• Simon Gikandi
  • Department of English, Princeton University
  • Abstract Title: This Thing that is Called Africa: Translation and the Work of the “Untutored” Intellectuals

Bio: Simon Gikandi is Robert Schirmer Professor and Chair of English at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Departments of Comparative Literature and African American Studies and the Program in African Studies. Before that he was Robert Hayden Collegiate Professor of English at the University of Michigan and the director of the Program in Comparative Literature. Gikandi was elected second vice president of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in December 2016. He was the first vice-president of the MLA in 2018 and became the association's president in 2019. He served as editor of PMLA, the official journal of the MLA, from 2011 to 2016. Born in Nyeri, Kenya, Gikandi earned his B.A. in literature, with first-class honors from the University of Nairobi. As a British Council Scholar at the University of Edinburgh, he graduated with an MLitt in English studies. He has a Ph.D. in English from Northwestern University. Gikandi's major fields of research and teaching are Anglophone literatures and cultures of Africa, India, the Caribbean, and postcolonial Britain; literary and critical theory; the black Atlantic and the African diaspora; and the English novel. His current research projects are on slavery and modernity, African philology, and cultures of the novel. He is the author of many books and articles, including Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean LiteratureMaps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism; and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Choice Outstanding Academic Publication for 2004. He is the co-author of The Columbia Guide to East African Literature in English since 1945, the editor of the Routledge Encyclopedia of African Literature, and the co-editor of The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature. His book Slavery and the Culture of Taste was the winner of the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Award; winner of the Melville J. Herskovits Award, given by the African Studies Association for the most important scholarly work in African studies; and a Choice Outstanding Academic Title. He is the editor of The Novel in Africa and the Caribbean since 1950, volume 11 of the Oxford History of the Novel in English. 

Gikandi is the recipient of a number of awards, including the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University (2014), a Guggenheim fellowship (2001), and an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship (1989). He has also received fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Gikandi was awarded the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities at Princeton University in 2017. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2018. 

Abstract:  For most of the colonial period, beginning in the late 19th century and continuing into the age of decolonization after World War II, the meaning of Africa depended on translation as both a cultural and linguistic gesture. Missionaries, colonial officials, and anthropologists set out to translate the continent into an idiom that would be intelligible and compatible with their respective missions. In translation, new African subjects were produced, a public sphere defined, and a literary culture established. In this lecture, I will map out the nature of these gestures of translation, the major actors, and the implications for future knowledge about Africa. I will focus primarily on the role of “vernacular” or “untutored” intellectuals who, writing outside the institution of the university and in African languages, defied their role as native informants and established the African public sphere as we know it today.

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