Politics and Geopolitics of Translation // Politiques et géopolitiques de la traduction


The ultimate translation cliché? Peter Brueghel the Elder’s magnificent vision of the tower of Babel.


Terra Brasilis, the Brazilian journal of historical geography and history of geography, recently launched a call for proposals (in Portuguese, French, Spanish and English) about the issue of translation in geography. While distinct from linguistic geography and language geography, this topic is of course of the utmost importance for anyone interested in linguistic matters in geography, a discipline that can still lament its “linguistic blindness”, both in its limited spatial analysis of language and tongues and in its lack of reflective thought on the role of languages in the developement and maintenance of its international networks.

On a side note, I must admit that my enthusiasm is obviously subjective, as translation has become both one of my favourite themes over the years while researching the history of geography and cartography. It was also one of my main and certainly most pleasant sources of income during my studies and early career in research. I regularly worked as a professional translator while studying for my masters and PhD from 2011 to 2018, working on articles for various media, on books for publishers, on an exciting project for the International Cartographical Association, as well as for cultural institutions and journals. I do not get paid to translate anymore, but I still enjoy working on shorter documents from time to time, as well as on my favourite poetry and songs. Translating is very often useful, sometimes frustrating but always very satisfying and even fun in the end. In my view, translating is like laying bricks to build a wall: it is never going to be perfect, there will always be misalignments or cracks, but it instantly gives you a sense of accomplishment that academic writing usually gives you more scarcely, or painfully.

Over the past decade, several initiatives have pointed at issues of translation in geography and tried to develop networks of like-minded researchers accross human geography. In 2014, Luise Fischer and Jochen F. Mayer, then both at the University of Edinburgh, organised a roundtable during the RGS-IBG conference in London titled “Trials and Tribulations of Translation between Languages: Lessons from Research in Geography (and Beyond)”. The discussion was fascinating, even though the limited number of participants (about 12) during a crowded conference highlighted the need to reach larger audiences among our colleagues.

That was also the case during a panel session on “Language in geography” that I organised at the AAG conference in San Francisco in 2016, even though the variety of case studies presented and the stimulating discussions that followed  seemed to pave the way for further debates and the constitution of a dynamic international network (Canada, US, Brazil, India, Japan, UK, France). It did not happen and I am largely to blame, for I did not manage to follow it up with another event or an online platform, as I was busy trying to finish writing up my dissertation at the time.

Happily, other initiatives flourished here and there over the past years and while several researchers have emerged as specialists (I will talk further about their work on this Carnet),  questions of translation and linguistic seem to have become more common in geographical journals and in the preoccupations of geographers in general.

This call for proposal is a much welcome step further. The editors Guilherme Ribeiro, Laura Péaud and Archie Davies write:

“Reconnaissant que ces enjeux linguistiques pèsent, de manière aussi bien historique que contemporaine, sur le travail des géographes, et qu’ils peuvent être interrogés selon un angle de vue renouvelé, la revue Terra Brasilis – Revista da Rede Brasileira de História da Geografia e Geografia Histórica propose un numéro spécial « Politiques et géopolitiques de la traduction, circulation des savoirs et histoires transnationales de la géographie ». Depuis sa refondation en 2012, la revue se penche sur les enjeux de traduction, de manière ponctuelle. A travers ce numéro, elle cherche à questionner plus systématiquement les enjeux de traduction, langage et circulation.”


Articles could be submitted about the following topics:

1 The politics and geopolitics of translation and their impact on the production of geographical knowledge.

2 Publishing, reading and writing in a transnational approach to the history of geography

3 Language, geography and intersectionality.


Details (in French) can be found here: https://calenda.org/798878



In addition to the bibliography provided by the editors, below are a few references I enjoyed using recently and would recommend.

  • A few classics on translation as a practice :

Lawrence Venuti, The Scandals of Translation, London: Routledge, 1998

Douglas Robinson ed., What is Translation? Centrifugal Theories, Critical Interventions, Kent: Kent State University Press, 1997

Michael Cronin, Across the Lines. Travel, Language, Translation, Cork: Cork University Press, 2000

  • On the so called “translational turn”, see

Doris Bachmann-Medick, “Introduction: the Translational Turn”, Translation studies, 2,1, 2009, p.3

  • A major example of a less-literal use of the notion of translation (in anthropology):

James Clifford, Routes. Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997

  • On translation in geography, David Harvey’s short remarks can be a starting point:

David Harvey, Spaces of Capital. Towards a Critical Geography, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001, p.187 & p.199

  • Last but not least, fascinating reflections can be found in Italiano’s historical analysis of translation in geography :

Federico Italiano, “Translating geographies: The Navigatio Sancti Brendani and its Venetian Translation”, Translation Studies, 5, 1, 2012

Linguistic geography and ethnolinguistics in the long 19th century. A conversation with Floris Solleveld


This post initiates a Q&A series with scholars from various disciplines whose research relates to linguistic geography, its history, methods and contemporary challenges. First up is Floris Solleveld, from KU Leuven, who recently studied the linguistic works of Julius Klaproth, Richard Lepsius, Wilhelm von Humboldt and George Grey.


Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I am currently a Postdoc at KU Leuven funded by the Flemish Research Council and living in Brussels – but I will spend all of 2021 at Leiden University as a guest researcher and move back to Amsterdam, which is where I grew up.

What is your research topic? 

My PhD was about transformations in the humanities from the mid-18th to mid-19th century. Currently, I am working on a project about ethnolinguistics, language materials, and language atlases in the long 19th century.

What initially lead you to develop an interest for linguistic geography and maps in particular?

I first came across a copy of Wilhelm Schmidt’s atlas of Sprachfamilien und Sprachenkreisen der Erde (1926)while helping liquidate a library that was stored in a bomb-proof cellar underneath the building where I had my student job. At that point I was a philosophy student with a side interest in the history of linguistics, which increased as I moved from philosophy to history. Then ten years later, while I was a Stipendiat at Research Centre Gotha in the final phase of my PhD and frantically writing postdoc applications, it dawned on me that I could do something with ethnolinguistics and language materials.


Die Sprachfamilien und Sprachenkreisen der Erde (1926), by Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954)



What sources do you use? What strikes you most about those documents? 

I mainly work with 19th-century collections of language materials, like Humboldt’s in Berlin, or George Grey’s and Wilhelm Bleek’s in Cape Town and Auckland. What I am interested in is the trajectories of these materials, and how they are rewritten and reformulated into linguistic data. For instance, you see Humboldt and Bleek literally rewriting missionary grammars to meet their own scientific standards. One of my prize finds in Cape Town was a correspondence between Australian poet George Gordon McCrae and Bleek’s sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd, in which McCrae encloses essays on Australian Aboriginal myths and rituals and Lloyd draws comparisons with Bushman folklore that she collected.


Wilhelm Bleek (1827-1875)



According to you, what can your discipline and approach bring to the study of linguistic geography? 

Making it part of the global history of knowledge. Tracing the sources of 19th-century ethnolinguistics leads you into ethnological collections, colonial archives, and unsavoury racial theories, and shows you that disciplines are always defined in interrelation.

Can you name a few books about linguistic geography that you would recommend?

Well, there aren’t that many historical books about the subject! The most complete and perceptive analysis of linguistic geography is in Javed Majeed’s two books about the Linguistic Survey of India (Colonialism and Knowledge, 2019; Nation and Region, 2019). I am currently reading Native Tongues (2015) by Sean Harvey which discusses the language maps of Albert Gallatin, Horatio Hale, and John Wesley Powell. Then there are worthwhile chapters about Julius Klaproth’s language atlas of Asia and about Johann Schmeller’s mapping of Bavarian dialects in Tuska Benes’ In Babel’s Shadow (2008). I’m surprised that nobody has written a book about Klaproth yet, he was quite a picturesque figure.


Julius Klaproth’s ‘Asia Polyglotta’ map, from Asia Polyglotta (1823)




Floris Solleveld’s latest publications:

“Expanding the Comparative View: Humboldt’s Über die Kawi-Sprache and its Language Materials”, Historiographia Linguistica 47.1: 49-78

“Lepsius as a Linguist: Fieldwork, Philology, Phonetics, and the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’”, Language & History 63.3 [prepublished online]

For other publications, see Floris’ Academia.edu page:



Géographies linguistiques

Ce carnet porte sur le développement de la géographie linguistique et ses dynamiques scientifiques actuelles. Dans la continuité de mon travail de thèse qui portait sur l’histoire de la géographie et de la philologie entre Europe et Asie centrale, j’essaye de comprendre comment a été construit à partir du XVIIIe siècle un ensemble de techniques d’analyse et représentation spatiales de la diversité des langues, et comment celles-ci ont été ancrées dans des disciplines finalement séparées, en particulier la linguistique et la géographie. Ce carnet propose de suivre les circulations d’idées entre savoirs de l’espace et savoirs du langage à l’époque moderne et contemporaine, la façon dont les outils de la cartographie ont été appropriés et transformés notamment par les philologues et spécialistes du langage, et d’observer les différentes pratiques qui ont hérité aujourd’hui de ces idées et méthodes, de la dialectologie à la sociolinguistique, de la cartographie des langues à la géographie politique.

Ce carnet servira en outre de lieu de soutien et d’approfondissement à un réseau pluridisciplinaire de chercheurs ainsi qu’à des évènements scientifiques réguliers ou ponctuels.


Felix de Montety, Grenoble, le 9 octobre 2020