Threshold Concepts for Literary Translation Trainees in Africa

The curriculum is designed to initiate students into new ways of thinking about literature and literary translation. The notion of threshold concepts is a useful way of conceiving of these guiding principles. Threshold concepts as a tool for tertiary level pedagogy were proposed by Meyer and Land (2005). They are defined as concepts which elicit new modes of understanding such that students experience a fundamental and irreversible transformation in the way they view a concept. This responds also to the imperative of developing higher-order thinking in tertiary settings (see Bloom et al. 1956). Meyer and Land (2005:374) describe these fundamental shifts in perception as transformative, irreversible and integrative, meaning that the interrelatedness of concepts becomes clear. Importantly in the context of a literary translation curriculum, they also state that threshold concepts are those concepts likely to effect a shift in the student’s subjectivity and sense of self vis-à-vis the discipline (Meyer and Land 2005:375). In the case of students whose affective response to literary studies is negatively conditioned, the application of threshold concepts can have a transformational effect leading to a fresh appreciation of the subject matter, predicated also on the valorisation of the students’ own multilingual and translational consciousness. That is, where students may have found literary analysis mystifying and frustrating in the past, owing perhaps to laborious modes of stylistic analysis and didactic approaches to the interpretation of individual literary works, this curriculum builds on technical skills and competencies acquired through an apprenticeship in translation practice, essentially leading students to a theoretically sound understanding of why literature necessitates such a different approach from other types of translation they may have previously encountered, and of the responsibilities of the literary

A Curriculum for Literary Translation 267 translator. Hence there is a fundamental shift implied by the notion of threshold concepts on the one hand in terms of disciplinary understanding, and on the other in terms of students’ sense of self. A 2020 student who self-declared as having not enjoyed literature at school stated in this regard, “The subject is very fascinating and taught me in a way I never imagined.”

Corrigan (2019:1) applies the notion of threshold concepts to the teaching of literature, isolating five foundational concepts that he suggests are useful in effecting a conceptual shift in students from what he calls “commonsense notions” about literature into the realm of “disciplinary notions”. His five foundational principles are ‘text’, ‘meaning’, ‘context’, ‘form’ and ‘reading’. Corrigan’s approach provides useful guiding principles for the theoretical conception of the curriculum. The approach proposed here is slightly different from that of Corrigan, since our learning outcomes are fundamentally different. This is because, in addition to understanding the notions underpinning literary study, African students must embody the role and responsibilities of literary translators. As such, the threshold concepts are better expressed as statements rather than as broad headings. I also believe that this approach is more in keeping with the theory of threshold concepts as specifically stated ideas that open the door to deeper and transformed understandings of a topic.

In the following section, I structure my discussion around a set of statements drawn from the theoretical literature that act as thresholds for deeper understanding and are integrated with the other theoretical notions I introduce. I show also how the course gradually develops towards offering students a holistic understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the literary translator, and provide some examples of in-class activities, practical activities and assessment tasks that can be utilised to concretise this knowledge, all the time making use of and valorising the multilingual resources of the student group.

Threshold Concept One: Literature Ought to Challenge the Reader

Apart from the literary translation module, translator traineeship programmes normally view texts as utilitarian, serving specific ends, and aimed at producing translators able to operate effectively in the service market, where fluency and invisibility are watchwords. Because of the massive cultural and linguistic gaps between English and indigenous African languages, and a lamentable paucity of specialised terminology in African languages, students working with these language pairs are taught to adapt texts, sometimes radically, so that they are meaningful and useful to their end-users. While students are free to argue in favour of such an approach even to literature, I emphasise the qualitative and functional differences between literary and utilitarian texts. Consequently, avitally important transformative movement in the students’ development as potential literary translators is to understand, internalise and integrate into their practice the notion expressed succinctly by Oscar Wilde (1891/2008) in the preface to The picture of Dorian Gray that “All art is quite useless.” Ideas concerning the aesthetic as opposed to utilitarian ends of literary language, the celebration of art for art’s sake, and the notion that the essential quality of verbal art is its deliberate and studied manipulation of ordinary language to aesthetic ends sometimes constitute what theorists of threshold concepts in higher education refer to as “troublesome knowledge” (Meyer and Land 2005). I have noted that students struggle to understand that the job of literature is not to inform (this may be a by-product), but rather to delight with the ludic exercise of hermeneutic unfurling, the experience of linguistic freshness, with the sensory force of descriptive language.

The theoretical basis for this threshold concept is provided in the form of readings (some general, some translation-focused) in aesthetic theory, formalism, reception aesthetics and hermeneutics. I propose that these four areas are covered in the first half of the module in the form of intensive self-study supported by a two-hour weekly lecture. Proposed readings include: Barthes (1968/2008), Benjamin (1923/2004), Foucault (1969/2008), Gadamer (1960/2008), Iser (1972/2008), Jakobson (1960/2008), Kant (1790/2008) Shklovsky (1917/2008) and Steiner (1975/2004). The preponderance of European thinkers in a curriculum purporting to answer to the specific challenges of an African setting may surprise the reader, but is currently necessary until such time that an African theory of literature is developed, and these readings may over time be replaced with works by African philosophers. Currently, the Africanness of the course is student-driven in the sense that students’ perspectives as African language users and their choices of which literary texts to translate animate the course.

Oral and written poetry is the basis for the practical analysis engaged with in this section of the course, given that poetry is the literary form in which formedness and interpretative difficulty reinforce one another to the greatest extent. I propose a combination of oral and written poetic media, all of which is freely available online. I stress the notion of ‘phonoaesthetics’ as central to recited and sung poetry, using an array of traditions (many incorporating music) to drive home the concept that poetry is primarily oral and performative in nature. I propose drawing on linguistic and cultural knowledge represented within the class, and illustrating that the phonoaesthetic qualities of poetry are appreciable even where the meaning of the poem is not. This is an important part of driving home the concept of literary aesthetics as a function of acoustics and rhythmic variation. Some traditions demand strict adherence to specific metres and structures. These are instructive to the students in terms of the concept of the formedness of verbal art, and lead to interesting

A Curriculum for Literary Translation 269 discussions about the complexity of translation forms. The focus on oral poetry is also an opportunity to valorise traditional African verbal art.

In the weekly lectures, key ideas from the readings should be discussed, examples used to illustrate points, and the application of the ideas to the practice of translation discussed and debated. It is here where many of the problematic issues and doubts held by students emerge. When analysing poems in English (by definition the shared language of the majority of students in any given class), students with South African indigenous language combinations insist that their translations have to go further than those of students of European language combinations, owing to the vast cultural gap that exists between their putative audience and the source text. They also suggest that the very structure of their languages and the lexical resources available to them necessitate greater intervention in the translation, but, apart from relying on their instincts as native speakers, are not always able to explain why exactly this might be. Such questions occasion discussion about literary traditions and modes from a comparative perspective as well as discussions of adaptation or indigenisation as translational strategies in poetry.

Mastery of the concept that literature ought to challenge the reader is assessed in the form of two theoretical essay assignments in which the students are required to analyse an extract from Wolfgang Iser’s (1972/2008) essay The reading process: a phenomenological approach and Victor Shklovsky’s (1917/2008) essay Art as technique. Students are encouraged to display sophisticated higher-order thinking by theorising how these two essays apply to literary translation in Africa, and draw on their own linguistic resources by providing illustrative examples from their own literatures and from literary translations of their own devising. Another assessment consists in the translation of a short poem of their choosing accompanied by a commentary in which they describe their theoretical orientations, the problems they faced, and their decision-making process in terms of the theoretical principles with which they have been engaging. These assessment procedures are language-independent and allow students a great deal of latitude in choosing their texts and approaches. For African language students, this is a potentially productive site for the gathering of locally relevant knowledge as students critique the relevance and value of theories in terms of African-language text production.

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