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The Task of the Loving Translator: Translation, Völkerschauen, and Colonial Ambivalence in Peter Altenberg’s Ashantee (1897)


Following the exhibition of Ashanti culture in Vienna's Prater in the summer of 1896, the impressionist writer Peter Altenberg published Ashantee (1897) in remembrance and reenactment of that space in translation. Translation here connotes two parallel processes: trans-lation and trans-lation. The former articulates the hybridization of subjects in transit whereas the latter addresses their relocation and displacement as speakers of different tongues and representatives of distinct cultures commingle at the same time. This article traces the constant and confusing traffic of Europeans and non-Europeans in and out of turn-of-the-century "Völkerschauen" as well as Altenberg's linguistic illustration of those border crossings in Ashantee. By focusing on the relation among languages in this intercultural text primarily written in German, but also containing English, French, and "Odschi," -- the Ashanti language -- I shall investigate how Ashantee puts language to work as a marker of difference and a vehicle for equivalence. Altenberg's poetic interplay of languages explores the negotiation of self with the exotic and gendered Other by way of translation with the result of both sustaining and undermining traditional binaries of colonial power. Against the backdrop of Jacques Derrida's work on translation as a function of love, I will argue that the text reinscribes the colonial and non-colonial, Western and non-Western "contact zone" hidden behind Altenberg's love affair across the color line. My linguistic approach to the textual form is to complement and supplement a postcolonial, ethical reading of Ashantee.

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