A Multi-Centred Globe - Translation as the Language of Languages

By Thiong'o, Ngugi Wa | Cross / Cultures, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Multi-Centred Globe - Translation as the Language of Languages


Thiong'o, Ngugi Wa, Cross / Cultures


To claim that the subject is itself produced in and as a gendered matrix of relations is not to do away with the subject, but only to ask after the conditions of its emergence and operation

there is an 'outside' to what is constructed by discourse, but this is not an absolute 'outside'

a return to the notion of matter, not as a site or surface, but as a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter1

What is at stake is [...] the means by which social interaction shapes biology2

LITERATURE FOR OUR TIMES? IT THEREFORE BEHOOVES US TO LOOK AT what characterizes our times. Looming large over that character is globalization, whose speed and sheer magnitude are generating tensions between peoples, cultures, and regions. In that context, we do need a language that can bring colours and languages together, and that language, in my view, now has a name: Translation.

In my book Moving the Centre, I have argued for a multiplicity of centres from which to view the world, the real question being only the relationship between them, meaning a move away from a nation-centric or regio-centric (e.g., eurocentric) view of the Universe to a genuinely multi-centric vision of the same. What I did not argue about was the centrality of translation in this visionary dream.

In emphasizing translation and its role in bridging cultures, we are not saying anything new, and in a sense we are drawing attention to what already 'is'. Translation is part of the everyday and sometimes we are not even aware of how much it is part of our lives.

The first book I ever read as a newly literate way back in the late 1940s was a torn copy of stories culled from the Old Testament. It was in Gikuyu, my mother tongue, and it was only years later that I learnt that it was a translation put together by Christian missionaries. The translation was almost certainly from the English-language Bible, itself a translation from the Greek and Hebrew originals, themselves translations from the many tongues, Aramaic included, that the various biblical characters must have spoken in real historical life. So the founding text of my literate culture was a translation of a translation of several translations. Not that I was aware of it, but even if I had been, it would not have worried me in the least. I found the stories interesting and my only concern was the fact that the pages were literally falling apart. I was happy when, years later, I was able to own a copy of the whole Bible, again in Gikuyu.

The Bible as a translation is the founding text of Gikuyu-language prose, and it has played a similar role in many literary national traditions. The entire Christian world community is able to realize itself through translations, as I am sure the Muslim world is through its Qur'an translations. Not just literary and religious but also social, and it is not too far-fetched to say that even human society, religious or not, is itself founded on the practice of translation.

In The German Ideology, young Marx and Engels see the entire but complex process by which humans act on nature to produce their means of life as a language, what they call the language of real life, meaning the practice by which humans take from the language of nature and put that learning to their own use, thus putting knowledge from one environment, in this case, the natural, in terms of another, the nurtural.

Humans are from nature like plants, animals, air, ecology, and yet they stand outside it, as it were, act on it and reproduce themselves and give rise to processes that are clearly not identical with the nature of which they are a part. And yet, what humans have achieved is a translation of the various aspects of nature. The most wonderful technology is a translation, and then extension, of the human hand. The furthest-seeing telescope is a translation, hence extension, of the eye. So also are the speediest vehicle, rockets, and space-ships, for instance, which are a translation, hence an extension, of the leg. …

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