Tristes tropiques: The anthropologist as translated subject and cultural translator

Susan M. DiGiacomo, Universitat Rovira i Virgili (Catalonia) and University of Massachusetts at Amherst (USA)
In Loredana Polezzi's METM12 talk on travel writing in translation, she discussed an anthropological classic, Claude Lévi-Strauss' Tristes tropiques. This is, however, only one of its many guises, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz pointed out in his analysis of how a handful of key anthropological works are constructed as texts. Lévi-Strauss’ paradoxical blurred-genre work escapes easy classification. On one level, it is a travelogue, though from the first sentence the author distances himself from the image of the traveler in explorer mode. On another level, it is ethnography, although in an unconventional mode, denying the experiential authority of fieldwork while also advancing a thesis about culture as a system. As a philosophical text, the book is an exploration of the foundations of human society. It is also a reformist tract, repelled by the aesthetic consequences for the Third World of industrial civilization. And finally, it is a literary work in French symbolist mode. In different translations, these different aspects of the book come more and less clearly into focus. This paper examines three published translations of the book, two in English and one in Catalan.  The Russell translation (the first one) seems to capture the author’s voice more successfully, but situates the text closer to travel literature and eliminates some chapters from the original work. The Weightman translation, which appeared later, is the one authorized by Lévi-Strauss. The Catalan translation is by one of the great modern Catalan poets, Miquel Martí i Pol, who also translated another of Lévi-Strauss’ works, the notoriously difficult La Pensée sauvage. The three translations are explored on two levels: one is linguistic and literary, and the other ethnographic, taking as points of departure the metaphors of culture as text and anthropology as cultural translation.

Susan M. DiGiacomo is professor of anthropology at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Catalonia, and adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, USA. She has more than 20 years' experience as a translator of anthropology from Catalan and Spanish to English and English to Catalan, and offers a departmental publication support service for her colleagues at URV that includes critical review of manuscripts, editorial assistance and translation.