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  • On TranslationBetween Postcolonialism and the Global Humanities
  • Simona Bertacco (bio)

Postcolonial writing, translational texts, reading, global humanities, Dionne Brand, Tomson Highway

Words are not proper and don’t stay put; they wander into adjacent language fields, get lost in translation, pick up ticks from foreign interference, and so can’t quite mean what they say. Teaching bilinguals about deconstruction is almost redundant.

—Doris Sommer (2003, 2)

I. Introduction

My daughter speaks without rolling her “R” and replaces this sound with a voiced labiodental fricative <v>. While this hardly affects her when she speaks English, it is much more evident when she speaks Italian. She says “amo<v>e” instead of “amo<r>e” (for love) and, within the entire Italian extended family and group of friends, we have all started using (and writing) “AmoVe” for “sweetheart” when Ada is part of the conversation. It is clearly a term of endearment, an idiolect turned into a family-lect, and it expresses the affection [End Page 177] we feel toward this little girl. By mispronouncing the word, we are conjuring a way of speaking and, in the case of those of us who can roll their “R” but choose not to, we are intentionally marking our usage by carrying over a “trace” of a different experience.

This private anecdote allows me a point of entrance into the debate on the role of translation in the global humanities in which we are engaging, from many different perspectives, in this issue. Breaking the pattern of what is expected, making another language palpable to your listeners or your readers, playing or struggling with the ambiguity that the space between languages allows are all very common experiences to “foreigners” of any time and place and qualify the interlanguage that they speak, marked as it is by the process of translation. When this happens in literary and cultural texts more in general, things start getting a little complicated, as in our role as critical and informed readers, we are expected to access the protocols of the text vis-à-vis the—generally monolingual—national tradition in which the text is inserted, the parameters of taste it is supposed to measure against, and the meaningfulness it has or may have for its audience. If the text is written by an author coming from one of the former colonies of the European nations, things become even fuzzier, as the postcolonial literary text is commonly assessed and accessed more for its social and political content, its aesthetic component set aside as secondary or not essential to the communication of its message. And that’s where the problem I wish to explore arises and where I turn to translation, both as a process and as a scholarly field, for help.

Postcolonial writers, Bill Ashcroft writes, “face in two directions. The decision [they make] is not just how to write between languages, but how to make language perform this bearing across within itself” (Ashcroft 2014, 17): how to make the language that they use be—to borrow translation studies terminology—both source and target. A careful examination of postcolonial writing actually reveals the richness and inventiveness with which colonial languages have been and are being used by writers. In fact, one lesson that postcolonial writing, read through a translational lens, teaches us is that the notion that our cultural identity is hardwired into our language cannot hold; if this were true, we could not exist as “translated people,” as Salman Rushdie famously put it, and the very existence of postcolonial literatures, that is, [End Page 178] literatures written mostly—not exclusively—in former colonial languages, would be at stake. In the following pages, I will bring together the two main disciplines informing my research, translation studies and its emphasis on translatability, and postcolonial studies with its emphasis on untranslatability, to discuss the importance of translation for the humanities in the twenty-first century.

At the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) convention in Boston in 2013, Princeton University professor and award-winning French into English translator David Bellos delivered the critical keynote lecture on the centrality of translation in the history of human civilizations. The creative keynote, instead, was given by...


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