Mathematician, historian, philosopher, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, born in 1955 in Saint-Louis in Senegal, is one of the most sought-after African thinkers. His training followed the royal path traced by Léopold S. Senghor: Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), aggregation. He then taught at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar and, since 2008, at Columbia University in New York. In 2023, he is participating in the New Understandings of the World program, which brings together the ENS, the University of Thiès in Senegal and that of Witwatersrand in South Africa. He is currently giving a seminar at the ENS on the notion of universal.
Translation – between languages, between cultures – holds a central place in his thinking. He devoted a book to it, From language to language (Albin Michel, 2022). At the Geneva Book Fair, Souleymane Bachir Diagne will meet African Studies students from the University of Lausanne on March 22, those from the Center for Literary Translation on March 24, and on March 25 he will meet the translator Barbara Cassin.
Read also: The spirit of Saint Louis of Senegal: tolerance and pluralism
“The hospitality of translation” is written in the subtitle of his essay. Bachir Diagne quotes the linguist Antoine Berman: “The essence of translation is to be openness, dialogue, mixing, shifting. It is put in relation or it is nothing. From language to language is a eulogy to the act of translating in that it creates “a relation of equivalence, of reciprocity between identities”. Which does not imply an “alleged identity between the author and the translator” such as that claimed in the case of Amanda Gorman’s poem, namely that it was necessary, in order to render this text into other languages with a strong symbolic charge, “a slamming and proudly black young woman”. To translate, you need “love at first sight” and an ethical commitment.
Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s faith in the power of translation is not naïve: he knows that it can be an instrument of domination. In the “linguistic market” there are peripheral languages which run the risk of being absorbed by central languages – English being the hyper-central language which tends to engulf them all. In the colonial situation, the language of the ruler asserts its superiority over local languages. In the context of decolonization, the task of the translator is to “create encounter in a common humanity”.
Le Temps: In the world we live in, is it possible to dream of a happy Babel in the interpenetration of languages?
Souleymane Bachir Diagne: It’s true, we live in a fragmented world, which has never been deserted by wars. Nationalisms clash everywhere. How to believe in this context in the utopia of translation? You used the word “dream”. It’s a dream, indeed, but it’s the only way or else it’s cynicism. We are at a point in evolution where man himself has become a force of destruction on a par with geological forces. We hold our condition in hand, we can choose suicide. I prefer to opt for optimism. Building one and the same humanity is a necessity.
Differences in status between languages reflect economic and social inequalities. What can translation do against these inequalities?
The answer is to fight for the safeguard of minor languages which are threatened. When the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o decides to write in Kikuyu, the Senegalese Boubacar B. Diop in Wolof, it is a militant act, a political fight. French, English, Portuguese are African languages in the same way as local languages. Plurilingualism is the rule. The dominant languages therefore have an interest in affirming pluralism, otherwise they risk being marginalized. If France wants to maintain the place of French in the former colonies, it must negotiate with Wolof and the other languages. Wolof in turn threatens local languages that are tending to disappear, and with them, a whole universe of thought.
The challenge is not only socioeconomic, it is cultural and artistic. Translation creates equality. Umberto Eco said that the language of Europe was translation. We can broaden the subject: translation is the language of languages.
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You collaborate on the “Dictionary of untranslatable” drawn up by Barbara Cassin. So there are limits to translation? It has long been claimed that African languages cannot express philosophical concepts…
All languages are based on a logical substrate common to humanity, so they can express everything. Let’s rather talk about terms that we don’t know how to translate, that we constantly retranslate. If it is a question of transcribing “I think therefore I am” in a language which does not use the verb to be in this intransitive way, for example Ewe, it will be necessary to find equivalents. Translation is a negotiation. It preserves what is universal in a statement.
It is important to write philosophy in Wolof, in Kikuyu, in all the minor languages: it is still a political gesture. It is meaningless to locate the thought: it is Indian, Chinese, African, Western. In Dakar, the Thought Workshops, founded by Felwine Sarr and Achille Mbembe, reflect on planetary issues.
In the chapter you devote to African works of art, you seem to consider their journey to Europe as a “translation”, a translation, a transplantation.
In Western museums, these objects have continued to act. They settled. They played an important role in avant-garde art in the 20th century. It was European artists who gave these objects the status of works when the colonial discourse only saw them as fetishes. See Picasso’s dialogue with African art. The return of some of these objects to Africa will require a retranslation, a resocialization in a new state context that was not theirs.
The program in which you participate is called Sud(s), on the other hand you prefer to designate Africa in the singular, as a single entity?
I am aware that the continent has 54 states. I know that we have too often reduced its diversity to a vague identity. But I believe that it is necessary to create an African unity “from Cairo to Cape Town”, multicultural, economically strong.
Essay. Souleymane Bachir Diagne, “From language to language. The hospitality of translation”, Albin Michel, 180 p.
Tags: egalitarian dialogue languages