Orality and translation
Paul F. Bandia
The concept of orality has been of growing interest in a wide range of disciplines dealing with the past or the present. It is concerned with cultural or aesthetic practices involved in pre-modern traditions, modernist representations of the past, or postmodernist expressions of artistry such as in audiovisual media. Orality represents different realities or interests for various disciplines or spheres of knowledge. For the anthropologist and the historian, orality assumes its importance in the recording and documentation of non-literate cultures; for the colonialist, orality provides an insight into the traditions and cultures of so-called primitive societies in dire need of civilization. For the early Christian missionary, tapping into the oral culture provided the channel for proselytism, although in more recent times evangelical groups, particularly those working on Bible translation, have been mainly concerned with developing a linguistic and literary basis for non-literate cultures. For the modernist, orality becomes the sounding board for calibrating the privileges of modernity; for the postmodernist, it has become an important factor in the aesthetic representation of otherness, the assertion of marginalized identities through a variety of art forms such as literature, cinema, music and the spoken word. In all these instances, the manifestation and subsequent appraisal of orality is often made possible through the process of translation or interpretation. Even in traditional settings, where orality is of utmost importance, the mere pronouncement and performance of oral narratives and histories by specialists such as the griot, the bard, the praise-singer, or the professional linguist, is through translating or interpreting. Translation is involved as oral performances are often interpreted and adapted to particular circumstances and occasions. Also, some oral narratives are enunciated in esoteric language that would require translating or interpreting for the lay audience. In other words, the expression or representation of oral discourse, whether spoken or written, is always the result of an act of translation.