John Reed and the Translation of Une vie de boy

Reed was born in 1929 in Camberwell, South London. He studied English at Oxford and moved to Africa in 1957, where he was appointed as a lecturer at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now University of Zimbabwe). He became involved in politics and the independent movement in Zimbabwe, but, under threat of arrest had to leave and took a professorship at the University of Lusaka in 1965. He was passionate about African literature and collaborated with Clive Wake on the translations of many works by francophone African writers.

My interview with him covered topics such as his interest in translation and African literature, the initiation of the translation, the translation process and the reception of the translation. My first question was about his interest in African literature in general, and the works of Ferdinand Oyono in particular. Reed responded that his interest came as a result of 17 years’ experience in teaching English literature in Southern Africa. His work thus exposed him to African literature, which most likely ended up shaping his perspective of African writings. Reed responded that he was attracted to Oyono’s novels because of the style, as well as the colonial experiences they contained, which he could relate to through his experiences in Zimbabwe.

Therefore, Reed’s African experiences enabled him to develop a habitus that was in harmony with the literary and ideological norms of the African literary field at the time. Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992:127) assert that when an agent’s habitus is aligned with the structure of the field, the agent functions with ease. Reed’s exposure to African literature and colonial experience endowed him with a habitus that made it easy for him to act as an interested “representer of the source words of others” (Munday 2012:2). He was therefore not simply a linguistic mediator between two literary systems, but an interested agent whose intention was to disseminate and promote African literature and its inherent ideologies.

The next question to the translator concerned the initiation of the translation project. This was because research in translation studies underscores the role of translator-agents at the initiation stage of translation projects (Baker 2006; Venuti 2013). Reed confirmed what the publisher had said, that he had initiated the translation by translating excerpts of Oyono’s work in an article he published in the Makerere Journal (Reed 1963). These excerpts caught the attention of the publisher, leading to the commissioning of the translation of the whole novel.

I then asked Reed about his relationship with the ST world, to find out how this influenced his understanding and transfer of the ST. His response was that he had had no contact with the author nor the publisher of the ST. Bourdieu (2002:5) asserts that the production of original and translated works is influenced by different social factors, which must be taken into consideration when interpreting the works. Venuti (2013) similarly argued that translators transfer their interpretation of the ST to the target language. Such an interpretation depends on the nature of the contact between the translator and the ST world, implying that a full grasp of the context of the production of a ST is necessary to interpret the text. For this reason, Bandia (2008) asserts that the peculiar nature of African literature requires that its translation be carried out by an African translator who is “intimately familiar with the logos of African culture”, because a European translator “may not be able to internalize the deep structures of African sociocultural reality” (Bandia 2008:161).

Reed’s experience of Africa was mainly in Southern Africa. He rarely travelled to other parts of Africa, and had never visited Cameroon, where the novel is set. His grasp of the ST could therefore not be the same as that of someone who had lived in the sociocultural setting of the text. Sturge (2007:22) argues that in order to have a comprehensive understanding of the ST culture, an “emic approach” is necessary, because meaning is context specific, and as such its representation should be done “through an interpretative reconstruction of the original words’ linguistic context, cultural context and immediate setting” (2007:24). To say that exposure to one part of Africa is sufficient to fully grasp the sociocultural realities of other parts of the continent implies the erroneous assumption that Africa is homogenous. Nevertheless, the years of exposure to African literature did give Reed significant insight into its embedded realities. Furthermore, the fact that most works of African literature translated between European languages are read as originals in their target cultures (Bandia 2008:160) implies a high degree of similarity between the African worldviews of the different colonial communities.

I also asked Reed about the practical decisions and actions he took during the translation process. This was to enable me to relate these actions and decisions to the social context within which he was working, to understand the factors that influenced those decisions. His response was that he was first asked to submit a specimen of a few pages to the publisher in 1963, which was approved. The contractual procedures were finalised in April 1964 and he started translating the novel in June of the same year. He also said that he translated manually, and was given four months to finish the novel, which he did. While I cannot ascertain whether translating manually and the time frame allocated were convenient or not, they give an indication of the conditions under which the translator worked, which may influence the decisions made. Unfavourable working conditions may lead to stress, which in turn may influence the translator to make choices that might not have been made under more favourable working conditions. While technological advancements have significantly enhanced translators’ ability to deliver results within tight deadlines, I contend that the issue of working conditions remains significant in the translation industry, even though it has not received much attention in translation studies research.

I also asked Reed about the translation process and the challenges he faced. He responded that he did not experience difficulties because French and English functioned similarly, if not identically, in their colonial settings. Again, this assumes homogeneity in the colonial experiences

Translating Une vie de boy 255 of Africa, whereas in fact the French and British colonial systems differed significantly from each other, implying that the language of the coloniser also functioned differently (Bandia 2008:19). Reed’s impression that the French and English colonial systems were similar may have led to misinterpretations of certain aspects of the ST, which might have impacted the translation choices he made, such as where he translates Français petit-nègre using Pidgin English:

ST: J’espère que tu as compris pourquoi je ne pourrais attendre que «petit Joseph pati rôti en enfer».

(Oyono 1956:35)

TT: I think you see why I can’t wait till “small Joseph go burn in hell”.

(Oyono 1966:22)

Reed admitted that he encountered challenges dealing with geographical concepts, given that he was more familiar with Southern Africa, and might have confused them in his translation. This is evident in his translation of terms such as ‘quartier indigène' as “African township” and “African location”, terms associated with South Africa’s apartheid system. This misconception underscores the fact that a translator needs to be familiar with the ST world in order to fully understand and represent it in the target language.

He also admitted that he faced challenges in translating French titles such as ‘Monsieur', since there are no direct equivalents in English, and he therefore resorted to transferring them instead of using the English ‘Mister’. Such a decision inevitably led to the creation of new linguistic forms in the target language. Milton and Bandia (2009) argue that translators are agents whose choices contribute in shaping the literary poetics of the target system. I therefore contend that Reed’s lexical choices in the translation process contributed to shaping the already heteroglossic nature of English in the African colonies.

The next question I put to Reed was related to the aftermath of the translation and its reception by the target audience. Bourdieu (2002) contends that the actions taken during the translation process have an influence on the reception of a translated work by the target readers. I therefore sought to know Reed’s perception of the impact of his decisions on the receiving culture. He responded that, on completing the translation, he sent the typescript to the publisher where it was edited for grammar and readability, but not for accuracy. What this implies is that target language fluency is the hallmark of the reception of translated literary works, confirming the contention by Toury (1995) and Hermans (2007) that translation is constrained by factors of the target system.

However, I agree with Bourdieu (2002), and Milton and Bandia (2009), that the strategic choices made during the translation process can shape the reception of translations. This is because literary taste is socially constructed and individuals appreciate cultural products based on the works to which they have been exposed historically (Bourdieu 1984). Reed said he did not receive any feedback on the editing, which implies that the publisher either accepted everything he submitted as satisfactory or made corrections without consulting him. Reed’s symbolic capital put him in an influential position in the literary field, making it possible for the other agents to trust his decisions. His agency was thus facilitated by the position he occupied in the field, and the capital he had accumulated during his professional life. With regard to the translation’s reception, Reed said that the reception was positive, since the works had long print runs in the UK as well as the USA. This implies that the actions taken during the translation process met target readership expectations, and highlights the impact of Reed’s agency in shaping the target audience’s construction of reality.

Concerning remuneration for his services, Reed told me that on completing the project he received £100 for the translation, as was the practice. The royalties from the published translation went to the author of the original text, with the translator’s name printed on every copy produced. The issue of remuneration is important as it highlights the place of economic power in translation activities. The prospect of economic benefits may lead translators to shift allegiances in the context of conflicting ideologies. Translators have economic needs in the same way as other professionals, and situations may arise in which these needs conflict with the translators’ personal ideologies. Translation studies therefore needs to explore the role that economic power plays in positioning translators as agents, and how this role differs from one society to another. The economic situation of the West is different from that of developing countries and therefore the impact of economic power on translators should not be the same.

 
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