Migrant Biographies as a Prism for Explaining Transnational Knowledge Transfers

A growing awareness of the establishment of knowledge and information societies as well as unprecedented increases in global mobility have popularized both migration history and the history of knowledge. The interconnection of both fields promises to enrich and diversify research and lead to new approaches, methods, and findings. I would like to discuss the advantages of further combining approaches and methods from both fields in order to explore new questions that can yield fresh insights into some aspects of history still characterized as “important desiderata in the scholarly literature.”1 In particular, I will consider the value of combined approaches with reference to examples from my own biographical research.2

The history of knowledge was long regarded as “an exotic or even eccentric topic,”3 but this has changed in the past decade. The cultural turn was already spawning ideas about how to conceive and rethink the discipline of history. Growing awareness of the universal importance of information and knowledge societies for present and future human interactions accelerated and intensified this development. Consequently, historians have developed a historical perspective on current debates and begun to research historical actors and bodies of knowledge.4

Early studies in the history of science and neighboring disciplines such as sociology and anthropology indicated how complex but fluid the meanings of knowledge have been and led historians to pay closer attention to postcolonial knowledge production processes. Moreover, the expanding fields of transnational and global history stimulated interest in researching how ideas, knowledge, and culture were transferred and adapted across borders, thus opening the field to transnational approaches. This work understands knowledge as a broad concept that encompasses the academic and scientific as well as the social and the everyday, knowledge formed through experience and in close connection with particular cultural practices.5

Migration is marked by encounters of socially unequal agents of knowledge and by conflicts over the validation and recognition of knowledge. In some cases, knowledge is enthusiastically accepted; in other cases, it experiences devaluation when migrants cross borders; and there are many variations between these two poles.

In contrast to the transnational movement of material commodities that have a relatively stable exchange value, such as gold or silver, the value of cultural capital and knowledge has to be renegotiated after migrants leave their countries of origin. Studies have shown that “favourable historical, social, and psychological conditions” have to be met for the translation and transfer of such knowledge to take place.6 The receiving society, in short, must regard translated cultural capital as necessary and desirable. The acceptance of cultural translators depends largely on their ability to promote their skills and knowledge in their new host society. Indeed, researchers are coming to understand the strategies migrants employ as “knowledge in its own right.”7 The specific process of negotiating and promoting requires further investigation since in most cases we know a lot about the actual performances and achievements of historical actors as a consequence of their knowledge translations, but we know very little about their translation strategies, about how they transferred and promoted their knowledge in their new homes.

Focusing on translation strategies leads to an important issue commonly neglected: explaining “success” and “failure.” It is crucial for our understanding of knowledge and cultural capital translation processes to consider not only the well-documented success stories of translations but also the fact that many attempts to translate knowledge between different cultural contexts have failed, so to speak, and subsequently vanished from the stage of history. In many cases merchants, industrialists, craftspeople, artists, and academics faced resistance after arriving in a new society, and their efforts to promote their ideas and cultural capital did not work out. Yet analyzing the failure of translations is not only difficult in terms of available sources. It is also necessary to rethink what even constituted failure and when we should regard a translation as failed. An actor-centered perspective could offer initial guidance on how to approach the topic because translators, in many cases, have precise expectations for their own translations in the first place.

In my own research, the autobiography of Tony Sponar comes to mind. This Czech refugee came to Australia in 1947 with the idea of setting up a ski resort that resembled the Austrian ski town of St. Anton. After unsuccessfully trying to promote his concept for more than four years, he disappointedly concluded that his enthusiasm had fallen on “deaf ears.”8 Research interested in the success or failure of knowledge transfers could use Sponar's autobiographical depictions and contextual research to isolate the idea he picked up in Austria and consequently sought to implement in an Australian context. It could use the available sources to extract his strategies to promote his aim and would further ask if his expectations were met to see whether he regarded his undertaking as a success or a failure.

Ultimately, we have to ask how to make historical translations visible and comprehensible, that is, how to trace, detect, and specify knowledge and ideas before, during, and after the translation process. Examining if and how different forms of knowledge are deemed valid, relevant, and valuable enables us to draw conclusions about the efficacy of ideas, values, and practices in history.9 Here again, actor-centrism offers a possible answer. Such perspectives have become increasingly popular, and there is substantial research focusing on the role of “cultural translators” or “transmitters” within the transnational process of producing, translating and adapting knowledge and culture.

To offer a brief example, recent research on Gertrude Langer, who became a central actor in Queensland’s postwar art sector, isolates and analyzes the different elements of embodied and incorporated cultural capital that the Viennese refugee-art historian brought to Brisbane, according to her own depictions. A subsequent comparison of her prewar knowledge with her postwar cultural translations highlights how Langer adapted and transformed her knowledge to make it accessible in Australia, and it shows how she consciously embraced new, local, and aboriginal knowledge.10

When searching for suitable actor-centered perspectives, we could turn our interest to an academic discipline frequently used by historians of migration history—biography. The “new biography” school of thought in particular offers approaches and questions to meet that challenge. Moving away from typical chronological master narratives that focus on the histories of white, western, male subjects ostensibly “worthy” of a biography,11 new biography advocates a more complex depiction of diverse, modern individuals.12 It is interested in the function of biographies within the process of cultural meaning making and social self-reflection.13 It thus offers synergies with the history of knowledge, which itself does not seek to offer any “naïve history of progress but rather [to draw] our attention to historical forms of secret, impeded, and ignored knowledge, or to knowledge that was revalued or delegitimized.”14

Another brief example provides insights into what a critical examination of biographical sources can offer. The Viennese Jewish expressionist writer Paul Hatvani escaped to Australia in 1939. As conventional biographies of him indicate, he lived an isolated life in Australia, not writing anything until his rediscovery as a German-language author in 1965. As my research shows, however, he tried to use his knowledge and skills to write literature in English after his arrival. His English writings, however, were not widely received and consequently fell into oblivion. Hatvani later never mentioned his attempts to write in English. He even remarked once that writing literature in English was out of the question for him, and his biographers generally did not question this depiction after his death.15 A critical analysis of knowledge transfer influenced by new biography can shed light on this unknown terrain in his literary estate and life story. Why did he apparently seek to marginalize or silence his attempts to write in English? An answer could offer insights into strategies for exercising agency. It could shed light on questions about the success or failure of translations by showing which elements of Hatvani’s translations he intentionally highlighted or marginalized.

Since translations are by no means unidirectional, focusing on migrant biographies can also help us detect transformations that occur after ideas are transported from one context to another. “If comprehended as a cultural practice,” the sociologist Xymena Wieczorek puts it, “biography could provide a reliable method of analyzing the social practises of mobility thus opening up a new perspective on the movement and exchange of people, knowledge and institutions.”16 The linguist Volker Depkat additionally remarks that approaching research from a biographical perspective offers actor-centered perspectives on transnational, historical processes, thus mediating between the micro and macro levels of transnational entanglements and “highlighting to what degree seemingly anonymous, transnational processes have affected regional contexts.”17 To put it more simply, a biographical perspective leads us to interrogate processes that have not gained much attention so far, such as the above-mentioned question of how a relatively anonymous process like the migration of individuals or a cohort of people affected the regional context of a society, or a social entity in the receiving country. Biographical approaches are thus not only key methodological concepts to research and analyze transnational actors and their translations; they are also essential for our understanding of the hybrid, transnational spaces created by processes of mobility and migration.18

What will we ultimately be able to gain from such a combination of approaches from migration history and the history of knowledge? I have only mentioned a few of the possible applications here. To summarize, thinking about both fields together provides us with innovative perspectives to make vague expressions and terms more tangible. A complex but fluid term such as “knowledge,” for example, can be logically approached by focusing on perceptions, understandings, and memories of the actual translators. Furthermore, biographical methods can allow us to capture knowledge as well as apprehend the transfer processes of cultural capital through the eyes of the historical actors who pursued them. A critical, actor-centered view can also provide us with the tools to unearth and interrogate the strategies migrants used to promote their knowledge in a new context. Doing so can show us not only what kind of knowledge they regarded as important for themselves and, thus, ultimately worthy of translation in their new context. It can also permit us to approach the success or failure of knowledge transfer by asking about the standards translators applied to their translations. Finally, new biography can further sharpen our sense of the constructed character of biographical sources and show what interesting results can be gained from a more critical analysis of the intentions of a biographical subject.

Philipp Strobl is a researcher and lecturer of Modern History at the University of Hildesheim and is currently working on a book manuscript entitled “The Undesirables: Austrian Refugees from National Socialism in Australia—A History of Cultural Translation.”


  1. Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, “Knowledge on the Move: New Approaches toward a History of Migrant Knowledge,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43, no. 3 (2017): 324, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26381960. ↩︎
  2. I am currently working on a Habilitation project on the knowledge transfer and cultural translations of Austrian Jewish World War II refugees in Australia; it is funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF: J-3744). ↩︎
  3. Peter Burke, What is the History of Knowledge? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), 2. ↩︎
  4. Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 59 (2016): 32, https://www.ghi-dc.org/fileadmin/user_upload/GHI_Washington/Publications/Bulletin59/29.pdf. ↩︎
  5. Lässig and Steinberg, Knowledge on the Move, 320. ↩︎
  6. Yuri Lotman, Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), 147. ↩︎
  7. Andrea Westermann, “Migrant Knowledge: An Entangled Object of Research,” Migrant Knowledge, March 14, 2019, https://migrantknowledge.org/2019/03/14/migrant-knowledge/. ↩︎
  8. Philipp Strobl, “From Niche Sport to Mass Tourism: Transnational Lives in Australia’s Thredbo Resort,” in Leisure Cultures and the Making of Modern Ski Resorts, ed. Philipp Strobl and Aneta Podkalicka (London: Palgrave, 2018), 194, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-92025-2_9. ↩︎
  9. Lässig and Steinberg, Knowledge on the Move, 320. ↩︎
  10. Philipp Strobl, “‘But the Main Thing is I had the Knowledge’: Gertrude Langer, Cultural Translation and the Emerging Art Sector in Post-War Queensland (Australia),” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 18, no. 1 (2018): 16–30, https://doi.org/10.1080/14434318.2018.1481328. ↩︎
  11. Levke Harders, “Migration und Biographie: Mobile Leben schreiben,” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften 29 (2018): 17–36. ↩︎
  12. Katharina Prager, “Überlegungen zu Biographie und Exil im 20. Jahrhundert,” Exilforschung Österreich: Leistungen, Defizite und Perspektiven, ed. Evelyn Adunka et al. (Vienna: Mandelbaum, 2018), 564. ↩︎
  13. Volker Depkat, “The Challenges of Biography and Migration History,” Quiet Invaders Revisited. Biographies of Immigrants to the United States in the Twentieth Century, ed. Günter Bischof (Innsbruck: Studienverlag, 2017), 301. ↩︎
  14. Lässig and Steinberg, Knowledge on the Move, 320. ↩︎
  15. Philipp Strobl, “‘Ich habe nie die Absicht gehabt, autobiographische Arbeiten zu schreiben’—Exil und Autobiographie im transnationalen Leben von Paul Hatvani-Hirsch,” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften 29 (2018): 58–79. ↩︎
  16. Xymena Wieczorek, “Biography en route: Investigating Mobility Experiences through Biographical Research,” Spaces of Difference: Conflicts and Cohabitation, ed. Ursula Lehmkuhl, Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink, and Laurence McFalls (Münster: Waxmann, 2016), 106. ↩︎
  17. Volker Depkat, “Biographieforschung im Kontext transnationaler und globaler Geschichtsschreibung,” BIOS—Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung, Oral History und Lebensverlaufsanalysen 28, nos. 1–2 (2015): 3–18, https://doi.org/10.3224/ bios.v28i1-2.01. ↩︎
  18. Irini Siouti, “Biographische Reflexivität als zentrales Schlüsselkonzept in der transnationalen Biographieforschung,” in Forschungssituationen (re)konstruieren: Reflexivität in Forschungen zu intergenerativen Prozessen, ed. Marga Günther and Anke Kerschgens (Berlin: Budrich, 2015). ↩︎
Suggested citation: Philipp Strobl, “Migrant Biographies as a Prism for Explaining Transnational Knowledge Transfers,” Migrant Knowledge, October 7, 2019, https://migrantknowledge.org/2019/10/07/migrant-biographies/.