Biography 32, no. 1 (2009): IABA 2008: Life Writing & Translations

Biography 32.1 cover

Shifting Ground: Translating Lives and Life Writing in Hawai‘i
Cynthia G. Franklin and Miriam Fuchs, vii

We open the Winter 2009 issue of Biography by calling attention to “Pacific People,” an evening of oli, mele, hula, theatre, poetry, autobiography, and biography, to articulate the significance of Hawai‘i as the location of the Sixth Biennial IABA Conference. For the contributors to this volume, translation is, in the broadest terms, a form of representation and action that mediates—inevitably by coming between—cultures and languages in genres that are continually emerging. These essays articulate with the concerns foregrounded in “Pacific People,” including a focus on human rights; an insistence on questioning what can and cannot be translated and the difference this makes to people’s lives; attention to translation as a practice that can bring to the surface “buried” lives; an emphasis on how linguistic translation is embedded in contexts unmistakably political and economic as well as cultural; and an exploration of how translation itself can be a form of political action. As evidenced by “Pacific People” performers, and as argued by contributors to this special issue, translation enables both the restitution of pre- and anticolonial histories and traditions, and also the ability to create awareness of other peoples and places, helping to create potentially transformative consciousness of the common and different grounds on which we stand in both metaphoric and literal terms.


Le moi est-il international?
Philippe Lejeune, 1

Trois questions pour ouvrir ce congrès: Existe-t-il une histoire et une géographie des traductions de textes autobiographiques? Existe-t-il des études comparatives, multinationales sur l’autobiographie ou le journal? Est-il possible de construire une théorie de l’autobiographie sans qu’elle porte la marque d’une culture spécifique, d’une idéologie particulière?

Is the I international?
(Trans. Jean Yamasaki Toyoma), 8

Three questions were suggested by the theme of the conference: Is there a history and a geography of translations of autobiographical texts? Are there any general, transversal, comparative, multinational studies on autobiography or the diary? Is it possible to construct a theory of autobiography without its carrying the mark of a specific culture or a particular ideology—in short, can our ideas be translated?

Disclaimer Intraducible: My Life / Is Based / on a Real Story
Alicia Partnoy, 16

This article showcases the tensions between the survivor’s need to tell, and the constraints exercised by publishers, translators, scholars, and human rights professionals. After discussing Gail Wronsky’s assertion that politics is what really gets lost in translation, it proposes two strategies to empower survivors: an affirmative action position, and a continuous engagement in co/labor/actions.

Tortured Thoughts: From Marshall Square to Guantánamo Bay
Barbara Harlow, 26

“Tortured Thoughts” discusses Ruth First’s career—from her detention and interrogation in 1963 in South Africa to her assassination in 1982—with reference to her academic appointments in Dar es Salaam in 1975 and in Maputo from 1979 to 1982. What effect did the constant threat of torture during her detention have on her later public practices as a committed historian, scholar, and investigative reporter over the two decades that distanced her interrogation and her assassination? In other words, how did the threat of torture “translate”? And what example does that translation of “tortured thoughts” set for another era’s academic coming of age?

Nā Hulu Kupuna: To Honor Our Intellectual Ancestors
Noenoe K. Silva, 43

Because of American colonialism and the attendant displacement of the Hawaiian language, most Hawaiian children grow up not knowing that they come from a long line of intellectuals. They are taught that Hawaiian culture, except for a few of the arts, is a thing of the past. The project that this article describes seeks to begin to remedy that situation by documenting the writers and editors of nineteenth and twentieth century Hawaiian-language newspapers and books. This essay focuses on the creation of bio-bibliographies of the writer Joseph H. Kānepu‘u (1824–ca. 1883), and the writer, editor, attorney, and politician Joseph Mokuohai Poepoe (1852–1913).

To Translate or Not to Translate: Revising the Translating of Hawaiian Language Texts
Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, 54

Translation has had a long and troubled history in Hawai‘i, leading many Hawaiian-language speakers to oppose further translation of historic Hawaiian texts. However, a new project, Awaiāulu, aims to take these oppositions into account and translate historical Hawaiian texts in a more “ethical” and “responsible” way.

Listening to Leoiki: Engaging Sources in Hawaiian History
Noelani Arista, 66

This paper challenges the perception of “silence” of Hawaiian women in the sex trade in 1820s Hawai‘i by focusing on the sale of a Hawaiian woman, Leoiki—whose name means “little voice”—by a chiefess to a British whale ship captain in 1825. Working with family genealogies, depositions, American missionary correspondence, and other sources written in Hawaiian, this paper explores how the important principles of kuleana and kapu function within Leoiki’s story as well as essential focal points for a Hawaiian historian’s gathering and interpretation of sources. In writing this kind of history, this paper also sets out a new methodology that is interpretively consistent with traditional Hawaiian modes of remembering and perpetuating history.

Native Intellectuals in the Contact Zone: African Responses to Italian Colonialism in Tigrinya Literature
Ghirmai Negash, 74

This essay examines the critical responses of two African texts, The Author’s Journey (1895) and The Conscript (1927, 1950), to Italian colonialism in Eritrea, and unpacks the relations between writing and authorial representations of imperial power, home, and the colonial order as particularized in those narratives. Written by Tigrinya intellectuals, who shared colonial education and wrote about the imperial European project with indigenous reflexivity, the texts provide the rare opportunity of an early, indigenous-written critical “native point of view” on colonialism and its (after)effects. Based on those arguments, the article concludes by claiming that The Conscript is an African language postcolonial novel avant la lettre.

Truth in Translation: The TRC and the Translation of the Translators
Sam Raditlhalo, 89

This paper argues that to a significant degree the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a linguistic challenge, involving the use of eleven official languages. The TRC was a polylingual, thus heteroglossic public staging of tragedy that was orally-determined, thus accommodating sections of the South African society that would have been excluded had the standard forms of exclusion—English language and writing—been used as means of communication. The paradox of the linguistic challenge lies in how the testimonies lodge themselves in the minds of the translators, who are initially vicarious participants in narrated events but who find themselves becoming active participants through the act of translation. This leads to a collapse of the assumed spaces between the identities of the translators, their senses of communal bonds, and separateness from the witnesses, as the “storying” and ‘“re-storying” of the past becomes a palpable presence through their secondary roles. An examination of Michael Lessac’s Truth in Translation and Ingrid de Kok’s poems in Terrestrial Things highlights the difficulties of translation, and how this continues to confound viewers of Lessac’s play.

“Here the country is uncertain”: Canadian Incarcerated Authors Trans-scribing Prison
Deena Rymhs, 102

Drawing on recent life writing by incarcerated Canadian authors, this paper examines how imprisoned writers translate the largely unimaginable physical and social space of the prison to non-imprisoned readers. While some prison texts suggest that, as Michael Hardt puts it, “Prison is our society in its most realized form,” others insist on the prison as an inalienable space, a place of radical difference.

Translating Cuttlefish: Underwater Lifewritings
Clare Brant, 114

In underwater life-writing, poetry, marine biology, and memoir meet like ocean currents. Both biography—the subject is the sea—and autobiography—the subject is the writer—the genre’s practitioners explore metaphor and metamorphosis in sea life and in themselves. In attempting to “translate” mysterious creatures like cuttlefish, writers draw on poetry and science to create rich and strange discourses that also “translate” humans into and out of an element of depth.

Translating Values: Mercantilism and the Many “Biographies” of Pocahontas
Michael Tratner, 128

Seventeenth century mercantilist economics is based on “translating”: foreign wealth changes meaning or value in becoming domestic property. The Pocahontas story manipulates biographical evidence to mercantilist ends: she is “translated” by love and marriage into a British subject, “domesticating” her Indian lands into British/American property. Retelling this story keeps American mercantilism alive, reaffirming the mythic belief that the US is the inevitable end-product of all translation.

The Situation of Translation/Translation Situation in Käbi Laretei’s Life Writings
Leena Kurvet-Käosaar, 137

The article offers a discussion on life writings of Käbi Laretei, an exile Estonian author and in her day a world-famous concert pianist, whose self-representational narratives make visible the emergence of her textual subjectivity in the both fluid and rigid spaces in-between cultures and languages, always fluctuating between the two axes of speech and sound. One work, Otsekui tõlkes (As if in Translation, 2004), that is also the focus of the article, makes this indeterminacy a central focus, addressing it via a narrative that is at the same time also a self-conscious conceptualization of her life as a process and procedure of being translated, and of “being in translation” as the only possible mode of being and representation.

The Electric Self: Doing Virtual Research for Real in SecondLife®
Julie Rak, 148

If we think of virtual worlds as having additional “language” and customs which their participants adopt, it is possible to think of virtual worlds as spaces where identity can be translated from the physical world to the virtual, resulting in a self which occupies a rhetorical third space, where virtual identities have real effects, and real identities operate virtually. This combination of the real and the virtual, and its position as a space of translation, pose specific problems when researchers want to conduct research about virtual lives. Second Life®, a popular online world where people play the “game” of identity, provides a way to investigate how the act of translating one’s self can be understood as part of the practice of life narrative, in a new medium.

Translating the Self: Sexuality, Religion, and Sanctuary in John Addington Symonds’s Cellini and Other Acts of Life Writing
David Amigoni, 161

Translation in life writing begins in the act of finding linguistic equivalences but can lead to complex epistemological and ideological transpositions. John Addington Symonds’s translation of the memoir of Benvenuto Cellini (1888) is the focal point for a broader consideration of the place of translation in Symonds’s queer-coded late Victorian life writing.

Crossing the Lines: Graphic (Life) Narratives and Co-Laborative Political Transformations
Theresa M. Tensuan, 173

Jaime Cortez’s Sexile frames the experiences of Cuban émigré and transgender activist Adela Vasquez in a comic book that shows how identities are engendered in a matrix of cultural conventions, sexual exchanges, and acts of self-invention, thus illustrating the interrelations between acts of self-fashioning and the work of social transformation.

Excerpts from recent reviews of biographies, autobiographies, and other works of interest