In the Vernacular is a project in which an extract from a single email I wrote and sent from Freetown to my sisters, in February 2008 is translated into languages other than English. To my delight, my first translator, Steven Fulakeza, translated the text into Chewa, a language that I cannot speak. The language of my grandmother, and my mother – Chewa people. I call this translation the first time I have ever spoken Chewa. My second translation is into Spanish, a language whose sound, touch and feel I cannot resist so long as I live in el Bronx. English, Chewa, Spanish – languages that make possible my colonization, my alienation, my assimilation, my disruptive translations, my gendered interpretations, my othering of ‘others’, my colonizing others stories, my reinscription of my womans’ lives.
In the Vernacular is partly digitized and a hybrid medium of visual arts and the written word. My reading of the text in English is recorded and accompanied by sub-titles, in Chewa, Spanish, Finnish, Indonesian, Korean, Arabic, and more. Human Rights discourse is not universal, and my academic writing is written for a human rights audience based in western Europe and the United States, the sites of my professional mobility and essential research funding. My intimacy with the West legitimates my work and is its platform for distribution. My mastery of the English language is imperative to my performance as an authentic intellectual on a panel of American human rights experts.
My students do not complain about my accent – I have been spared the complaint ‘she has an accent but is still pretty good’ on teaching evaluations. A code for the professor does not speak American and therefore an inauthentic intellectual. They describe me on student evaluations as ‘articulate’, ‘a sweetheart’, ‘the best professor ever’, ‘more than just a professor’ and ‘easy to understand’. My search committees, in accented English, compliment me on my command of the English language, and I (shame on me) throw a tantrum and withdraw my submission when an editor, a European who speaks English as a third language attempts to change my use of the word ‘reify’ to ‘deify’. As the colonized, decolonized, postcolonized, recolonized, and colonizer my messy relationship with English is its own PhD dissertation. But before I set off on that epic project, ‘In the Vernacular’ is a light hearted vehicle (starts slow but will accelerate) to nudge myself and others into a discussion on the language, dialect, vernacular of human rights. Please submit your translation.