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Liberal Translations

From literary to ethnographic translations, critics have demonstrated how asymmetrical power relations obtain between languages, particularly in colonial and postcolonial settings. Harri Englund’s previous work has shown how little effort activists have made to explore Malawian and Zambian languages to convey, and perhaps to develop, the idea of human rights. This research project, carried out during Englund’s Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, takes linguistic translation as an opportunity to subject questions of inequality and shared humanity to an empirically rigorous study.

The main component of the project is to investigate the work of 19th-century Scottish missionaries in what subsequently became the Nyasaland Protectorate and then the Republic of Malawi. Slavery, dependencies and (un)freedom loomed large when they translated Chinyanja lexicon into English and the Scriptures into Chinyanja. While freed slaves became dependants of the mission, some missionaries evoked a shared humanity as a matter of mutual dependence. The aim of the project is to document and analyze a moment of linguistic, religious and political ferment often overlooked in the literature on missions and political thought in Africa. The aim is not to read history backwards from what became the prevailing modes of expression and practice but to recognize possibilities that may have never achieved such a status.

If the translations in the historical component were carried out in what was properly a ‘pre-colonial’ period, the contemporary component of the project is to experiment with translation in a context that fits uneasily into any colonial or postcolonial framework. The translation of poetry by Arvo Turtiainen, a socialist poet in 20th-century Finland, into Chichewa / Chinyanja will address questions of translatability and shared humanity in the 21st century.

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