Monday, 26 August 2013

Power is lost in Translation

By Aghogho Akpome

THIS book is about South Africa's ongoing transformation and its Janus-faced paradoxes. Although identifying with those who believe that apartheid has not really ended, the author, Carli Coetzee - adjunct lecturer at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies - acknowledges that things are changing and progress has been made since 1994.
To hasten this prolonged "death" of apartheid, Coetzee makes a compelling argument in Accented Futures: Language Activism and the Ending of Apartheid (Wits University Press) for the active - or activist - surfacing and acknowledgement of differences, disagreements and inequalities during social interaction, but particularly in the processes of teaching and learning in higher education institutions.
She proposes a theory of "accented" discursive attitudes and practices whereby one is encouraged to gauge and engage with the other person's frames of reference - their history, their knowledge systems, their perspective - in a conscious and conscientious way.
Unlike some currently dominant practices that tend to gloss over apartheid's enduring legacies of inequality, ostensibly for |the politically correct goals of national unity, "accentedness", Coetzee argues, promises more productive outcomes for the transformation project.
For one, it doesn't "attempt to empty out the conflicts and violence" that official discourses often sweep "under the surface". Rather, an "accented" communicative approach both acknowledges, and validates the inequalities that have endured into the so-called "post"-apartheid dispensation.
This is envisaged as a means of accommodating the diversity of opinions and interests that have long existed in the country. "Accentedness" thus incorporates local contexts into the knowledge creation and transmission equation.
"Accentedness" would enable us - to paraphrase American writer Anais Nin - to see things more as they are, than as we are.

To elaborate on the inadequacies (indeed failures) of current discursive approaches to the ending of apartheid, Coetzee focuses on the practice of translation and the domain of scholarship in higher education, both of which she uses as the overarching trope of the ways in which knowledge production/transmission and socio-cultural exchanges in South Africa is skewed in ways that reflect and perpetuate historical and social inequalities.
Her idea of accentedness is therefore, in a sense, conceived as a response to enduring post-1994 inequalities and the powerful discourses that support them.
To demonstrate its applicability to various domains of social exchange, the book engages extensively with literature, the arts and English language. Coetzee's incisive critique reveals the crucial roles of these fields in the production and transmission of knowledge, and as significant forms of cultural expression, identity construction and social exchange in South Africa both prior to and after 1994.
This attempt to cover such an expansive disciplinary territory threatens the book's coherence. But it appears Coetzee succeeds in turning a potential weakness to strength by linking the different discussions together mainly through her arguments against translation, and also through her use of the university environment as a common setting for her arguments. That should not suggest that the book does not have loose ends. Indeed, the controversies it will generate are likely to yield more questions than the recommendations it offers.
For starters, her suggestion that Njabulo Ndebele is the leading intellectual in the country today is unlikely to go unchallenged. So also is the hint that several post-1994 |discourses by white South Africans tend to be "self-forgiving". And |of course there is the passionate argument she makes against |translation.
With a formidable case against the practices, purposes and outcomes of translation, Coetzee succeeds in rewriting the cliché, "lost in translation", as "lost, destroyed, obliterated, silenced because of translation". It's not a conviction many scholars and practitioners may share, but it is one that is very well argued in the book.
First, Coetzee acknowledges the stated noble intentions of translation as a means of achieving mutuality and one that is intent on contextualisation. But she then demonstrates convincingly how translation (textual, cultural, lingual) functioned as an effective colonial instrument of dominating other languages and cultures. She goes on to show how contemporary translation practices are shaped, and carried out, under the historically unequal relations between dominant languages/cultures and their assumed weaker counterparts.
She notes that in important official situations in South Africa, translation occurs in the direction (and in favour) of English, and as such English speakers can afford to remain monolingual and continue to benefit from "racially and linguistically determined privileges". And even when speakers of other languages are accommodated within English through various forms of translation, the relationship is always such that the others (their ideas, words and original meanings) never achieve equality with English but instead become absorbed into English. Thus, while translation appears, on the face of it, to work for mutuality, what it actually does is reinforce dominant languages and the weakening of others.
Another evil of translation, Coetzee explains, is how it is implicated in the rape and theft of indigenous forms of knowledge by modern forms of scholarship. Using aspects of the work of well-known curator of San art, Pippa Skotnes, as an illustration, Coetzee argues in chapter 6 of her book that modern scholarship has the disingenuous tendency of substituting the originality of indigenous knowledge with the research done on such knowledge. And although she recognises the good intentions and value of the kind of work that people like Skotnes do, Coetzee declares that what often happens is that: "The narrative of the visit to the cave comes to stand as an enactment of the first encounter - of finding, 'stumbling upon', the moment of origin. In order words, the description of the discovery and the find are the new original."
Despite Coetzee's polite address in this chapter, and indeed throughout the book, she makes the damning accusation that "South African scholarship is haunted by the spectre of forgery and theft, of copies that are placed where originals used to be".
And so, the book holds up "accentedness" as a form of activism and an alternative approach to social relations, with superior potentials for redressing the inequalities of apartheid.
If this sounds overly optimistic, it probably is.
For one thing, resistance and social activism tend to be more re-active than pro-active, making it almost impossible for the activist to determine the terms of engagement. Furthermore, the psychology of activism often focuses on rights (and the book does include the Freedom Charter on its last page), and almost always ignores the question of who will take responsibility for creating the conditions under which those rights can be guaranteed.
Which leads us to another question: Will apartheid social inequality ever end? As Coetzee probably knows, there's nothing |like knotty questions to keep a conversation going. - published August 11, 2013

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