Shamanistic Translation

Shamanistic Art of Translation

Communication is an act of translation.

Paulo J S Bittencourt

Educating, learning, reading, writing, communicating, dialoging – vital processes conceived in relational and collective terms – will always be, at that most basal layer, a shamanic art of translation. In effect, all these experiences are shaped by interactions, whether verbal or silent – (how eloquent silence is too!) interactions that weave significant connections. It does not matter here if the materialization of the discourse takes place through the paths of oral narratives, imagery and sonorous art or from the meticulous pen of the literate.
In pedagogical terms, we are all shamans.
I shall explain myself.
In the hard-hitting and provocative essay “Perspectivism and naturalism in indigenous America”, renowned Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro refers to Amazonian shamanism “as the ability manifested by certain individuals to deliberately cross bodily barriers and adopt the perspective of allospecific subjectivities, of the way to manage relations between them and humans”. Obviously, for this to be possible, it is necessary to presuppose a kind of common basis – of a “linguistic” and communicational nature – of the spiritual or cultural world, a world whose scope goes far beyond the merely human sphere. For many Amerindian groups in the Amazon, contrary to what we tend to believe, we are not that special, and not only in relation to other living species, animals or plants, but also in relation to things and phenomena considered to be material and inanimate. This is, of course, a conception that goes against our Western way of thinking, for which the world of culture is essentially structured from diverse and insurmountable perspectives. Just think, for example, about the paradigmatic division that the history of Western thought established between the kingdoms of nature and culture, a division that impacted and continues to impact to this day the epistemological dualism that established the fundamental division between natural sciences and human sciences.  In this case, nature would operate out of necessity, governed by impersonal laws, such as universal gravitation. Culture would constitute the privileged and exclusively human terrain of freedom, plurality and rationality.

Well then. Given Viveiros de Castro’s anthropological definition, it became tempting to think of the totality of teaching-learning processes, due to their virtually infinite means and contents, as a shamanic art of which we would all be legitimate holders, in law and in fact, a art without conclusion that requires the faithful and indefatigable habit of sensitive, careful and attentive practice. And, here, everyone and everything, living or not, would be equally permeated by this powerfully communicational property. Whether or not Albert Camus is right in presupposing that the world is completely devoid of meaning in the face of the insatiable human thirst for meaning, the understanding we outline of life, the universe and everything else is a Homeric journey that calls for the mobilization of all our tools linguistics and our interactions with the entire world, observable or not.
The generous act of sharing knowledge will always be a translation of different perspectives. Initially, I will never be able to learn another language without having as a reference the horizon of meanings that my mother tongue embodies. I cannot feel the darkness of the unknown except with the help of the rarefied light that the lantern of my language illuminates. It seems very little. In fact, it’s very little, but it’s all I have. Perhaps this is precisely why Paulo Freire emphasized the consideration of our socially immediate worlds of life as a starting point for the literacy process. In this sense, I will only be able to expand my horizon of perspectives and meaning if I operate from the lenses that my culture has bequeathed. It is a process also comparable to the historian’s investigation, as Marc Bloch rightly insisted. The historian is also a translator in the sense that he needs to make human experience in the past intelligible to his own generation. Now, to be understood by the present, institutions or social phenomena from the past that are no longer shared by our semantic horizons need to be partially illustrated by references that are known to us. Translation would therefore be a “sine qua non” condition for understanding. But intellectual honesty also requires that what is translated maintains its irreducible semantic specificity, at the risk of falling into the trap of anachronism. The other will always resist being reduced to myself.

Communicating meaningfully, therefore, is always an act of translation. On the other hand, the particular meaning of what is translated is only organically abducted by semantic empathy, that is, by the shamanic movement of understanding incorporation of the other that is unknown to me. The language with which I operate would constitute, here, the shamanic staff to mobilize meanings inherent to multiverses full of perspectives beyond my own. My semantic universe expands, then, to the extent of comprehensive interaction with other universes that, in turn, also uniquely communicate their meanings. It turns out that the same linguistic tools that enable me to interact with other worlds that were previously unknown to me are themselves equally transformed by these significant incursions of a shamanic nature. This is why our understanding horizons of experiences and things expand over an equally growing linguistic fabric. My semantic universe, however, when expanding, is not entirely self-contained, or, in other words, it is not reduced to bread dough that rises with yeast, without, however, altering its substance. Therefore, increasing my horizon of meaning in the world presupposes a semantic anthropophagy of entirely other worlds.
Even the great mystics felt challenged to share linguistically their spiritual experiences incommunicable through speech. After experiencing Nirvana, Buddha, the Awakened One, was urged by the god Brahma to come out of his meditative absorption to discursively communicate to the world the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. Adi Shankaracharya also expresses the unspeakable joy of Nirvana through a richly poetic speech.

That is why I insist on the possibility that the shamanic staff in question is inevitably a form of language, even if the meaning of the experiences or things translated and communicated comes from an intuitive or supposedly meta-linguistic experience.  That is, it cannot be immediately discussed or explained in symbolic terms. And this seems valid to me, even for cases in which the word is called upon to express precisely a condition of self-suppression, an occasion in which the shamanic staff would also act as an Ockham’s razor.
Even in this case, it is the razor of the word that prunes the shoots of speech to reveal the indescribable trunk of silence.
It is the meaning, finally, constructed or given, that would constitute the common substrate through which our comprehensive journey as shamans through the world of life becomes possible, and, in this case, the word emerges as its only vehicle for sharing.


Professor Paulo Bittencourt is a brilliant teacher of Ancient and Medieval History at the Universidade Federal da Fronteira Sul UFFS [Erechim Campus], Brazil. He contributes articles regularly, and is a columnist of a periodical too. He has several books to his credit. He is an ardent student of Vedanta.