The ocean as ‘translation zone’…

At the end of last week, I co-organized with Bill Marshall, at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies in the University of London, a conference on ‘Oceans: Concepts and Cultures’. Bill and I have both been struck by the ways in which, over the past two decades at least, spatial categories and insights from cartography and geography have contributed to transdisciplinary debates in the Humanities regarding oceanic spaces. Atlantic Studies have, most notably perhaps, flourished across many disciplines and language areas, radiating outwards from their origins in historical studies. Conceptualisations of the Indian Ocean are currently generating increasing scholarly attention also, while, to the European and North American academy at least, the particular challenges of the Pacific are increasingly recognized. Despite their strategic importance and increasing visibility in debates about environmental change, serious interest among Humanities scholars in the Arctic and Southern Oceans is only now beginning to emerge.

The aim of the event was to focus on the historical, conceptual, cultural and textual bases and ramifications of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as comparisons between them. Our aim was additionally to ensure engagement with the inherently multilingual dimensions of the oceanic. With keynote lectures by Felipe Fernández-Armesto on an oceanic history of the world and Nick Thomas on oceanic perspectives on Pacific cultures and histories, the conference provided a fascinating indication of the increasing interest of Humanities scholars in ocean spaces — and the enabling conversations that can emerge when we work cross-linguistically and transoceanically, moving beyond the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic Oceans in order to reflect on the possible comparisons and actual connections between these spaces. The emphasis was on the ocean as a site of mobility, contact and transformation, and as a location — detached from the logic of continental land masses — where alternative understandings of culture, history and sovereignty can be imagined and at times even realised. The ocean has often, in these terms, been understood as what Mary Louise Pratt dubbed a ‘contact zone’, that is, ‘an attempt to invoke the spatial and temporal co-presence of subjects previously separated by geographic and historical disjunctures, and whose trajectories now intersect’.[1] This interpretation is valid, and clearly captures some of the processes that occur in the fluidity of oceanic spaces. However, it is equally enabling to consider the ocean as what Emily Apter has called a ‘translation zone’, by which she means ‘sites that are “in-translation”, that is to say, belonging to no single, discrete language or single medium of communication’.[2] Such an approach engages with recent initiatives that have refreshingly (and, in some ways, counterintuitively, given the increasing association of translating with the virtual) explored the spatial dimensions of translation. It inevitably foregrounds the linguistic aspects of oceanic histories, underlining the extent to which languages as well as means of transport have served as key vehicles in processes of exchange. Creolisation is one particularly complex process on which this linguistic transformation depends, as Heloise Finch-Boyer exploredat the conference in a paper on the policing of creole identity in the Indian Ocean, examining how white military officers, police, plantation owners and priests categorized Malagasy speakers as ‘African’ or francisé (‘creolized’) in the Mascarene Islands and how enslaved and free Malagasy speakers negotiated these categories; but the ocean crossings of languages leads also to other effects, not least – in the case of French in the Atlantic spaces explored by Bill Marshall in his paper – to the reinvigoration, or ‘Montrealization’, of a language detached from the national space with which it is customarily associated. I came away from the conference with a renewed sense of the ocean as a ‘translation zone’, a location in which – to borrow from Michael Cronin’s recent (and excellent) Translation in the Digital Age – ‘translation is better understood not as suspended in the air, but as caught up in the living currents of language and cultures’.[3]



[1] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), p.7

[2] Emily Apter, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), p.6.

[3] Michael Cronin, Translation in the Digital Age (London: Routledge, 2012), p.75.

Blind travellers and tactile geographies

As part of an ongoing project on travel writing and the senses, I spent some time last week at the Musée Valentin Haüy and the associated bibliothèque patrimoniale Valentin Haüy in Paris. I am continuing my previous work on travel writing as a form of intercultural translation, but am particularly interested in this work in the ways in which the genre textualizes the role, in the experience of travel, of senses other than sight. One of my starting points is to consider journey narratives by blind and partially sighted travellers, and the museum and library proved themselves to be an essential resource for scholars interested in the history of blindness and in how the condition has been represented in France and beyond. The ways in which the blind were perceived, and their struggle for access to culture, education and full citizenship, are recounted through the objects and works in the museum and library. A series of nineteenth-century travelogues by authors such as Edgard Guilbeau (who created the Valentin Haüy Museum in 1886) and Maurice de La Sizeranne (who went on to set up the Valentin Haüy Association in 1889) will allow me to explore the socio-historical contexts of narratives produced by blind travellers, and will also provide core materials to test a thesis regarding the ocularcentrism inherent in the various forms of thematic and discursive normativity of the form. These narratives provide rich descriptions of soundscapes and smellscapes in urban and rural environments. Equally striking, however, were a number of tactile exhibits in the museum – especially relief maps and globes (such as the 1830s example produced by W.A. Hochstetter shown here) – which reveal the place of geography in the education of the blind in nineteenth-century France (and elsewhere). Such tactile geographies allow, through familiarity with distant places, a form of vicarious travel that would appear to reflect an active policing of the mobility of the blind. This confinement is to be associated in part with the intention to break perceived links between blindness and vagrancy; it also reveals a contemporary – and many would argue enduring – refusal to accept the restricted motility, the reduced right to mobility, of blind and partially sighted people. It is in the context of objects such as these that travelogues by authors such as Guilbeau suggest a surprisingly modern commitment, in the field of travel, to the equal rights of disabled people.

Languages of the future…

Central to the translating cultures theme is an awareness that processes of translation occur within cultures and nations as well as across and between them, i.e. intraculturally as well as interculturally. Observations about the global spread of English, often used as justification for the decline of Modern Languages in the Anglophone world, tend to ignore the fact that English-speaking countries are themselves increasingly multilingual, reflecting in their linguistic practices and landscapes the movement of peoples and cultures that characterize contemporary globalization. Yann Matras’s research has recently revealed, through the work of the Multilingual Manchester project, that the population of the city speaks 153 different languages, and possible more, making it one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the world. As a recent article in The Guardian has outlined, these include most major European languages as well as a number of rarer ones, including Chitrali from northern Pakistan, Konkani from western India, Dagaare from Ghana, and Uyghur from Xinjiang in north-western China. The recently published UK census data reveals that the population of England and Wales born outside the UK has grown from 4.6 million in 2001 to 7.5 million in 2011, meaning that the presence of ‘audible minorities’ is becoming increasingly apparent — and, with the proposed introduction of linguistic criteria for certain public sector jobs, increasingly politicized.

These shifts in language use and the debates they trigger are equally evident in the U.S.A., as changing voting patterns among the Hispanic population in the 2012 presidential elections made clear. The role of language in the re-election of Obama has recently been explored by Kathleen Parker in an article in The Washington Post. Reflecting on her father’s advice that she should learn Spanish, Parker notes: ‘What was clear to my father even then is that our hemisphere could not long be segregated by language. Nor, apparently, can we be kept apart by borders, no matter how many fences we build or drones we deploy. […] Metaphorically, learning Spanish means learning people. Knowing them as human beings, not as statistics on a game board. Recognizing their humanity and finding new ways to talk about immigration that don’t alienate entire swaths of the population.’ Bringing language and translation to the centre of political debate and developing what Mary Louise Pratt once called a more sophisticated ‘public idea about language’ allow us to analyse and understand contemporary society in ways that permit full engagement with the hypercomplexity of the modern world.

Translating Cultures

The blog focuses on the field of translation studies, understood in its broadest senses, and reflecting in particular the ‘cultural turn’ in translation studies and the ‘translation turn’ in cultural studies. Content will be cross-disciplinary, but given my own disciplinary location, is likely to privilege matters relating to Modern Languages