On Translation and Difference

Right now, I’m reading a novel called Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane, a famous Senegalese writer. Now if you knew anything about Senegal, you would know that this book probably wasn’t published with an English title because it probably wasn’t written in English. And if you thought this, you would be right: Ambiguous Adventure was translated by Katherine Woods in 1963. I have to read this book before travelling to Senegal during my gap year. So far, it’s been good and I understand why my program wants me to read it before travelling to Senegal: coming from the US (a country guilt not of colonization but imperialism) it’s completely different to be in a country that was stripped of it’s identity so recently. From what I’ve gathered so far, this book is really supposed to give the travelers insight into being in a country where colonization and the destruction of entire communities is in such recent memory. Although I’ve gotten this out of the book so far, I’m still pretty wary of the book itself.

I’ve been taking French for over 5 years now and in that time I’ve read at over a dozen French novels, at least a third of which have been written by African authors. Throughout all of these books and through all of the class discussion, the one fact about all of these books that stood out over all of the rest is that authors writing in French focus on and pay an extreme amount of attention to word choice and grammar choice. It seems strange to an American reader but in French using a different past tense (“I did that” vs. “I had done that”) can completely change the meaning of a sentence, can give the sentence a completely different tone, and can even change the amount of emphasis given to a particular action. Unlike most English novels, which I think rely much more on the overall message of a particular passage, French novels are all about the details.

This has been one of the only things on my mind since I started reading this book because like I said, it has been translated into English. I’m sure that Ms. Woods did a wonderful job with her translation, but I can’t stop thinking about how I’m not truly understanding the full impact of this book.

The fifth chapter begins with an extremely captivating description of the invasion and colonization of Africa:

The country of the Diallobé was not the only one which had been awakened by a great clamor early one day. The entire black continent had had its moment of clamor.

Strange dawn! The morning of the Occident in black Africa was spangled over with smiles, with cannon shots, with shining glass beads. Those who had no history were encountering those who carried the world on their shoulders. It was a morning of accouchement: the known world was enriching itself by a birth that took place in mire and blood.

From shock, the one side made no resistance. They were a people without a past, therefore without memory. The men who were landing on their shores were white, and mad. Nothing like them had ever been known. The deed was accomplished before the people were even conscious of what had happened.

For the newcomers did not know only how to fight. They were strange people. If they knew how to kill with effectiveness, they also knew how to cure, with the same art. Where they had brought disorder, they established a new order. They destroyed and they constructed. On the black continent it began to be understood that their true power lay not in the cannons of the first morning, but rather in what followed the cannons.

While reading this, I was entranced by the intriguing imagery, by the meaningful metaphors, and the accurate accusations. While reading I could not help but copy this entire passage into my reading notes because it is just so compelling.

Unfortunately, I was struck from my stupor by my remembering that this is a translated version of what must be an amazing novel. I find that I feel dejected because I cannot read what is sure to be a beautiful passage about a harrowing series of events. I wish that it were possible to imbue an translated work with the exact meaning, feeling, tone, impressions that are in the original text. Not only would it make translators’ jobs easier, it could mean that classics that were originally written in a foreign language can now be appreciated for all they are worth in any language that they are translated into.

Fortunately for myself, I was able to order the very last copy of L’aventure ambique from Amazon last night. That means that in 2 short weeks, I will be able to revel in the beauty that is the beginning of the French 5th chapter. I’m so excited to read the beautiful imagery and metaphors, but I am even more excited to be able to read the novel with solely my own impressions and not the impressions that have been inserted into the text by Ms. Woods.

I feel as though my experience in trying to reconcile the meaning of the book since its translation into English is a shadow of the experience that the characters are feeling. The characters in the book are coming to grips with the differences between their customs and traditions, and I am trying to prepare myself to be thrust into a country with customs and traditions completely different to my own. With this realization, a question comes to mind: were they ready; will I be ready?

It seems to me that I’ve understood the reason I’m supposed to read this book before jetting off to Dakar, Senegal. But still, I feel that I will never truly be ready to understand Senegal and Senegalese people until I read one of the greatest works from their country in its original language.


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