The role of missionary translation in African colonial politics

Authored by: Esther Ruth Liu

The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Politics

Print publication date:  April  2018
Online publication date:  April  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138657564
eBook ISBN: 9781315621289
Adobe ISBN:


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Chantal Gagnon defines a text as political ‘if it involves power or resistance’, or if it ‘contain[s] some form of power struggle’ (Gagnon 2010: 252). Translation, then, is arguably always political, for it ‘always implies an unstable balance between the power one culture can exert over another’ (Álvarez and Vidal 1996: 4). Indeed, in translation, even apparently ‘neutral’ actions, such as the choice of text, of each ‘equivalent’ word, and even of language, are highly political. As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o asserts, ‘The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe’ (Ngũgĩ 1994: 4). Beyond its implication in politics and ideology, translation is also an active engagement with politics. According to Christiane Nord, ‘translation is an intentional interaction intending to change an existing state of affairs’ (Nord 1997: 19) and as such translation is charged with the translator’s personal politics as well as those of the commissioner and/or editor. Furthermore, translation is never far from the public realm of politics as people interact and communicate within communities and nations. Translation is common in political broadcasts and publications as local and regional politics inevitably touch national and international relations. This chapter covers all of these aspects of the political in translation. In considering the role of colonial missionary translations in African politics we will see the missionaries engaging with politics via translation, the inevitable political ramifications of missionary translations, and the intentional use of missionary translations for political change.

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