Translation as an instrument to ‘Dis-Enclose’ the postcolonial African academic space

According to Santos (2018), the problem of postcolonial intercultural translation is essentially about ‘how to articulate and entertain a conversation among different knowledges that, in some instances, are anchored in different cultures’ (p. 16). These ‘epistemologies of the South,’ as Santos (2016, 2018) calls them, are mostly indigenous ways of knowing that are still ‘marginalised, even denigrated [even if they] sustain millions of people economically, socially and spiritually as a living framework for continuing creativity and innovation in most fields of technology’ (Odora-Hoppers, 2017, p.8). The ultimate implication of the programme of conceptual decolonisation is to achieve scientific autonomy for and within these particular knowledge systems. To this end, many scholars argue that Africans have to deconstruct, in their main features, the entire knowledge accumulated on Africa by foreign researchers. According to Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2017), the paradigmatic shift necessary in ‘tackling global coloniality on a world scale [...] can only be

Conceptual decolonisation, endogenous knowledge, and translation 125 possible if we can introduce new vocabularies/concepts that are usable in unmasking invisible crimes taking place in the knowledge domain so as to produce restitutive knowledge’ (p. x).

A restitution of African worldviews and the perception of Africans by themselves is precisely the project assigned by Mudimbe (1979) to Nara, the main protagonist of his novel VÉcart,7 and which is also recurrent in the writings of many other African scholars and writers. Mudimbe illustrates this point by exposing how ‘colonial science’ has, as a rule, (represented a shattered image of Africa and Africans. Similarly, Wiredu (1996) argues that a large part of the western scientific discourse on Africa has to be retranslated into African languages, using African categories of thought through an effort of conceptualisation or endogeneisation of the main concepts from science and technique to adapt them to the specific African canons of thought.

At the linguistic level, Wiredu (1996) states that the ‘lack of continental lingua franca is a disincentive to the use of the vernacular as the medium in academic work’ in Africa (p. 3). The common assumption in this regard is that if African scholars were in possession of such a common linguistic platform, they would have developed more direct, intensive, and productive academic exchanges. The development of many African languages as efficient vehicles for teaching and researching at academic levels testifies to the fact that they are not scientifically defective as Mazrui (1974, p.87) once stated. In contrary, this development is a statement of the fact that ‘African languages have been and still are legitimate sources of knowledge’ (wa Thiong’o, 2018, p,124f.).

However, a lingua franca does not automatically warrant the possibility of scientific integration. The idea of a unique continental linguistic medium as a mean to resolve the consequences of the extreme multilinguism in Africa has proved to be unworkable. Because this idea is based on ‘the illusion of a unifying language, [it] leads to a deliberate marginalisation of African languages and an almost fierce emphasis on the spread and dominance of English or other European languages’ (Kilolo, 2020, p.350). Furthermore, it has the distracting effect of concealing more realistic and applicable alternatives towards linguistic and conceptual autonomy in Africa. Cheikh Anta Diop (1979) has once warned against idealistic visions of pan-African linguistic unanimity:

One could object the multiplicity of languages in black Africa. One should not forget that Africa is a continent as is Europe, Asia or America, but on none of these is linguistic unity a reality. Why should it necessarily happen in Africa? The idea of a unique African language, spoken from one end of the continent to the other is inconceivable as is the notion of a single European language, (p. 405) [My translation].

Indeed, a radical academic turn towards a linguistic policy essentially based on local languages ‘would immediately make, for example, the philosophical excogitations of Kwame Gyekye of Ghana a closed book to Peter Bodunrinof Nigeria and vice versa’ (Wiredu, 1996, p.4). According to Zeleza (2007), the epistemic communities in Africa are fragmented along national, geographic, and linguistic lines making the need for translation even more crucial while also posing evident challenges. In the particular context of academic exchanges, one needs to go beyond the admitted definition of translation as a mere transfer of meanings from one language to another. The kind of translation required in this particular case encompasses ‘cross-cultural access, reading, and interpretation of scholarship on areas of mutual interest produced in different national intellectual traditions’ (Zeleza, 2007, p.ll). Elaborating upon Alan Tansman’s (2004, p.184) idea of translation as ‘the act par excellence of area studies,’ Zeleza (2007) equates academic exchanges in transnational and multilingual context in Africa with processes of translation:

Scholarship across national boundaries or epistemic communities, however, constructed, especially in the human sciences, can be conceived as acts of translations, in which scholars grapple with foreign textual and lived experiences - languages, materials, and perspectives — and strive, if they are scrupulous, to understand them on their own terms and in terms that are also meaningful to their own cognitive universe and training, (p. 11)

The notion of‘transnational translation’ reflects Berman’s (1984) conception that translation, as expressed by the German word ‘Übersetzen’ is inherently a movement of transcendence, ‘Uber-Setzung’, a constitutive move beyond oneself, ‘un se-poser-au-delà de soi constitutif’ (p. 78). Both the movement of transcendence inherent to translation as such and the transnational academic expectations it fulfils by bridging the gap between linguistically fragmented scholars justify its importance for the process of conceptual decolonisation in Africa. Tymoczko (1999) accurately illustrates this duality through her description of translation as a metaphor for postcolonial writing that ‘invokes the sort of activity associated with the etymological meaning of the word: translation as an activity of carrying across’ (p. 19).

Thus, translation in the postcolonial context primarily serves the purpose of transcending the artificial borders constructed along the lines of the ‘colo-nially derived nation-states’ (wa Thiong’o, 2016, p.55), which have subsequently been validated by the formally independent African countries. Even today, more than half a century after ‘independence,’ the circulation of ideas and experiences within the African academic sphere is still hampered by its fragmentation along regional, national, and linguistic lines. So much so that scholars and students from contiguous countries having different national languages are reciprocally ignorant of mutual academic life, events, innovations, constructive reforms at disciplinary levels and publications.

But a scientific dialogue among African scholars sharing the same vernacular is still possible and should be encouraged. In prelude to the establishment of a continental lingua franca, a good start at decolonising could be

Conceptual decolonisation, endogenous knowledge, and translation 127 a resolute deconstruction of the virtual academic fences constructed along the colonial nation-states’ borders. One could start by solving the problem of language-in-education versus language of daily life, which continues to maintain scholars and students in a state of intellectual schizophrenia. The South African translanguaging movement is a systematic attempt to resolve this issue. This programme is fundamentally a pedagogic reaction to prevent the ‘disconnect between the dominant language of the classroom and the home language of South African learners [which] may lead to dehumanising experiences in classrooms’ (Childs, 2016, p.22). According to Garcia (2014, p.3), translanguaging in education is ‘a process by which students and teachers engage in complex discursive practices that include all the language practices of students in order to develop new language practices and sustain old ones, communicate and appropriate knowledge, and give voice to new socio-political realities by interrogating inequality’ (as cited by Childs, 2016, p.25). Translation could play an important role towards this end.

Teaching and learning involve a translation activity at cognitive levels. The scientific language is an academic and specialized language made up with images and concepts (Cummins, 2000), which always call for the acquisition by students of a specific vocabulary, syntactic structures, and discursive characteristics. A student who learns science must learn to speak scientifically as well, i.e., he has to define the concepts studied in his own words, describe the objects of study, explain the phenomena observed, design and describe some experimental process, draw conclusions and write reports about some of his scientific experiences (Lemke, 1990). These functions of language (describe, explain, and formulate) have a linguistic dimension as well as a conceptual scientific one. Thus, to be able to master these language functions, the learner must understand the scientific concepts involved, know and be able to use the necessary correct vocabulary, syntactic structures and the discursive characteristics suited to each of these functions.

Any learning process can therefore be expressed in terms of linguistic knowledge (speak scientifically), a procedural knowledge (to do sciences), and conceptual knowledge (understanding sciences) (Laplante, 2001). However, in the discussion about decolonisation in teaching and researching in Africa, opinions driven by nationalistic convictions and epistemic nativism tend to set the pace and programmatic suggestions have set aside imperative issues of practical applicability.

Even if teaching, researching, writing, and publishing predominantly in African languages is difficult at present for various reasons, a massive programme of translation could already be set off. Such a programme has been implemented with success elsewhere and would certainly help to deconstruct, by symbolically transcending them, the artificial borders of nation-states. This undertaking will also have the effect of making African academic microcosms visible to each other and to the global community. Another action to that end would be that African scholars initiate right now a scientific dialogue, in their vernacular, with their compatriots not literatein the dominant foreign official languages. Even more importantly, scholars who are conscious of the linguistic impasses confronting life and thought in postcolonial Africa should start to ponder the major theoretical problems of their discipline in their own vernaculars.

This suggestion echoes Jakobson’s (1959) notion of'intralingual translation’ or ‘rewording’ which he defines as ‘an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language’ (p. 233). Many scholars in literary and translation studies have even identified an implicit translation work in the background of any discursive or creative textual production by African writers and thinkers. Such texts are in general hybrid in nature because of their inherently plurilingual, plurivocal, and heteroglossic distinctive features. As a rule, incommensurability is a marker of distinctiveness of the postcolonial text and a tool for resistance and subversion. In this sense Rushdie’s (1989, p.24) self-description as a ‘translated man, |.. .| born-across’ fully makes sense. Because he constantly works at the intersection of overlapping worlds (the local and the colonial), the postcolonial writer, thinker, and translator is engaged in an everlasting process of hybridisation. The cognitive processes involved in this inherently hybrid literary or discursive production has been described under different and complementary labels8.

A productive assessment of the relations between translation and knowledge in postcolonial Africa requires a recourse to counter-essentialist understandings of the concepts of decolonisation and Africanisation. As Mudimbe (1988) argues, the main question, as far as one wishes to stay away from any uncritical essentialist view about knowledge in Africa is: to what extent can one speak of an African knowledge, and in what sense? Mudimbe considers the reflection on the form, content and style of‘Africanising knowledge’ on the one hand, and the status of traditional systems of thought and their possible relation to the normative genre of knowledge on the other hand, to be the major tasks of a philosophy taking African gnosis as the main object of investigation. The main purpose of this analysis is to rethink ‘the processes of transformation of types of knowledge’ (p. 9).

Besides the ‘violence of representation’ (Van Binsbergen, 2003, p. 148) inherent to any scientific enterprise taking the ‘culturally other’ as object of investigation and the ‘inevitable distortion-transformation-innovation that invariably and inevitably adheres to any hermeneutics, the use of foreign, dominant languages to interpret, translate and disseminate African life, and thought often led to inconsistencies. This is the epistemological and historical background in which Mudimbe’s following interrogation takes its full significance:

Does this mean that African Weltanschauungen and African traditional systems of thought are unthinkable and cannot be made explicit within the framework of their own rationality? My own claim is that thus far the ways in which they have been evaluated and the means used to explain them relate to theories and methods whose constraints, rules, and systems of operation suppose a non-African epistemological locus, (p. 10)

A distortive epistemological order that points to the validity and soundness of other ways of knowing, namely ‘knowledge produced on Africa by African’ (Hountondji, 2009). The main issue at stake being the ‘theoretical dependency or extraversion’ leading the majority of African intellectual creations to be produced for and consumed elsewhere (Hountondji, 1997). This is complemented by an uncritical and systematic recourse to canons of thought elaborated under different sociohistorical circumstances to respond to specific epistemological needs. Adopting them straightforwardly, without any critical distance, and even behaving as if these were the canonical way to produce knowledge and science obviously raises the question of the status and relevance of other ways of knowing. Hence, the importance and urgency of a thorough work of deconstruction at the epistemological level, but also in the field of translation as an ideal instrument towards the conception, conservation, and transmission of knowledge.

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