Threshold Concept Two: Translating Literature is a Political Act with Ethical Consequences

Building on the previous threshold concept, the course moves on to consider the dispositions of the literary translator vis-à-vis the form and content of a literary text. Scholars of literary translation whose work is inflected with cultural studies and postcolonial studies are privilegedalong with theorists concerned with the aesthetic and political qualities of postcolonial writing and African writing in particular. The readings covered in this section (Ashcroft et al. 1989; Spivak 1992/2004; Appiah 1993/2004; Venuti 1998; Bassnett and Trivedi 1999; Quayson 2000; Bandia 2008) constitute critiques of hegemonic and colonial practices in translation and advocate resistance to these approaches. The aim of this stage of the course is to impress upon students how the abstract notions of ‘defamiliarisation’ and ‘reception aesthetics’ that they have thus far encountered have real political significance in the realm of African literature, and that translation runs the risk of suffocating the voices of writers from ‘periphery’ contexts if improperly handled.

This section of the course thus deals with political and ethical issues involved in representing and re-presenting the voice of an author in another language and for another audience. Bakhtin’s (1981) concept of ‘heteroglossia’ as a defining feature of the novel enables translation students to engage in higher-order analytical thinking about voice and representation of narrators and characters in the works they are translating. Antoine Berman’s (1985/2004) “deforming tendencies” and Anton Popovic’s “shifts of expression” (see Spirk 2009) form a natural bridge between the first and second threshold concepts. Theoretically consonant with the approach taken in the first part of the course, they emphasise the postcolonial perspective that the form of expression writers choose to use is constitutive of their identity and that of their community. Therefore to translate in such a way that these stylistic choices are levelled in accordance with domestic (target-culture) textual and literary norms is to efface the differénce or Otherness inscribed in the text.

An issue that is important in a course on literary translation focused on African literatures is the question of orality. Orality is sometimes considered a defining feature of African literature, but the deterministic association of African literature with oral tradition has been attacked by some scholars who view this insistence as reductive, essentialist or even racist (Julien 1992; Ricard 2004). The notion is based on a binary that positions Europe as lettered and Africa as oral, whereas in fact every literary tradition is a combination of the two traditions organised hierarchically in terms of the community’s esteem for one or the other mode of literary expression. Berman (1985:294) states that “all great prose is rooted in the vernacular language” and this applies equally to all literatures, all of which have oral and written modes, both contemporary and traditional. Eileen Julien (1992:24) summarises:

[T]he oral traditions of Africa are vigorous aesthetic and social acts, but there is nothing more essentially African about orality nor more essentially oral about Africans... Our objective, then, as readers and critics should not be to isolate orality, to see it as singular, as inherently “first” or “other” in opposition to writing. Neither medium is

“the good guy” or the “bad guy”. Neither should serve as metonymies for African or for European. Speech and writing are modes of language, and both modes are ours when we have the means to produce them. When we look at their interaction in literary genres, it therefore should not be in an effort to prove or disprove cultural authenticity but rather to appreciate literature as a social and aesthetic act.

Understanding the influence of oral tradition as a deliberate stylistic intervention in a writer’s work and the use of orality or orality-inspired devices as a complex strategy emerges in this section of the course as a point of discussion. Assessment can take the form of a short piece of research in comparative stylistics, applying descriptive translation studies to a piece of African prose or drama and its translation. The assessment is designed to improve the students’ critical capacities by means of observing and critiquing pre-existing literary translations.

If students assume that what they have learnt about formalism and the ethics of translating literature means they must translate with a strict emphasis on trying to recreate the form of the source text as far as possible in the target-text, they may begin to flounder, tending to seek clear rules or guidelines for conducting literary translation. The next threshold concept is designed to instil a more sophisticated sense of how literary translation is complicated by societal and economic factors which literary translators must navigate.

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