Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) remains one of Frantz Fanon’s most significant works, written during the height of the Algerian war for independence and exploring the psychological devastation of colonialism as well as advocating the use of violence as a tool in anti-colonial struggle. But how did early translations of the book influence its reception and the spread of its ideas? In this feature essay, Kathryn Batchelor, Sue-Ann Harding and Christina Kullberg introduce recent edited collection Translating Frantz Fanon Across Continents and Languages, and offer three snapshots of the histories of the book’s translation into English, Swedish and Arabic.
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Translating Frantz Fanon Across Continents and Languages. Kathryn Batchelor and Sue-Ann Harding (eds). Routledge. 2017.
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The writings of Frantz Fanon are nothing if not polemical. For some, Fanon is an intellectual, a philosopher, whose reflections on alienation, racism and colonialism now serve as a cornerstone of postcolonial studies; for others, he was, and remains, an apostle of violence. The story of how this man from Martinique came to mean both of these things is one that cannot fail to intrigue anyone with an interest in book reception or the spread of ideas. The fact that much of this reception took place in languages and political situations other than the ones into which Fanon first wrote adds further levels of complexity.
Against this background, Translating Frantz Fanon Across Continents and Languages investigates how, when, where and why the works of Fanon were first translated and read. The primary focus is on early versions of Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), the book which Fanon wrote during the height of the Algerian war for independence, exposing the psychological devastation wrought by colonialism and notoriously arguing that there is a role for violence in anti-colonial struggles. Structured according to different geographical regions, the volume tells the stories of the translations of Fanon’s texts into twelve different languages – Italian, English, Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. Each chapter addresses four questions:
Firstly, how did the translations come about? Who decided to translate or publish Fanon’s work, and how did they come to hear about it? Who were the translators and which positions did they occupy in the cultures into which the book was translated?
Secondly, what were the paratexts of the translated versions like? Which aspects of the various themes of Fanon’s thinking were foregrounded on the covers and in the blurbs? Who authored any prefaces or introductions? Where did Fanon’s essays first appear in anthologies or journals, and in which texts were they read? What possible influence could any of these things have had on the ways in which Fanon was read in the new contexts, and how did the contexts themselves influence the paratextual decisions taken by the publishers?
Thirdly, how were the translations themselves carried out? Would any of the terms or expressions used in the translations have had particular resonance in the political and ideological contexts in which Fanon was being read? How was Fanon’s at times dense philosophical language dealt with by the translators? Was the force of any of Fanon’s arguments – such as those on the role of violence in anti-colonial struggle – diminished or indeed reinforced? Were any parts of Fanon’s texts left out?
Fourthly, which groups or movements read the book and what impact did it have on them? In which kinds of publications did any reviews of Fanon’s works appear? Who was quoting Fanon, and to what ends? More specifically, to what extent could the claims – made by Homi Bhabha, amongst others – that Fanon’s book had influenced the IRA, Ali Shariati or the Palestinian resistance group, Fateh, be historically documented?
As an enquiry that starts with a small object – a book, in French – and traces the journeys of that book and of the ideas within it across linguistic, national and temporal borders, Translating Frantz Fanon Across Continents and Languages is a form of microhistory or histoire croisée. Interpersonal networks, particularly those between translators, publishing houses and activists sympathetic to the cause of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), revealed themselves as pivotal to our understanding of how and why Fanon’s ideas crossed continents and languages, as the following snapshots from three chapters of the volume demonstrate.
Constance Farrington, the Jeanson network and Charles-André Julien by Kathryn Batchelor
When I began this research project, very little was known about Constance Farrington, first English translator of Les Damnés de la terre (The Damned, Présence Africaine, 1963), despite the global success of her version. The only information available – which eventually turned out to be false – was that she was English, and was a member of the British Communist Party. Searches in Communist Party archives revealed no traces of Farrington, but the discovery of an Irish Times review of the translation as well as a memoir written by Constance’s former husband, Brian, revealed not only that she was Irish, but that she was far more closely connected to pro-Algerian circles in Paris than anyone had imagined. In particular, the memoir mentions Constance’s friendship with Micheline Pouteau, member of the Jeanson network (an underground movement that supported the FLN), and one of those arrested when the network was betrayed in March 1960. Constance visited Pouteau in prison and may even have helped her and other prisoners by smuggling in the stockings that were used in their high-profile successful escape.
Other aspects of Constance’s interpersonal network similarly connect her to pro-FLN circles: in particular, she was friendly with Charles-André Julien, an extremely well-connected and influential historian and politician and lifelong critic of colonialism. Julien had argued in favour of entering negotiations with the Algerian ‘rebels’ as early as 1955, and regularly published articles in the French press or took part in interviews arguing in favour of Algerian independence. Julien’s direct connections to Présence Africaine – he was, amongst other things, the author of a preface to Aimé Césaire’s Toussaint Louverture, published by Présence Africaine in 1961 – make it highly likely that Julien was the means through which Présence Africaine and Farrington came into contact with each other. Through this biographical research, Farrington thus emerges as someone who was translating not from a position of ideologically sympathetic but distant interest (as the previous claims about her had indicated). but as someone who was living in the highly-charged political environment of Paris during the Algerian war, and who was therefore translating from a position of urgency in sympathy with Fanon’s cause.
A small Swedish publisher, a mural and a student in Paris by Christina Kullberg
Image Credit: Östermalmstorg, Sweden. Mural art, unattributed. Photograph by Christina Kullberg.
Fanon watches over the Swedish bourgeoisie as they cross one of Stockholm’s central subway stations on their way to work or to eat at one of the city’s upscale restaurants. The walls of Östermalmstorg, the most affluent neighbourhood in the city, are covered with a mural, painted by Siri Derkert (1888-1973), representing the women’s liberation movement, the peace movement and the environmentalist movement. The mural mainly depicts female activists, writers and thinkers, from Hypatia and Sappho to Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir and Rachel Carson, who reign next to excerpts from ‘The Internationale’ and various leftist slogans. And there, flanked by two other male giants – Jean-Paul Sartre on the right and Albert Einstein on the left – Fanon appears, his face sketched simultaneously from the front and in profile, and his name written vertically. His presence may seem surprising, especially when one considers that the mural was completed in 1965, only four years after Fanon’s death. Why does Fanon hold a consecrated place in the public sphere in this peripheral capital of the far North, and how did he get here?
Part of the answer lies in the story of how the first Swedish translation of Les Damnés came about. In 1961, Gösta Skoog Förlag, a small publishing house in Gothenburg focused on local history, was seeking to widen its horizons. They were looking for interesting books to translate, and turned to Paris. As a small player in the Swedish publishing world, Gösta Skoog did not look to the major publishing houses but instead contacted a young Swedish student, Ulla Swedberg, to ask what was making the headlines, and what people were talking about in Paris at that time. She mentioned Fanon. It is likely that Sartre’s preface helped to persuade Gösta Skoog, who asked Swedberg to translate the work as quickly as possible. Jordens fördömda came out in Sweden in 1962, thus making it one of the world’s first translations of this work. A second translation would follow in 1969, making Sweden doubly remarkable for having two translations of Les Damnés appear within a decade of the book’s publication in France. In contrast to the Italian translation which was linked to groups engaged in the Algerian war, the Swedish story reveals the workings of individuals, and must be considered partly as a case of what anthropologists call serendipity: a focused search for something interesting from France led to a discovery in Scandinavia of a global thinker whose thoughts would make an impact on Sweden’s international engagements.
A progressive Beirut publisher, the Syrian Baʿth Party and a missing puzzle piece by Sue-Ann Harding
The first Arabic translation of Les Damnés was published in 1963 by Dar al-Ṭalīʿah (Vanguard Press) in Beirut, Lebanon. Founded in 1959 or 1960 (the sources differ), Dar al-Ṭalīʿah was the publishing house of Bashir al-Daouq (1931-2007), an economics professor at the American University of Beirut, who was renowned for his open-mindedness and pluralism. Dar al-Ṭalīʿah became known as a refuge for futuristic and leftist thinking, a centre for ‘the new, the courageous, and the problematic in Arab culture’ (Chalala 2007/2008). The names of the translators on the first Arabic translation published in 1963 are Sami al-Durubi and Jamal al-Atassi. Born in Homs in Syria in the early 1920s, educated in Paris and returning to Syria to teach, both al-Durubi and al-Atassi were active members of the emerging Syrian Baʿth Party. Although now well-tainted by the tyrannies of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Assad dynasty, at the time of its formation and early development in the 1940s and 1950s, the party’s founders were mobilised around socialist ideas of economic, educational and agricultural reform. As members of the Baʿth Party, both al-Durubi and al-Atassi were strong supporters of Egypt’s charismatic president, Gamal Abd al-Nasser and advocates of Arab unity and nationalism, a dream realised in the creation of the United Arab Republic in 1958 through the political merger of Syria and Egypt. During the UAR years, al-Durubi was the director of the Ministry of Culture and al-Atassi the editor-in-chief for the Communist weekly al-Ǧamahīr (The Masses). This was the period in which the two men – both of whom were prolific writers in their own right – worked together to translate Fanon’s Les Damnés as well as texts by Sartre and Jean-Yves Calvez’s La Pensée de Karl Marx (1959) and Sartre’s Matérialisme et revolution (1960).
Whether al-Durubi and al-Atassi ever had direct personal contact with Fanon during this period is not clear: while they both travelled to Algiers, there is no record of them having met Fanon in person, and by this time Fanon had already resigned from Blida and was based in Tunis. There were, nevertheless, direct connections to the Algerian war. al-Atassi’s younger cousin, Nur al-Din al-Atassi (1930-1992) volunteered as a medic for the cause of the Algerian resistance in 1957, together with two of his close friends, Ibrahīm Maḫus (1925-2013) and Yusuf Zuʿaīn (b.1931), and spent several years in Algeria, during which time he could well have come into contact with Fanon’s work and ideas. All three later became prominent leaders in the Baʿth government of Salah Jadīd and Hafiẓ al-Assad (1966-1970) – Nur al-Din al-Atassi was president, Zuʿaīn his prime minister and Maḫus foreign minister.
While the detail of how al-Durubi and al-Atassi came to translate Fanon’s book remains elusive, their biographies clearly dispel the concept of the invisible, passive translator. Like the publisher, al-Daouq, these men were engaged, involved and informed, moving in similar social circles, from well-connected families, with a similar education and shared experiences. It is this progressive, political environment that is the birthplace of Fanon in Arabic.
As these snapshots make clear, as researchers we often found ourselves working against the grain, trying to uncover information that archives or existing historical accounts did not think important to preserve or address directly. Much of the research was painstaking and slow, and the gaps and silences that remained after our efforts, and that are highlighted in our narratives, heighten our awareness of the constructed nature of history. Nevertheless, the breakthroughs were all the more rewarding for that, and the end result is a volume that offers a fresh angle on Fanon, rejecting sweeping sensationalist accounts of his worldwide influence in favour of carefully researched historical accounts.
Kathryn Batchelor is Professor of Translation Studies at University College London. She is the author of Translation and Paratexts (2018) and Decolonizing Translation (2009) and co-editor of Translating Frantz Fanon across Continents and Languages (2017). Her other publications include Translating Thought/Traduire la pensée (2011, co-edited with Yves Gilonne), Intimate Enemies: Translation in Francophone Contexts (2013, co-edited with Claire Bisdorff) and China-Africa Relations: Building Images through Cultural Cooperation, Media Representation and Communication (2017, co-edited with Xiaoling Zhang).
Sue-Ann Harding is Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author of Beslan: Six Stories of the Siege (2012), co-editor of Translating Frantz Fanon across Continents and Languages (2017) and co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Culture (2018). She has also published articles in many of the leading journals including Meta, Target, The Translator, Perspectives: Studies in Translatology, Journal of Language and Politics and The Russian Review.
Christina Kullberg is Associate Professor of French and Francophone Literatures at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and a member of the research programme ‘Cosmopolitan and Vernacular Dynamics in World Literatures’ (www.worldlit.se). She is the author of The Poetics of Ethnography in Martinican Narratives: Exploring the Self and the Environment (2013) and Espace urbain et écriture des carrefours (2006). Her other publications include a translation of Edouard Glissant’s Philosophie de la Relation (2012), and numerous articles in journals such as Callaloo, Small Axe and Research in African Literatures.
Note: This feature essay gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.