Souleymane Bachir DIAGNE

Philosophy, Columbia University, United-States

Fellowship : May to June 2019 ( former fellowships : May to June 2018 and May to June 2016)

Discipline(s) : Philosophy

Pays : United States

Research Project : Scenes of translation

The aim is to demonstrate that translation is the creation of reciprocity, including in situations of asymmetry and domination as in the colonial context. Admittedly, more often than not translation shows a profoundly unequal relationship between languages, but it must also be recognized that the best response to linguistic domination, to the division into imperial languages and subaltern or dominated languages, is still translation. We shall therefore focus our study on the role of the “interpreters of the colonial administration”, these intermediaries who often also became translators of cultures and oral literature in the imperial language, thus demonstrating the value of knowing how to think and create from language to language. The transformation of the status of interpreter, from simple spokesperson to the position of translator, is an important development which will be the subject of consideration.

The second scene of translation will be the religious arena in which languages are classified into sacred languages and secular languages. The aim here will be to discuss certain questions (theological, philosophical and political) raised by the act of translating, horizontally as it were, from a language declared sacred into other human languages, and the divine word which has itself already been translated, vertically, into human words.

The third scene of translation will concern the so-called “Timbuktu Studies” which, in West Africa, refer to a tradition of written scholarship which calls into question the essentialist and reductionist definition of African cultures based in orality. It also highlights the importance of Muslim clerics who were known as “the non-europhone intellectuals”. The study of the tradition of study that has been established in intellectual centres the most famous of which is Timbuktu, will also address the question of the philosophical future of African languages through translation.

Both fellows and visiting scholars will share their reflections on this project and its various themes, which may result in the publication of a collective volume on the Scenes of translation described here



Souleymane Bachir Diagne is an alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure, he holds an “aggregation” in Philosophy (1978) and he took his Doctorat d’État in philosophy at the Sorbonne (1988). Before joining Columbia University in 2008 he taught philosophy for many years at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar (Senegal) and at Northwestern University in Chicago. His field of research includes history of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, as well as questions of African philosophy and literature. His book Bergson postcolonial. L’élan vital dans la pensée de Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal, was awarded the Dagnan-Bouveret prize by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences for 2011 and that same year he received the Edouard Glissant Prize for his work. Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s most recent publications are L’encre des savants. Réflexions sur la philosophie en Afrique; Comment Philosopher en islam; Philosopher en islam et en christianisme (avec Philippe Cappelle-Dumont).

Research Project: "From language to language: stages of translation"

The aim of the research project is to write a book based on a conception of translation which has already been developed. The concept of translation here should be taken in a fairly wide sense, even though of course languages in their plurality are central to the reflection in this project.

The study will explore “translation scenes” which are a series of encounters between cultures and between languages.  An introduction will deal with the notion of “radical translation” as developed by QUINE.  A first chapter will focus on interpreters in the colonial context.  A colonial interpreter is not a translator but a simple go-between as the colonial space rules out any relationship of reciprocity between the languages.  He/she becomes fully a translator when he/she is a “writer”, translating the speaker into writing. A second chapter will deal with translation scenes linked to what is referred to as  translatio studii (in reference to the transfer of knowledge from the world of Ancient Greece to the Latin and then Christian world) . We will emphasize the fact that the course of translatio studii also took it from Athens to Timbuktu by way of Bagdad, Cordoba and Fez. It will provide the opportunity to reflect on the philosophical future of the Arab language, a future which also concerns the African languages.  

Following on from this reflection, the study will deal with theologico-philosophical questions and the political aspects of the translation of “the Word of God” (notably the Quran) into secular languages. Finally, we will reconsider the idea of “universal as translation”.  In our postcolonial world, what is universal is, according to Merleau-Ponty, “lateral”. However, we believe that the realisation of the universal is in fact translation. Or, to quote the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o: the language of languages is translation.

Major publications

2014. « Édouard Glissant : l’infinie passion de tramer », Littérature, n° 174, p. 88-91.

2013. L’encre des savants. Reflexions sur la philosophie en Afrique, Paris: Presence africaine et Codesria.

2013. Comment philosopher en Islam, Paris: Editions Philippe Rey.

2013. « On the Postcolonial and the Universal? », Rue Descartes, n° 78, p. 7-18.

2011. African Art as Philosophy. Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude, Seagull, (trad. Ang.: Léopold Sédar Senghor: l’art africain comme philosophie, Paris: Riveneuve Editions, 2007.)

2011. « Philosopher en Afrique », Critique, n° 771-772, p. 611-612.

2009. « Individual, Community, and human Rights, a lesson from Kwasi Wiredu’s philosophy of personhood », Transition, an international Review, No. 101, pp. 8-15.

2003. « Islam et philosophie : leçons d’une rencontre », Diogène, n° 202, p. 145-151.