Professor Paul Gready, University of York


The proposed network engages with the AHRC emerging theme ‘Translating Cultures’ in various ways. ‘Freedom’ is a highly contentious term, often seen as partisan, favouring one party to a conflict, or externally imposed by a Western, liberal global order. It is hard to think of a concept more in need of cross-cultural understanding, communication and translation. The network also conceptualises translation and translators broadly (between languages; global and local; past and present; etc.); focuses on two expressions or translations of freedom (human rights and transitional justice, and public culture); and engages with a theme that has clear policy relevance.

Network discussions will prioritise translations of freedom in post-conflict settings. Two sectors have been identified as central to such translations. 1) Human rights and transitional justice (transitional justice is a set of mechanisms including trials and truth commissions that seek to assist countries to move on from an oppressive or violent past). 2) Public culture, ranging from literature, film and theatre to community arts projects and memorialisation. As such, translations of freedom are situated at the intersection of institutions and norms on the one hand, and public debate and creativity on the other. Workshops will take place in four case study countries – Egypt, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and South Africa. These countries have been chosen because they are at different points beyond or ‘post’ conflict, and enable a comparison between the aftermaths of authoritarianism (Egypt, South Africa) and the aftermaths of conflict (Northern Ireland, Rwanda).

This project aims to generate new insights into who the translators of freedom are, and what forms of translation matter, in post-conflict settings. As noted above, translation of freedom is conceptualised broadly as crossing boundaries between languages; between international human rights law and local norms; between past and present; between the local and the global; between various media; between academic disciplines; and between the academy and various practitioner communities. Translation will be understood as a two way process. While one partner may be dominant, and the dominance may speak to broader political and power dynamics, important insights can be gained by viewing translation as a process of negotiation and struggle. Two conceptual frameworks underpin this idea: Rothberg’s (2009) ‘multidirectional’ memory (translation too can be multidirectional), and Engle Merry’s (2006) description of translators as intermediaries in processes of vernacularisation (adaptation to local institutions and meanings).

Moving on to freedom, can the notion of translating freedom liberate the term from its more problematic associations? Events such as the Arab Spring suggest that contemporary freedom must be understood as both a locally informed set of demands, and a set of global agendas (economic, diplomatic, military). Two conceptual frameworks help to provide a more inclusive framework. Roosevelt’s four freedoms are a useful place to start: of expression, of worship, from want, from fear. Second, Sen (1999) reminds us that freedom is not just an absence of state coercion, but also agency and the ability to exercise genuine choice. Each of the workshops will explicitly address one or more of Roosevelt’s four freedoms to focus local discussions and provide a basis for comparative analysis.

The network proposes to host four workshops in case study countries, two workshops in York (one of which is already funded) and associated events, designed to establish an international and interdisciplinary research network including a diverse group of scholars as well as human rights and cultural practitioners. The network will submit major collaborative fundings bids and conduct ground-break research on the theme of ‘translating freedom’.


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