Threshold Concept Three: Literary Translation is Governed by the Literary System
This section of the course is aimed at providing students with an understanding of how the work of literary translators is conditioned by the translational culture and market forces operative within the target system. While the first and second parts of the course stress an approach to literary translation that favours form and literariness, this section aims to clarify that this is not always possible nor desirable. Particularly important at this stage, given that most of the theory we have discussed so far concerns so-called “high literature” or highly writerly texts, are polysystem theory’s ideas about how more “readerly” genres on the periphery of the literary system tend to be translated, with greater focus on fluency and ease of reading (Even-Zohar 1990). Polysystem theory and norm theory (Toury 2012) provide students with an insight into how the approach to any given act of literary translation is contingent on extraneous factors.
If teaching one language combination, one could research and be very specific about the market restraints and audience expectations of a given publishing environment and book market. However, given the diversity of the African class, a theoretical focus which can then be applied to specific language combinations by the students themselves is preferable.
The theoretical concepts presented at this stage of the course—polysystem theory (Even-Zohar 1978/2004), translation norms (Toury 2012) and ideas from Lawrence Venuti’s (1998) Scandals of translation— may already be familiar to students. However, it is important to re-engage with these ideas because of their complexity. These theories and concepts should also be contextualised within the framework of literary translation and in terms of African language translation and the book market for African language texts. From the perspective of the practising literary translator, Even-Zohar’s polysystem theory is particularly valuable because it is based on the concept of ‘defamiliarisation’ from the Russian Formalists. Having studied these notions in the first section of the course, and having at this point worked on some literary translation activities and assessments with the ideas of defamiliarisation, literariness and Iser’s notion of phenomenological reading, students are more prepared to properly understand the theoretical underpinnings of polysystem theory.
This section of the course also concerns translators in systems. Aspirant literary translators wishing to enter the field would benefit from a high level of personal initiative. Literary translators must seek out opportunities to translate works by presenting proposals to publishers and approaching authors. They must understand the financial and legal issues involved in translation and publishing in order to make convincing proposals. They must know how to sell. This line of thinking is emphasised by Washbourne (2013:53), who stresses that it is the training programmes’ responsibility to provide these kinds of skills to aspirant literary translators.
This section of the module is a space in which student engagement is potentially an invaluable source of knowledge-production on the specific issues in indigenous language book markets in South Africa. Conducting guided assessments and encouraging research in this area can contribute to scholarly activity in this understudied area, as well as making the students themselves visible as aspirant literary translators. Therefore, in addition to the theoretical readings mentioned above, students are provided with readings specifically concerning the value of translation in terms of its potential to contribute to the intellectualisation of indigenous languages, the promotion of literacy and the development of canons. A key reading is the late Neville Alexander’s (2010) paper The potential role of translation as social practice for the intellectualisation of African languages, which he wrote when he was director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa. This paper by a major advocate for multilingualism in South Africa is a call to action that clearly shows the value of translating literary and scientific texts into African languages
A Curriculum for Literary Translation 273 and puts a social and political spin on the development of literary canons by means of translation.
Alexander (2010:7) notes that, apart from systemic economic factors that hold back African languages in terms of book production, the speakers of these languages themselves, despite cherishing their languages, tend not to believe that their languages could penetrate higher domains. This attitude, unfortunately, is often shared by elites and decision-makers (those most likely to be proficient in English or the relevant hegemonic colonial language of the state in question), leading in turn to a lack of serious investment in sustained development projects for African languages. However, Alexander (2010:9) notes that a shift towards mother-tongue-based bilingual education is occurring in several African states because of the proven cognitive advantages of this approach in child development. Translation is essential to overcome the real poverty of material available in African languages, to combat the negative attitude mentioned above, and to support the shift to mother-tongue-based bilingual education. Consonant with the findings of polysystem theorists, Alexander (2010:18) states that “a consciously structured translation programme is one of the most effective ways of changing both the body and the functional potential of a language”, but he is quick to point out the massive cost that such projects might incur. Responding to this, and perhaps most heartening in terms of the aims and methods of a course on literary translation, is Alexander’s (2010:19) proposed solution:
It is my view that one of the most appropriate and acceptable ways of doing this is to ask all universities to consider introducing as an elective component of post-graduate assessment of coursework in each discipline, the translation into a relevant African language of a key text or part thereof.
Reinforcing the developmental potential of translation into African languages is a paper by Viv Edwards and Jacob Mariotte Ngwaru (2014:30) suggesting that publishing for children is one area where the ability to translate into an African language is a marketable skill, and that the availability of books is the “single most consistently positive school factor in predicting academic achievement” (Edwards and Ngwaru 2014:32). They note that 95 per cent of all titles published on the African continent are aimed at the school market and that there are around 30 publishing houses currently producing children’s books in three or more official South African languages. In the light of these statistics, literary translators working with African languages should be aware of the special needs of this market.
Another market I believe would be worthwhile investing in heavily is young adult fiction, because it is a large and vibrant market and would allow young readers of African languages to transition naturally intomore complex material with interesting themes and to foster a culture of reading, and indeed stimulate original production. Edwards and Ngwaru (2011:592) note that there is, in some quarters, a reluctance to rely too heavily on translated material because of concerns about the cultural relevance of such texts, and a perceived relationship of dependence on the colonial language. This is a position I strongly resist, on two counts. First, there is a vast and lively tradition of genre fiction and young adult literature in English produced in South Africa (see Inggs 2016) and in other African countries that would find interested audiences if translated into indigenous languages. Some English works are even specifically aimed at Black readers (e.g. the works published by Cover2Cover Books). Second, such an attitude is patronising towards indigenous languages and their users, and risks further provincialising these languages by denying them the opportunity to translate world literature, and indeed African literature, from all over the continent. Translating the classics of African literature included in the Heinemann African Writers Series into African languages would, for example, be of immense value.
It is important to take into account the current reading culture among speakers of indigenous languages because literary translations naturally require a readership. While the lack of a vibrant reading culture in Africa is sometimes lamented, technology provides enormous potential for providing African audiences with access to translated and original works. Africa is the fastest growing market for mobile phones and this provides limitless opportunities for the cheap provision of e-books to readers with limited means or in remote areas, as well as providing a space for self-publication of translations of out-of-copyright classics and original writings (see Zell 2013). The audiobook is another opportunity offered by technology which has been unexplored and under-utilised. Beers (1998:33) argues that:
The use of audiobooks with struggling, reluctant, or second-language learners is powerful since they act as a scaffold that allows students to read above their actual reading level. This is critical with older students who may still read at a beginner level.
Audio-books in indigenous languages could provide millions of time-poor working people, as well as people with low levels of literacy, easy access to literature. In addition to these practical advantages, and responding to Elizabeth le Roux’s (2012:262) claims that “the practice of silent, solitary reading is much less widespread in African countries; rather, the use of print has often been oral, as when newspapers are read aloud to a wider group” and that “the assumptions and models of Western book history cannot be applied unaltered in an African context, where literacy and orality have functioned in complex and interconnected ways”. The use
A Curriculum for Literary Translation 275 of audiobooks would also valorise and foreground traditional modes of African literature and storytelling by emphasising orality and performance. The focus on the orality of literature and phonoaesthetics in the proposed course bears this untapped potential in mind, and student projects of this kind making use of free video sharing sites such as YouTube could be put to great effect.