Handman, “Walking Like a Christian”

Handman, Courtney.  2017. Walking like a Christian: Roads, translation, and gendered bodies as religious infrastructure in Papua New Guinea.  American Ethnologist.  Early online publication.

Abstract: Homologies between so-called soft infrastructures like language and hard ones like roads depend on ethnographically variable metaphors of circulation. In these homologies, speakers understand language to propel or inhibit forms of physical movement, affecting the embodied experiences of transportation or locomotion. In the case of Guhu-Samane Christians in Papua New Guinea, people focus on language as a kind of infrastructure as they grapple with postcolonial feelings of disconnection from divine powers that were once manifest in a New Testament translation. They channel this sense of disconnection into ongoing complaints about their lack of a vehicular road and the pain of walking, particularly walking like a heavily burdened woman. If a road were built into their valley, this would signal the New Testament’s transformation into Christian infrastructure.

Harkness, “Transducing a Sermon, Inducing Conversion”

Harkness, Nicholas.  2017. Transducing a Sermon, Inducing Conversion Billy Graham, Billy Kim, and the 1973 Crusade in Seoul.  Representations 137(1): 112-142.

Abstract: This paper is an analysis of the final sermon of Billy Graham’s 1973 Crusade in Seoul, South Korea, when he preached to a crowd estimated to exceed one million people. Next to Graham at the pulpit was Billy Jang Hwan Kim, a preacher who, in his capacity as interpreter, translated Graham’s sermon verbally and peri-verbally—utterance by utterance, tone by tone, gesture by gesture—for the Korean-speaking audience. I examine the dynamic pragmatics (for example, chronotopic formulations, deictic calibrations, voicing and register effects, and indexical dimensions of entextualization) by which a sermonic copy across linguistic codes became an evangelical conduit between Cold War polities. In so doing, I demonstrate how the scope of intertextual analysis can be expanded productively from the narrow translation of denotation across codes to the broader indexical processes of semiotic “transduction” across domains of cultural semiosis.

Schram, “Tapwaroro is true”

Ryan Schram, 2016. “Tapwaroro is true”: Indigenous Voice and the Heteroglossia of Methodist Missionary Translation in British New Guinea” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. DOI: 10.1111/jola.12138

Abstract: In the semiotic ideology of many Christian discursive practices, it is assumed that any language can convey the same message of salvation, and any person is capable of true belief, no matter how it is expressed. Evangelism, especially by Western missions, thus centers on translating Christian texts into vernacular languages. This article considers these understandings and practices by examining the written discourse of Australian Methodist missionaries in the early colonial period in New Guinea. These missionaries desired an encounter with heathens in an unevangelized field, but they operated in a colonial terrain defined by the politics of past encounters between Australians and Melanesians. In their writings, missionary authors parody the voices of indigenous speakers and present a world in which missionary and native cannot arrive at a shared understanding of religion. Their parody usually involves quoting one term, taparoro, as a word used by natives for the mission and its activities. Having presented a world defined by a persistent gap in understanding, missionaries appropriate this particular sign of their own otherness to others as a basis for a new mission register into which they can translate Christian ideas. In so doing, they do not simply impose one dominant code as a metalinguistic standard, but fashion a new discourse out of available materials in a complex field of interlingualism.

Praying and Preying: Book Review

Vilaça, Aparecida. 2016.  Praying and Preying: Christianity in Indigenous Amazonia, translated by David Rodgers. Oakland: University of California Press.

Reviewed by G.E.R. Lloyd (Needham Research Institute, Cambridge UK)

This is a truly remarkable book.  In most anthropological monographs the reader is given a detailed analysis of one particular collectivity, the circumstances of their lives, their kinship relations, social structures, myths, rituals, ways of making sense of the world and of their place in it.  That is certainly what Vilaça here does for the society she has been studying for more than 30 years, the Wari’ who live in what is today the Rondônia province of Brazil.  But a principal theme of this book is the interactions between the Wari’ and the missionaries (Protestants and some Catholics) who have lived among them and attempted, with varying success, to convert them to Christianity.  The Evangelical New Tribes Mission in particular, whose activities date back to the 1940s, may be said to be the subject of a second interlocking ethnographic analysis.  This adds a new dimension to the study of mutual intelligibility with which Vilaça is centrally concerned.  First there is the missionaries’ understanding of the Wari’ (they are not particularly concerned to learn from them or even about them but they certainly wish to get their own message across).  Second there is the Wari’s understanding of the missionaries and of what the missionaries are trying to teach them.  Third there is Vilaça’s own understanding of those divergent understandings and her further entering into dialogue with her fellow anthropologists.  I shall come back to that.

The problem of translation thus takes centre stage, and that takes multiple forms.  This is not just a matter of finding particular terms in one language that will be adequate to convey what is meant by some word in another. This to be sure was a major preoccupation for the missionaries, for what they were hoping to achieve was a rendition of the Word of God, as contained in the Bible, itself interpreted literally.  But for the Wari’ translation was quite different.  Their starting point is that Wari’ is the language spoken by everyone, every living being (and not just humans).  But the same term, used by different agents, may and often does have quite different referents.  The plot thickens when the agents are non-human persons.  When the jaguar drinks the blood of its victims, what the Wari’ see as blood is, for the jaguar, beer.  Of course translating from jaguar perceptions to those of the Wari’ takes special skills, the province of expertise of shamans in particular (though with Christianisation their power has been on the decline).  But the Wari’ in general are used to calling upon what may be thought of as internal dictionaries facilitating translation between jaguars (for example) and the Wari’, and of course also between the missionaries and themselves.  The consequence for reference is radical.  We are used to recognising that for someone to be a ‘father’ implies a relationship with another person, a son or daughter, who makes the father what he is.  But that principle is applied quite generally.  So that ‘blood’ is (only) blood to some agent for whom it is blood.  Indeed, a ‘person’ is only a person in virtue of being seen as a person.

That of course was the central message of the perspectivism proposed by Viveiros de Castro, which the Wari’ instantiate particularly clearly.  But where does that leave Vilaça herself?  On the one hand, she evidently distances herself from the assumptions of the missionaries, that the Word of God sets out a definitive statement of how things are.  On the other, she resists the relativising conclusion that the different understandings of translation, and of terms across languages, effectively rule out any possibility of mutual intelligibility.  That is not a conclusion the Wari’ themselves draw.  On the contrary their perspectivism suggests a particular focus on the efforts needed, and the difficulties likely to be encountered, in the task of translation.

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MacLochlainn, “Divinely Generic”

MacLochlainn, Scott. 2015. Divinely Generic: Bible Translation and the Semiotics of Circulation. Signs and Society 3(2): 234-260.

Abstract: In this article I examine the practice of Bible translation and the underlying sets of Christian ideologies regarding the commensurability of linguistic forms. Based on ethnographic research conducted at a biannual Bible translation workshop in Mindoro, Philippines, in 2013, during which the Bible was translated into three Mangyan languages, I argue that the degree to which the actual linguistic forms in the scriptures are divinely inspired often exists as an irresolvable semiotic problem for Bible translators. To this end, I discuss the means through which the Holy Spirit is taken as an essential mediator between the fallible work of Christian translators and the Bible as a language-instantiated form of God’s presence. I show how the employment of “generic” language by Christian translators enables them to mirror and circulate the divine universality of scriptural meaning in earthly form. I propose that generic language can be viewed as a site in which multiple and often conflicting claims of language universality and purity are present.

Elazar, “Translating culture”

Elazar, Gideon.  2016. Translating culture: missionaries and linguists in contemporary Yunnan Province.  Asian Ethnicity.  Early online publication.

Abstract: In an attempt to emulate early modern missionaries to Yunnan who engaged in the invention of writing systems for various ethnic groups, contemporary evangelical missionaries in Yunnan have become heavily involved in the realm of linguistics, focused on the preservation of endangered languages. While such activity may potentially be perceived as a challenge to the state-Chinese linguistic hegemony, I argue that the presence of missionary linguists is acceptable to the Chinese authorities as it does not threaten the paramount position of Putonghua but rather serves to integrate minority people into the state system. In addition, based on interviews conducted with a missionary working to produce texts for Kunming’s Buoyi population in their language, I aim to demonstrate how missionary linguists attempt to remold local culture by attempting to reconstruct ethnic identity around a language core. The article is based on fieldwork conducted in Yunnan in 2009–2010 and 2012.

Henn, “Kristapurāṇa: Translating the Name of God in Early Modern Goa”

Henn, Alexander. 2015. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 12 [Online Journal]

Abstract: In the 16th and 17th centuries, Jesuit missionaries began to translate Christian doctrine and mythology into Indian languages. Most critical became the question how the very name(s) of God and gods can be translated. Artfully composed texts known as Christian Purāṇas borrowed from the religious terminology and literary styles of Indian devotional literature and are praised today for mediating between the cultures of Christians and Hindus (the latter called ‘gentiles’ in the contemporary sources). At the same time, the Portuguese-Catholic regime in India launched a ruthless iconoclastic campaign against the culture of the Indian gentiles, destroying their temples and images and denigrating their allegedly ‘false gods.’ Against this background, the article addresses the questions of what the relation was between translation and violence; how hermeneutics and destruction coexisted; and how the idea that the translations facilitated the modern emergence of religious pluralism is to be qualified.

Arrington, “Christian Hymns as Theological Mediator”

Arrington, Aminta. Christian Hymns as Theological Mediator: The Lisu of South-west China and Their Music.  Studies in World Christianity 21(2): 140-160.

Abstract: The Lisu of south-west China were evangelised a hundred years ago by missionaries from the China Inland Mission and adopted Christianity in a people movement that permeated nearly their entire society. The missionaries recognised that the Lisu were a singing people, and translation of a hymnbook proceeded apace together with translation of the New Testament. Further, many Western hymns were translated using Lisu poetic forms. These translated Western hymns not only became the centrepiece for worship, but were also part of the daily rhythm of life for Lisu Christians. Though the missionaries departed more than seventy years ago, the hymns, still sung a capella in four-part harmony, have remained. While the bible remains somewhat out of reach for the vast majority of Lisu peasant farmers with low reading and writing skills, the hymnbook is well-known and well-worn, its contents easy to find and many of its most familiar hymns memorised. The various functions the hymns provide for Lisu Christians overlap and intersect at various levels of meaning and experience, which can be encapsulated into one central understanding: the Lisu hymns serve as a theological mediator for Lisu Christians, bridging the gap between the text-intensive religion that is Christianity and the oral world of Lisu culture. In the everyday arena, in the practical living out of what it means to be a Christian for a communal and still largely oral-preference people such as the Lisu, the Lisu Christian hymns are the centrepiece of worship and devotion, prayer and penitence.

Handman, “Critical Christianity”

Handman, Courtney. 2015. Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea (The Anthropology of Christianity). Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Publisher’s Description: In Critical Christianity, Courtney Handman analyzes the complex and conflicting forms of sociality that Guhu-Samane Christians of rural Papua New Guinea privilege and celebrate as “the body of Christ.” Within Guhu-Samane churches, processes of denominational schism – long relegated to the secular study of politics or identity – are moments of critique through which Christians constitute themselves and their social worlds. Far from being a practice of individualism, Protestantism offers local people ways to make social groups sacred units of critique. Bible translation, produced by members of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, is a crucial resource for these critical projects of religious formation. From early interaction with German Lutheran missionaries to engagements with the Summer Institute of Linguistics to the contemporary moment of conflict, Handman presents some of the many models of Christian sociality that are debated among Guhu-Samane Christians. Central to the study are Handman’s rich analyses of the media through which this critical Christian sociality is practiced, including language, sound, bodily movement, and everyday objects. This original and thought-provoking book is essential reading for students and scholars of anthropology and religious studies.

McDougall, “Stealing foreign words”

McDougall, Debra.  2012.  Stealing foreign words, recovering local treasures: Bible translation and vernacular literacy on Ranongga (Solomon Islands).  The Australian Journal of Anthropology 23(3): 318–339.

Abstract: In Oceania, which is arguably both the world’s most linguistically diverse region and its most Christian, Bible translation projects are sites where ordinary people pay attention to the kind of ‘interlingual articulations’ that are the focus of this special issue. This article focuses on an ongoing vernacular revival movement that arose from the translation of the New Testament into Luqa, an Austronesian language of Ranongga Island in the Solomon Islands’ Western Province. In 2000, the head translator began running workshops that encouraged native speakers to appreciate the lexical diversity and learn the grammatical structures of their language. In the context of the Bible translation and these language workshops, the vernacular is understood to be, simultaneously, an adequately transparent vehicle for God’s Word and something of value in and of itself. In elevating the status of the vernacular, participants also hope to elevate the status of local territories and communities marginalised in an increasingly English-speaking regional world.