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African Women: A modern history.

African Women: A modern history, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch (translated by Beth Gillian Raps). Westview Press, Boulder Co., 1997. 308+xviii pp. 17.50 [pounds sterling]. 0 8133 2361 4

I was pleased to have this book to review, originally published as Les Africaines: Histoire des femmes d'Afrique du [XIXXX.sup.e] au [XX.sup.e] siecle, Editions Desjonqueres (1994): as acute a scholar as Coquery-Vidrovitch providing us with a comprehensive historical text on African women, an excellent teaching resource and quick reference! Sure enough, the French text is comprehensive and lucidly written, covering both nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and earlier where there is evidence) and a wide range of topics, from the perennial `women's status' through work to AIDS and politics. As we might expect, too, the material is drawn from both French and English based sources, a bonus when so few British students speak a second language.

The book is in four parts of which only the first looks in detail at pre-twentieth century women. In this section Mme Coquery-Vidrovitch lays a firm anthropological and historical foundation for what is to follow. The remaining three parts cover the impacts of colonialism on women (mainly the introduction of cash cropping to rural areas and African women's involvement with urban migration); women and work (including trading, domestic service, sex, work and, more generally, both formal and informal sector work), and the final section, entitled `Women and Modernity' looks mainly at women's participation in political spheres. All in all, we have a very comprehensive survey.

The English translation, however, is problematic. I did not set out to pick holes in the translation but was alerted by some strange statements. I was alarmed, for example, at the prospect of whole generations of students who would graduate thinking that all African houses (with, depending on how it is read, the exception of the Tswana) have cellars! The French word grenier is translated as `cellar' in two places (pp. 15 and 14), while earlier (p. 11) it is translated as `food store': why not just use `granary'?

Having spotted this I went through the first 20 pages of the English text in parallel with the French. Apart from quibbles at the translation of glorifie constantly as `glorified' whatever the context and not an often used word in English, there are more serious complaints, for example, the second complete sentence on page 4: `Certain queen mothers and older women held important roles, for example, among the Yoruba of Nigeria, transmission of the oriki, both literary and historical texts.' ... just does not make sense in English, although it is perfectly comprehensible in the French. Similarly there are problems with the last sentence of the second paragraph on page 10. In paragraph four of the same page the English translation reads:

`He also chose wives and slaves from among war prisoners, gathering around him a female elite of bakembuga, ...' This is a translation of:

`Il en choisissait egalement parmi les captives de guerre, et parmi ses plus belles esclaves. Il rassembla ainsi une elite feminine de bakembuga ...' (1994:21) While on page 11, the second paragraph of `Daily Life':

First, it was mainly women who fanned.'

... is given as a translation of: `Il faut bien davantage parler de paysannes que de paysans' (1994:22) ..., this latter neatly making the point that when we use the word peasant we usually do not think of women, but of men. Further on page 12, men all over Africa did not use a ... `tool called the nton, a kind of shovel ... used by the Beti ...', rather they used a tool like the nton ..., and where the English text has `male supremacy' (page 16, paragraph one) the French has `the ideology of male supremacy': there are subtle differences in meaning and effect here.

There are other examples of awkward translation and, being more charitable, the possibility of typological errors such as 1927 for 1827 on page 14, also omissions from the French text: Coquery-Vidrovitch chooses her own phrases carefully and where there are particular statements for emphasis they are there for a purpose.

This is not an exhaustive list; as I said, I translated only the first 20 or so pages of the English text. It should not be the task of a reviewer to criticize translation nor do I claim competency as a translator, but where a text is potentially as useful as an introductory teaching text as Coquery-Vidrovitch's, it helps if what appears in the English is accurate. My reading of the English text it that it was written by someone unfamiliar with Africa and unfamiliar with anthropology: surely the sense and `flow' of the text could have been checked by the publishers' readers (avoiding such expressions as, for example, `to make weavings' (p. 16), `this is likely the reason' (p. 15), while discussion of dowry and bridewealth (translated as bride-price) is much reduced from the French). Mme Coquery-Vidrovitch has written an extremely useful and timely text. It is a pity that it is still largely inaccessible to an English speaking readership.


University of Birmingham
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:African Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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