Mean­ing­ful or cer­e­mo­nial?

The trans­la­tion of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture in Africa pri­mar­ily ful­fils a cer­e­mo­nial and diplo­matic func­tion

African Independent - - BOOKS - CATHER­INE GIL­BERT

SINO-AFRICAN re­la­tions have gar­nered a great deal of pub­lic in­ter­est over the past few decades. Commentary tends to fo­cus on trade, eco­nomic in­vest­ment and aid, and is of­ten neg­a­tive in tone.

Based on in­ter­views I con­ducted in Benin early last year, cul­ture is per­ceived as the most pos­i­tive as­pect of the re­la­tion­ship.

Cul­tural ex­change is a cru­cial do­main of in­ter­ac­tion, and one in which China is in­vest­ing heav­ily.

China has a grow­ing am­bi­tion to be­come a ma­jor world cul­tural power and to com­pete with Western cul­tural in­flu­ence.

If China aims to counter the cul­tural hege­mony of the West, the trans­la­tion and ex­port­ing of its lit­er­a­ture plays a vi­tal role.

The ex­port of its cul­tural prod­ucts is key if China is to gain vis­i­bil­ity on the global stage.

In 2006, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment an­nounced a strate­gic five-year plan for cul­tural de­vel­op­ment. Nu­mer­ous projects were launched to pro­mote China’s pub­li­ca­tion ex­ports. The most well known of these is the China Book In­ter­na­tional pro­gramme. This is spon­sored by the gov­ern­ment to sell its printed me­dia abroad.

As Chi­nese scholar Li Mingjiang has ob­served, the dis­tri­bu­tion of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture abroad is a tool for “cul­ti­vat­ing a bet­ter im­age of China” and “cor­rect­ing for­eign mis­per­cep­tions”.

To un­der­stand the dy­nam­ics of Sino-African cul­tural ex­changes bet­ter, we did a sur­vey of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture avail­able in trans­la­tion across Africa.

The re­sults are far from ex­haus­tive. They sug­gest that the strat­egy has had lim­ited suc­cess. But they also high­light iso­lated cases that ex­em­plify the po­ten­tial for mu­tual en­rich­ment.

The re­search sug­gests that the trans­la­tion of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture in Africa pri­mar­ily ful­fils a cer­e­mo­nial and diplo­matic func­tion. The cer­e­monies around book do­na­tions to African li­braries are key ex­am­ples. Much more needs to be done to gen­er­ate mean­ing­ful cul­tural in­ter­ac­tion and ex­change.

A great deal of trans­lated Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture comes from pub­lish­ing houses in France, the UK and the US, and not di­rectly from China. The avail­able lit­er­a­ture is there­fore gen­er­ally in Euro­pean lan­guages – pri­mar­ily English and French. Unesco’s In­dex Trans­la­tionum cites 2 331 trans­la­tions from Chi­nese into English and 1 508 into French.

Fil­ter­ing Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture through Western in­ter­me­di­aries and lan­guages de­ter­mines which books are distributed in African coun­tries. It also af­fects where the books end up. For ex­am­ple, many of the ti­tles pub­lished in French are tucked away in the li­braries of var­i­ous In­sti­tuts Français in Fran­co­phone coun­tries, rather than in pub­lic li­braries and book­shops.

There is also a no­tice­able short­age of trans­la­tions into African lan­guages.

The in­dex shows that, apart from a few trans­la­tions into Ara­bic, there is not a sin­gle trans­la­tion of a Chi­nese lit­er­ary text into an African lan­guage. This ex­cludes a wide range of African read­ers and cre­ates a bar­rier to more di­rect in­ter­cul­tural dia­logue be­tween China and African coun­tries.

One pos­si­ble dif­fi­culty in in­creas­ing the num­ber of trans­la­tions is the lack of au­thors and trans­la­tors with the nec­es­sary lin­guis­tic skills. An­other ma­jor con­tribut­ing fac­tor is the lack of a de­vel­oped print in­dus­try and avail­abil­ity of printed pub­li­ca­tions in many African coun­tries.

How­ever, a col­lec­tion of po­etry by award-win­ning Chi­nese poet Jidi Ma­jia that has re­cently been pub­lished in Kiswahili, demon­strates the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits of mean­ing­ful cul­tural ex­change.

The col­lec­tion, Ma­neno Ya Moto Ku­toka China, is her­alded as the first cre­ative work of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture to be trans­lated into the lin­gua franca of Kenya, Tan­za­nia and much of south-east Africa.

Ma­jia is a prize-win­ning Chi­nese poet of the mi­nor­ity Yi na­tion­al­ity who claims an affin­ity with African writ­ers. Choos­ing to trans­late a con­tem­po­rary poet from a mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity in China might seem an un­usual choice for a first pub­li­ca­tion in Kiswahili.

The Chi­nese pub­lisher said the de­ci­sion was taken to en­sure that the writ­ings of a poet from a Chi­nese mi­nor­ity group could be seen by peo­ple of dif­fer­ent cul­tures.

This type of pub­li­ca­tion opens a win­dow to Chi­nese cul­ture for African peo­ple wish­ing to read in their na­tive and na­tional lan­guages.

African schol­ars also ar­gue that pub­lish­ing in Kiswahili and other African lan­guages is im­por­tant for en­hanc­ing adult lit­er­acy and com­bat­ing the scarcity of read­ing ma­te­rial avail­able in these lan­guages.

Apart from a few ex­am­ples, the trans­la­tion of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture into African lan­guages re­mains ex­tremely lim­ited. Rather than be­ing part of a co­her­ent trans­la­tion strat­egy, these projects de­pend on in­di­vid­ual col­lab­o­ra­tions.

What might a co­her­ent strat­egy look like? I would sug­gest that there should be ef­forts to build col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween Chi­nese and lo­cal African pub­lish­ing houses with­out go­ing via a Euro­pean or Western in­ter­me­di­ary. At the mo­ment, these are rare. But they do be­gin to out­line what mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ships may look like.

These re­la­tion­ships could en­gage the African lit­er­ary com­mu­nity of ed­i­tors, trans­la­tors and au­thors. At the same time, China could gain a more di­rect line of ac­cess to a broad African read­er­ship. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

• Cather­ine Gil­bert is Teach­ing Fel­low in Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture, King’s Col­lege, Lon­don

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

CROSS-CUL­TURAL: A South African Bud­dhist cel­e­brates the Chi­nese New Year at Nan Hua Bud­dhist tem­ple in Bronkhorstpruit, South Africa.

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