IV: Decolonising Literary Translation Studies

A Curriculum for Literary Translation in a Multilingual South African Classroom

Christopher Fotheringham

University of the Witivatersrand, Johannesburg


This chapter is not a traditional empirical study like the other interventions in this volume. It is closer in nature to a narrative reflection of the kind that is increasingly gaining currency in the field of education research in opposition to the perceived inadequacy of scientism to provide truly meaningful interventions into problems of pedagogy (see Hyslop-Margison and Naseem 2007). The chapter operates within the research methodology of Educational Design Research, which has its roots in fields such as engineering that are traditionally concerned with solutions-oriented design activity. Educational Design Research can be defined as a genre of research in which the iterative development of practical solutions to complex educational problems also provides the context for empirical investigations which yield theoretical understanding that can inform the work of others (McKenney and Reeves 2012:7). It is a theoretically-oriented, interventionist, collaborative, responsive and iterative research methodology which seeks to find practicable solutions to design problems, with the goal of sharing the resulting designs and the process that led to their elaboration with a wider community of practitioners, and thus contribute to the development of their practice (Faste and Faste 2012). This grounded and practical methodology has been embraced by educationalists eager to share their solutions to curriculum design problems as a means of disseminating useful ideas among a community of practice with shared challenges (Ezer 2009; McKenney and Reeves 2012).

This chapter concerns the creation and development of a curriculum for the teaching of a module on literary translation within the context of a Master’s in translation studies at a South African university. The curriculum responds to constraints and challenges specific to a South African tertiary environment, but is also relevant for other African contexts in which indigenous languages operate alongside colonial languages on an unequal footing, and need support and development. The curriculum that emerged organically from a studied engagement with these challenges has been designed to valorise the multilingual resources of the students as an opportunity for learning.

Another challenge inherent in the African context is the nature of the local publishing and book market ecosystem for indigenous-language translations, to which many of the theoretical resources available to aspirant literary translators, or indeed facilitators of literary translation courses in Africa, prove of limited value. There is a significant body of literature available concerning the pitfalls inherent in the translation of literatures from marginalised languages and contexts into more dominant languages (see Venuti 1998; Spivak 1992/2004; Bandia 2008), but the specific economic and market constraints and requirements for African language translations are critically understudied. It is in this area too that such a course presents specific challenges but also significant opportunities for exploration of under-researched topics in African translation studies, and the role of translation in canon formation in African languages. Since translation is an important driver in the development of young literary systems (Even-Zohar 1978/2004), there is a need for university-trained literary translators to develop and enrich the local literary landscape. Every assessment in the proposed course requires students to apply creatively and reflectively theoretical approaches learned to their own language combinations and cultural contexts. This is also in the interests of laying the groundwork for sorely needed home-grown scholarship in indigenous language literary translation.

Adapting Existing Approaches to Teaching Literary Translation

The starting point of any curriculum design activity must be the establishment of intended learning outcomes, which define the criteria for selecting study material, pedagogical instruments and assessment procedures. The cogent design of a course along these lines is known as constructive alignment (Biggs and Tang 2011).

An attempt at systematising the outcomes for a programme in literary translation has been spearheaded by Petra-e (s.a) (2019), a network of European university translation studies departments, which offer programmes in literary translation that aim to formalise and professionalise literary translation, a task that has long been a special vocation or auxiliary activity for people involved in other professions rather than a profession per se. The signal contribution of Petra-e is their Framework of reference for the education and training of literary translators. This document provides five level descriptors, from Bachelor graduate to advanced professional, across a set of eight competences considered desirable in a literary translator: transfer competence (the ability to recognise and solve translation problems in an appropriate way); language competence (stylistic and pragmatic mastery of the source and target

A Curriculum for Literary Translation 265 languages); textual competence (knowledge of and ability to apply literary styles and genres); heuristic competence (ability to source and apply secondary material relevant to the translation process); literary-cultural competence (ability to recognise and handle cultural differences in the translation process and knowledge of literary movements, periods and schools); professional competence (ability to gather and apply information relevant for practising on the market and mastery of the ethics and dispositions of a literary translator); evaluative competence (ability to assess and evaluate literary translations); and research competence (ability to conduct methodological research to improve practice). The document is extremely detailed and each of these competences is divided into a set of sub-competences which are then described in terms of the level descriptors.

Kelly Washbourne (2013:51) adapts a scheme of learning outcomes in the field of literature studies produced by Elaine Showalter (2003) for the purposes of literary translation pedagogy. These are: the fostering of a capacity for creative problem-solving; the validation of the student as resource; promotion of the student’s own personal development; the development of an engagement with literature as a process and a product; the evaluation of the community of readers in the process of literary translation; the fostering of agency in the decision-making process; the ability to distinguish between literary registers; the ability to produce both imaginative and critical texts; the development of ethnorelativity; the development of a capacity for cultural filtering; and an awareness of the traditions within which one is working.

The collaborative workshop is considered the “signature pedagogy” of creative writing and literary translation courses, and the best way of achieving the above-mentioned learning outcomes (Washbourne 2013:54). Similar to the collaborative workshop is the collaborative anthology (see Vale de Gato 2015). In both, the facilitator gradually introduces activities designed to respond to specific operational issues in the translation process, or has students work on literary translation tasks in small groups or as a class, and discuss specific textual problems as they arise. Such a process gradually raises student awareness of the complexities of the decision-making processes that literary translators face, and result in reflection on the role and responsibilities of the translator. Existing textbooks on literary translation seem designed to support such a curricular structure (e.g. Lefevere 1992; Landers 2001; Wright 2012).

While the learning outcomes of an African course are consonant with those described in the frameworks above, the pedagogical instruments employed must be different, because our student body is drawn from a linguistically diverse context. Workshopping is valuable up to a point, especially to practise techniques of literary analysis on texts in the common language of the class: English. However, in a multilingual classroom, a fully collaborative and practice-oriented approach is difficult to achieve.

The multilingual classroom necessitates an innovative approach to the teaching of literary translation, drawing on the multilingual resources of the students as an opportunity for learning and engagement, while also making use of threshold concepts solidly grounded in literary theory. The focus on theory is predicated on the idea that theories are supposed to be universal and thus applicable to any language or literature. Exploring whether this is indeed true, and whether the theories are applicable in the African context, is also a valuable exercise. It is important to note that while literary theory is the basis of the pedagogical instrument of threshold concepts used, it is a means to an end and not the end itself. Moreover, rather than ontological certainties, the theories explored are heuristic devices useful for developing the skills and dispositions necessary for students to evaluate their own capacities as literary translators, and to understand the roles and responsibilities of literary translators.

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