From bad translations to biases and blind spots: the challenges of knowledge

From bad translations to biases and blind spots: the challenges of knowledge
An Ark based on Mesopotamian cultural heritage would look nothing like this.

After several years of gathering knowledge – sometimes racing against time to record it while the holders of Iraq’s traditional boatbuilding skills are still alive – our work is now shifting into a new phase, in which a key objective is to share what we’ve learned.

We have accumulated a vast archive of information: thousands of photographs; hundreds of video recordings of craft practices and oral history interviews; and a library of books and academic papers (in English and Arabic) that shed light on the historic and prehistoric context of the boats we’re studying.

While some of that information is available on our website, and more detailed presentations have reached audiences from Iraqi universities to international conferences and the Venice Biennale, we are eager to make it much more accessible.

A key piece of learning from our projects to date is that we have not planned in enough time for processing. Time to organise all the knowledge collected, reflect on it, and present it accessibly.

With the urgency driving our work, we were always on to the next workshop or event before we had processed all the documentation from the last one!

Then, there are more complex obstacles to overcome. Maritime heritage doesn’t exist as a discipline in Iraq, so we’re attempting to introduce a new field of study – meaning any new knowledge needs a lot of contextual background.

There are issues of language. Translating specialist language from Arabic to English and vice versa isn’t easy. Boatbuilding communities each have their own local terminology, while the field of maritime heritage has its highly specialised vocabulary, generally developed with European ships in mind.

More importantly, from its origin the project has been confronting biases that shape how traditional knowledge is seen and valued (or devalued). By asking what the Ark would look like if it was based on Mesopotamian cultural heritage, we challenge the standard Biblical picture of the Ark which looks like a 17th-century European boat.

Similar subjective perceptions affect how the traditional boats we’re studying are seen, and are a big part of the reason this heritage hasn’t been protected before now.

A few examples:
- dismissive notions of the “primitive”;
- approaches to heritage that only value stone and metal relics that can be stored as national treasures in a museum;
- a fixation on grand ancient cities, with a failure to understand the rural periphery on which they depended;
- over-reliance on textual sources as “evidence” even if they were written thousands of years after the period being studied.

By studying these boats in an experiential way, we are not just compiling some obscure technical knowledge, but striving to re-shape the kinds of knowledge that get preserved, and the reasons why.