Cheikh Anta Diop: Translation at the service of history

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This is a case study of how the knowledge and practice of translation can be put to the service of history. The study addresses in particular the efforts of a renowned African scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop, in tracing the African antecedents of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. The focus is on Cheikh Anta Diop’s mastery and translation (or deciphering) of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Meroitic script into a modern written language script. Diop’s ultimate goal was to establish a historical and cultural connection between ancient Egypt and Black Africa, through a systematic translation of certain keywords and a comparative linguistic study of Ancient Egyptian and African languages. Diop was also interested in refuting arguments or hypotheses regarding the untranslatability of cultures, particularly between so-called primitive languages and modern, highly scientific languages. Although the debate about the link between Black Africa and Ancient Egypt had lost steam by the end of the 20th century, Diop’s work still carries weight in some scholarly circles, especially given the contemporary ideological importance of issues related to ethnicity and “identities” in disciplines such as postcolonialism and cultural studies. Whatever position one chooses to take on the debate on the subject of a ‘Black Egypt’, one cannot deny the considerable impact of Diop’s scholarship and, from a translation studies perspective, his role as an agent of translation in the writing of history.


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