In the conclusion to his 2017 work Translationality, the translation scholar Douglas Robinson (2017:200-203) proposed to extend Jakobson’s (1959) famous tripartite division of translation with the introduction of a new category that he calls inter-epistemic translation. Defined as translation between different knowledge systems, it would focus on the transfer or transmission of knowledge between different ‘written genres (or semiotic worlds)’ in a process of narrative reframing ‘which is never a “cloning” of knowledge, of course, but always involves… “translationality”: adaptation, transformation’ (2017: 200). In the pages that followed, Robinson envisaged a whole series of different relations that could be studied under this rubric, ranging from the kinds of operations contemplated in translational medicine and the medical humanities, through the writing of popular science and representation of scientific issues in literary fiction to the study of how knowledges transform over time as epistemological paradigms wax and wane.
At the same time as Robinson was completing Translationality, the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos was refining his concept of ‘intercultural translation’ to describe a slightly different but related manoeuvre, namely the translation that could and does occur between ‘the knowledges or cultures of the global North (Eurocentric, Western-centric) and [those of] the global South, the east included’ (2018: 34). Developed most fully in his 2016 work Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide (2016: 212-236), ‘intercultural translation’ is assumed as part of an ethical mission to undo the ‘epistemicide’ resulting from the hegemony of western science, by working towards the ‘ecologies of knowledge’ necessary to achieve ‘cognitive justice’ (2016: 188-211).
At the core of ecology of knowledges is the idea that different types of knowledge are incomplete in different ways and that raising the consciousness of such reciprocal incompleteness /…/ will be a precondition for achieving cognitive justice. Intercultural translation is the alternative both to the abstract universalism that grounds Western-centric general theories and to the idea of incommensurability between cultures” (Santos 2016: 213).
The EPISTRAN project draws on both of these proposals by using concepts, methods and theories from the field of Translation Studies to investigate the semiotic processes (verbal and nonverbal) involved in the transfer of information between different ‘epistemic systems’. Its main focus is the transactions occurring between western science (the hegemonic knowledge of the globalized world, which purports to be objective, rational and universal) and the various embedded, embodied and subjective forms of knowledge that have served as its Others in different times and places. The latter include: humanistic learning, which once ‘manage[d] the western world’ (Snow 2012: 11), but is now decidedly the poor relation of the academy, starved of funding and status; the indigenous knowledges of the global south, which are not taken seriously as ‘knowledge’ at all and are systematically occluded in the name of ‘progress’; and the various premodern knowledges which were downgraded to myth or superstition following the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. By examining the transformations that take place when information transits from one epistemic system to another, it hopes to shed light not only on the cultural framework that generates those cognitive inequalities but also on the semiotic mechanisms that enact them.
The project is predicated on the assumption that science, humanistic and indigenous knowledges are different modes of discourse, ‘neither of which is privileged except by the conventions of the cultures in which they are embedded’ (Levine 1987: 3). In the case of science, this assumption is underpinned by the work of linguists Halliday & Martin (1993), who have shown how the scientific worldview was effectively constructed between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries through a series of linguistic transformations that crystallized processes into things through nominalization and rendered them autonomous of the observer through the development of impersonal verb structures (see below); and by scholars of academic discourse (e.g. Flowerdew 2002, Hyland 2009), who have highlighted the linguistic mechanisms underpinning the construction of ‘facts’ and expert identity. Humanistic texts, in contrast, privilege a discourse that is value-laden, person-oriented, aesthetically aware and culturally embedded (Roberts and Good 1993), while the informal knowledges of the global south tend to be much more embodied, performative, multimodal and oral.
There is also evidence from contemporary neuroscience (e.g. McGilchrist 2019) that the two paradigms represent distinct ways of experiencing the world, each rooted in a different hemisphere of the brain. The intuitive understanding of the world provided by the right hemisphere is emotive, embodied, contextualized and holistic, while the knowledge provided by the left hemisphere is abstract, decontextualized, disembodied and rational. Corresponding loosely to analogue versus digital forms of communication respectively (see Dawkins 2018: 81), it is hoped that there will be room on the project to explore the links with information technology.