Translation and the Study of Esotericism

By Birgit Menzel

Although translation is omnipresent, we are still generally unaware of it. Translators remain invisible. We often share popular assumptions about translation (e.g. that it transfers meaning from one text to another, from one national language to another, the result of which should provide equivalence to the source text), and when we do consider it, we often make negative value judgments, i.e. we follow a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (Israel 2023). Both translation studies and the study of esotericism have a lot in common. They are young academic disciplines, only several decades old, still fighting for legitimacy and recognition. They both require expert knowledge, are contested and function with an aura of authority. But even beyond the disciplines, translation and esotericism are related. They should be seen as intersecting categories, mutually influencing and challenging each other (Israel 2023).

Translating the Transcendent ©Romina Kaltenbach (KI/Microsoft Designer)

Upon critical reflection, all our assumptions about translation need to be deconstructed. The Judeo-Christian religion has deeply affected both the history of translation and that of Western esotericism. And it is precisely the idea of a coherent source text that is considered the ‘original’, the starting point for translation, that is inextricably linked to the history of Christianity and also to the Western history of scientific knowledge, with its close relationship between truth, faith and reason (Lent 2017). The Judeo-Christian emphasis on scripture – and even more on one single authoritative written text at the center of any religion – became the norm and a universal category. Translating the Bible, the One Word of God, became the model which was later, from the Renaissance onwards, transferred from the level of the sacred to the profane, i.e. to literature, aesthetic norms and national languages. With the Bible translation as the hermeneutical model, long-term doctrinal biases were established which are still in effect today, even in distant, formerly colonized countries.

Workbench of the Initiate ©Julian Kaltenbach (KI/Microsoft Designer)

Western missionaries sought to create a Christian language by translating Thomas Aquinas into Chinese, for example. However, they had to compromise by creating new hybrid terms, and so their work also affected the target language itself. Norms were different in the world outside Europe, regarding, among others, a single coherent source text or the norm of translation being done by individuals. In China, for instance, they were more often than not done collectively. Chinese monks translated Buddhist texts from Sanskrit in collaborative projects of several hundred people, a process that involved a whole range of different roles and was performed in public.

Collage of book covers

When 19th-century Western Orientalists translated classical Indian literature into English, they aimed at creating an exotic image of the distant country by foreignizing strategies of translation, serving the zeitgeist of Romanticism, while an Indian nationalist translated the same text to confirm Hindu national identity. Translation thus served the goal of nation-building, historically a Western project for which it was crucial (Dizdar/Gipper 2015), before it then spread beyond Europe. The connection between translation and national languages is still valid, as can also be seen in current studies of esotericism (Hanegraaff/2023). This conventional approach, however, has confined the field of studying translation which has a much more complex object of investigation.
Translation and esotericism mutually affected each other when languages which were considered sacred and therefore untranslatable and only accessible through revelation (Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew) led to conflicts of contested authorities and different forms of knowledge transmission, as in the case of Theosophy.

So are sacred texts a special case for translation? Some scholars have claimed this, others reject the idea. The perception and function of a variety of texts as “sacred” have shaped religions, been shared by religions, or translated in ways that have thrust whole religions either into prominence or into oblivion. A critical reflection of the relation between an-thropology, literary and cultural Studies, philosophy, religious studies and translation can cross-fertilize all disciplines within the Humanities by analyzing “traveling concepts” (Mieke Bal, 2002). Anthropologists deal with much more complex material for translation than philologists. Apart from written texts, any oral narrative, object, artwork, image, ritual, action or sound can be considered sacred by a community. So, not only interlingual, but also intercultural, intermedial, and “intersemiotic” translation, even beyond human language, are challenges for anthropologists which need to be included in a critical reflection.

We generally tend to understand translation as an act of bridging languages and cultures by conveying equivalence and exchange. But when reflecting both translation and esotericism in a transcultural, global perspective, we have to take into account the pervasive asymmetries of power. Translation happens in a world which has been divided by colonial powers and dominated by binary categories for centuries: Center-periphery, North-South, “the West and the Rest.” (Stuart Hall, 1992) “Translation, therefore, is not only a transgression of borders, but also and even primarily an act of creating borders, an act of articulation that takes place in the social topos of difference or incommensurability.” (Sakai 2009)
In a recent discourse on the translation of philosophical concepts, the term “untranslatability” has been used productively as a metaphor, for example when reflecting the translation of Freud and Jacques Derrida into Russian, or in postcolonial contexts. The term thus points at the process of drawing boundaries, which serves to problematize the idea of a global dialogue as a myth.


(Paintings by Aleksey Dyachkov)

It becomes apparent that in our present postcolonial world, in which 60% of all texts are translated into English from approximately 6,000 different languages, there is a trend to an increasing monolingualism. For various reasons, translation flows are inseparable from the equally omnipresent asymmetries of power. Beyond the field of applied translation, i.e. translation proper, translation studies offers a critical reflection on the process, agents, as well as the frames and functions of translation, which are always embedded in a cultural context.
Translation is an anthropological constant, basically an invisible social practice, which is, however, not only a reproductive, but in itself a creative act. It is not one-dimensional but multi-dimensional and has an impact both on the source text and on the target text, and even on language. Translation “transforms” languages rather than “replacing” them. The idea of a source text as a fixed original is a construction which stems from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and Western history. Ultimately, translation is a paradox: it bridges and builds boundaries at the same time.




Bal, Mieke: Travelling Concepts in the Humanities. A Rough Guide, Toronto: UP Toronto, 2002.
Dizdar, Dilek, Gipper/Andreas: Nationenbildung und Übersetzung, Berlin: Frank&Timme, 2015.
Gonçalves, Rodrigo Tadeu: Cultural Anthropophagy in Brazilian Reception of the Classics, in: Itinerários, Araraquara, no. 45 (jul./dez. 2017), 19–33.
Hall, Stuart (1992). The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power. In: S. Hall & B. Gieben
(eds.), Formations of Modernity, Cambridge/Oxford: Polity Press/Blackwell
Publishers, pp. 275–320.
Hanegraaff, Wouter J.: Esotericism and the Academy. Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture, Cambridge 2012.
Hanegraaff, Wouter J./Mukhopadhyay, Mriganka (eds.): Translating Esotericism, Correspondences, special volume 11.1, 2023.
Israel, Hephzibah: Introduction, Routledge Handbook of Translation and Religion, London 2023.
Lent, Jeremy: The Patterning Instinct. A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Lanham, Prometheus Books, 2017.
Sakai, Naoki: Translation and the Schematism of Bordering (draft manuscript); Translating society: A Commentator’s Conference, University of Konstanz, October 2009.


Birgit Menzel is a professor for Russian Culture at the University of Mainz in Germersheim, where she teaches at the Faculty for Translation and Interpretation. Her current research projects are New Religious Movements in Late and Post-Soviet Russia and Soviet-American Citizen Diplomacy to End the Cold War.


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Image Credits:

Picture1: Translating the Transcendent ©Romina Kaltenbach (KI/Microsoft Designer)

Picture 2: Workbench of the Initiate ©Julian Kaltenbach (KI/Microsoft Designer)

Picture 3:  Collage of book covers

Picture 4,5,6 :(Aleksey Dyachkov)  http://xn—-7sbbn0cuo.xn--p1ai/index.php/paints




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