values are reflected in the actual use of terms of address in the three languages, at the same time, we document changes in the societies and their values reflected in the address practices.

Led by Associate Professor Xiaohuan Zhao. The scriptural source for the Ghost Festival in East Asia is the Yulanpen Sūtra, which, however, is overwhelmingly considered apocryphal in modern scholarship.

This book project challenges this widely held belief by demonstrating that the sūtra is a Chinese creative translation rather than an indigenous Chinese composition.

Our people

Hero image credit: Painting of Xuanzang. Japan, Kamakura Period (14th century).