• Keith Phetlhe
  • Department of African Literature and Film Studies, Ohio University
  • Abstract Title: Decolonization Nightmare?: Revisiting Anthropological and Missionary Colonial Translations of African Literature in Southern Africa

Bio: Keith Phetlhe is a poet, translator, educator, and researcher from Botswana. His recent publication is Botlhodi: The Abomination, a translation of a postcolonial Setswana novel. He is the co-editor of an upcoming multilingual poetry anthology Harvested Requiems. His upcoming Setswana novel is Moswelatebele, also a translation. He currently studies at Ohio University where he pursues a Ph.D. in African Literature and Film Studies. His research interests are critical theory and translation, postcolonial theory, creative writing, African Languages and Literatures.

Abstract: Translators and literary practitioners in postcolonial Africa continually encounter challenges in their efforts to decolonize cultural productions, which has led to further marginalization of literary translations from Southern Africa. This challenge is due to the dominance of the European languages spoken in the region that spread their colonial cultural aesthetics and suppressed, silenced, or destabilized the cultural narratives and languages of the former colonies. Translation practice was among the tools that were used by anthropologists and missionaries to suppress and further marginalize the literatures of minority ethnic groups in most regions in Southern Africa. These colonial translations were carried out by anthropologists who ‘sought’ to understand the African cultures and by the missionaries whose agenda was to spread Christianity. These political contexts of translation practice overlooked the application of relevant translational methods despite their debilitating effects on regional and ethnic literatures. By focusing on the analysis of translations by social anthropologist Isaac Schapera (including other Christian missionaries and commentators such as David Livingstone), I argue that Schapera’s translations depicted colonial attitude in the way they suppressed Setswana literature by textual appropriation and assimilation. The religious translations, on the other hand, were designed to delineate content that vilified Setswana culture, although widely used and consumed by the African societies. As a result, the task of decolonizing Southern African literatures such as Setswana remains a challenging ‘nightmare’ to translators because such works have been in circulation for a long time and espoused by critics as authoritative texts. This paper uses a blend of postcolonial and translation theories to advance an argument of what interventions must be put in place to undo the effects of subtle racism and reductionism inherent in the ethnographic translations by colonial missionaries and anthropologists to ensure diversity of local voices and languages. In their quest to produce such translations, it is clear that they were not concerned about empowering the narratives of the colonized but capitalized on their disempowerment. The intimidating question, therefore, is, how can we, as critics and scholars of translation, use these 'venomous' translations to prepare culturally relevant and empowering translations?

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