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The Underhand World of Colonial Translation

The Underhand World of Colonial Translation

By Katie Blair

Studying the translation of historical documents often exposes the workings of power. I consider such textual evidence here with a discussion of the Treaty of Wuchale, where translation, and the subtle manipulation of language, were used to empower the coloniser and exploit the colonised.

In May 1889, Count Pietro Antonelli, Italian explorer-diplomat and speaker of various East African languages, was appointed the Kingdom of Italy’s representative in the drafting and negotiation of a treaty setting out reciprocal relations, delineating borders, and enacting the creation of Eritrea with the acquisition of lands belonging to Ethiopia. Two analogous versions, drawn up by Antonelli in Italian and Amharic, were presented to Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia for signature.

Image of Article 17 of the Amharic version of the Treaty of Wuchale, 1889.

In its original form, Article 17 obligated Ethiopia to use Italy as conduit for all international activities, intending to restrict Ethiopia’s contact with other spheres of influence, rendering Ethiopia, in effect, an Italian protectorate. Menelik refused to sign up to these contentious obligations. The clause was subsequently altered using a more permissive tone (along the lines of: “allows you to make use of the Government of His Majesty the King of Italy for all business dealings with other powers or governments[i]”), giving Ethiopia autonomy over its own foreign affairs, with communication through Italian authorities becoming optional. Menelik duly signed this version in August 1889, unaware the change had been made to the Amharic version only, the Italian version remaining unchanged.

Some sources claim this discrepancy was an innocent error; others believe the deceit was intentional. It is true Antonelli was under pressure from his own government to obtain Menelik’s agreement, yet was faced with an Emperor who refused to sign. Antonelli’s innocence might be assumed if, once the circumstances had come to light, he had made clear to Menelik that the Amharic and not the Italian text embodied the agreement, and that the Italian text was void. However, he did not. Instead, when his manoeuvre was later exposed, Antonelli resorted to racist slander, declaring Menelik, as a black man, was “intrinsically dishonest”.

The Treaty of Wuchale had significant and far-reaching consequences. Ethiopia breached the (Italian) terms of Article 17, leading to an international diplomatic incident exploited by Italian Prime Minister Crispi as a pretext for the invasion of Ethiopia, which in turn led to the First Italo-Ethiopian War. These hostilities, sparked by the mere ‘mal-translation’ of a verb, culminated in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, which marked the first defeat of European colonial forces by an African army, a loss that challenged the myth of African subordination and became a symbol of resistance in nascent African nationalism. The humiliation of defeat remained suppressed in the Italian consciousness as a major political and psychological obstacle, until Mussolini broke the curse with the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, declaring, “finally Adwa is avenged!”. The ensuing outrage at Mussolini’s strong-arm tactics and use of poison gas is considered a catalyst in the wave of African nationalism that led to much post-war decolonisation.

It is astonishing that these events can be traced back to an act of translation and reveals how such acts involve much more than language. Modern Translation Studies would blame Antonelli who, instead of operating as an ethically responsible impartial mediator, was biased, deceitful, manipulative and coercive. Whether we consider his misalignment of a mandatory clause in Italian with a permissive clause in Amharic as merely an error, negligence, or a cunning strategic move and act of deliberate subterfuge, it demonstrates how translators can be caught in a tense web of oppositional relationships and how, in the age of empire, these conflicts were most often resolved in the coloniser’s favour. Thus translation rarely operates within a relationship of parity as it is inextricably bound up with cultural dominance, politics, and power.

[i] The Italian version read: “Sua Maestà il Re dei Re d’Etiopia consente di servirsi del Governo di Sua Maestà il Re d’Italia per tutte le trattazioni di affari che avesse con altre potenze o governi”, whereas the amended Amharic version, back-translated into Italian, read: “Sua Maestà il Re dei Re d'Etiopia può trattare tutti gli affari che desidera con altre potenze o governi mediante l'aiuto del Governo di Sua Maestà il Re d’Italia”


Katie Blair has an MA in Translation Studies, and is currently in the first year of an interdisciplinary PhD in the departments of Modern Languages and Social Policy at the University of Birmingham, researching welcome, hospitality and refugee integration in the linguistic landscapes of a southern Italian town.