Martin Ramstedt (Halle): “Indigeneity” and “Indigenous Rights” in Bali: On the Cultural Translation of International Legal Norms


Contrary to what professional legal translation services aver, much is lost in the translation of international legal concepts, like “the rule of law”, “indigenous stewardship of land”, or “gender equality”, across languages and legal cultures. Scholars have pointed to the incommensurability of categories and the time pressure under which professional legal translators often have to work, for instance at international criminal tribunals.

What is more, in the global South, international legal concepts are frequently only selectively translated because the skills of the translators employed by the respective governments or NGOs are more often than not inadequate to the task.

The pitfalls of legal translation do not end at the level of linguistics, though. Experiences from New Zealand have shown that the “translation” of Maori normative concepts into Kiwi state law has paradoxically led to a painful disconnection of these concepts from their original purposes, due to the fact that judges have not been compelled to pay attention to the Maori institutions, procedures, and conventions of interpretations, in which these concepts are embedded. These experiences suggest a significant degree of transformation legal norms can undergo when they travel. I propose that the concept of “cultural translation” can help us better understand the still underestimated level of transmogrification of traveling legal norms, as it hones our lenses to the divergent frames of reference and “events” involved in translation processes, to the power relations that bear upon the negotiation between the different frames of reference, and to the “translators” (actors, actants, institutions) who each with their own interests, roles and performances move between the different frames of reference. The test case for my argument is the “vernacularization” of “indigeneity” and “indigenous rights” in post-New Order Bali (Indonesia).

Dr. Martin Ramstedt

Curriculum Vitae

Since March 2014 Dr. Martin Ramstedt has been a fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities “Law as Culture” and associated researcher at the “Law & Anthropology” Department of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale. Prior to his fellowship in Bonn, he was senior researcher at the MPI in Halle, pursuing different projects in the field of religion and law. He regularly teaches the Master course “Law and Anthropology” at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in Oñati (Spain) and is chief editor of the series “Religion and Society in Asia” at Amsterdam University Press. He has published widely in the field of religion, law, and legal pluralism in Indonesia.