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.


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