Translation and Cultural Imperialism

Rebecca Joubin

Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language (“Lan Tatakalama Lughati”)
By Abdelfattah Kilito
Syracuse University Press, 2008, 102 pp.

In a wholly provocative approach, Kilito’s “Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language” takes on the politics of language, bilingualism, translation and cross-cultural relations. Through a close study of al-Jahiz, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Battuta, al-Saffar, and al-Shidyaq, Kilito manifests the way in which cultural hegemony sustains itself. He questions Orientalist modes of scholarship and unveils the hegemonic assumptions of Eurocentric comparative literature. He also deplores the inferiority complex on the part of Arab writers who look to Europe for inspiration and try to prove that they, too, are heir to that tradition.

At the core of his book is a preoccupation with the ethics of translation. Kilito shows that often translation serves as an extension of military conflict and economic power in the same way that Orientalism propped up imperialism. His definition entails that translation hovers between life and death, between love and death. Kilito writes: “Again, there is conflict, but it is no longer just between two languages; it is also between the liberal belief in promoting cross-cultural understanding through language learning, and a secret, obscene, jealous desire to possess one’s native language so completely as to prevent others from using it for their purposes, which can only be perverse and dishonorable.”

He criticizes Arab writers who yearn for their works to be translated into European languages, and laments that successful literary production entails translation. Indeed, he raises important questions on the integrity of such a purpose.

Yet, if scholars have acknowledged that Arab books which make it in translation tell us more about the host culture than about the target culture, and are subject to the politics of production, Kilito goes so far as to associate acquisition of another language as theft. Indeed, in highlighting the inability of fully understanding a foreign language, let alone one’s own, he negates all changes for cross-cultural understanding. 

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid

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