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Chapter 5 The Translation of Cultures ENGENDERING YORUBA LANGUAGE, ORATURE, AND WORLD-SENSE Our [Yoruba]translators in their zeal to find a word expressing the English idea of sex rather than age, coined the... words arakonrin, i.e., the male relative; arabinrin, the female relative; these words have always to be explained to the pure but illiterate Yoruba man. — SAMUEL JOHNSON, The History of the Yorubds Our [i.e., English] common stock of words embodies all distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connections they have found worth marking, in the lifetimes of many generations. —JOHN LANGSHAW AUSTIN, Philosophical Papers HE PRECEDING CHAPTERS have repeatedly demonstrated that at many levels, questions of language and translation are central to this study.1 Western feminist theorists have underscored the importance of language in the construction of gender. In the Englishspeaking West, feminists have shown the connections between the male-centeredness of the language and women's secondary status in their societies.2 Language is a social institution and at the level of the individual affects social behavior. A people's language reflects their patterns of social interactions, lines of status, interests, and obsessions. That much is apparent in the above epigraph by Austin; if English makes much of gender differences, it is because these are the distinctions that the society found worth drawing. If Yoruba society did not make gender distinctions and instead made age distinctions, as the Johnson quote suggests it did, then for the Yoruba, the age distinctions were the ones worth drawing, at least until the British showed up on our doorstep. It is significant that in spite of the fact that Johnson was conscious of Yoruba non-gender-specificity, his reference to the Yoruba man in his example, rather than a non-gender-specific Yoruba person, could be read as the 157 T 158 The Translation of Cultures privileging of the male, as in Austin's usage of the English word "men." (Feminist linguists have argued convincingly that the so-called generic use of "man" in English is not actually generic but one more way of promoting the male as norm through language.)3 The question that this raises is this: In a milieu in which these two interacting languages — Yoruba and English — articulate different cultural values, how do we distinguish the Yoruba gender-freeness from the English male-as-norm in the speech and writing of Yoruba bilinguals? This question is of special significance when we look at literature and cultural translation. Richard Gilman, writing on the importance of language in society, summarizes the relationship between language and gender: The nature of most languages tells us more about the hierarchical structure of male-female relationships than all the physical horror stories that could be compiled That our language [English] employs the words man and mankind as terms for the whole human race demonstrates that male dominance, the idea of masculine superiority , is perennial, institutional, and rooted at the deepest level of our historical experience.4 It is not surprising, therefore, that in a society where gender is a primary organizing principle, gender distinctions are reflected in the language. As I have shown in chapter 2, Yoruba is a non-gender-specific language : Yoruba names and pronouns do not make gender distinctions. The third-person pronouns 6 and won are used for both males and females ; the former is used in reference to a person who is in a junior or equal position to the speaker; the latter, the formal pronoun, is used for older persons and those of a higher status. The absence of genderspecific categories in the language is a reflection of the degree to which sex differences in Yorubaland do not form the basis of social categories. Therefore, the lack of Yoruba words translatable as the English "son," "daughter," "brother," or "sister" reflects the absence of social roles based on such gendered kinship terms. The word omo is used to refer to male and female offspring. Egbon and aburo are the words denoting siblings , regardless of sex, the distinction being between younger and older siblings. It is seniority that is linguistically coded in Yoruba. Yet Yoruba and English have been in close contact over the last one hundred and fifty years. Because of colonization and the imposition of English as the lingua franca of Nigeria, many Yorubas are now bilingual . The impact of English on Yoruba continues to be felt through loanwords, translation of Yoruba culture into English, and the adoption of Western values...


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