Translating Une vie de boy : A Bourdieusian Study of Agency in Literary Translation

Felix Awung

Durban University of Technology, South Africa


Translation has made an important contribution to African literature. However, while much has been written about the success of translated works, little attention has been paid to the agents who have bridged inter-cultural gaps to make these works available in the different languages, thereby representing the original authors in the target language cultures. Because literature portrays the norms, beliefs and traditions of a particular society, its language is firmly embedded in the culture of that society (Anaso and Eziafa 2014:89). It is therefore worth examining how literary translators have navigated the worldviews of the various authors. This is even more intriguing in the case of African literature written in European languages, since the original texts are themselves a form of translation, initially conceived in the authors’ mother tongues before being written in the European languages (Bandia 2008). Such is the case with Ferdinand Oyono’s (1956) Une vie de boy, translated from French into English as Houseboy (Oyono 1966).

Une vie de boy was published by Julliard in Paris in 1956. The novel denounces the ills of French colonialism in Africa, particularly in Oyono’s native Cameroon. Through the diary of Toundi, the main protagonist, the novel exposes the deceptive ideals of French colonialism as bringing civilisation and development to Africans, when it was actually intended to subjugate, humiliate and exploit them. It is written in a simple and satirical style embedded in the cultural orality of the author. The translation was published in 1966 by Heinemann’s African Writers Series. The novel has been translated into twelve other languages and has also been adapted into a theatrical play (Moore 2013).

John Reed’s translation falls within what Bandia (2008) calls “two-tier translation”, i.e. a translation of what is in itself a form of translation. This aspect of literary translation has not received much attention from researchers. Given that translation activity takes place within a social context, I argue that decision-making in the translation process is influenced by social factors. Thus a sociological approach is needed

Translating Une vie de boy 245 to understand the nature and extent of the influence of social factors on the actions of the agents involved. I adopt Bourdieu’s theoretical framework because it offers a lens through which to examine how translation agents construct, and are constructed by, the field in which they operate. The study thus examines the mutually influential relationship between the literary field in which the English translation of Oyono’s Une vie de boy was produced and the actions of the translator and the publisher, the major agents involved in the translation process.

A Sociology of Literary Translation in Africa

Research in translation studies has been marked by increasing interest in the role of translators and the social factors that influence the production and consumption of translation (Inghilleri 2005; Hermans 2007; Wolf 2012; Tyulenev 2014). The social aspect of translation has long been present in reflections on translation phenomena, but it is only since 2000 that studies have started incorporating social factors in the conceptualisation of the discipline (Simeoni 2005). This sociological turn emerged as a result of the limitations of text-bound approaches in addressing the social role of agents involved in translation phenomena (Wolf 2007). Within its framework, translation is viewed as a social practice carried out by agents who are influenced by various social factors (Wolf 2012:10). Translation is therefore perceived as a socially constrained activity situated within a specific social context, whose configurations inevitably influence the translation process. Consequently, translation analysis increasingly adopts approaches that highlight the interactional network of the social forces that constrain that process, thereby shifting the focus of translation studies to under-researched areas of the discipline such as the institutional impact on translation practice, working conditions, ethical and political questions (Wolf 2012:1).

Literary translation is a dominant theme in the sociological study of translation, given the significant role played by translation in the development of global literature (Lefevere 1995). Translators act as agents of representation, introducing foreign literary systems to the different cultures of the world. In this process of literary representation, translators are not just simple conduits of transfer, but are actively involved in text selection and in adopting strategies that introduce new forms into the literary systems of the target culture (Milton and Bandia 2009). While much of the debate on literary translation has focused on Western literary traditions, recent studies have expanded the frontiers of the discipline to incorporate other literary traditions (Bandia 2008; Gentzler 2008). This has contributed to bringing to light different contexts of agency, enriching the conceptualisation of translation. It is in this context that the translation of African literature is increasingly attracting the attention of translation scholars.

The translation of African literature dates back to ancient times, when oral narratives were represented in the forms of pictograms or hieroglyphs (Bandia 2008:159). Apart from the old writing systems, inter-linguistic translation practices in Africa prior to colonisation is found in the activities of the griots, multilingual praise singers attached to the courts of African kings (Bandia 2005) and expert mediators between different communities during peace treaties, trade negotiations or marriage arrangements. Their agency role was crucial in that their interventions were instrumental in ending conflicts and forging relationships.

While there is no question that translation practices existed in these periods of African history, more studies are needed to analyse their implications fully for translation studies. Santoyo (2006:13) suggests that an extensive historical study is needed to obtain a comprehensive picture. Modern (written) African literature began with the arrival of European missionaries on the continent, and at that stage was mainly in African languages (Bandia 2005). This literature has, however, received limited attention in translation studies, which has focused predominantly on the literature produced in European languages by Africans who had been through the Western educational system (Marzagora 2015).

African literature in European languages has agency implications in its very nature, given that it is produced in a particular social environment that shapes both its form and function. Ngfigl wa Thiong’o (1986:4) argues that African literature cannot be understood without an understanding of the social forces that condition its production. This implies that the agents involved in literary production are influenced by their social environment, which they in turn aim to influence by their works. The social context in this regard refers to political and cultural domination by the colonial West that African writers sought to resist by adopting a particular style of writing and by addressing social issues affecting their communities. This context of social factors influencing literary actions and vice versa highlights the implication of agency in African literature. The agency involved in translating such literature is even more significant, given the role played by translation in the source texts (STs). I contend that African literature offers a peculiar context for translation studies because the African literary tradition is different from the Western tradition in terms of its form and function, and this difference constitutes the basis of the roles of the various agents involved in translation activities in this literary system. The study of the translation of Une vie de boy offers a relevant context to examine the agents involved and the social factors influencing their actions.

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