How to Navigate Literary Histories?

To map the history of literary translations into Swahili, I focus on different levels of analysis. All these variables aim to identify the deep entanglements among sociocultural situatedness, historical contingencies and literary receptivity that frame the reception of literary works in the Swahili sphere.

A first level of analysis comprises “translation archaeology” (Pym 1998:5) to examine translation flows, i.e. who translated what, when and where. For this purpose, I compiled a Catalogue of foreign literary texts translated into Swahili: 1663-2020, which contains 362 titles. While not exhaustive, the catalogue highlights the main translation trends and the impact of certain events on certain flows, functioning as a framing device to place translated texts in the context of other translated works (Pym 1998). Furthermore, a catalogue helps to address the inclusivity of literary transfers: what is allowed/required/tolerated/desired to enter a different linguistic and cultural space? A catalogue also raises questions of exclusivity and therefore what is translated against what is silenced.

A second level of analysis consisted in the identification of macro-periods of literary translations: the pre-twentieth century phase (1663-1890), the colonial phase (1867-1960), the early postcolonial phase (1960— 1982), and contemporary East Africa (1982-2020). Each period corresponds to a specific geography. The pre-twentieth century phase relates to the East African coastal city states. Both the colonial and early postcolonial phases involve what are now Kenya and Tanzania. Contemporary East Africa and its landscape of literary translation stretch beyond the borders of so-called historical Swahili hubs, including Swahili-speaking countries from the “peripheries” and a diasporic dimension. Aware of the arbitrary compartmentalisation of time, I examine the borders of these “périodisations”, as suggested by Rizzi et al. (2019:73) as “made up of points, not continuous lines”.

A third level of analysis entails the discourse on translation. Discourses about a work of art—be they introductory, critical, historical or promotional—are symbolic productions that contribute to institutionalising that work and, by virtue of their illocutionary power, perform an “injection of meaning and value” (Bourdieu 1996:171). The discourse on translation was explored through the mediational features of paratexts (Genette 1997) and extratexts (Tahir Gürçaglar 2002:44). Although Genette did not elaborate on translations, paratextual research is nowadays an established branch in translation studies (see Batchelor 2018). Paratexts mediate reception by conveying informative details such as “identification, metatextual function, placing, background information, illustration, reference to reader, advertising, and the artistic and legal/ bibliographic functions” (Kovala 1996:134). They also reveal socially situated (self)understandings of translation and translators (Kovala

1996; Genette 1997; Hermans 2007). This process of mediation between text and reader, which Bourdieu (2002:4) defines as marquage, implies negotiations between numerous agents (translators, editors, publishers, patrons), each with a specific interest, and furthermore reveals the interconnectedness of contextual practices into which the reproduction of knowledge is inscribed. On the one hand, para- and extratexts provide self-reflection on the state of affairs of the literary field. Discourse on translation can be interpreted as struggles over definitions of what is legitimate to produce and circulate within a field, what the boundaries of the field are, or who and what is granted (or denied) membership (Bourdieu 1993,1996). On the other hand, para- and extratexts resonate with the social milieu into which the texts are to be injected - the situated historical circumstances, the growth or stagnation of the literary field, the cultural producers and their positions within the field, the audiences and the ways they are addressed in relation to social practices in neighbouring fields—all of which contextualise the literary, social and historical significance of translation.

The agent’s perspective is a valuable lens through which to explore such contextualisation (Rizzi et al. 2019). Thus the fourth level of analysis included charting the “social trajectory” (Bourdieu 1993:276) of translators, commentators and mediators of sorts, accounting for the continuum between individuals and the broader (local and global) context in which they operate. First, delineating a social trajectory involves examining the position gained, occupied or lost by agents in their relevant fields, together with the networks of social relations between the translator and other agents in the field of translation and adjacent fields (Hanna 2016). As Pym (1998:164) emphasises, “some translators are active effective causes precisely because they do more than translate”. For example, Swahili translators were often politicians, teachers, intellectuals or religious leaders. How they adhered to these fields must be determined to reveal the multiplicity of translator/mediator roles and compare attributes of translational versus non-translational practices. Second, outlining an agent’s trajectory involves discovering their habitus and “position-takings”, i.e. manifestations, strategies and choices aimed at transforming or conserving the field (Bourdieu 1993:30). In other words, a translator’s trajectory also includes preferences, transitions and shifts among genres, strategies and selected media (Hanna 2016:94).

 
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