This project explores the dominant images of 'Africa' that are being constructed for China, and vice versa. It asks how these images are channelled and shaped, and examines translation selection and exchange patterns in an effort to better understand Sino-African power dynamics.
The rapid growth in China’s involvement with Africa since the turn of the 21st century has been the focus of much recent scholarship and media attention. In both the popular and academic coverage of the topic, there is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a marked discrepancy between the discourses put forward by China on the one hand, and the West on the other. While China persistently promotes the ‘win-win’, friendship-and-equality discourse summarized in its 2006 white paper, reports and scholarship in the West have a tendency to view Chinese involvement with suspicion, and even alarm, accusing the super-power of taking part in a new ‘scramble for Africa’.
What is striking about the existing coverage is the near-complete absence of consideration of language and translation issues from the debate. Very few publications or media reports pay any attention at all to the role played by translation, neither in the more narrow sense of the way in which Chinese and Africans communicate, nor in the broader sense of how African culture is translated for the Chinese, and vice versa. Yet such translations form a critical part of all co-operation, and 'translations' of culture in the broader sense are becoming increasingly prominent in the agendas of the political leaders: cultural exchanges and 'cultures-in-focus' events now feature strongly in the official programme of Sino-African co-operation. This project aims to address this gap, seeking to identify the dominant images of Africa that are being 'translated' for the Chinese and vice versa, and to explore questions of agency in the translation process (who decides what is to be translated, for whom, and for what reasons).
In light of the incredible size, complexity and diversity of both China and Africa, this project can only provide indicative, rather than comprehensive, responses to these questions, and in this respect it may be viewed as a pilot study which will unearth as many new questions as it will provide answers. The project consists of two interrelated parts.
Firstly, it aims to carry out a global survey of literary translation, identifying all African literature translated for China since the year 2000 and all Chinese literature made available to African audiences over the same period. It will explore the types of themes that dominate, and identify any that are consistently excluded, and will examine the ways in which the reading matter is framed for its new audiences through covers, prefaces, and blurbs.
Secondly, the project examines the translation of other types of cultural and media products, such as films, TV programmes, performances, exhibitions and newspapers across several geographically and temporally limited spaces in both China and Africa, once again paying attention to the types of cultural products and themes that are favoured and exploring the ways in which they are 'translated', both literary and metaphorically, for the new audiences.
Through this combined approach the project thus aims to identify both the principal translation patterns that hold between China and Africa today and the predominant images that each side is forming of the other. Grounded on the premise, developed and repeatedly confirmed through translation studies research, that translation carries an indicative function, or in other words, that it can reveal as much about cultures and intercultural dynamics as it is itself shaped by them, the study thus aims to enhance academic and popular understanding of the Sino-African relationship.
We set out to try and have a better, more informed understanding of the nature of present-day relations between China and Africa by studying the images that each side is constructing of the other through cultural exchange, media representation, and translation-related activities. We have discovered cultural exchange activity to be primarily driven and funded by China, with significantly more events showcasing Chinese culture in Africa than vice versa, despite the insistence on the mutual nature of the China-Africa friendship by high level Chinese and African officials. This imbalance is in part connected with economic realities, but it undoubtedly also indicates that Chinese-African cultural exchange needs to be viewed as part and parcel of China’s efforts to promote its own culture abroad more generally.
The unidirectional nature of cultural exchange is to a large extent mirrored by linguistic exchange: as in many other places in the world, there has been a rapid increase in Chinese language learning opportunities in Africa through the expansion of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, but there has been no parallel to this in China, and communication between Chinese and Africans in both China and Africa is for the most part dependent on Africans learning Chinese, rather than the other way around.
Most of the Chinese cultural activities taking place in Africa emphasize traditional Chinese crafts and celebrations (paper-cutting, dragon dances, martial arts, festivals) rather than contemporary expressions of Chinese culture. While many of those involved in organising Chinese cultural activities in Africa stress that their offering is a response to local demands, the uniformity of the offering – not only in Africa but also further afield – suggests that it is more likely that they are aligning their activities with the kind of image of Chinese culture that is currently being promoted by President Xi Jinping. This traditional image of China that is being presented through cultural activities contrasts with the image of China as a forward-looking, fast developing, technologically innovative nation that is presented through Chinese-sponsored media channels targeting Africa, such as CCTV Africa and China Daily African Weekly.
Sketching the images of Africa that are being presented to China is more difficult, because of the much smaller number of initiatives driven by African countries. Many of the events showcasing African in China also reach for traditional expressions of culture (dancing, music, ancient cultural heritage), but given that the funders and organisers of many of these events are Chinese, this is probably more an indication of the kind of image that China has – or wants to promote – of Africa than of anything else. In the case of a country like South Africa, there is no doubt that African leaders are concerned to foreground development, industrialization, and economic growth over traditional expressions of culture in the image of themselves that they are seeking to present to their BRICS partner.
A significant portion of cultural exchange and translation-related activities appear to have high-level officials, rather than the general public, as their target audience. Many cultural events are accessible by invitation only, and some of the works of African fiction and poetry that have been translated into Chinese in recent years are more easily connected with efforts to nurture high-level political relations than with commercial or cultural aims. Other translated African literature has a very weak distribution in China: the publishers and booksellers that we interviewed connect this with a general lack of interest in African culture among Chinese people.
On the other side of the equation, there is also very little Chinese literature available in translation in bookshops and libraries across Africa, and once again, booksellers link this to a lack of interest in Chinese culture on the part of the book-reading public. The most substantial collections of Chinese literature in African libraries result from book donations from China, and – in parallel with the emphasis on traditional Chinese culture outlined above – limit themselves almost exclusively to providing multiple copies of the officially sanctioned great classics of Chinese literature. While there are some cultural activities that are starting to target a more general audience – notably the dubbing of a number of Chinese television series into Swahili and Hausa – the overall picture that emerges through our study of translation and exchange activities is of initiatives that serve primarily to reinforce a feel-good image of China-Africa friendship among key Chinese and African stakeholders and on the global stage, rather than to challenge or construct the images that Africans have of China, and Chinese of Africa. The ways in which the various initiatives are presented serves to some extent to disguise the rather one-sided nature of the exchange.
During the course of the project, we have presented our interim findings at five international academic conferences (in Brazil, France, China, UK), and have also organised our own conference around our project theme. Most of the conference papers are freely available online via our project webpage.
We published an edited collection of essays entitled China-Africa Relations: Building Images through Cultural Cooperation, Media Representation and Communication with Routledge in 2017. View the table of contents. We are continuing to write up other aspects of the research for publication as articles in leading international journals.