Découvrez votre prochain livre préféré

Devenez membre aujourd'hui et lisez gratuitement pendant 30 jours
Translation in African Contexts: Postcolonial Texts, Queer Sexuality, and Cosmopolitan Fluency

Translation in African Contexts: Postcolonial Texts, Queer Sexuality, and Cosmopolitan Fluency

Lire l'aperçu

Translation in African Contexts: Postcolonial Texts, Queer Sexuality, and Cosmopolitan Fluency

635 pages
7 heures
Oct 10, 2017


Author Evan Maina Mwangi explores the intersection of translation, sexuality, and cosmopolitan ethics in African literature. Usually seen as the preserve of literature published by Euro-American metropolitan outlets for Western consumption, cultural translation is also a recurrent theme in postcolonial African texts produced primarily for local circulation and sometimes in African languages. Mwangi illustrates how such texts allude to various forms of translation to depict the ethical relations to foreigners and the powerless, including sexual minorities. He also explains the popularity of fluent models of translation in African literature, regardless of the energetic critique of such models by Western-based postcolonial theorists.

While bringing to the foreground texts that have received little critical attention in African literary studies, Translation in African Contexts engages a wide range of foundational and postcolonial translation theorists. It considers a rich variety of works, including East African translations of Shakespeare, writings by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Gakaara wa Wanjaũ, a popular novel by Charles Mangua, and a stage adaptation by the Tanzanian playwright Amandina Lihamba, among others.

Oct 10, 2017

À propos de l'auteur

Lié à Translation in African Contexts

Livres associé
Articles associés

Aperçu du livre

Translation in African Contexts - Evan Maina Mwangi




Albrecht Neubert, Gert Jäger, and Gregory M. Shreve, Founding Editors

1 Translation as Text

Albrecht Neubert and Gregory M. Shreve

2 Pathways to Translation: Pedagogy and Process

Donald C. Kiraly

3 What Is Translation?: Centrifugal Theories, Critical Interventions

Douglas Robinson

4 Repairing Texts: Empirical Investigations of Machine Translation Post-Editing Processes

Hans P. Krings, Edited by Geoffrey S. Koby

5 Translating Slavery, Volume I: Gender and Race in French Abolitionist Writing, 1780–1830

Edited by Doris Y. Kadish and Françoise Massardier-Kenney

6 Toward a Translation Criticism: John Donne

Antoine Berman, Translated and edited by Françoise Massardier-Kenney

7 Translating Slavery, Volume II:

Ourika and Its Progeny Edited by Doris Y. Kadish and Françoise Massardier-Kenney

8 Literature in Translation: Teaching Issues and Reading Preactices

Edited by Carol Maier and Françoise Massardier-Kenney

9 Translators Writing, Writing Translators

Edited by Françoise Massardier-Kenney, Brian James Baer, and Maria Tymoczko

10 Translation in African Contexts: Postcolonial Texts, Queer Sexuality, and Cosmopolitan Fluency

Evan Maina Mwangi



Postcolonial Texts, Queer Sexuality,

and Cosmopolitan Fluency

■ Evan Maina Mwangi



© 2017 by The Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio 44242

All rights reserved

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 2016055036

ISBN 978-1-60635-321-9

Manufactured in the United States of America


Names: Mwangi, Evan, author.

Title: Translation in African contexts : postcolonial texts, queer sexuality, and cosmopolitan fluency / Evan Maina Mwangi.

Other titles: Translation studies ; v. 10.

Description: Kent, Ohio : The Kent State University Press, 2017. | Series: Translation studies ; v. 10 | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2016055036 (print) | LCCN 2016055555 (ebook) | ISBN 9781606353219 (hardcover : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781631012945 (ePub) | ISBN 9781631012952 (ePDF)

Subjects: LCSH: African literature—Translations into English—History and criticsim. | African literature--20th century—History and criticism. | Translating and interpreting.

Classification: LCC PL8010 .M89 2017 (print) | LCC PL8010 (ebook) | DDC 809.896-dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016055036

21 20 19 18 17     5 4 3 2 1

In memory of






1 ■(M)othered Tongues, Post-Afrocentric Translations

2 ■Against Monolingualism

3 ■Mother Tongue and the Abject Mother

4 ■Illusions of Cultural Purity

5 ■A Gendered Adaptation

6 ■Transmodern Poetics

7 ■Domesticating the Queer in Shakespeare

8 ■Language of Languages: An Attempt to Conclude





■ This book seeks to examine translations in the context of representations of cosmopolitanism in postcolonial African literature, demonstrating that translators seem to privilege fluent translations as opposed to the foreignizing ones postcolonial theorists seem to prefer. Preliminarily defined, an assimilative translation is one that smooths out the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the original, making the foreign text read like a local one in the recipient culture. That is, it tends to domesticate the foreign text, a move largely seen as reducing the text’s agency in resisting colonial domination. Regarding the resistance/assimilative binary as untenable in the texts under analysis, I account for the prevalence of the assimilative or domesticating translations in postcolonial texts, despite the view by most postcolonial theorists that such a strategy serves as an apparatus of colonial despotism. Throughout, I consider translation both literally (the interlingual transfer of meaning from one language to another) and metaphorically (the process of adapting to a new cultural environment as a minority).

The book results from my experiences teaching African literature in Kenya and in the United States. I am particularly uncomfortable with the tendency in the Western academy to romanticize African-language texts as liberatory and decolonizing, without doing close readings of those texts. I borrow from the scholarship of African-language texts within African cultures, which do not hesitate to highlight the strengths as well as the shortcomings of individual texts. Criticism of African literature in African institutions and especially in African languages is candid, even combative, in its response to local texts, including oral literature. I borrow a leaf from this lively scholarship to criticize, in particular, the gender-blindness and ethnocentrism in some of the theoretical and creative texts in English and indigenous languages but also point out some of the texts’ interest in the welfare of minorities and the foreigner. The book is, therefore, translational, as it seeks to introduce global theories of translation to students of African literature (especially in the African academy) as well as discuss in detail texts that might not be familiar to global readers of African literature.

One of the book’s aims is to demonstrate that cosmopolitanism is not a preserve of literature published by metropolitan outlets for Western readership. The theme is found in works in African languages, captured through translational strategies. In reading the cosmopolitan and ethnic subtexts of the works under discussion, I use an interdisciplinary approach that draws from various strands of critical theory. I assume cosmopolitanism requires not only tolerance toward others but fluency in other languages, including marginalized African languages. Referring to various theories of translation, this book focuses on particular moments in African texts when the translation runs at a tangent to its original, especially to localize the text or to intervene with a political stand against the discrimination of minorities and foreigners. Although the texts under analysis seem to reject the foreignizing theories of translation advocated by postcolonial theorists, neither the texts nor the theories can be dismissed without considering the context in which they develop or are used.

It is helpful to mention some limits to the scope of this book. Although fairly broad, my analysis aims not at conclusiveness but rather at being a starting point in close readings of texts in African languages in their original language and in translation. Of course, African literatures are too diverse to be discussed comprehensively in a single book; in fact, the book turned out double the length I initially planned. I thus focus on texts from East Africa, especially those written in English, Sheng, Kiswahili, and Gĩkũyũ. While I choose the region because its languages are the ones I am proficient in, East Africa, as Alamin M. Mazrui notes in Cultural Politics of Translation, continues to show a certain barrenness in the study of translation (2016, 9).

I have included discussions of the Gĩkũyũ works of Gakaara wa Wanjaũ (1921–2001), but not in as much detail as in my initial drafts. I was particularly interested in Wanjaũ’s transmedial translations of his stories into graphic illustrations, which are further translated back into words in captions at the bottom of the illustrations. These back-and-forth translations are full of contradictions and gendered resonances. However, I could not obtain permission to reproduce these images from his books, which are out of print. I also wanted to include a thorough discussion of all translations of Shakespeare into Kiswahili, but to be able to do a close reading of the texts, I have had to limit myself to discussions of Julius Nyerere’s translations of The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar, contrasting these with a twenty-first-century translation of The Merry Wives of Windsor by John Ogutu Muraya. For lack of space, I have not covered Enock Matundura’s interesting translations of Barbara Kimenye’s Moses books, which would help us engage with the construction of masculinity in works targeting adolescent boys. Working in translations in different languages and bridging the expectations of two audiences as a translator for the two groups has its benefits, but it can be expensive too, especially because the books tend to be bulky. I have therefore limited myself to a few representative texts while alluding to others in passing.

One thing undergraduate readers of the earlier drafts of this book were curious about was how queer theory fits with translation studies in African contexts. In the course of my research, I have come across very persuasive and illuminating work on queer translation by a wide range of scholars, including Keith Harvey, Christopher Larkosh, William J. Spurlin, Suzana Tratnik, Severino J. Albuquerque, Aarón Lacayo, Brian James Baer, and Aleksandra Berlina. I have used some ideas from these critics and theorists to elaborate interpretations of the primary texts under discussion. Throughout the discussions, I consider queer subtexts in the African translations.

If a critique of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s work seems to occupy a larger portion of the book than that of any other writer, it is because he is the most prominent advocate of writing in local languages and having the work translated into other languages. Another limit of this book’s scope is that male artists dominate East African translated texts, especially in the novel genre. This is probably because men have had more access to educational and publishing opportunities than women. Works by indigenous women have not been translated, especially those that thematize homoerotic desire between women. To avoid compounding the silencing of African women writers, I have discussed translations of works written by men in relation to texts by female artists in drama and poetry, areas in which women writers in African languages have relatively higher representation. In the process, I examine the depiction of masculinities as the texts grapple with the themes of cosmopolitan ethics and cultural translation.

To some readers, my book might appear a retort to Ngũgĩ’s celebrated Decolonising the Mind (1986a), since, contrary to Ngũgĩ’s well-known assertion, I argue here that the use of African languages in literary discourse is not in itself anticolonial or liberatory. Resistance is found not in a natural language but in the way that language is deployed in a text. Neither does assimilative translation amount to acquiescence to a dominant cultural category; it can also be used as a mode of resistance. Because of its skepticism toward the glorification of nonassimilative translation, this book might also sound to other readers like a rejection of Lawrence Venuti’s support for foreignizing translation, a mode that calls for the retention of the linguistic peculiarities of the original text to foreground the fact that the translated object originates from a culture other than that of the target language. However, we should be clear at the outset that, as I demonstrate in the first chapter of this book, I am not in any rush to institute a rigid dichotomy between Venuti’s terms, foreignizing and assimilative translation. These models of translation are germane in helping us understand how a translator handles the text for different ideological and aesthetic purposes. I do not seek to dismiss foreignizing models in favor of assimilating ones; my own translations (including those done in this book) tend toward the foreignizing method. To be sure, although Venuti favors the foreignizing model, he seems to endorse domesticating approaches that empower a marginalized language. Resistance, then, is not to be found in the warped use of language; it is to be understood within the context of language use, whether the translation uses a foreignizing or domesticating model.

My criticism of some statements by intellectuals who support writing in African languages and foreignizing translation might be mistaken for an endorsement of the ongoing global hegemony of European languages. Indeed, am I not contradicting myself in criticizing the materialist view of African languages as conduits of cultural authenticity while at the same time arguing that some indigenous-language texts engender a performative encapsulation of negative gender, ethnocentric, and anti-cosmopolitan attitudes that affect real life? Or am I, in the fashion of the already discredited Eurocentrists, negating the positive material values of African languages while focusing on their negative potential in order to privilege colonialism and accept, to use Ngũgĩ’s term, the fatalistic logic that only colonial languages can express African modernity? No. To the contrary, I believe language use in literature is contingent on social and political realities in the material world and that Ngũgĩ’s arguments are applicable to particular contexts that cannot be universalized to cover all spheres of life in which texts are bound to circulate.

This book, then, is both appreciative and critical of the writers under study: it draws attention to fundamental contradictions in their writings with the aim of strengthening their case for a more sustained use of indigenous African languages as a medium of literary creation and analysis, without resorting to nativism. In fact, while cosmopolitanism is traditionally seen as a property of the powerful West, whereby the northern hemisphere of the globe is expected to extend its hospitality and recognition to the less privileged cultures of Africa, I show that texts in marginalized languages examine the powerless society’s ethical responsibility toward individual members or groups who are even more powerless.

There is a cluster of works paying attention to Africa’s indigenous-language literatures. Albert S. Gérard’s Contexts of African Literature (1990) and African Language Literatures (1981) and Alain Ricard’s The Languages and Literatures of Africa (2004) are useful generalist (distant-reading) studies. Ricard’s Le sable de Babel (2011) also offers a historical and comparatist study of translation in Africa, considering works in African languages by such writers and translators as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Alexis Kagamé, and Hampaté Bâ. These generalist texts need to be complemented with close readings in the context of emergent theories of interpretation and circulation. Innocentia Jabulisile Mhlambi’s African-Language Literatures: New Perspectives on IsiZulu Fiction and Popular Black Television Series (2012) offers a good model for the study of popular indigenous literature. She particularly notes the possible abuse of indigenous languages to propagate neoliberal ideology among indigenous populations (134). Unlike Mhlambi’s, my analysis focuses on gender and translation to reveal the ideological entanglements between language use and politics.


This book is divided into eight interrelated chapters, each discussing various types of translation in a specific text or set of texts: from translation without an original, as is the case with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The River Between and Charles Mangua’s Son of Woman, to adaptation, as exemplified by Amandina Lihamba’s Hawala ya Fedha (The Money-Order), adapted for the stage from Sembène Ousmane’s novel originally in French, Le Mandat. The first two chapters raise theoretical issues about African literature in the context of translation studies and postcolonial theories. Chapter 1 is introductory; it defines the key operative terms and further orients my analysis in relation to ongoing debates about cosmopolitanisms and translation in African literature. In chapter 2, I develop an issue initiated in chapter 1: namely, that African literature has already and always been in translation. I examine the ethnic and gendered subtexts in the language debate, using as an example statements by Kimani Gecau and Ngũgĩ. In the subsequent chapters, I conduct close readings of specific texts. Chapters 3 and 4 examine works written in English about cultural translation: Charles Mangua’s popular and pioneering bestseller Son of Woman (1971), and James Ngugi’s (later Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o) foundational The River Between (1965). Both works presume a Gĩkũyũ-language original, but the reason for including the two is to demonstrate that a text in the same language can do different work with its translational use of language.

The next two chapters focus on works by women. In chapter 5, I examine the inter-generic and inter-linguistic translation of a Senegalese novella, Sembène Ousmane’s Le Mandat, into a Tanzanian play, Amandina Lihamba’s Hawala ya Fedha. Chapter 6 considers some English-Kiswahili and Gĩkũyũ-English bilingual poems in Sheng (a mixture of English and Kiswahili and other Kenyan languages in a largely urban para-code that follows Kiswahili grammar) by twenty-first-century writers, such as Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Sitawa Namwalie, and Njeri Wangarĩ. The last chapter draws on East African translations of Shakespeare to examine queer issues, noting changes from earlier silencing of queer subtexts in the original to the introduction of queer references in a twenty-first-century translation. I conclude that at the heart of literariness in postcolonial African literature are the notions of memory and translation, especially how memory is translated to express past, present, and future.


■ A result of truly collaborative efforts, this book has been long in the making. I am grateful to the very many people who have been generous with their time and ideas. The librarians at the Melville Herskovits Collection of African Studies at Northwestern University, especially Directors David Easterbrook and Esmelda Kane, were tremendously supportive throughout. Members of staff at the Africana section of the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Library of the University of Nairobi were extremely helpful with archival materials. I would also like to thank Ann Biersteker, Esther J. Terry, Cristiana Pugliese, and Patrick R. Bennett for lending me their personal copies of some out-of-print texts. Maina Mutonya, Martin Kevin Maina, and Joseph Kanyi Thiong’o sent me much needed information from Nairobi, and I appreciate their efforts.

I have tried out some of the materials in my teaching and received excellent feedback from my students. Much of the book was written at Northwestern University. The Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School at Northwestern gave me generous travel-and-research funding, without which I could not have completed this project. I extend my gratitude to Kathy Daniels, Wendy Wall, Jock McLane, Susan Manning, Jennifer Britton, and Laurie Shannon for facilitating the availability of these funds. I had the opportunity to present some parts of the manuscript at the Program for African Studies at Northwestern University, the Sawyer seminar at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and at Emory University’s African studies seminar. I thank the organizers for inviting me and the participants for the incisive questions and comments.

I have received many suggestions from my colleagues and readers for presses (most of them anonymous), without which this book would be different. Okoth Okombo, Henry Indangasi, James Michira, Sultan Somjee, and Joseph Situma made time to talk with me about translation, aesthetics, and hermeneutics in African contexts. I am grateful for their mentoring. Joseph Situma read the whole initial draft and asked probing questions that helped me clarify my arguments. Carl Smith gave me advice on many issues, while Derek Peterson and Jonathon Glassman were extremely resourceful with ideas to help me with my arguments. I am grateful for their support.

Nahashon A. Nyangeri is the person I ran to most frequently whenever I wasn’t very sure about my translations from Kiswahili. Kimani Njogi and M. M. Mulokozi offered advice on technical issues, while my colleague Nick Davis gave timely advice on some terminology. I also received advice from Sussana L. Sacks, Delali Kumavie, Scott P. Newman, and Mlondolozi Bradley Zondi. I would also like to thank colleagues and friends Eddie Ombagi, Becky Fall, Mumia G. Osaaji, Wachanga Ndirangu, Godwin Siundu, Lila Luce, Ezekiel Kaigai, Ernest Waititu, Enock Matundura, Cajetan Iheka, George Gathigi, Stephen Partington, Jenie Muchiri, and Larry Ndivo for reading the manuscript or parts of it and for offering useful feedback. I can never repay their time, intellectual energy, and encouragement. Ari Bookman read the entire initial drafts of the manuscript many times and suggested invaluable adjustments, for which I am extremely grateful.

Jim Fuhr did the indexing at a short notice. At Kent State University Press, many thanks to Will Underwood, Mary Young, and Christine Brooks for patiently guiding me through the intricacies of editing and production. The book has gained tremendously from Erin Holman’s copyediting. Brian Baer, the Translation Studies series editor at KSUP, gave me a lot of support and encouragement throughout the writing process.

An earlier version of chapter 5 appeared as "Amandina Lihamba’s Gendered Adaptation of Sembène Ousmane’s The Money-Order," in Research in African Literatures 40, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 149–73. I thank Indiana University Press for permission to reprint it. Oxford University Press in Nairobi allowed me to use its materials, and Simon Kihara (Musaimo) generously allowed me to quote from his music. Keith Pearson of Nairobi’s The Theatre Company generously allowed me to quote from the Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa script and gave me a recording of the play. The cover image is She (acrylics on canvas) by Naijeria Toweett. Thanks to Naijeria for the permission to use her art.

Northwestern University has been a stimulating, elegant, and collegial home to me. I thank my colleagues and students in the university for their exceptional moral and material support.

Of course, I remain solely responsible for any stylistic lapses and factual errors in this book.




All culture is originally colonial.

—JACQUES DERRIDA, Monolingualism of the Other

Every great philosophy is a rebirth, a radical questioning.

—PAULIN J. HOUNTONDJI, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality

■ Before the expression decolonising the mind entered the Anglophone post-colonial discourse with the publication of Ngũgĩwa Thiong’o’s book of the same title in 1986, one of his predecessors, Gakaara wa Wanjaũ (1921–2001), had released a small booklet in his native Gĩkũyũ with similar ideas as Ngũgĩ’s. First published in 1971 and reprinted in 1978, Gakaara’s Ũgwati wa Mũthũngũ Mũirũ (The tragedy of a black European) satirizes Kikuyu individuals who abandon their mother tongue to communicate with one another in English. Gakaara’s main argument seems to be that no language is innocent; to speak the language of colonialists is to accept the decadence of the system European imperialists represented.¹ His essay draws attention to laughable speech habits that lead newly independent African nations to what Gakaara sees as linguistic apocalypse that would turn African cultures into societies of black Europeans. In a similar context, Gyan Prakash sees the Indian elites in the nineteenth century as a force that called into question the terms of colonial dominance as they translated their society into modernity (1999, 83). But Gakaara presents the Kenyan elites as servile imitators of degenerate colonial attitudes. He seems to insist that speaking English in Africa automatically translates into arrogance and abuse of power. However, the essay is about the struggle for cosmopolitanism that does not erase marginalized cultures.

In the rest of this chapter, I argue for the need of close readings of texts in African languages, explaining why such texts and their translations are excluded in the dominant studies of world literature. I conclude by outlining a post-Afrocentric framework that would help us critique colonialism as well as moments in African texts when authors’ ethnocentric or masculinist representations of indigenous minorities fail to embrace cosmopolitan virtue. But let me propose at the outset that hegemony and cosmopolitanism cannot ideally coexist; the oft-used term hegemonic cosmopolitanism is therefore a misnomer, because a culture cannot claim to be fully cosmopolitan if it does not respect linguistic rights of others or does not uphold gender and ethnic diversity in its writing and translations. When theorists such as Jonathan Haslam (2002), Jan Nederveen Pieterse (2006), and Rahul Rao (2010; 2013) severally use the term hegemonic cosmopolitanism, it is to name an undesirable mode of practicing cosmopolitanism in which Western institutions present Euro-American cultural hegemony as cosmopolitan enlightenment. I will critique texts in which cosmopolitanism is seen as possible at the expense of minorities. I use the term hegemony in the Gramscian sense to designate the consolidation of intellectual and moral leadership by the dominant group to ensure coercive power over the rest of the society through the people’s consent. Although Gramsci sometimes uses the word the way Georgi Plekhanov and Vladimir Lenin strategically deployed it to name positive collective alliance building in opposition to an autocratic aristocracy, I employ it here to mark a negative, coerced consent to the policies of a dominant group and its alliances.² In this sense, I will critique instances where translations try to mask the oppression of marginalized groups within the indigenous culture from which those texts come.

In African literary studies, cosmopolitanism is a more contested term than hegemony, what with as foundational a theoretical figure as Frantz Fanon insinuating, in The Wretched of the Earth ([1961] 1967), that cosmopolitanism is a smokescreen for intellectual laziness of the middle-class (149).³ In fact, most African languages do not have an easy equivalent for the term; theorists generally coin local terms from the English word. Ngũgĩ’s choice of ũkĩrĩu as the Gĩkũyũ word for cosmopolitanism indicates that, to him, cosmopolitanism and modernity are mutually defining concepts.⁴ To make matters more complicated for us regarding the term, most of the texts discussed here use translational strategies in ways that on the surface tend to negate the cosmopolitan spirit by assimilating the foreign text, instead of allowing it to retain its stylistic idiosyncrasies.

Since the Greek Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope (circa 412–323 B.C.E.), used the term kosmopolites to describe himself as a citizen of the world against the prevailing tendency for one to identify oneself with one’s city, the term cosmopolitan has taken many meanings, although all are related to how one views oneself in the context of planetary identifications.⁵ While Diogenes seems to at times reject his local heritage in order to embrace global citizenship, African writers constitute a marginalized group that can ill afford to beat down their own cultures in order to participate in the planetary citizenship that Diogenes stands for. I see cosmopolitanism to involve the ability to mix diverse cultural experiences through hospitality to other cultures and languages, without demanding that the foreigner should be like the host. It involves a commitment to transcend national and ethnic presuppositions and prejudices, whereby we recognize and welcome other communities, their languages and values, while at the same time working toward a common endeavor without seeking to convert other people into replica of ourselves. This does not mean absolute rejection of one’s own cultural roots. Thus, as David A. Hollinger notes, claims to tribe and nation are not always products of hate among cosmopolitan scholars sympathetic to marginalized groups (2001, 238). Most writers discussed in here try to forge a sense of cosmopolitanism that allows them to claim an identity threatened with erasure by colonialism. They relentlessly seek to show that the local and the national adhere to cross-cultural, cosmopolitan ethos.

With this in mind, Martha Nussbaum’s (1997) definition of a cosmopolitan is useful for our purposes. Using Immanuel Kant, Nussbaum defines a cosmopolitan as a person whose politics is based more on reason than patriotism or group sentiment, a politics that was truly universal rather than communitarian (27). Like in the Stoic Zeno’s cosmopolis, a global city based on common law for all humanity and where even barbarians and slaves have equal rights, a cosmopolitan society takes it as its duty to protect the rights of national minorities.⁶ Nussbaum underscores that cosmopolitanism does not negate local interests: Politics, like child care, will be poorly done if each thinks herself equally responsible for all, rather than giving the immediate surroundings special attention and care. To give one’s own sphere special care is justifiable in universalist terms (2002a, 13).⁷ One becomes cosmopolitan not so much by rejecting the local and translating oneself into something else as in embracing other cultures. In reading cosmopolitanism in translated postcolonial texts, the focus should be on how generously the foreign has been absorbed into the local in ways that does not disempower either of the cultures involved in the transaction.

It is in the context of unequal power relations between Europe and the Global South that Charles Mills (2005) finds Kant not to be cosmopolitan because, despite Kant’s support for recognition of other cultures, he retains discriminatory hierarchies in his thinking.⁸ In addition to his defense of racial and gender hierarchies, Kant speculates in the Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose ([1784] 1991) about a time when Europe would probably eventually legislate for all other continents (52). Yet Kant later critiques Europe’s purported civilizing mission in Africa in Metaphysics of Morals ([1785] 1996) and scathingly condemns European imperialism in today’s Global South in Perpetual Peace ([1795] 2006).⁹ As Gerard Delanty reminds us in The Cosmopolitan Imagination, cosmopolitanism is a transformative condition best seen as a process rather than a zero-sum condition in which cosmopolitanism is either present or not (2009, 252). This implies that all the texts under analysis here have an element of cosmopolitanism. But like Delanty, I want to see cosmopolitanism as not merely accommodating one another; rather, I prefer to see it as a constructive process in which we create new ways of perceiving the world inhabited by different cultures. In reading works of art, we should be interested in this process, as the text and its characters interact with the outside world to offer new ways of thinking and acting, especially in relation to people in different social, racial, and sexual categories.

Relatedly, I am aware that as an approach to cultural studies, cosmopolitanism derives mainly from the Western academy. It therefore can be elitist and patronizing when it purports to defend non-Western cultures from the ravages of Western influences. It can also be a code word for liberal globalization and the westernization of non-Western subjects. In my readings, I show that even though cosmopolitan African writers may be opposed to liberal globalization, cosmopolitanism is not a preserve of Western cultures. Like Appiah, I believe opposition to colonialism and other forms of Western domination in African culture does not negate cosmopolitanism because, as seen in the study of particular African writers, cosmopolitanism and universalism are not synonymous with westernization. In an African context, cosmopolitanism does not involve allowing the West to legislate for the rest of the world. Local interests are not substituted for grand liberal practices from the West. It is when local interests go against the welfare of other people that they become antagonistic to the cosmopolitan ideal. Nussbaum emphasizes that, to a cosmopolitan, it is right to give the local an additional measure of concern. But the primary reason a cosmopolitan should have for this is not that the local is better per se, but rather that this is the only sensible way to do good (2002b, 135). However, cosmopolitanism is not a quality or condition that a text or culture simply either has or does not have; it is a process to be appreciated in postcolonial texts in foreign and indigenous languages that present the struggles of a society coming to terms with the inevitable interaction with other cultures. Translation is often one of the markers of this process.


Let me return briefly to Gakaara’s polemical essay, Ũgwati wa Mũthũngũ Mũirũ (The tragedy of a black European), to offer a corrective to the tendency to give priority to a natural language in the African debates on language and translation at the expense of the social context of language use. On the surface, Gakaara’s pamphlet seems a nationalist defense of a natural language (his mother tongue, Gĩkũyũ), but at its core is a call to readers to evaluate utterances in the milieu of the political and cultural context in which those utterances are made, not the natural language the speaker uses. On the surface, the essay directs its anger at the degenerate bourgeois culture taking root in post-independence Kenya and expressing itself through the use of the English language. Ethnic Kikuyu individuals who use English are presented as vain. The essay paints them as psychologically sick people, individuals who have a colonial cockerel in their minds. According to the persona, they are in urgent need of liberation from their self-imposed psychological illness. These abject Africans are equated to drunkards who go around the streets hurling such English insults as mbathitandi (bastard) at passersby. The booklet discusses in strongly rhetorical language the foolish causes and adverse consequences of using English in Kenyan homes, schools, and offices. Further, it offers solutions to what Gakaara presents as the pathology of speaking a foreign language in one’s own country. Yet I want to suggest that we should not see the speaker in the pamphlet as the same as Gakaara himself, a cosmopolitan individual who fluently translated texts into different languages, including English and Kiswahili.

Despite his essay’s overt disavowal of Western lifestyle and foreign influence, as a modern author and publisher Gakaara is intractably immersed in inevitable cultural mixing. On the surface Gakaara might come across as a writer completely opposed to cosmopolitanism, in favor of nativist retention of precolonial traditions. Yet as Tejumola Olaniyan reminds us in Scars of Conquest / Masks of Resistance (1995), African cultures are not as immutable as they may appear in an indigenous writer’s performative stratagems to humanize Africa against a background of colonial domination: Cultural identity could not be closed and positive but necessarily alterable: a conception of otherness in flux. The performative is the principle of transgressive and transitional truth (36). Although Olaniyan makes this argument in relation to the obviously much more improvisational dramatic arts of the African diaspora, this property is found in prose work by local artists like Gakaara wa Wanjaũ. The writers suggest that although there are indispensable elements that a culture cannot do without unless it intends to annihilate itself, cultural identity cannot be unchangeable. Translational elements in a language at the contact zone are some of the factors that showcase the dynamic nature of that language and culture. Indeed, the heteroglossia and deliberate use of multiple languages within the same discourse that Paul F. Bandia notes to be a marker of African European–language (2008, 136) is also present in Gakaara’s text. Gakaara’s narrator disavows Western practices and foreign influences, but his language is marked by the very hybridity he derides. His Gĩkũyũ language and culture indicate inevitable imbrication with other cultures, including English, to such an extent that an easy indigenous/foreign dichotomy that his persona advocates is untenable.

Mixture of languages is largely seen in postcolonial studies as an anticolonial strategy. For example, Prakash (1999) sees hybridization in colonial India as serving a counter-hegemonic ground upon which the elites pressed their entitlement to modernity even as they recognized their aspirations for power and loyalism (84), Gakaara’s persona sees the African in post-independence Kenya as merely mimicking European culture without gaining any form of agency. However, it is good to remember that the mixture with other cultures even in what looks like unpolluted native culture is an inevitable result of contacts between a culture and other local and foreign traditions. In an exquisite reading of Wole Soyinka’s Death and King’s Horseman, Olaniyan (1995) observes the disorder, ruptures, and disruptions that constitute what may appear on the surface as a solid, self-assured auto-dynamic organic community, a community that holds tightly to its essence of itself and whose authentic values survive the ravages of temporality (43). Like Soyinka’s eloquent Praise-Singer in Death and King’s Horseman, the narrator in Gakaara’s pamphlet evokes with nostalgia an immutable traditional world outside of colonial and English influence. But at the same time, he indicates that Gĩkũyũ cannot be a static, auto-dynamic language. For instance, it is hard to think of the Gĩkũyũ words for hangover (the unwelcome effects of drinking excess alcohol) or lift (ride in a vehicle given to help someone reach a destination), English words that Gakaara’s persona deploys to satirize people for using in their Gĩkũyũ conversations.

It is also notable that the theme of Gakaara’s essay turns out not to be the natural language that one uses but the use of any language in an arrogant way. In most of the hypothetical statements Gakaara’s speaker makes about language, what seems to be under attack, despite the stated intention of the narrative, is not the mixing of languages but the haughtiness the westernized African displays. There is a chance that translation and mixing of languages can be done for regenerative purposes. At the heart of Gakaara’s essay, then, is the tension within an indigenous society grappling with the need to be local and global at once, avoiding the temptation to dichotomize the universal from the particular.¹⁰

Contrary to Gakaara’s persona, Andreas Huyssen captures the inevitable mixing in today’s world in the magnificent introduction to his edited volume Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age (2008). Huyssen accurately observes that, in the wake of planetary interactions among societies, a global culture should be studied using a methodology that embraces and maintains the tension between the universal and the particular rather than opting for one against the other (4). Here Huyssen has in mind an urban imaginary in the Global South, but similar imperatives obtain in rural areas in the region, as colonial and global capital has spread to these local cultures as well. Although when analyzing cosmopolitanism we tend to use as our jumping-off point those postcolonial texts that are written in English and published by multinational firms for metropolitan consumption and circulation, African-language texts published by small firms and for local audiences grapple with the issues of cosmopolitanism and hospitality to the foreign, especially borrowing metaphors from translation practices. Because indigenous texts express the differences and affinities among cultures, we should use a methodology like the one Huyssen encourages: one that neither denies nor exaggerates the impact of colonialism and globalization on rural cultures.

Therefore, shunning both relativist and universalist paradigms of translation, I follow the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur in seeking an ontology of reconciliation between the translatability and untranslatability of African texts. In my analysis, I admire those translators, narrators, and characters displaying a capacity to move from one language to another despite the difficulties involved in translation, and in particular those translators who do not force the translation to be exactly like the original. This is even when the translators use a domesticating model that presents the foreign text fluently. I must state that, unlike Ricoeur in Critique and Conviction, (1998, 139), I am not afraid of mixing genres. Indeed, when he used this expression to argue that methodologically he would not discuss politics and philosophy together, Ricoeur did not mean we should only work in one genre or discipline. Rather, it is to be attentive to the disciplinary boundaries in order to appreciate how fields of knowledge and practice differ from and resemble one another. In this book, I highlight the innovative use of literary language without excluding sociological and political content and implications of texts. Despite his claim that it would not be sound to mix domains, Ricoeur was a keen mediator between differing schools of philosophical thought. In this spirit of a mediatory role in criticism and artistic production (a practice so central to African literature), I enjoy African artists who mix forms in their presentation of cultural conflicts, emergence of a more a protean world in the wake of colonialism and globalization, and the attendant unstable identities that make up modern African subjects.

I do not contest the fact that language is arbitrary or that translating from one language to another involves considerable difficulty. As a result of the arbitrariness of linguistic signs, a text can generate not only many different translations at once but also conflicting interpretations. However, Umberto Eco reminds us that incommensurability does not mean incomparability (2001, 12). With linguistic, intertextual, psychological, and narrative competence, it is possible for a translator to use the dynamicity and elasticity of language to express an idea in a different language. As Ricoeur underscores, it is the difficulty to translate that makes translation ethically and intellectually exciting. It offers the host language a chance to display its hospitality: Just as in narration it is always possible to tell the story in a different way, likewise in translation it is always possible to translate otherwise, without ever hoping to bridge the gap between equivalence and perfect adhesion. Linguistic hospitality, therefore is the act of inhabiting the word of the Other paralleled by the act of receiving the word of the Other into one’s own home, one’s own dwelling (2006, 25). Like Domenico Jervolino (2007), Ricoeur celebrates the plasticity and resourcefulness of individual natural languages. In Ricoeur’s terms, through the gift of language it is possible to encounter others without having to compel them to be exactly like ourselves. The diversity of languages should be celebrated because language does not exist outside a plurality of historical languages (Jervolino, 2007, 271) that must be brought into dialogue with one another in mutual reciprocity, as no one can claim to have a language outside of this plurality.


In works he has published since the mid-1990s, the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah advocates the use of an African dead language as a means of social and political regeneration. From this primal language, he argues, African texts can be translated to other world languages. While Armah’s proposal recalls the ex-professor Michel-Evariste-Népomucène Vincent’s advocacy for Latin in Gustave Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education) ([1869] 1980), the dead language Armah favors in the novels Osiris Rising (1995) and KMT: In the House of Life (2002) and the memoir The Eloquence of the Scribes (2006) is not Latin, but, rather the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, which Armah insists constitute the language of Africa’s black migrant scribes.¹¹ In Armah’s work, the thought of reviving a dead language is not presented as an idle utopian wish, as it is in Flaubert’s novel. Through Armah’s aptly named character Biko, the novelist contends that a so-called dead language, such as Latin, was not so dead at all, since it was bound to give us a deeper understanding of younger, still useful languages: French and Spanish and English (2002, 37).¹² Egyptian hieroglyphics, in particular, derive from the ancient black scribes who, like Armah’s novels in English, collapse the dichotomy between the oral and the written to connect the community to its memory. For Armah, Africa’s dead languages can be resuscitated through translation: Study them. And let them speak again to the world. Clearly. Beautifully (2002, 199). From his polemics, it is clear that Armah is following the work of the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop, who sought correspondences between modern Africa and ancient Egypt in order to recover the history of Africa that colonial historiography had suppressed. Given that Diop and Armah have variously distanced themselves from the essentialism of classical Negritude, their project is not to recover a static African past.¹³ Rather, they demonstrate the feasibility of cultural translation among African nations across time and space.¹⁴

I don’t share Armah’s Afrocentric rhetorical standpoint. I use this illustration from his work to demonstrate how the language debate is bound up with gender issues in African literary studies. In Armah’s Osiris Rising and KMT, it is continental and diasporic women visionaries—respectively, the African American professor Ast and the continental Pan-African woman Lindela—who use an ancient language to recover African memory. This trope is repeated in other works written by continental and diasporic African writers.¹⁵ Yet, the gender-inflected rhetorical techniques used in staging the language debate have been largely overlooked. In this book, I do close readings of not only fictional, dramatic, and poetic works but also critical statements, some in multiple editions, to reveal the gendered contradictions and maneuvers that the debaters about local languages and translation stage to win their argument. In discussing African texts in both English and indigenous languages, my approach is post-Afrocentric (discussed in some detail below). Following Tejumola Olaniyan’s use of this approach in his study of African and black diasporic performance, I offer in this book readings in which colonialism and imperialism are repudiated without romanticizing Africa as a site of pure and blameless resistance.

Like Ngũgĩ in Decolonising the Mind (1986a) and his subsequent essays on language and politics, I am convinced that African languages must be preserved; some of the works produced in these languages are fabulous aesthetic objects. But my position here is not that of a polemicist out to win arguments in support of African languages. While revealing the liberatory potential of African languages and translations, this book specifically seeks to correct the false notion, dominant among supporters of writing in African languages, that those languages are in themselves innocent transmitters of anticolonial and nonhegemonic ideals. My skepticism toward nationalistic arguments by writers and theorists such as Ngũgĩ and Gakaara wa Wanjaũ should not be construed as an attempt to downplay the importance of writing in African languages. Ultimate respect is shown to an African text not in blanket praise but in reading that text as closely and as objectively as possible; I see critical textual appraisal as a form of hospitality to any creative work. I proceed from the premise that if writing in African languages is to be strengthened, it must be subjected to unsentimental critiques that enable us to avoid entrenching negative attitudes contained in some of key texts. Indeed, some indigenous texts ask the reader not to give them a free pass just because they were written in African languages and in harsh circumstances. An example is Ngũgĩ’s Caaitani Mũtharabainĩ (1980) (Devil on the Cross [1982a]), which, in an untranslated preface, asks its African-language readers not to sympathize with its narration solely because it was written in prison on toilet paper.¹⁶ Therefore, by privileging a skeptical mode of reading, I am not advocating the dismissal of texts in African languages. I am applying the way of reading some of these novels would like to receive.

As I argue, following Brian Turner (2002), irony toward one’s own culture and language is a welcome component in the cultivation of cosmopolitanism. Ngũgĩ’s and Gakaara’s polemical statements on language lack the kind of cosmopolitanism witnessed in their fictions because the essays fail to detach themselves adequately from the cultures whose languages the writers support. The detachment is, however, found in their fictional and dramatic works both in Gĩkũyũ and English. I, like Paulin J. Hountondji, believe liberatory critical thinking comes about through questioning of one’s own culture. Although Hountondji later seemed to tone down his initial total derision for what he had pejoratively termed ethnophilosophy, his comment that every great philosophy is a rebirth, a radical questioning ([1976] 1996, 90), made in support of Kant’s paradigm shift from his predecessors, is still tenable in the study of African literature because the art is about the transformation of earlier aesthetic models.¹⁷

Regardless of this skeptical attitude, we should remember Richard Rorty’s warning in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that one cannot "claim that there could or ought to be a culture whose public rhetoric is ironist. Rorty says he cannot imagine a culture which socialised its youth in such a way as to make them continually dubious about their own process of socialization. Irony seems an inherently private matter" (1989, 87). Irony can (in effect if not in intent) alienate the individual who adopts it in relation to his or her culture, as does Dodge Kiunyu, the main character and narrator in Charles Mangua’s Son of Woman (1971) (discussed in detail in chapter 3). This is probably why Hountondji shifted from his earlier strong rejection of ethnophilosophy. I hope not to use an ironic stance toward African languages in a way that hinders merely sentimental support of their continued use. Rather, I anticipate a situation in which writers and critics open up these languages to other cultures (as, for example, Ngũgĩ’s fiction

Vous avez atteint la fin de cet aperçu. Inscrivez-vous pour en savoir plus !
Page 1 sur 1


Ce que les gens pensent de Translation in African Contexts

0 évaluations / 0 Avis
Qu'avez-vous pensé ?
Évaluation : 0 sur 5 étoiles

Avis des lecteurs