Lost in translation (Part 2)

The recent colloquium on Traducture & Translation: Creating intercultural dialogue in International Development held at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor, London, United Kingdom from 27 – 29 May 2011,  resembled an African gathering where elders share their wisdom and insights with curious young people around a fire place.  Here Charles Dhewa shares his second impressions of the colloquium.

Traducture and Translation in International Development

Wangui wa goro shared her views on traducture. As someone rooted in literature, she has realized that literature carries African memory and values:

The history of Africa is carried in African literature. Literature, Sport and Music have given us a common sense of being African.

According to Wangui, traducture refers to the depth of knowledge required in translating and transfering knowledge from one culture to another.  These translations are not equal as there is violence and imposition of power.  For instance, very few English speakers speak African languages even if they have been in Africa for decades or centuries. Many development workers from western countries have not read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe which uniquely lays bare the relationship between Africa and the West.

Creating words through literature is critical for development and this points to the importance of traducture. Translation should be a primary activity as it can help to build excitement and fun into international development.

Mike Powell, the Director of IKM Emergent Programme spoke about his programme’s thrust on critically analysing development as knowledge production:

Development is not caused by international aid but it happens all the time in societies.  We should strive to change reality and accelerate positive processes so that development becomes part of human development not an imposition on people. Numerous development organizations do participatory work, some engaged in genuine participation while in some cases participation is window dressing. As a development organization, you should feel bad if you realize that you have spent US$10 million in a rural area like Niassa but have never spoken directly to beneficiaries because you cannot speak their language.  This issue does not receive much attention as shown by the fact that many development agencies do not have a translation budget, yet it is so critical.

Knowledge has a vital role in underpinning human action.  We can only function through our knowledge. Any possibility of development should be enhanced through regaining confidence in local knowledge.  We should be suspicious of the North – South discourse which replicates colonial communication systems in which ideas flowed from the West to Africa.  African languages like Wolof and Hausa should effectively speak to each other.

Dr Mpalive Msiska, a lecturer at Birkbeck College in UK, picked up the conversation, mentioning that knowledge and development does not take place in a vacuum.  There is a context and history which includes colonialism.  Literature offers us metaphors for thinking about these issues:

In development people invent others in their own understanding.  On the other hand, post – colonial literature gives us a metaphor of thinking about development and provides a different type of dialogue.  Traducture suggests knowledge creation as a dialogue and this is one way we can dismantle assumptions that development knowledge should be pre-packaged.

Prof Kingo Mchombu from the University of Namibia concurred, adding that we need multi-dimensional perspectives as opposed to the current situation where development is seen as a transfer of knowledge by powerful agencies such as the World Bank.  Due to the colonial narrative that knowledge moves from those who know to those who do not know, indigenous knowledge is invisible because it is from the powerless who are often willing to ignore their knowledge in order to accept gifts from foreigners.

We have to forge new relationships between the so-called North and the South in order to reduce knowledge dependency.  Solutions are often there but ignored because they come from the poor.  Communities should be empowered to think of themselves as owners of solutions and problems.  Major questions we should answer include:  How can communities see themselves as graduates of community knowledge systems at the same level with graduates from Havard University and other prestigious knowledge centres?  How do we take pride in village knowledge?

Traducture is also a major issue in developed countries such as the United Kingdom.   Professor Amanda Hopkinson, an academic in Literary Translation, told participants that, London is the most cosmopolitan city in the world as shown by research conducted in 2004 which revealed that at least 342 languages were spoken in London.  The research showed that, after English, the most spoken languages were Portuguese and Yoruba. In the face of globalisation, mother tongues now have an elevated status in many countries and traducture has an important role to play.

A world renowned translator, Ross Schwartz highlighted the significance of translation:

To unlock a culture, you have to understand its untranslatable words. Translation is seeing the world through the eyes of others. When I lived in Paris, I spoke and lived in French.  The word ‘suburb’ means different things to English and Parisian people, for example. Translation functions as a cultural bridge that brings together experiences from diverse cultures.  However, translators need training if they are to realize their full communication potential.

A multidisciplinary practitioner, Gibril Faal, shared interesting ideas regarding Africans in the diaspora. Like the Wolof of Sene-Gambia, Africans in the diaspora are gripped by the fear of loss of bearings and imminent onset of destitution.  Among the Wolof of Sene-Gambia, there is a preoccupation with  Tumuranke (fear of loss of bearings and imminent onset of destitution).

In the new millennium, loss of relatives can be a very bad experience.  In the diaspora, we have put all our contacts in mobile phones such that if you suddenly lose your phone in central London, you lose all contact and become a Tumuranke. There is a joking relationship between the Wolof in which people share truths in their relationships.  Traducture can be highly illuminating in these circumstances.  People do not migrate to countries but to communities.  Translation can help us in finding our way through the world.

Hands –on course on translation

During the colloquium, Ross Schwartz conducted an informative hands-on workshop on translation where she began by saying that translation is a constant process of negotiation between authors and readers:

Language is about music. Translators should pay attention to the tension between the meaning of the words and the music of the language. Children love this music and that is why they find it easy to learn new languages.  A translator needs to juggle between precise meaning and music.  During translation, it is critical to look at rhythm, music and deep meaning.

The role of journals and peer review

With development no longer limited to economic fundamentals but gingerly moving towards people –centred approaches, participants briefly talked about the role of journals and peer review in the context of multiple knowledges.  Sarah Cummings shared experiences on the use of psychometric tools as a citation mechanism for top international journals used by academics:

Journals are often a silo of knowledge not accessible to development.  The South is marginalized against enormous dominance by Northern Institutions.

Sarah added that while journals have a specific agenda, they should be consciousness of what is happening around them.  According to Gibril, academic journals remain distinct beasts and the old patronage in peer reviewing of journals remains very strong with tenacious gatekeepers. Another issue is that policy makers do not read reference papers and journals. Efforts to move knowledge from these knowledge repositories have seen some academics becoming activists by night to try and gain influence.

Retracing the footsteps

Towards the end, the colloquium was marked by some potent reflection. Professor Mzamane:

We all have to try and deconstruct the political neutrality of translation. The colloquium has demonstrated the importance of epistemological democracy. Every village has a text if you want to listen.  Traducture is one of the vital strategies of realization.

According to Wangui,  the definition of traducture is evolving and will soon solidify  -contributing to the transformation of development work.

At the end, it was Gibril’s privilege to thank Wangui for initiating the colloquium which brought us in contact with elders of knowledge.  He recalled words from his great grandfather who had taught him that there are four types of elders: elders of wealth, elders of power, elders of age, and elders of knowledge.  The colloquium was indeed filled with elders of knowledge.

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