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Les intraduisibles du patrimoine en Afrique subsaharienne

Danièle Wozny
Barbara Cassin

In English. Heritage Untranslatables in Sub-Saharan Africa


Testo integrale

1The present meaning and apparent universality of the term “heritage” are the product of a relatively recent and generally widely accepted post-World War II institutional context. The number of states which ratified the UNESCO Conventions Concerning World Heritage in 1972 and Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003 attest to that wide understanding, together with the political importance attached by the State parties to the inscription of their national properties on the List of Cultural, Natural, and Intangible World Heritage.

2In spite of this apparent consensus, however, there is a certain disparity between the countries represented on UNESCO’s various Lists and committee forums. For instance, African properties only make up 10% of World Heritage Sites, but they comprise no less than 50% of the items on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

3For a long time, definitions of “heritage” and criteria for eligibility were essentially based on decisions reached by UNESCO and European bodies without really considering alternative traditions, or thinking through the complex and fluid relationships between heritage, territory, history, memory and identity. The scope of UNESCO’s often emergency heritage actions has tended to overshadow the fact that conceptions of heritage – from patrimonial notions to the objects they describe – vary depending on the place, time, and linguistic universe in which they take shape. These differences are central to our work.

4Several heritage researchers and professionals have focused on the signs or “symptoms” of these differences over the course of a series of workshops entitled “Les intraduisibles du patrimoine” (“heritage untranslatables”). Supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Directorate-General of Global Affairs/World Heritage), the LabeX TransferS (CNRS-ENS), the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN), the Institut fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) at Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University and the Organisation internationale de la francophonie (OIP), these workshops began in Paris in 2011, before moving to Dakar in 2012, followed in 2013 by Gaborone and the Fondation des Treilles. They focused on what “heritage” denotes and connotes, and on what must be done to set up normative instruments for the management and protection of heritage properties of outstanding universal value.

5The workshops explored a range of possible transitions and translations between French, English, and African languages. These transitions are essential if the relevant population groups and communities are to appropriate the rationales and stakes of heritage – notions that are inherently complex and fraught with tensions. Such acts of appropriation will not only improve the protection of tangible and intangible heritages, but will also enhance their social, cultural and perhaps even economic value.

6This has led to a pluralist and comparative exploration of language difference based on “untranslatables” understood as symptoms – not in the sense of what does not get translated, but rather of what is always in the course of being translated –, with languages not simply considered as ways of seeing the world but as ways of making it.

7Switching between languages is akin to moving from one way of thinking to another, and from one culture to another. It is to experience a sort of deterritorialisation. This means having an outsider’s perspective on what there is in a language and allowing different languages to enrich each other’s perceptions.

8Transfers, interactions, and borrowings between languages and texts, together with mistranslations, cross-meanings, betrayals, shortcuts and detours, are central to the operation of language and thought, and exhibit their vitality and dynamism. To take stock of what resists translation and is lost – or gained – in translation is to gain the best possible insight into cultural singularities.

9The current acceleration of heritage processes affects all cultural, natural, and intangible properties. Giving them a new dimension, heritage also gives them added commercial and symbolic value, while inventorying, classifying, and certifying them ensures they are protected and controlled... However, living and evolving heritage properties run a serious risk of being transformed into folklorised or fossilised assets (often with a mercantile dimension) and disconnected from the cultural practices and complex web of words which from which communities derive their meaning.

10We wish to avoid erecting watertight barriers between cultural, natural, intangible and linguistic heritages. We focus instead on giving a scientifically grounded account of the vitality of the link between languages and heritage. This is one of the conditions that must be fulfilled if population groups and communities are to be actors in the management, conservation, and promotion of the tangible and intangible properties which are inextricably linked to their identity. These are the issues to which we repeatedly returned in our seminars, with a particular emphasis on words: although a heritage is constituted of objects, monuments, and forests, as well as a wealth of animals, plants, traditions and narratives, it is primarily expressed in “words”. What tethers a heritage to its culture are the words of its particular language. However, words – in this case, those of UNESCO’s official languages – also define the criteria (outstanding, universal, symbolic, integrity, authenticity, identity, nature, culture, etc.) used for the international recognition of heritage properties and their promotion as instruments of economic, social, and cultural development.

11Heritage untranslatables: the meanings, equivalents, uses, and semantic networks of words suggest a few lines of approach to the stakes of heritage in a globalised context. These lines of approach help to identify endogenous principles for the protection of heritage which may be useful for African institutions and legislations. They also point to ways of achieving inter-African cooperation and possibly renewing the African dialogue with UNESCO. Through a feedback effect, the languages of Africa (and of other continents, of course) may also conceivably enrich UNESCO’s reflection on its own concepts and help to make its universals more complex. It is also hoped that this exploration of language difference might contribute to identifying the channels that promote exchanges and sharing, and thus contribute to preventing clashes between the heritages of different groups.

12We have chosen to focus on two words, because they seem to us to be most symptomatic of the singularities which lie at the heart of our argument. One is “heritage”, a term which we examine in all our different working languages because it demands a general discussion. The other is “museum”: initially a colonial institution which took different forms depending on the colonial power, this institution later became a focus for asserting independence and is today a privileged domain for taking back and inventing culture, in the broad sense of the term.

13We have built models for comparative multilingual “dictionary” entries bringing together the skills of linguists and heritage specialists: initially written in French, we have then translated/adapted these arictles into English and into the main cross-border vehicular languages of Sub-Saharan Africa.

14This small volume seeks to make the promotion, re-invention, or indeed invention, of heritage a shared common property, and seeks to be as useful for national and international decision makers, as for population groups and communities, via a variety of bridge builders and mediators.

15It seems to us that this is an exercise worth taking further.


16This volume is the first incarnation of our project, and is as such a sort of prototype. It will give readers an idea of what we aim to achieve, concretely establishing the legitimacy of our project and also hopefully inviting discussion, reactions, remarks and suggestions for new lines of development.

17This work is being published in four languages – two European languages and two widely spoken cross-border vehicular West African languages.

18It is also in the process of being translated into Swahili and Sukuma, which should make it possible to identify – and indeed emphasize – differences and similarities in the way people speak of heritage in Swahili, which is effectively the lingua franca of many East African countries, and in Sukuma, the language of the eponymous people.

19Let us take this opportunity to remind ourselves that no continent is free from the processes of linguistic domination and their attendant cultural and economic transformations: each year, a large number of languages disappear. ACALAN coordinates the research in descriptive linguistics and sociolinguistics that is being conducted in Africa, in order to try and stem the decline of indigenous African languages, which actually serve as a lever to development.

© Demopolis, 2014

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