Black on Red: Translating women from the francophone African periphery in the Soviet Union
Updated: Sep 14
In September 1962, Zukhra Rakhimbabaeva was invited to speak at a seminar in Tashkent for African women organised by the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF). Established in 1945, the WIDF had official status of an NGO at the United Nations and included members from more than 100 countries in the 1970s-1980s. The WIDF held an International Women’s Congress every four or five years, and its Council met once a year. The WIDF supported women from the Global South not only in the fight against colonialism, but also provided educational activities such as seminars and courses while promoting a feminist agenda.
In her speech, Rakhimbabaeva stated:
‘Dear African sisters! [...] We, the Soviet people, know well that the gifted and hardworking African people—being heirs to an ancient and advanced civilisation—will make every effort towards overcoming the long-lasting traces of colonialism when it comes to education.’
This extract from Rakhimbabaeva’s speech clearly demonstrates the transnational character of the WIDF.
My PhD project considers the Soviet Union as a geo-cultural frame and investigates how Soviet translation negotiated African women’s ideas, cultures, languages. Transnationalising modern languages involves studying languages outside national boundaries by investigating cultural exchange across time and space. The connections between Africa and the Soviet Union have increasingly been the subject of attention by historians, however there remains much work to be done in translation studies scholarship in English. The majority of translation studies scholarship in English concentrates on translations from Russian either into or out of English, so my PhD project contributes to this transnational dialogue by expanding the range of texts and translational trajectories of the discipline, particularly as it deals with the import and translation of African francophone fiction by women into Russian. As in the case of socialist Yugoslavia, it is reasonable to suggest that transnational feminist encounters promoted the import and translation of these African feminist texts. Drawing on feminist translation theory, I focus on translators’ interventions into African texts. What is at stake here is whether African women’s voice of femininity is silenced, retained or somewhat transformed into a regional feminism. I use the term ‘voice’ to refer to women’s experiences, agency and ideology.
In my research, I focus in particular on African francophone voices of femininity from Senegal and Algeria. My corpus is comprised of four novels by two Algerian women (Aïcha Lemsine and Assia Djebar) and two Senegalese women (Mariama Bâ and Aminata Saw Fall). Aïcha Lemsine’s novel La Chrysalide (1976), Mariama Bâ’s Une Si Longue Lettre (1979) and Aminata Sow Fall’s La Grève des bàttu (1979) were published in Russian in 1981, while Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, La Fantasia (1985), was published in 1990.
Left: Assia Djebar’s Russian collection of three novels including L’Amour, La Fantasia (1985)
Right: Russian book cover of Mariama Bâ’s Une Si Longue Lettre (1979)
Bâ’s texts shed light on how African women are marginalised by customs and religion in a patriarchal society. Like Bâ, Lemsine recounts women’s oppression in a patriarchal society around the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Djebar intertwines Algerian history with scenes from a young girl’s life in a story that stretches from the French conquest in 1830 to the War of Liberation in the 1950s. Sow Fall does not write specifically about women but discusses corruption within the bureaucratic administration and sexism in society. I have chosen this corpus because the texts represent two different regions of Africa (North and Western), which allows me to address different scholars and analyse different African realities.
Translations are always conducted within a specific historical context, therefore I situate my research in relation to broader social and political events, especially those directly affecting women such as feminist transnational encounters throughout the works of WIDF or the Committee of Soviet Women.
Group photo from the WIDF course for African leaders, Sofia (Bulgaria) 1982, from Kristen Rogheh Ghodsee, Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War (Duke University Press, 2019), p. 196
WIDF Council meeting in Sofia, 1989, from Ghodsee, Second World, Second Sex, p. 231
The translation scene: key issues and questions
Translations are always embedded in cultural and political systems, and within their specific historical context. The language used in translation often represents dominant assumptions prevalent within society. Therefore, my project seeks to understand Soviet feminist discourses in late socialism and the ways in which they have influenced the translation of francophone African voices of femininity.
In addition to the WIDF, another organisation that promoted solidarity between Soviet women and women from the Global South was the Committee of Soviet Women (CSW). Established in 1941 as the Soviet Women Anti-Fascist Committee, it was renamed the CSW in 1956 during the Khrushchevian 'thaw', and it promoted national and international peace and solidarity. Valentina Tereshkova, the world's first female cosmonaut, led the CSW from 1968 to 1987.
Source: Yevgeniy Fiks “Red Africa”, Calvert Journal (https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/5323/red-africa-yevgeniy-fiks-history-soviet-relations-africa-art-ideology)
The above poster was published in the Soviet Union in 1973 and reads ‘For the Solidarity of Women of the World’. Its publication coincided with the time the granting of the People’s Friendship Order to the Committee of Soviet Women. This honour was awarded to organisations who engaged in international friendship and cooperation, which highlights the transnational character of the CSW. Arguably, this cooperation may have influenced the selection and translation of African women authors in the Soviet Union, and this is a link that I am interested in pursuing in my research.
I focus on novels that were all published during the period of late socialism against the backdrop of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Feminist ideas during perestroika, as Buckley points out, ‘once condemned as being counter-revolutionary for being divisive of working-class unity were being articulated with the firm conviction of second-wave western feminism’. Debates over women’s position within society were also influenced by the Soviet policy of glasnost (openness), which encouraged the more open discussion of political and social issues. Under the policy of glasnost, new concepts that had been previously unthinkable were discussed by female academics and political actors. These included ideas such as muzhskoi mir [man’s word], printsipiy muzhskogo prevoskhodstva [principles of male superiority], and patriarkhal’nye presdtavlenia [patriarchal notions], and muzhekratiia [male dominated bureaucracy]. Consequently, citizens were performing roles rather than applying the literal meanings of the ‘authoritative discourse’.  Thus, translators were able to project their own feminist ideas into the translated texts in a way that was deemed acceptable by the state-owned publishing industry.
Initial findings and Conclusion
My initial findings show that Soviet feminist perspectives shaped aspects of the Russian translations of African feminist texts. While the Russian translations do not always fully capture the experiences of African women, there is tendency to create expressions in an attempt to place emphasis on the African feminist message or tone down the African masculine language in the Russian translations, but at the same time, there are Russian translations that do accommodate African patriarchal gender norms. As an example, Bâ’s text describes the moment in traditional Senegalese society where men dictate what should happen to a widow, using their power to subjugate women:
Source Text: Elle s’ampute de sa personnalité, de sa dignité, devenant une chose au service de l’homme.
Close Translation: she gives up her personality, her dignity, becoming a thing in the service of the man.
Target Text: ей приходится жертвовать собой и покорно служить мужу (eĭ prikhoditsi͡a zhertvovatʹ soboĭ i pokorno sluzhitʹ muzhu)
Back Translation: she has to sacrifice herself and obediently serves her husband
Bâ shows women’s treatment as ‘objects’, using the word ‘thing’. However, the Russian translation revisited the original text and used a less dehumanizing expression, revealing a feminist stance. In this instance, what makes translation strategies feminist is not the notion of feminism itself, but rather the use to which these strategies are put.
Soviet feminism drew inspiration not only from the western women’s democratic movement but also from currents of Marxist feminism. I use Tong’s definition of Marxist feminism to understand women's oppression not so much as the result of the intentional actions of individuals but as the product of the political, social, and economic structures associated with capitalism. My project attempts to apply feminist approaches to the socialist context, but it is also a journey through the past, present, and future. In my research, I demonstrate that the currents of Russian Marxist feminism continue to provide a great source of inspiration for today’s Russian feminist activists, because most Russians can identify with it and it is not regarded in the same negative light as western ‘imported’ feminism. As Sheila Rowbotham has noted, one of the major weaknessness that leave political movements vulnerable to misinterpretation and defeat is that they have no way of handing down memory, so the history of their struggles is easily forgotten. The Soviet translators of the African francophone novels in the late socialist period challenged African gender relations or expressions within the texts that they perceived as damaging for women. One hand, this could be attributed to Soviet feminist policies in general in an attempt to portray women from this African periphery as extended members of the proletariat for the Soviet audience. On the other hand, the translator was able to project in the text his/her own feminist ideas due to societal changes and the political context of glasnost. Overall, these African women's voices were altered and presented in different terms.
Mukile Kasongo Ph.D. Student in Translation studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. Before he began his PhD studies, He spent four years in Russia. Mukile believes there is a need to study translation involving Russian language and African textualities. His main interests lie in the intersection of feminist translation, translation theory, linguistic hybridity, Francophone studies, Russian studies, African studies and Postcolonial studies. For more, see his academic page here or follow him at twitter @MukileK
 Yulia Gradskova, “Women’s International Democratic Federation, the ‘Third World’ and the Global Cold War from the Late-1950s to the Mid-1960s.” Women’s History Review 29, 2 (2019), p. 270.
 Andy Byford, Connor Doak, and Stephen Hutchings, eds. Transnational Russian Studies (Liverpool University Press, 2020), p. 7.
 Chiara Bonfiglioli, “Feminist Translations in a Socialist Context: The Case of Yugoslavia.” Gender & History 30, 1 (2018), p. 242.
 Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi, eds. Postcolonial Translation: Theory and Practice (London: Taylor & Francis, 1999), p. 6.
 Mary Buckley, “Gender and Reform.” in Catherine Merridale and Chris Ward eds., Perestroika: The Historical Perspective (London: Edward Arnold, 1991), p. 75.
 Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 15.
 Françoise Massardier-Kenney,“Towards a Redefinition of Feminist Translation Practice.” The Translator 3, 1 (1997), p. 57.
 Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 39.
 Cited in Meg Luxton “Marxist Feminism and Anticapitalism: Reclaiming Our History, Reanimating Our Politics.” Studies in Political Economy 94, 1 (2014), p. 137.