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Ashok Bery. Cultural Translation and Postcolonial Poetry

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Ashok BERY. Cultural Translation and Postcolonial Poetry. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. ISBN-13: 978-1403933102.

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1This book explores and develops the fruitful and currently popular paradigm of translation as a metaphor, or at least as a far more elastic, extensive term than its common usage allows. It does not seek to dazzle, but invites the reader to an engaging, clearly-stated discussion of a number of poets loosely grouped under the umbrella-heading “postcolonial”: some are longstanding familiars such as Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney or Louis MacNeice, slightly unexpected in this context, some are more obvious “Commonwealth” choices, the Australians Judith Wright and Les Murray, A.K. Ramanujan and Derek Walcott. Ashok Bery blows no trumpets, but he unobtrusively enriches the soil of translation theory and postcolonial criticism (at least) by locating and comparing the translational dilemmas in this diverse corpus of poetry.

2The onus here is on practice, on the process of reading poems, and this is more than a choice of emphasis, it is a methodological necessity; for the author notes that there comes a point, with translation, where “theory alone fails”, and “the question has to be negotiated each time”. His approach draws on both translation studies, picking up the familiar dichotomy of ‘foreignisation’ and ‘domestication’ as enunciated by Schleiermacher, and extended to embrace not just linguistic but cultural translation, and ethnography, with its preoccupation with power differentials and the problem of how to take into account the relationship between observer and observed when writing anthropology. Homi Bhaba’s concept of ‘interstitiality’ or in-betweenness as a creative Third Space is also behind these discussions of postcolonial poetry. Thus, Ashok Bery posits an “intercultural place of translation” or a “middle ground of hybridity”, and maps the processes of exchange, fusion and resistance between self and other; – taking care as he does so to propitiate the strong ideological or pedagogic bias that looms like an angry superego over cultural studies and translation criticism respectively, while firmly asserting literary quality as the supreme value.

3A famous case in point is a poet not included in Bery’s selection: Ezra Pound. His much-debated translations of Provençal, Latin or Chinese poetry were at first taken to task by the academics for betrayal of text and language, and they have received the greatest praise not only as poems in their own right, but also, finally, as translations. One of Bery’s examples is Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, which raises this problem perhaps more acutely given that this translation was commissioned by the Norton Anthology with the aim of making the Old English medieval poem accessible to students of literature from throughout the Anglophone spectrum. Heaney’s occasional use of Irish words, and the Irish political issues they bring to bear on the Scandinavian text, has been criticised as a move that narrows the readership rather than universalising it. Bery revisits Heaney’s early poetry and after a long discussion of his well-known “bog” poems as translations and anthropological writings, in terms of various dislocations and in-between positions, concludes that his Beowulf moves productively back and forth between the closed space of localism and the unreachable openness of universalism, and relocates both writer and translator as positioned somewhere between their own idiolects and what Heaney describes as “the language’s total availability”.

4Bery’s discussion of Derek Walcott’s Omeros, which revisits Homer and draws on “parallels between the  Greek and Caribbean archipelagos”, expands on this superposition of writer and translator and, albeit cautiously, takes the metaphor of translation into the realm of representation generally. He has sympathy with Octavio Paz’s equation of translation, representation and intertextuality, while remaining aware of the dangers of overusing the translation metaphor and emptying it of meaning. Rather, he coins the term “translational structure”, providing ample evidence of the illuminating resources and creative critical potential of the concept. His book should be welcomed as offering a way forward out of the binaries of translation theory and postcolonial criticism, while providing stimulating readings of the poets concerned. Very probably it will become recommended reading for students of various literary leanings, and its balanced approach to highly charged personal and political issues will be of precious help to anyone deeply involved with language and/or writing.

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Référence électronique

Sara GREAVES, « Ashok Bery. Cultural Translation and Postcolonial Poetry », E-rea [En ligne], 7.1 | 2009, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2009, consulté le 13 juillet 2020. URL :

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LERMA, Aix-Marseille Université

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