Written by Natalya Din-Kariuki
In both postcolonial theoretical and literary writing, socio-linguistic concerns are continually foregrounded; language and its nuances are seen as fundamental to national, racial and ethnic identities. John Edwards goes as far to argue that both national and ethnic identities are largely arbitrarily and subjectively constructed, often sustained through shared properties such as language. Ngugi wa Thiong’o famously denounced European colonial linguistic imposition as a form of “spiritual subjugation”; Ngugi reads language as not a simple system of signifiers and signifieds – words representing things – but as a nuanced “image forming agent”. Developing his argument that saw language as fundamental to the construction of identity, Ngugi claims, “The domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonising nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised.” He advocates instead a return to African languages in African writing, and the subsequent use of the “age old medium of translation” to enable speakers of other languages to find African writing accessible. Ngugi’s thesis is problematic, assuming a direct link between language and identity and neglecting to acknowledge the complexities and pluralities of both concepts of language and identity. He praises the African working class for keeping African languages, syntax, lexis and speech rhythms alive without recognizing the dramatic and irreversible postcolonial linguistic shifts which have occurred as a result of colonialism. The role of translation of literary texts in Ngugi’s suggested solution to neo-colonialism is questionable – as mentioned, Ngugi himself recognizes the nuanced nature of language: do the nuances of any current language (be it English, Swahili or others) reflect the “experience” of a distant past, failing to take into account the current hybrid state of those in the ex-colonies? 
The “language question” may be seen as a hackneyed debate, a stale staple of any study of African literature since the mid-twentieth century. Reminiscent of the literary structures prominent during the English Renaissance, the theoretical or critical works of African writers resemble authorial manifestoes, seeking to outline both individual and collective literary aims. Sidney’s Defense of Poesy and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind suddenly don’t seem so different after all, neither exhibiting the stark separation of writer and theorist of the “theory revolution” of the late twentieth century.
In postcolonial contexts, then, the act of translation is both liberating – permitting the use of indigenous languages, as Ngugi suggests – as well as problematic. The “language question”, in the light of the relatively new field of “Translation Studies”, seems as important now, in our “globalized” postcolonial world, as ever. Ashok Berry notes: “In translation theory, it is now widely accepted that questions of difference and equivalence cannot simply be confined narrowly to language, but that they are inseparable from, and embedded in, wider issues of cultural difference…How, indeed, does one step beyond the bounds of one’s own language or culture to understand another language or culture? How do we find equivalents between one language and another? Indeed, is equivalence possible? Are we not bound to impose our own ‘alien’ perspectives on the cultures we are trying to understand, the languages we are trying to translate? Do we not distort them in the very act of translation?” I am interested in considering “translation” in these broad senses: how does literary translation differ from other types of translation? How does a lack of linguistic equivalence – the impossibility of neatly mapping meaning from one language onto another – enrich considerations of “cultural translation” more broadly? Join me next week for some of these questions and more, including a discussion of the idea of translation in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s classic Nervous Conditions (1988).
 John Edwards, Multilingualism
 Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind
 Ngugi indeed seems to purposely ignore the ‘Westernization’ of the middle and upper classes, an arguably irreversible hybridization, which would call for a similarly hybridized language.
 Ashok Berry, Cultural Translation and Postcolonial Poetry