- Translating Paulo Freire
I want to reflect explicitly on the task of translation. That is, in large part, what my colleagues have already accomplished: exploring what Paulo Freire's work written in Brazil in 1969 in the context of literacy education means for us in our own places in 2019 in the context of religious studies and theological education. Yet, it is worth naming this task forthrightly and adding it to our collective agenda.
For many of us, we encounter Freire's work already through translation. Unless you are reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the original Portuguese, you are reading a translation of Freire's work. And, as the old Italian aphorism goes traduttori, traditori (here in translation) translators, traitors. We inevitably lose something in the process of translation; we betray the original language, context, and meaning. Yet, we may gain things too. If Freire was right, namely, that the dialogical process of exchange generates knowledge, then exchange across differences of language, context, and conceptual worlds may be productive. What can we learn by translating Freire's work into our own contexts? What is lost in the translation process?
We might learn something more from Freire here, and especially his translator. Freire reflected publicly on the process of translation of Pedagogy of the Oppressed to English, which was done by his friend Myra Ramas, in another book, Pedagogy of Hope.
Myra worked with a maximum of professional precession, and absolute dedication. During the process of translation of the text, she would regularly consult with a group of friends. She would call them on the phone and say, "Does this sentence make sense to you?" And she would read the passage she had just translated and was having doubts about. Then again, when she had finished part of a chapter, she would send a copy of the translation, along with the original, to other friends, North Americans [End Page 185] who knew Portuguese very well … and ask them for their opinions and suggestions.1
Ramas is exemplary, I think, because she applied Freire's liberatory pedagogy to the task of translation. Translation for Ramas was a work of solidarity and friendship. Even while she carried out the task, she turned to dialogue as a source of knowledge that was otherwise inaccessible. Ramas not only exemplifies a liberatory, Freirean approach to translation but also feminist commitments to a social epistemology: we come to know what we know through relationships with others. Translation is a relational exercise, and insofar as that work is carried out with commitments to mutuality, care, and reciprocity, it can be liberatory. So, what are our responsibilities in the work of translating Freire's work into our own contexts?
Acknowledge the Contradictions
Freire's context was not our own. He was working in Brazil, in Portuguese, fifty years ago among the illiterate and impoverished. Most of my coauthors and I work in elite institutions of higher education in the United States. Certainly, there is diversity in this knowledge community and among the readers of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, but consider your students, what are their subject positions? Are they (are we) rightly positioned as oppressed? Or oppressor? Of course, all of us are variously and intersectionally positioned. But that does not get us off the hook of coming to judgment about the relative privileges of those positions. We have to acknowledge the contradictions between Freire's context and our own.
Engage in Dialogue across Those Contradictions
Acknowledging the difference between Freire's context and our own, we then engage the work of dialogue with the aim of liberation. As Freire argued, regardless of how you are positioned, we all have tasks in the work of liberation. These tasks are different for the oppressed and the oppressor. For the oppressed, it requires coming to consciousness about the dynamics of oppression and leading the work of liberation. For the oppressor, it requires solidarity. As Freire put it, "Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture."2 This, Freire argued, requires conversion and, even, love. Dialogue is the first step toward...