F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

Black Voices Lost in Translation

Some Memoirs of the Life of Job and Autobiography of Omar ibn Said are both slave narratives that were either translated or written by white men. Translation studies aids in understanding how meaning can be lost through translation; this is particularly true when discussing Omar ibn Said’s narrative. Omar’s text suffered mistranslation as it changed from translator to translator. For example, the confusion in Omar ibn Said’s name is a clear example of mistranslation: “I write his name Meroh. It was originally Umeroh. Some write it Moro; and some put it in the French form Moreau. It is commonly pronounced as if spelled Moro” (789).  Mr. Bird, another translator, assumes this naming by stating, “The name Moro is doubtless the same as Amrou or Omar, the final o or u being a vowel point” (789). Both men ignore the importance and cultural sensitivity of naming. There is a power in naming, which demonstrates a misnaming of Omar and ignores his true identity.

Memoirs of the Life of Job is authored by Bluett, a white man. Therefore, the reader receives information about Job through what Job tells Bluett about his country. Bluett discusses Job’s cultural traditions, such as marriage, in which he compares Western and African gender roles. By comparing the differences, he centers Western traditions and judges Job’s culture accordingly. Job tells Bluett these details in broken English; this becomes a point of interest to me. The parts of speech that may be common in Job’s language may not be prominent in the English language; therefore, the meaning of essential phrases is lost in translation to Bluett. I assume that Bluett may consciously or unconsciously bias against Job’s culture because of how he normalizes and centers Western culture. Through critical thinking, I question the text's validity and how the black voice is lost in translation.

These types of narratives that require translation or told by a different source call for further investigation. Through translation studies, we can understand how translators have the job of transferring meaning through other languages (“What is translation studies?” the University of Exeter). Bluett and Jameson’s success in this role is questionable. Then, I propose to complete a research project that examines slave narratives translated or authored by white men. Olney’s “I Was Born”: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature concentrates on the formula of the black slave narrative and white men's role in producing these texts. Notably, there is much focus on the “specific motives, intentions” that the white men have in authoring or help to publish this text (Olney 52). There are “pragmatics of translations and to the subjectivity of the translator as a factor in the translation process” (Basnett 6). These white men’s subjectivity translates into their specific motives in translating, authoring, and publishing these texts. There should be more research on these translators' subjectivity and how this links to the authorship of the black slave narrator.

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