This, however, is a highly problematic view I would like to contest on grounds of its underlying assumptions. To talk of corruption presupposes some kind of purity, some belief in cultural authenticity prior to the process of translation. It is this concept of culture which needs to be revised to prepare the ground for engaging in the study of post-colonial texts. I shall proceed in three steps: I will first biefly discuss an example in order to illustrate a characteristic shortcoming in the self-positioning of the translator. I will secondly sketch a rhetorical, constructivist concept of culture which makes a virtue of the necessity of translation, and will finally argue for a revised understanding of the translation process (with reference to another short example) foregrounding the potentials rather than the problematics of this concept.
The first example comes from No Longer At Ease, Chinua Achebe's second novel (1960), in which the central protagonist, Obi, is a British educated Nigerian who now returns to his native Igbo village for the first time. This is what he encounters on the way:
Obi is a student of literature, a reader and interpreter of texts. I shall not consider the details of his fictional character nor the functions they have in the novel, but simply avail myself of this figure to highlight the process of translating cultures in which he here engages. In a way, his reconstruction of the Igbo song across the barrier of the English language might be seen as prefiguring the operation of European readers when interpreting or translating non-European (i.e. Nigerian) post-colonial texts. Significantly, what first emerges from Obi's translation is the fact that the song is itself concerned with the problematical crossing of boundaries and allegiances, that is, with treachery and betrayal. And English seems to play a key role in this process: "...another great betrayal: the paddle that begins suddenly to speak in a language which its master ... does not understand." This is the ultimate image of disorder: the master is losing control over his own instrument, which suddenly refuses service and talks back to him in English. This, however, is also the language of Achebe's novel in which all communication is rendered, even for Igbo characters whose words are being translated.
This, however, is too negative a view of translation, too closely related to the essentialist concept referred to above which ignores the make-up and constructedness of what we call culture. Let me therefore refer to the semiotic view, which understands culture as a textual construct, or more precisely, as a complex of interpenetrating texts, composed of seriously contested codes and representations (cf. Clifford 1986: 2) and always sematically loaded, because always inherently concerned with the transfer of meaning and the reconstruction of sense. This view has been developed in the social sciences and put forward by American anthropologists and ethnographers, most prominently Clifford Geertz and James Clifford, who through their (often problematical) professional activities work as readers and writers, as interpreters and translators of cultures. (As an example of what cultural writing, if it is to proceed on this semiotic basis, must be able to achieve, Geertz cites the case of three boys who all
For me, what is crucial about this semiotic understanding is the point that culture is already inherently made up of representations, committed and incomplete. All cultural descriptions are therefore, as Clifford puts it, necessarily "partial truths" (Clifford 1986: 7), inevitably slanted in a partisan direction. There is no way of getting at the "complete truth" behind these texts:
Again, the example is simply used here to illustrate a general point: that the process of translation and interpretation operates by drawing on a repertoire of rhetorical devices, i.e. topoi and tropes, as prefabricated elements of representation remembered in a culture and indispensible for the production of meaning. But as the semiotic framework outlined above insists, these elements are also functional in intracultural communication. If, as Clifford argues, the very make-up of culture is an interplay and interpenetration of "partial truths", this is the case precisely because these truths are constructed by means of various topoi and tropes which always already interpret, order and represent the world in a specific way. We cannot get around them, for we cannot exit rhetorics; we can only redefine, restructure and reinvent the given rhetorical representations. The partial truths of culture therefore result from the rhetorical truths of such figures in thought and speech. The semiotic basis of rhetorics thus offers a theoretical and methodological framework for the study of cultural and transcultural configurations, of discursive and intertextual strategies - especially within the field of post-colonial literatures. In my third and final part I shall try to give an outline of this field with reference to my own current research topic.
The brief reference above to the topos of mundus inversus, which lies at the heart of so much of the colonial writing on Africa, must suffice here to support my general claim that the literature of Empire can be read as a vast body of rhetoric, as a topography of the world structured by and rendered in the partial truths produced and disseminated by the hegemonic powers. The partiality of their topography is, of course, at the same time concealed as it is being constructed: by yet another rhetorical turn, the imperial description tries to establish itself as the only adequate description possible - just as rhetoric always denies its own operations. I am surely making a sweeping generalization here, but there is ample evidence in the critical literature produced on this topic to corroborate the following three points: that the rhetoric of Empire has produced a comprehensive text of cultural domination with constant translation into political practice; that this rhetoric manifests itself in classical anthropology and ethnographic writing no less than in colonial fiction and administrative texts; and that the rhetorical construction of all these texts invariably tries to mask itself as the only objective description available, thereby ideologically hiding its very partiality. (The most comprehensive study of this ideology is, of course, Said's Orientalism, 1978, which explicitly refers to concepts of rhetoric.)
My interest, however, lies not in yet another critical reconstruction of imperial rhetoric, but in analysing what happens to the topoi of Empire in the post-imperial/ post-colonial literature and culture of our time. Putting the stress of "post" does not, for me, imply a denial of the continuing power and existence of colonial structures in today's world; what it does is to insert the difference - the rhetorical and cultural difference into the inescapable historical continuities of the textual constructions we are dealing with in the new anglophone literatures. In my research project I focus on what may be called the arts of resistance, trying to analyze how, within the given system of colonial writing, i.e. within the inherited rhetorical topography of Empire, spaces for a dissenting culture can be defined and sustained by a process of cultural translation and re-translation. This process is itself rhetorically structured, for when we talk about strategies of resistance we are, I maintain, talking about strategies of irony and
Methodologically I am here drawing on the concept of "hidden transcripts" - i.e. the subversive subtexts and the secret meanings between the fissures of hegemonic discourse - which has been developed by the sociologist and sociolinguist James D. Scott (1990). In his Domination and the Arts of Resistance he shows (in a rather different context) how the rhetoric of domination is constantly undercut by a rhetorical strategy on part of the dominated, who mask and hide their own communication by echoing, citing and partly reproducing the rhetoric of those who are in power and their "official transcript". These communicative masks, most prominently irony and ironic repetition, help to establish a site of resistance at the back of the powerful (Scott uses a theatrical model: the hidden transcripts are acted out backstage) which can only be penetrated, read or translated by those who cross the boundaries of the officially defined field of interaction. Trickster-like, Anancy-like, they exploit the partiality of the ruling rhetoric by ostensibly conforming to it while at the same time covertly violating it and moving beyond. This is, I contend, what happens in post-colonial rewritings of the perpetuated European models, and this is why I think it necessary, for any productive inquiry into this field, to work with a revised understanding of cultural translation. Which brings me back to my initial point and to the conclusion of this article. Only for those who conceal their partiality with a comprehensive rhetoric of Empire, the figure of the translator must appear as a traitor, because the reconfiguration which takes place in the translation process must also reveal and
Another short example from Achebe, this time from his first novel Things Fall Apart (1958), should illustrate this point:
Achebe, Chinua (1976). Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann.
Achebe, Chinua (1987). No Longer At Ease. London: Heinemann.
Clifford, James (1986). "Partial Truths", in: James Clifford and George E. Marcus (eds.): Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1-29.
Geertz, Clifford (1987). Dichte Beschreibung. Beiträge zum Verstehen kultureller Systeme. (Transl. B. Luchesi & R. Bindemann). Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.
Rushdie, Salman (1991). Imaginary Homelands. London: Granta.
Scott, James D. (1990). Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale UP.
Zabus, Chantal (1991). The African Palimpsest. Amsterdam: Rodopi.