EESE 1/1995 - 1

Tobias Döring (Freie Universität Berlin)

Translating Cultures? Towards a Rhetoric of Cross-Cultural Communication

This article addresses the process of cultural translation in the context of reading post-colonial literatures. Even though any act of reading may be understood as an act of translation, this is of particular relevance when, as in the present case, the process of meaningful construction involves a transfer across some cultural divide. Post-colonial writing in English, situated at the precarious intersection of European, Asian, African or Caribbean languages and discourses, is characterized by such divides, made up by multiform layers of meanings which constitute, to borrow Chantal Zabus' metaphor (1991), a "palimpsest" quality and call for an archaeology of reading. Post-colonial writing must therefore confront the problem of translation and work towards cross-cultural communication within the ruptures and continuities of its - and our - historical legacies. The same, in fact, holds TRUE for post-colonial reading, which can never proceed outside the forces of history (determining, among others, what texts are read and by whom) and which seems to offer particular challenges for us as First World readers of Third World texts. Again, our efforts, difficulties, or failures in making sense of such texts can be and must be understood as efforts, difficulties or failures in the translation of culture. Stressing the possibility of failure may not be unwarranted, for there can be little doubt of the dangers inherent in this attempt. Translating cultures, mediating between the various codes, crossing the boundaries of self-contained systems - this clearly is a venture fraught with difficulties. It is, in fact, commonplace to denounce the translator as traitor (cf. the Italian pun of traduttore/ traditore, or the German equivalents Übersetzer/ Überläufer). There seems to be a pervasive uneasiness with the function and activity of such go-betweens and their intervening agency, who would, ideally, erase their presence and become invisible. But they are often just

EESE 1/1995 - 2
as likely to make their presence felt and are hence accused of acting as get-betweens instead: the carrier of the cross-cultural message is accused of corrupting its meaning.

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:

EESE 1/1995 - 3
On the face of it there was no kind of logic or meaning in the song. But as Obi turned it round and round in his mind, he was struck by the wealth of association that even such a mediocre song could have. First of all it was unheard of for a man to seize his in-law and kill him. To the Ibo mind it was the height of treachery. Did not the elders say that a man's in-law was his chi, his personal god? Set against this was another great betrayal: a paddle that begins suddenly to talk in a language which its master, the fisherman, does not understand. In short then, Obi thought, the burden of the song was "the world turned upside down". He was pleased with his exegesis and began to search in his mind for other songs that could be given the same treatment. (Achebe 1987: 42)

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.

EESE 1/1995 - 4
What I am mainly interested in is the point that Obi's exegesis (with which he is so pleased) fails to acknowledge the part he plays himself in the betrayal evoked in the song. Even though he refers to traditional cultural meanings (cf. his reference to the Igbo elders and their understanding of chi), he is actively engaged in transferring them into English and thus into the very language that, in terms of the song, signifies disorder. As a competent speaker of that language he must be considered part of the "world turned upside down" - the Igbo world is being turned by his very activity of translating it. My point is that the translator must acknowledge this complicity and may not situate himself at a privileged position outside the field of contesting powers in which translation functions. One might well see the example as a warning that the invalidation of the traditional Igbo code of ethics is connected to the interference of English and that the process of translating culture may result in the breaking and falling apart of these cultures.


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

EESE 1/1995 - 5
display frequent movements of their eye-lids but perform totally different cultural acts: The eye of the first one is merely twitching - a physical phenomenon outside the cultural text; the second one is winking, i.e. giving a signal to someone, intending to convey some kind of message - a semiotic activity within the cultural framework of shared and contested meanings; while the third one is neither twitching nor winking, but making a parody of someone who winks, i.e. intending to convey a message about the - failing - intention of conveying messages, cf. Geertz 1986: 7)

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:

In this discursive, rather than essentialist paradigm Clifford then sketches the outlines of a cultural poetics and a cultural rhetorics that forms an interplay of voices and positioned utterances (1986: 12). To speak of rhetorics in this context means to consider the repertoire of topoi and tropes which are available for anyone trying to engage in cultural activity and especially for anyone trying to interpret or translate cultural meanings. This, of course, applies not only to First World interpreters of Third World texts. The example even from Achebe's novel which I just discussed provides an interesting case in point: Obi thinks "the burden of the song was 'the world turned upside down'." This expression, highlighted in the text by quotation marks, is a commonplace, a rhetorical topos, familiar from the Classics, where it is called

EESE 1/1995 - 6
mundus inversus and where it functions to valorize or invalidate contending descriptions of the world. The evocation of disorder and complete reversal of what is deemed to be the "natural" hierarchy serves to privilege and stabilize one's own version of the prevailing order. Furthermore, this rhetorical topos, so readily available to the interpreter here, is also invariably employed in colonial literature. "The world turned upside down" is a familiar fantasy of the imperial mind about the dark places of Africa, where the mechanisms of rational control must break down (as demonstrated, for instance, in Joyce Cary's The African Witch, 1936).

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.

EESE 1/1995 - 7


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

EESE 1/1995 - 8
metonomy which operate in post-colonial writing. Note that the topos of mundus inversus in the above example appears in a post-colonial text and context where it is thus subjected to re-interpretations and re-evaluations of various kinds. I am interested in such cross-overs: How are the colonial topoi framed and turned by post-colonial contexts? What tropes (which, literally, translates as "turn-abouts") are functional in a literature which, because of its linguistic and historical background, begins to operate within the cartography of Empire but which, because of its cultural and political imperative, is crossing these boundaries and redefines them?

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

EESE 1/1995 - 9
restructure the one-sidedness, the ideological and rhetorical fabrication of discourse. It is crucial that we view this process as a sustained and sustainable effort to resist closure, i.e. that we valorize the function of the intervening messenger as a productive one precisely because the translator betrays the offical "truth". Only then are we no longer bound to the rhetoric of authenticity but can engage in the rhetoric of appropriateness and appropriation.

Another short example from Achebe, this time from his first novel Things Fall Apart (1958), should illustrate this point:

This calculated mis-translation may finally, without further comment, show why I think it necessary to transform the concept of translation. The self-positioning of the translator figure here and the way in which he conducts the dialogue across the cultural and political divide, point ot the conclusion that the risk involved in the translation of cultures is a risk worth taking if we are to engage in dialogue at all and resist the power of closure. We must valorize the translator's work, precisely because the go-between invariably acts as a get-between. As Salman Rushdie writes: "It is normally suppose that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained." (Rushdie 1991: 17) These gains are, I think, traces of a transcultural space - a space which can never be defined with finality, but only traced, retraced and revised in the ongoing process of cross-cultural communication.

EESE 1/1995 - 10

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.