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The Historian as a Translator of the Past


This chapter takes into consideration the arguments regarding the relationships between history and translation advanced by eminent historians such as Quentin Skinner, John Pocock, and Peter Burke. Then, taking inspiration from an essay by Kari Palonen, particular attention is devoted to Koselleck’s theoretical assumption according to which there is (or, at least, there should be) a meta-language which would constitute a necessary term of comparison for the translation of past words and concepts; the thesis put forward in this chapter is that, in fact, such a meta-language does not exist and could not exist, our own language being the only means through which we can translate past words and concepts. The distinction between onomasiology and semasiology, originally introduced in linguistic studies and resumed by Koselleck for historical analysis, could be of help to cope with this issue; if exploited in all its implications, it would allow to avoid some possible epistemological aporias in the conception of history as a translation of the past. Above all, this should lead to be aware of the fact that the act of writing history, that is the act of translating past words and concepts, is constitutively and unavoidably anachronistic, and that the only way out from this impasse is a form of conscious and careful anachronism; furthermore, this anachronism should be conceived as a form of synchronism, since language in action continually reset and suspend time, linking past, present and future.