Juan Obarrio on Translating and Publishing in the Global South

Last semester, we started a new initiative at FHI called the Publishing Humanities Initiative.  Sylvia Miller, who has a background in publishing, and who has worked at FHI for some years now, is spearheading this program, which seeks to understand a variety of issues in publishing, such as new platforms, questions of translation, books arts, systems of peer review, and other topics relating to publishing in the humanities and beyond.

In this context, FHI recently hosted Juan Obarrio, who spoke about publishing initiatives that engage scholarship from the global south and questions of translation.  He spoke in the context of a day devoted to those issues ("Translation and Publishing in the Global South") as a series editor (with Nancy Rose Hunt and Achille Mbembe) of a new Duke book series, “Theory in Forms,” and as editor of a new journal Critical Times: Southern Perspectives, a journal of the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs that is about to launch its first issue.

Posing important questions about thinking the world from the “south,” and how we understand the production and circulation of global knowledge, he asked us to consider both broad intellectual questions around translation, audience, and the periphery as the pharmakon, as well as the basic questions of infrastructure that arise when staging a dialogue between or among southern locations. Cure, poison, and scapegoat, the global south becomes a potentiality for a different form of global thinking than that which dominates in the north.

The “south” for Obarrio is as much a concept and an event as it is a geographical area of the globe characterized by extraction of raw materials and crises of sovereign debt.  Feeble infrastructure, environmental tenuousness, and the precarious are for him shared traits that allow for comparison, even as the life-worlds of the sites involved are radically different.  For him, different constellations of thought, deep experimentation, and indeed immanent critique understood through the legitimization of global connections that are not necessarily structured through Europe guide his work.

The challenge, then, comes with creating and sustaining the infrastructure to support such work, including interpreting and translating for academics who do not share a language; attention to the “untranslatables”; staging conversations among academics from southern locations and then sustaining institutional collaborations so that such conversations may continue; and publishing both in the language in which the piece was written and in a language like English that has become a lingua franca for assessment of academics today.  

Ranjana Khanna
Director, Franklin Humanities Institute

Juan Obarrio