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  • Elton Uliana

Translating Guarani and Kaiowá Cosmology

From Speech to Page to Pixel



Recording Guarani and Kaiowá’s traditional ceremonies —Photograph taken by Raffaella Fryer-Moreira, MAL

A participatory approach and an interdisciplinary methodology, bridging translation, anthropology, and digital humanities, with translation playing a key role, becoming a kind of ‘super-category’.

Ethnographic translation is said to be a textual construct, which is true enough if one has the conventional sense of the science in mind. However, reading other cultures is no longer an act of translating inarticulate realms of cultural experience into the dimensionality of a scholarly text. As technology shapes the way we collect data and present research, ethnographic practices that incorporate both online and offline fieldwork, as well as high-end technological tools and state of the art digital mediums, have become more and more common.


With a shifting focus from texts to practices, ethnographic approaches to translation have gained exceptional traction. Researchers feel compelled to enter the field not only to study the agents, their practices and actual processes of translation and interpreting, but also the interactions involving both human and non-human actors.

Accessing, researching, and presenting indigenous cosmology by those perceived to be ‘outsiders’ through translation is a complex affair, not least because these practices are also political, since they can become the basis for claims to intellectual and cultural property, as well as raise questions regarding the ethics of such representations.

Over the last year, the UCL Multimedia Anthropology Lab has been collaborating closely with the Guarani and Kaiowá indigenous peoples from Brazil, creating an experimental VR museum and a multimedia digital archive for and with the communities in partnership with the British Museum’s Endangered Material Knowledge Program (EMKP) and UCL Grand Challenges, with the aim that Guarani and Kaiowá knowledge and the materiality of their cultural life is preserved and disseminated to current and future generations globally.


Ethnographic session on Zoom with members of UCL MAL and Guarani and Kaiowá elder


It is striking how translation has been always and necessarily at the very heart of this collaboration. Crucially, the project adopts a participatory approach and an interdisciplinary methodology, bridging translation, anthropology, and digital humanities, with translation playing a key role, becoming a kind of ‘super-category’, mediating as it does all communication processes from the Guarani and Kaiowá language to Portuguese, from Portuguese to English and from English often to other 26 different languages spoken by the members of the UCL MAL team.


But translation also takes place in every other aspect of the project. VR technology makes use of physical structures to create the immersive effect of their virtual worlds, and the creation of these dataspaces would not be possible without translation of one kind or another. From the oral speech of the elders and shamans of the communities to the page of a Word document, to the pixel-based screen of an VR oculus, translation is everywhere.

Finally, if the members of UCL MAL are necessarily agents in these projects, to be sure, we also rely heavily on the curatorial agency of the Guarani and Kaiowá families involved, so that the collection does not become essentially objectifications of authoritative knowledge, but instead, disrupts the institutionalisation of indigenous subjects, ensuring their intellectual and political power.





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