Lars Kirkhusmo Pharo

"Concepts of Conversion: Politics of Missionary Scriptural Translations among the Mixtec and Nahua in Mexico”


ISS welcomed Lars Kirkhusmo Pharo–professor of Culture Studies at University of Oslo, Norway-- for its sole Brown Bag session of the fall semester 2009. Prof. Pharo’s research examines two indigenous cultures of Mexico--the Mixtec and Nahua-- and their encounters with Protestant and Catholic missionaries. Pharo outlined the schematics of his research project as well as some preliminary results from his first ethnographic field research in Mexico.

Pharo’s work emphasized language as a site of ideology, power and empire building, including the politics of Christian efforts (predominantly Wycliffe Bible Translators) to disseminate Bible translations throughout Latin America. Protestant missionary linguists’ goal to translate the New Testament into every language of the world has led to translations, grammars and dictionaries with the attempt to change indigenous beliefs and practices. By examining these Christian inflected grammars, dictionaries and translations of scriptures foreign to this region of Latin America, Pharo underscored how translations of the scriptures of modern Protestantism potentially undermine the religions, languages, traditions, and socio political institutions of indigenous people of the Americas and the rest of the world. The two places he studied are rich in history. Through an examination of translation, transculturation and acculturation, Pharo uncovers how both missionaries and indigenous people alike use language, religion, socio-political and religious institutions to aid in the construction of new identities, social and cognitive realities. Pharo stressed that this is a dynamic symmetrical process; not only the Mixtec and Nahua, but also the Catholic and Protestant missionaries themselves, transformed through the contact.

Both the Mixtec and Nahua have retained some valences of their pre-contact religious beliefs, practices, sacred rhetorics, stories, deities, socio-political and religious institutions. Nevertheless, the imposition of particular traditions of Christianity has led to a synthesis of indigenous and missionary-inflected Christian traditions: the Mixtec and Nahua may have made the orientations of the missionaries part of their own traditions.

Pharo’s research underscores the inherent difficulty in trying to convey and impose an outside religion--with all of its attendant concepts-- through translation. Given the politics of control that are associated with missionary work, how is the cultural information that is translated controlled?  Pharo’s interviews and examinations of the reception and incorporations of Christianity in Mesoamerican communities chart some of the wide-ranging social-psychological and political dynamics involved in the process.

For further discussion:

What does the conversion effort itself mean especially in relationship to uses of scriptures and translations? For instance, what are the broader frames for analyzing the reduction of pictorial texts into mass-produced written words?

Given that cultural transformations go both ways, how have indigenous cultures shaped the Christianity that emerges among the Mixtec and Nahua? How might these modes of translation help us understand the cultural dynamics of assimilation and resistance at play?

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