The decolonial assignment of cultural translation

03 Jul, 2022 - 00:07 0 Views
The decolonial assignment of cultural translation

The Sunday News

To colonise was easy. To decolonise is never going to be easy. Colonisers only needed evil hearts, greedy minds, capacity for deception, and superior weapons to conquer and dominate the natives. 

Decolonists need love, intelligence and great patience and energy to do their work which includes not revenging the crimes of conquest. The task of unmasking, challenging and undoing the violent effects of enslavement and colonisation in Africa is not a simple one. It is a task so complicated that those who are charged with carrying it out, and are intellectually and politically equipped to do so, may not be easily agreed on the Leninian question of “what is to be done” and how it is to be done. 

There is difficulty even to find consensus amongst the enlightened on what coloniality, the residues of colonialism, are in Africa. To establish what colonialism imposed on us and what it took away from our cultures and heritages is not as easy as it might look to the naked eye of the mind. What remains easy to see for many of us are what have been called the “gifts of colonialism.”

Hellen Zille

There are many interlocutors out there who when decoloniality is mentioned speedily demand that we remember to be grateful for the political and cultural benefits that colonialism gifted us with. These celebrants and apologists of colonialism come from different directions and dimensions of thought. Some of them are those guilty fellows who participated in advancing colonialism, or their ancestors did. An example of one of these would be Hellen Zille who once told South Africans that were protesting racism to be grateful for the trains, running water, and telephone lines that the apartheid administration provided.

Others are those who benefitted politically and materially from the crime against humanity of colonialism and have become blind to the baptismal truth of justice that all the so-called benefits of colonialism to the colonised may have been given and received without the need for Africans to be conquered, dominated and oppressed; and their labour and natural resources stolen. It is not divine wisdom that any people should be punished before they receive development, modernisation and democratisation. 

The other apologists and celebrants of colonialism are the usual contractors to “lazy reason” and tragic amnesia who believe that colonialism was an event in the past and we all should now be done thinking and talking about it. This is as if colonialism itself is done with us.

Recovering the lost causes

Writing about Palestinians and the political and cultural losses that they have suffered in time; Edward Said mentioned what he called “lost causes” that must be recovered no matter the difficulties that might be on the way. One such lost cause was Palestinian cultural identity. The lost causes might appear to be impossible to salvage and to recover but that is when heroic activism is called upon. Closer to home here the colonialists vanquished a thriving Kingdom and unsettled a dynamic culture and languages. They created, ruled and divided a country, and monopolised land and other resources. Some of the losses may appear too impossible to even think of and how reparations can be won. It has been one of the successes of colonialism throughout the world that its victims tend to believe that what the colonisers have done can never be undone. I have always given the example of colonial borders. The borders that colonialists created for Africans have become so normal and natural that Africans, including the most radical leaders, cannot even consider thinking or talking about undoing them. It is, perhaps, the task of deep decolonial thinking and activism to ponder on recovering the lost causes, what colonialism took away, which now appears impossible to recover. And that which colonialism built which now looks normal and natural when it is a crime. 

Globalising the local and localising the global

In his keynote address before the Horizonte Festival, West Berlin, on 22 June 1979, Chinua Achebe pointed out to the “impediments to Dialogue between North and South,” referring to the lack of dialogue and genuine cultural exchange between the Global North and the Global South. The Global South was colonially interested in imposing its politics, culture and monologue on the Global South, Achebe cried.

Chinua Achebe

In his work which he carried out as part of writing back to Empire, Achebe deliberately took the English language, twisted it, and injected it with Igbo proverbs and aphorisms, and then threw it back at the British, and they loved and feared the assault. Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s 1958 classic novel is an Igbo story that is written in the English language. Achebe’s decolonial approach to colonial languages, different from Ngugi wa Thiongo, was to domesticate the colonial English language and use it to speak back to colonialism. Ngugi preferred to escape to his mother tongue, Kikuyu. But as soon as he did that, he realised that his great stories could now only be read by his fellow villagers only and not even people from other villages in Kenya. In other words, his radicalism had quickly turned him into a nativist that was to be lost even to other Africans in the villages of Kenya, in other African countries and the Globe. 

Ngugi nearly lost his pride of place as a titanic African decolonial philosopher and became Kikuyu nativist. I am glad he quickly corrected himself by translating his stories from Kikuyu to the English language. In 2016, in the collection of essays; Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, Ngugi effectively rescued himself from the club of nativists and restored himself to the decolonial archive and its canons. Decoloniality is not simplistically the rejection of colonial knowledges, languages, theories and philosophies. It is also about, as Achebe did, knowing how to appropriate colonial languages and using them for decolonial and liberatory policies. Yes, decoloniality can be about globalising the local and localising the global, that is part of the message Ngugi circulates in Globalectics. 

A Decolonial dream of cultural translation

One of the few things I boast about in my life is my monstrous library that I have built over a period of 30 years. It is a forest where someone may be lost and never be found, I always guess. One of my daughters that I suspect to be a successionist has created employment for herself identifying those books of which I have more than one copy of each title and is building a separate shelf for the extra-copies. It is my hope she is not planning an auction behind my back. One among many is a shelf of Ndebele/Zulu novels, and poetry collections. Such titles as Umhlaba Umangele by N.S Siggogo, Umbiko KaMadlenya by Mayford Sibanda, and Umaweni by the recently deceased Isaac Nyandeni Mpofu. I can only mention the classics, and not all of them in this short article.

The late Ndabezinhle Sigogo

My observation as I run my eyes on this collection has always been that there is an assignment for committed linguists, creative writers and other scholars that can translate some of these classics to the English language one day. The stories, in these classics, can become global narratives that will take local culture and history to the proverbial ends of the earth, and get into dialogue with classics of English literature that were imposed on us and our cultural universe. As it is, these works of great imagination and historical record remain frozen not just in bookshelves of collectors but also in the native language of the writers, inaccessible to the greater world. Some of the classics, that are actually cultural and historical treasures, are already film scripts that only need translators, producers and actors. I can throw a guess that if anyone was to translate Pheneas Ngobiwa Mkandla’s: Abeseguswini leZomthamlilo, the folktales, into English and render it in film; children of the world might access another universe of education and entertainment never seen before, bigger than Peppa Pig, in form, content and value. 

Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from Gezina, Pretoria, in South Africa. Contacts: [email protected] .

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