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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 76-87

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Senghor's Prefaces between the Colonial and the Postcolonial

Richard Watts

Voilà quelque cent cinquante ans que les blancs s'intéressent à la littérature des nègres d'Afrique, qu'ils dissertent sur elle, comme l'abbé Grégoire, ou qu'ils en donnent des traductions, comme Blaise Cendrars. Mais voilà que les Négro-africains de langue française veulent eux-mêmes manifester cette littérature, et ils se présentent en traducteurs le plus souvent.

Over the last one hundred and fifty years or so, whites have expressed their interest in Black African literature, whether in critical essays such as Abbé Grégoire's or in translations such as Blaise Cendrars's. But now francophone Black Africans want to present this literature themselves, and they do so most often by serving as its translators.

—Léopold Sédar Senghor, Preface, "D'Amadou Koumba à Birago Diop" 7

In the discursive field of francophone "colonized" and postcolonial literatures, the paratext—the book covers, illustrations, epigraphs, and, in particular, prefaces that surround the text—has a varied if somewhat checkered history. Used principally for indicating colonial approval of and control over a text in the early years of the literatures produced by so-called indigenous or colonized writers in the French empire, 1 it later became in the hands of postcolonial writers such as Assia Djebar, Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, Werewere Liking, and Henri Lopes a space for signifying a break with colonial models of literary patronage. In the colonial and postcolonial contexts, the paratext is always about more than the promotion of literature. All paratexts inscribe the texts to which they are attached in particular discursive fields, but the paratexts to works produced in the colonial and postcolonial context do so in a way that renders the political use of the novel explicit.

If the paratext in this literary field is always about more than the promotion of literature, it is not simply an instrument for expressing a politics (e.g., for or against French colonialism). The paratext has an underlying function, intralingual cultural translation, that is, in fact, closely related to its more explicitly political function. The paratext to colonized and postcolonial literatures translates—in a metaphorical sense—the text in abbreviated textual form (prefaces, dedications, dust jacket copy, etc.) as well as in iconic form (cover art). This gives readers who might not otherwise be immediately able to "read" the text's cultural difference access to it. This makes the text, lest we forget the commercial imperatives of the paratext, a more approachable and desirable commodity. Translation, a central trope of postcolonial studies, is the mechanism by which the unknown becomes known and the unknowable becomes knowable, and it is precisely this [End Page 76] operation that the paratext effects. Although Léopold Sédar Senghor is describing the work of Birago Diop in the epigraph above, he could very well have been talking about his own practice as preface writer. When colonized writers begin writing prefaces for the works of writers who share the same subject position, they become the translators of this literature for its largely metropolitan French readership.

The politics expressed by the paratext and the form of translation of the text it performs are intimately linked. For instance, the "colonizing" paratext of the 1930s and 1940s presents political positions that are pro-colonial and evinces, not coincidentally, a highly adaptive form of translation. In the earliest production of francophone literature, the paratext translates the difference of the work in question by presenting it in terms easily assimilated by a metropolitan French readership. The paratext exists in this context (as does the colonizer, for that matter) to render, as Horace put it, the Ogre Roman. For translation theorist Antoine Berman, this dominant mode of translation is ethnocentric (it subordinates the text's values to its own), hypertextual (it positions itself above the text), and Platonic (it privileges the ostensibly universal meaning of the text over its particular form of expression) (26). The subversive, disruptive...


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