Monday, March 12, 2007

Translation And The Colonial Imaginary: Ibn Khaldûn Orientalist

By Abdelmajid Hannoum
History and Theory 42 (1), 61–81, 2003.

Despite the increasing interest in translation in the last two decades, there has been no investigation of the translation of historiography and its transformation from one language to another. This article takes as a case study the translation into French of Ibn Khaldûn, the fourteenth–century North African historian. It considers specifically the translation done by William de Slane in the context of the colonization of Algeria. The Histoire des Berbères, the French narrative of Ibn Khaldûn that relates to the history of Arabs and Berbers in the Maghreb, has become since then the source of French knowledge of North Africa. It is upon that French narrative that colonial and post–colonial historians have constructed their knowledge of North Africa, of Arabs, and of Berbers. The article shows how a portion of the writing of Ibn Khaldûn was translated and transformed in the process in such a way as to become a French narrative with colonial categories specific to the nineteenth century. Using a semiotic approach and analyzing both the French text and its original, the article shows how colonialism introduced what Castoriadis calls an "imaginary" by transforming local knowledge and converting it into colonial knowledge. In showing this the essay reveals that not only is translation not the transmission of a message from one language to another, it is indeed the production of a new text. For translation is itself the product of an imaginary, a creation–in Ricoeur's words, a "restructuring of semantic fields."

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