I was surprised to find that one of my articles, The Paradox of Pedagogical Documentation, was recently translated into Italian. A group of nature educators plan to use it as a point of discussion for an upcoming training seminar. Reading excerpts of my blog in translation was both exciting and a little strange. I was reminded of the words of George Borrow, British author and Romani cultural enthusiast, who once wrote “translation is at best an echo.”
As an individual who has dabbled in translation throughout my life, I have conflicting emotions about Borrow’s assertion. The art of accurate translation, especially verbal interpretation, is the exercise of eliminating the translator’s voice altogether. It isn’t enough to just translate the general meaning of the author or speaker; a skilled translator needs to be able to reiterate what their subject says not just in another language, but with the same word choice, style, and idioms. That being said, I also think that there is something to be gained in hearing the thoughts of an author through the mouth of a translator passionate enough to endeavor a translation of their works. Translators are sometimes the greatest experts of the works they choose to translate, making their interpretations and opinions a source of insights that would otherwise be lost.
Loris Malaguzzi looms large as the founder of the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy. His poem, “The Hundred Languages of Children,” is commonly referenced as a source of inspiration for Reggio educators. His opinions on the image of the child, the importance of reflection in teaching practice, and the complex relationships between students and teachers are valuable not just to Reggio educators, but teachers in general.
The trouble is, I don’t speak Italian. From what I have read, I find Malaguzzi’s writing both beautiful and insightful, but my impressions of his works are based entirely on the efforts of translators and interpreters like Lella Gandini, George Forman, and Carolyn Edwards. Together, they edited and published a collection of writings titled The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education, which has become one of the cornerstones of American Reggio-inspired teaching practice.
The truth is that I’ve never read a single word written or spoken by Loris Malaguzzi himself. Because I don’t speak French, I’ve never read an article published by Jean Piaget either, despite the fact he is commonly regarded as one of the fathers of Constructivist educational theory. I’ve tried to read Lev Vygotsky (Piaget’s counterpart and the other psychologist to whom Constructivism is often attributed), but my Russian isn’t good enough to even make a dent. Despite the importance of the studies conducted by Malaguzzi, Piaget, and Vygotsky, I’ve only ever read translations or summaries of their ideas.
Malaguzzi and Piaget lived long lives; Piaget passed away in 1980, and Malaguzzi passed away in 1994. Throughout their prolific careers, translators had many opportunities to speak to them face-to-face and clarify their theories and pedagogical beliefs. Because Malaguzzi was not just a psychologist but also teacher who worked with young children, interpreters like Gandini and Edwards even had the unprecedented opportunity to see him put his theories into practice inside and outside the classroom (such as can be read in Loris Malaguzzi and the Teachers: Dialogues on Collaboration and Conflict Among Children, Reggio Emilia, 1990, a record of a reflective practice venture between Reggio Emilia schools and University of Massachusetts, Amherst).
Lev Vygotsky’s works are significantly more problematic. He died of tuberculosis in 1934 at the age of 37, which means almost all of his work translated into English happened posthumously. Having lived and worked in the Soviet Union, many educational scholars suspect that a portion of his work was lost, marginalized, or censored by the government, perhaps to minimize its impact on the larger psychological community. His book Thinking and Speech was published in English under his name in 1962, twenty-eight years after his death. Many of the concepts commonly associated with Vygotsky’s theories, such as “scaffolding” (the term many educators use to describe the process of providing necessary information or materials to facilitate new concepts), were never used by Vygotsky at all. Even the ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), which is the backbone of Vygotsky’s flagship Theory of Social Constructivism, has been called into question as marginally significant in the greater scope of his authorship. In Ronald Miller’s 2011 article titled Vygotsky in Perspective, he provides intense criticism of a few of Vygotsky’s English interpreters:
The literature emanating from within a broad sociocultural or cultural-historical activity fold projects a diluted version of Vygotsky’s theory that is tailored to meet the theoretical dispositions and inclinations of each contemporary commentator. Reading this literature, it is difficult to escape the impression that ‘Vygotsky’ has been hijacked in the interests of creating a new orthodoxy in which the Vygotsky name is branded to the detriment of his work.
For 83 years now, educators have been debating what Vygotsky’s theories really mean and how to implement them in the classroom. Since perusing Soviet archives for his original works, historians have discovered that many of his articles that were published in translation during the 1960s were either unfinished drafts or never intended for publication at all. In a few bizarre instances, English interpretations of his works were translated back into Russian and passed off as originals that had been destroyed or misplaced. Because of these inconsistencies, Vygotskian revisionists have endeavored to start over from scratch since the 2000s, attempting to collect and totally retranslate Vygotsky’s unedited articles with uncompromising authenticity.
The purpose of this article is not to discourage the reading of theory in translation. It is a simple reminder that, no matter what we read, there are layers to the knowledge we acquire. When we read Loris Malaguzzi in English, we are also reading Lella Gandini. When we read Vygotsky in English, we are also reading the opinions of Michael Cole or Ronald Miller. It is important to be aware of the lenses through which translated material is filtered. While these lenses can lead to questions of content authenticity (such as with Vygotsky), they are ultimately a means by which we can create richer understanding. By rereading translated works and revisiting primary sources, educators and historians can breathe new life into educational theory we sometimes present as being set in stone. Translation should serve as a reminder that understanding is an ongoing process, subject to constant review.
Just like the negotiated curricula that are so common in Reggio-inspired schools, pedagogy isn’t absolute. It is a product of the combined perspective of the researchers and authors who create it, the interpretations of the editors and translators who digest it, and even the beliefs of the teachers who practice it. Pedagogy differs from dogma precisely because it is fluid and cyclical. Each time we incorporate new methods into our practice, we change both ourselves and the methods themselves. Educators in Reggio Emilia discourage the taking of photographs when giving school tours for precisely this reason; they have no desire for practitioners of the Reggio Way in America to create a carbon copy of their methods in a different language. While American Reggio draws inspiration from Malaguzzi’s original Italian model, it is an entirely different iteration. It is evidence that the Reggio Emilia Approach does not belong specifically to Italy; it is a living, breathing pedagogy that is changing with each teacher that practices it.
Most of all, educational theory in translation is a prime example of the supreme power of discourse. It is a way for us to share knowledge across cultures. It is a reminder of the fact that in other reaches of the world, like-minded individuals are discussing the same issues we are in different languages. Translators endeavor to bridge the gap between groups of people who would otherwise be unable to share knowledge through conversation. They also create a bridge between generations of educators who would otherwise never intersect. I’m only 27 years old, which means Malaguzzi died when I was four. Without the incredible efforts of individuals like Gandini, I would have never had the opportunity to partake in the powerful educational lessons he has to offer.
Regardless of whether we read in our native tongue or not, we are all in a way interpreters of the educational practices we subscribe to. Education is a field that is constantly shifting beneath our feet, whether we notice it or not. As teachers, it is important that we do our best to inform our practice based on a breadth of well-rounded sources. It is my opinion that we should read translations and summaries of important articles, but we should also take the time to read scientific studies, reviews, op-eds, and criticisms. We should consume text in our native languages and, when time allows, learn new languages to help broaden our horizons. We should even strive to author our own reflective and groundbreaking articles just like Malaguzzi, Piaget, and Vygotsky.