The Power of Peripheries in Sociological Histories

The Swahili context pertains to “less translated languages” (Branchadell 2004:4), and as such represents a context in the peripheries of the world literary space. While the centre-periphery dichotomy is a matter of perception, one coloured by Western-based scholarship (i.e. while Swahili is peripheral in the global literary market, it is central in East Africa), the question Why do histories from the peripheries matter? is compelling. Among the “blank spaces” in the history of translation highlighted by Julio César Santoyo (2006:38), “de-Westernizing the history of translation” is considered an “urgent task”. Indeed, histories of translation in African contexts will help to put the variegated African continent on the map of translation research and to include translation phenomena in African contexts in global discussions of the world literary space. In describing the genesis and the phases of development of the world republic of letters, Casanova (2004) hardly touches on the African continent, only including it and other non-European contexts by virtue of their decolonisation. She describes this decolonisation as the phase “marking the entry into international competition of contestants who until then had been prevented from taking part” (Casanova 2004:48). An interesting broadened perspective to rethink the world literary space and undermine the simplistic view of global circulation as resting on European centres and Global South peripheries is that of “significant geographies”. This theoretical and methodological approach to local and transnational literary spaces considers “the conceptual, imaginative and real geographies that texts, authors and language communities inhabit, produce and reach” (Laachir et al. 2018:294).

In turn, broadening these latitudes will enable canonical narratives to be critically questioned and modified. One such narrative is the nationbound scheme, privileged, for example, in Bourdieu’s sociology and its developments by Casanova. The history of literary translation into Swahili cuts across national and geographical borders, and includes translation practices at sub- or supra-national levels, multilingual settings (where languages not only overlap but sometimes compete), processes of migration, and intertwining of linguistic and cultural strands. While the nation-state can be a valid framework for analysing histories of social relations, it cannot be taken as “the exclusive framework”, as Amelina et al. (2012:2) point out. Analysing the circulation of books from a transnational point of view denationalises literary history (Sapiro 2011; Van Doorslaer and Flynn 2013), especially in the African context, where languages cross boundaries and communities. In this regard, a multilingual approach is preferable, one that does not study cultural exchanges across binary lines, but rather plural exchanges that account for multilingual histories. Going beyond the nation-bound scheme raises the question of the applicability of the concept of field to contexts that elude its definition, such as contexts which pre-date nation-state formations and contexts besieged by an external power. Mathieu Hilgers and Eric Mangez (2014:262) consider “a decentering of the conventional use of field theory”. They discuss the possibility of postulating fields in traditional or precapitalist societies, and contend that the Western experience and capitalism cannot be used as a “paradigmatic framework for the realisation of social differentiation”. This is particularly relevant in the Swahili context. While colonies, mandates or protectorates cannot be understood in the sense of national states, they are politico-territorial formations in which cultural import and export take place and which represent literary entities distinct from the literary field of the central territory of the dominating power. For example, the Swahili precolonial setting had its market of cultural capital, its hierarchies that generated social differentiation, and multiple areas of overlapping production (culture, power, religion). British rule affected the structure of the literary field, namely linguistic hierarchies, the role and status of agents of literary (re)production and the modalities of literary practice. However, political and economic domination was not equivalent to literary annexation: the Swahili literary field still remained unique and different from the literary field of the dominating power in terms of themes, audience, producers and the language of literary production.

Exploring histories of translation and the social functions of translation in African—or broadly speaking, non-European—contexts will also confront the researcher with the need to redefine and enlarge accepted theoretical ideas about the logics of importation, e.g. rethinking the concept of consecration. The specificity of the context I was working with required a diversification of the spectrum of the concept of consecration. The Swahili experience provides a frame of reference

Broadening Latitudes 67 through which one can discern practices related to the availing of symbolic capital beyond the concept of accumulation (Talento 2017). Diachronic studies such as the one outlined here illustrate shifting roles of translation, revealing the diverse, dynamic and multi-layered nature of the symbolic employment of translation, which resonates back and forth with previous and future acts of representations. Once activated, the consecrative potential of translation can be subtracted or retrieved according to social and historical contingencies. A further reconfiguration of the concept of translation as consecration is exemplified by Yvonne Lindqvist’s (2018) double consecration hypothesis exploring consecration mechanisms for translations taking place among peripheries.

A further assumption undermined by the inclusion of diversified contexts is that of directionality. While textual and cultural transfers in African contexts have traditionally been described through the dichotomy between horizontality in precolonial times and verticality in the (post)colonial era (Bandia 2009b), research on the Horn of Africa shows a more complex situation, where verticality and horizontality in translation processes took multiple forms well before colonisation (Di Giovanni and Dirar 2015).

Describing mechanisms for dealing with literary innovation is another area in need of multiple views. The Swahili project questioned the dichotomy between heterodoxy and orthodoxy as the propeller for change in a literary field (Talento 2019a). It would be worthwhile for other literary histories to also consider the reconfiguration of the dynamics of literary exchanges. For example, Diana Roig-Sanz (2018), leader of the research project Social networks of the past. Mapping Hispanic and Lusophone Literary Modernity (1898-1959) at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, dismisses “the idea of innovative centres and imitative peripheries” as the only configuration of the development of literary modernity (see also Roig-Sanz and Meylaerts 2018). Another example of a ‘different story’ that enriches the international debate about translation is Botha’s (2017) research on the history of translation in South Africa. Her research not only defines the nature of translation in that country as a system, but also extends Sergey Tyulenev’s (2012) scheme by exploring the intrasystemic functioning of translation, i.e. considering both internal and external communication processes.

The exploration of contexts that have been neglected in the description of the literary world should thus not be limited to data extraction, but should also aim at theory building by proposing additional aspects to the global discussion on translation. By broadening the exploration of contexts in this way, the Eurocentricity found in translation studies can be shattered, thereby making the international literary stage a larger, more inclusive conceptual space.

68 Serena Talento

 
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