Translation in/of world politics: Language, practices, power

This article was written by Kasia Kaczmarska
This article was published on
Female speaker on translation

The Interpretivism in IR working group held a two-day event - Translation in/of World Politics: Language, Practices, Power - at SOAS, University of London, on 17 and 18 January 2020. Here Kasia Kaczmarska explores the questions raised.

How to translate a map if parties negotiating a border have different conceptions of space and sovereignty? How do legal norms travel and how their meaning changes across cultures and nations? How to translate the contested narratives about, say, Jerusalem and what are the ethics and politics of translation at play during war and in peace negotiations? These are but a few of the challenging questions we explored during a two-day event: Translation in/of World Politics: Language, Practices, Power, which took place at SOAS, University of London, on 17 and 18 January 2020,  organised and funded by the Interpretivism in International Relations (IIR) BISA Working Group.

This truly transdisciplinary gathering of scholars from across the globe allowed space for common discussion among researchers working in: international politics, political theory, conceptual history, translation studies and political theology. The emphasis on translation allowed us to problematise the “inter” in international relations and delve deep into the practice of translation, its agents as well as agendas and politics behind it. It soon turned out that our research covers areas that, while significantly distinct, are connected by a reflection on the process and challenges of translation and knowledge-making. Topics we tackled spanned: the ethics of translation and interpretation at war times; the ‘development speak’ and Anglophone hegemony that pervades international development projects; the role, ethics and (in)visibility of the translator as well as the complexities behind translating specific concepts, such as: the mercenary, realism, religious freedom, or cultural heritage.

Translation as the central theme of the conference was not accidental. We aimed to fill what we consider an important gap in existing scholarship. The discipline of International Relations, despite being predestined to consider practices of translation, has not done so in a sustained manner and in conversation with other disciplines. Translation, we agreed, is a process that involves moments of incommensurability of languages and requires the perpetual building of social relations, erecting bridges and connections between two or many linguistic and cultural contexts. But translation cannot be seen as just a benevolent act with necessarily positive aims and outcomes. It may involve malevolent goals, like appropriation and manipulation and is suffused with the power to silence and competition to set agendas.

If this was not enough in terms of intellectual stimulation, in his thought-provoking keynote on The Politics of Plurals, Helge Jordheim, considered how pluralism in IR is presented as a desirable position and discussed the conceptual and political challenges of thinking in terms of plurals.

This was a truly excellent way for the IIR Working Group convenors to sign off and pass on the steering wheel to a new team. Stay tuned as more exciting events are coming up. To learn more, follow us on Twitter @Interpretivism or email us with ideas at

"Academic life can be isolating at times, BISA offers a chance to feel part of a wider network and the working groups in particular can foster collaborations and enrich your experience of your field."
Hannah Partis-Jennings, Gender and IR Working Group Convener
Hannah Partis-Jennings
Attendees at the Interpretivism working group event