Translating Colonialism in French West Africa


It was a great experience to wake up, grab a yogurt and decide where I wanted to work on any given day. Would I work in the office I’d been borrowing in the library? From the study room in the dorm? In the outdoor classroom?

That was my routine starting at about four weeks into my summer project — I had finished all of the preservation and scanning, which would allow me to work with the magazines without damaging them. Now, I could pull up

french colonial magazine

Nick Johnson ’19 preserves and translates documents from the Late French Colonial period.

each article from Dropbox and my cloud storage for translation from anywhere.

With funding from a Davidson Research Initiative Grant I worked with French colonial documents from the 1950s, often referred to as the Late French Colonial period. My primary tasks were to select articles that would provide insights in translation, and to preserve them for the archives. I then spent several weeks contacting French libraries and archives, asking after who possessed the copyright to these 50-year-old propagandist magazines… which went about as well as you’d expect.

At the same time, I was scanning the documents so they wouldn’t fall apart when I attempted to translate them later. When the time came to do the translation, I dove into loads of articles on construction, economy, urbanization and other topics pertinent to the Late French Colonial Period of French West Africa, a federation of the colonies of Senegal, Mauritania, French Soudan (Mali), French Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Haute Volta (Burkina Faso), Dahomey (Benin) and Niger.

A spring seminar on the theory and practice of translation, co-taught by my adviser Caroline Fache with Roman Utkin, helped me to decide how to approach translating these historical documents—especially since President Quillen had come into class and taught on her own experience with historical translations.

To properly represent the rhetoric of the period, I tried to keep my translations as literal as possible, going from French into English. Then came the research. After the translations, I read numerous sources on the Late French Colonial period so I could place these documents into the historical discourse. This contextual work is what I will be able to publish, since I don’t have the copyright to publish the scans or even my translations.

This summer, I learned how important and nuanced research in the humanities is. Compared to my chemistry-major roommate, there was less structure to my work; I enjoyed being able to work anywhere with Wifi instead of in a lab all day. There was however a sense of gravity to the work with these documents, as these texts contribute to how we perceive one of the worst periods of human history.

My work wasn’t focused on the future, but rather I was helping to frame how we might address the past in the future.



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Nick Johnson '19 is majoring in global literary theory.

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