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Dane_Kennedy.jpgAn interview with Dane Kennedy by Stephen Jackson [1]  

Dane Kennedy is Elmer Louis Keyser Professor of History at The George Washington University. He has published extensively on the history and historiography of the British Empire, and recently served as President of the NACBS. He agreed to an interview with the British and Irish Studies Intelligencer to discuss recent trends in the field of British Imperial History. 

 

1) You recently suggested that contemporary events have dramatically shaped both scholarly and public conversations on the history of the British Empire.[2] What responsibility do professional historians have to utilize our specialized forms of knowledge to inform the public understanding of empire?

The questions we ask about the past invariably echo our current concerns.  In this respect professional historians are engaged for better or for worse in public conversations that involve moral and political issues.  For worse if that engagement leads to categorical pronouncements about the ‘lessons of history’.  But for better when we challenge unexamined assumptions about the past’s relationship to the present and provide a deeper, richer understanding of that relationship.  What I tried to suggest in my JBS essay is (1) that the renewed interest in British imperial history since the 1980s has been spurred by contemporaneous forces and events that have preoccupied the public at large; (2) that these preoccupations have both been informed by Britain’s imperial past and have themselves informed how that past is viewed and its meaning interpreted; and (3) that those of us who are professional historians of the British empire need to be sensitive to this dialogue between the past and the present, contribute to it responsibly, and challenge deceptive claims about the past.  How do we do this?  By doing what historians do best: analyze evidence, contextualize it, expose its complexities and nuances, and, at the same time, seek out the distinguishing patterns and processes that help to explain change over time.  Let me stress that I’m not suggesting we can provide objective ‘truth’ about the past.  But we do possess a shared set of disciplinary tools and critical skills that allow us to distinguish legitimate claims about the past from those that are deliberately distorted to advance current agendas.

 

2) Elsewhere in the article, you called on professional historians to be more aware of how their own subjectivities shape their work.  In what ways has this awareness affected your own understanding of the British Empire? How would the field look differently if historians approached their research in this way?

It so happens these are questions that Antoinette Burton and I have asked ourselves, along with fifteen other historians who work on various aspects of British imperial history, for a forthcoming volume we’ve co-edited, How Empire Shaped Us (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2016).  We invited the contributors to reflect on the ways their personal, professional, and public lives intersected with and were informed by empire — and, in turn, the ways their experiences shaped their historical preoccupations.  I’ve found it fascinating to learn how historians whose work I admire were drawn to their subjects and what made those subjects meaningful to them.

As for myself, I came of age during the Vietnam War, and I realize in retrospect that I turned to British imperial history at least in part to make sense of that war, to frame and clarify my moral and political objections to it.  The time I spent conducting research in Rhodesia, which was then in its death throes as a colonial society, also had an important impact on my development as a historian.  The British imperial past has continued to intrude on the world I inhabit in various ways, most recently and urgently when the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

Will greater awareness by historians of their own subjectivity make any difference in how they write history?  Honestly, I don’t know, but it sure can’t hurt. 

 

3) Over the past two decades you have written extensively on the inclusion of new historical perspectives that challenged more traditional understandings of imperial history.[3] Do you believe that imperial historians have effectively incorporated these new perspectives into a more holistic understanding of the British Empire, or do we now simply have even more contending understandings of the meaning, substance, importance, and perhaps even the definition of imperialism?

I don’t think it’s possible to achieve a ‘holist’ understanding of the British empire—or any other historical subject, for that matter.  I do think our understanding of the empire has been immensely enriched by the new approaches that have been introduced over the past few decades under the banners of postcolonial studies, the new imperial history, Subaltern Studies, the ‘British World’ project, settler colonial studies, and more.  But each of these approaches has its own agenda, and I don’t see much chance of pulling them together into a grand meta-narrative.  Just read the essays by John MacKenzie and Bill Schwarz in the latest issue of The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History and you’ll see that the relationship between different schools of imperial historians remains as testy and polarized as ever.  These debates are signs of the continued vitality of the field, so I’d hate to see some bland consensus take their place.  What’s changed, however, is that the new approaches to imperial history have become far more pervasive and institutionally entrenched than they were, say, a decade ago, and their influence is felt even among historians who work on ostensibly ‘traditional’ subjects.


4) What new directions do you see emerging in the historiography of the British Empire? What are the major topics or research questions that you think will drive the scholarly conversation over the next decade? 

The nice thing about being a historian is that you get to interpret the past rather than predict the future.  At this point in my career I’m probably the last person to recognize the next big thing in British imperial historiography.  I will simply say that we’ve begun to see some innovative work in those aspects of imperial history that got left behind by the cultural turn, such as economic, political, legal/constitutional, and military history.  There’s also some great history being written about other empires, as evidenced by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper’s brilliant synthesis.  The most exciting book I’ve read recently happens to be about the Russian empire — --Willard Sunderland’s The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution (Cornell UP, 2014).  Finally, we should acknowledge the growing influence of transnational and global histories.  They raise the possibility that British imperial history will lose its identity as a distinct field and become submerged in these larger projects.


5) Would you reflect on your time as President of the NACBS, and how it has influenced your understanding of the wider field of British Studies?

What I learned from being president of the NACBS is how much the organization depends on the generosity of its members, who devote a great deal of time and effort to its operations.  It’s pretty remarkable that a scholarly society as large and active as the NACBS relies entirely on volunteers.  This includes its administrative officers, its governing council, its various prize and fellowship committees, its program committee, its webmaster, the local arrangements team that organizes the annual conference, and many others.  This speaks, I think, to the intellectual and professional value these volunteers attach to the NACBS.

We can be proud of what the NACBS manages to do with our limited resources. We host an annual conference that has a well-deserved reputation for its quality, congeniality, and reach, attracting large numbers of British and other overseas participants.  We also have remarkably vibrant regional organizations, each with its own annual conference.  Our JBS is quite simply the best journal in the field, its reputation the result of the hard work done by a long line of superb editors — again, each of them volunteers.  We have taken care to honor British studies scholarship with our book and article prizes.  And we work to nurture the next generation of scholars with graduate fellowships and other forms of financial aid, including stipends to attend our conference, as well as the essay prizes we give to undergraduates.  We have an increasingly active web presence, as this Intelligencer blog demonstrates.

The challenges we face come from the broader forces at work in higher education.  The corporatization of colleges and universities is causing the erosion of history and other humanities disciplines.  Fewer students, fewer faculty, and fewer financial resources for those faculty who remain, especially those who struggle as adjuncts, don’t bode well for the NACBS.  Our membership is shrinking, and it’s hard to see this trend reversing so long as the marginalization of the humanities within higher education continues.  At least in the near term, however, the NACBS has the financial resources and the allegiance of members to weather the storm.     

 


 

[1] In the interests of acknowledging my own subjectivity, I was a graduate student of Dane’s at The George Washington University from 2007-2013.

[2] Dane Kennedy, “The Imperial History Wars,” Journal of British Studies Vol. 54, Issue 1, Jan. 2015, 5-22.

[3] Dane Kennedy, “Imperial History and Post-Colonial Theory,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 24, No. 3 (1996): 345-63; Dane Kennedy, “Postcolonialism and History,” in The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies, ed. Graham Huggins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 467-88.  


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December
16
2014

Lost in Translation by Isaac Land

Posted by jaskelly under BISI, Blog, British and Irish Studies Intelligencer | Tags: historiography, translation | 0 Comments

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My story, appropriately enough, begins with an unexpected meeting.  A historian based in Brittany crossed la Manche to present at a conference in Portsmouth.  He heard me speak, and at a pub afterwards, wrote down the name of one of his colleagues back home.  That handwritten note turned out to be a ticket to a path breaking article in my subfield by a historian who has published almost exclusively in French.  I have since devoted many hours to bringing his work to a larger English-speaking audience, laboriously working through his sentences (dictionary in hand), and blogging about why people need to pay attention to him.

If you would like the specific example, you can look at my blog postings here and here.  I would like to emphasize, though, that the issues I am raising apply equally well if the work in question had been published not in French, but in Bengali or Russian.

Most historians and other humanists passed a required language exam or two in the course of their path to the PhD.  Why aren’t more of us putting those skills to good use?  To answer that, we need to think more broadly about the incentives — or the lack thereof — for translation projects in academia.

Google Translate produces prose that too often resembles one of the forced monologues from Waiting for Godot.  Barring the advent of some earth-shaking new software, we can be certain that only a minority of peer-reviewed publications will get translated into English.  Which ones? Much of it will be driven by market forces.  For example, among French scholars, Alain Cabantous is a name to conjure with on anything connected with maritime or coastal matters.  None of that material has appeared in English, however.  Just one of Cabantous’ many books has been translated; not coincidentally, it is on the more colorful and marketable topic of blasphemy.

This month, the French novelist Patrick Modiano learned that he would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.  A BBC profile noted that he remains largely untranslated into English.  This should serve to remind us of how much terrific writing — of all sorts — hasn’t yet won the support of a big publishing house in the English-speaking world.

It’s always easy to blame publishers, but translators themselves may bear part of the responsibility as well.  Rather than just asking “what gets translated,” we should be asking “who are our translators?”  If we assume that only a fully bilingual individual is a translator worthy of the name, then whatever escapes the attention of this elite cadre will be accessible only to readers of the original language. There is no guarantee that the most historiographically interesting scholarship will even appear on a superstar translator’s radar.

In an ideal scenario, experts in various subfields would each seek out the best work in their areas of expertise and devote substantial time to translating and summarizing.  Yet in the real world, we must ask: how would all that effort be recognized and rewarded?

It’s fair to say that for most of us, reading even a single article in a foreign language is a bit of a gamble.  We read it slowly.  We could spend that time on something else.  We may devote the time, only to conclude that this particular piece of scholarship is undistinguished.  It’s not surprising that most of us wouldn’t assume the risk of a serious translation project unless a publisher invited us to take it on.

There are intermediate solutions, though.  I’ve already mentioned that blogging about untranslated scholarship is one option.  For those with some reading fluency and a good reason to make the effort, I would say: “Go for it!” Historians are a plain-spoken lot.  Their sentence structures are grammatically simple.  About one quarter of the words I have to look up turn out to be everyday academic lingo.  For example, échantillon is a sample (in the statistical sense) and a sillage (wake or furrow) in a historiographical context refers to scholarship that follows up on earlier trailblazing work.  These sorts of terms will recur, so I advise making up a handy glossary for quick reference.

As a blogger, I’m not presenting myself as a fully qualified and proficient translator.  I know enough to summarize the highlights and encourage others to delve deeper.  I’ve not turned my blog over entirely to my translation work; I translate when I have the time and inclination.  So the commitment is manageable.

Not everyone has a blog, of course. Consider, though, if you are writing a review essay or delivering a keynote address, could you do more to include perspectives from scholars who are not yet translated, but should be? What about conference panels devoted to a roundup of important untranslated work in an area that would interest attendees?  In most subfields, we don’t even know what we are missing.


About the author

Isaac Land is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana State University. He is the author of War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and can be reached at Isaac.Land@indstate.edu or on Twitter @IsaacLand2


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Adam_Hochschild.jpgRenowned author Adam Hochschild’s most recent work To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) presented a heartbreaking tale of the mass slaughter of the First World War and a sympathetic portrayal of those who opposed the conflict. In this Q&A, he gives his thoughts on the book and offers his perspective on the role of the publicly engaged historian. 
 

Stephen Jackson: What was it about the subject that inspired you to write it, and what would you argue was your most important contribution to the historical discussion on the First World War?

Adam Hochschild: I’ve always been deeply fascinated by those who resisted the First World War, ever since I read a biography of Bertrand Russell as a teenager, and then later Sheila Rowbotham’s work on Alice Wheeldon. To have had the courage to speak out so boldly when there was such jingoism in the air deeply impressed me. I also found a very strong echo in those times of something I had been deeply involved in: the movement against the Vietnam War here in the United States. Then, too, a war divided members of families from each other; hence I was intrigued to see the divided families of Britain in 19141918, and used that as a narrative structure for my book. In the Vietnam era, too, we had an epidemic of government spying on citizens—when much later, using the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to get the records of surveillance on me by the FBI, CIA and military intelligence, they amounted to more than 100 pages and I was a very small fish in that movement. Hence it fascinated me to read the government surveillance records from Scotland Yard and military intelligence on the UK dissenters of 19141918. I felt I was seeing at work the same mindset as that of the FBI agents who reported on me.

I’m by no means the first person to write about those brave British dissenters. I certainly hope my book, and those of others, helps put them in the foreground as we remember the war. Paradoxically, most people today would agree that the First World War remade the world for the worse in almost every conceivable way, yet all our traditional ways of remembering it parades, monuments, museums, military cemeteries celebrate those who fought and not those who refused to fight.

Stephen Jackson: In the years since the publication of the work, what sort of feedback from the scholarly community and the general public did you receive? How do you think that contemporary events, especially a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaped the response to your work?

Adam Hochschild: I’ve always believed that you can write for a general audience and at the same time meet the highest scholarly standards for accuracy and the documenting of sources. This book got good reviews and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; at the same time many university history departments have been kind to me. I was writer-in-residence at the history department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this past spring and will be doing a speaking tour of some half dozen campuses in the US and Europe this fall, talking about the war.

I’ve also heard from several descendants of people mentioned in the book one of the great pleasures of writing history, I’ve found. And sometimes, unexpectedly, I’ve heard from other people as well who are connected to this patch of history. After the book came out, an American mining company official whom I’d met a few years before in a godforsaken village in eastern Congo, wrote me that in 1917 his grandfather, a conscientious objector, had been hanged in effigy in his home town in Iowa.

And yes, I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show what tragic mistakes one can make by not studying history more closely. How similar the illusion of President George W. Bush when he landed on that aircraft carrier in 2003 in front of the sign “Mission Accomplished” to the illusion of Kaiser Wilhelm II when he told his troops in August, 1914: “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” 

Stephen Jackson: This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. What do you think is or should be the place of conscientious objectors and leftist anti-war activists in the public memory of World War I?

Adam Hochschild: None of these people were perfect, but on the central issue of their time, they were essentially right, and should be honored. Harry Patch, the last British veteran of the war to die 5 years ago, at 111 said it best: the war “was not worth it. It was not worth one life, let alone all the millions.” 

Stephen Jackson: How can scholars teaching undergraduate or graduate courses in British History or Modern European History incorporate non-traditional themes such as anti-war activism into lessons on the Great War?

Adam Hochschild: There are rich primary sources: the writings and speeches of outspoken war opponents, like Bertrand Russell and E.D. Morel in Britain, or Jane Addams and Eugene V. Debs in the United States. Periodicals that these anti-war movements published. Letters and memoirs by war resisters who went to prison, not just in the U.S. and Britain, but in other countries as well. I hope someone is thinking of pulling a collection of material like this together into a reader! And there are fine secondary sources as well. That list could be a long one, but I’ll just mention Jo Vellacott’s Bertrand Russell and the Pacifists in the First World War, a careful, well-written book I learned a lot from. 

Stephen Jackson: The 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke famously said historians can “merely tell how it really was,” and should not judge the past nor attempt to give moral guidance for the present.  To End All Wars, and your work more generally, compellingly does just that. How would you describe your underlying philosophy for writing history? What role do you think that the historian — as an historian — should play in engaging in contemporary political and ethical discussions?

Adam Hochschild: Well, I’m certain in favor of telling it how it was and with the highest possible standards of accuracy. In real life, seldom are one’s heroes totally heroic or one’s villains totally villainous. In To End All Wars, for instance, the fiery pacifist Charlotte Despard had a kind of knee-jerk far-left reaction to everything that would have made her difficult to talk to, although I agree with her about the war. But her brother, Field Marshal Sir John French, though he exemplified the worst type of unthinking generalship in the field, seems to have been a warm-hearted person of great charm whom it would have been delightful to spend an evening with. One should enjoy such paradoxes and not try to deny them.

But beyond that, I think sometimes an historian can provide something that’s relevant to contemporary political discussions without having to hit people over the head with it. In my book, for example, I don’t talk about the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. But whenever I give a talk about the First World War, the first question anybody asks is: do you see an analogy? 

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