Current Institutional Affiliation
Postdoctoral Fellow, Washington University in St. Louis

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2016
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
French Studies, New York University
Lost in Translation: Language and Colonial Rule in Nineteenth-Century French Algeria

My dissertation examines French linguistic intermediaries during the first decades of imperial expansion into Algeria. France had long promoted foreign language training, with specialists practicing as philologists, royal advisors, and as ambassadors abroad. But the conquest of Algiers in 1830 fundamentally altered their prospects for employment and advancement, drawing together an unprecedented number of bilingual functionaries in one space. The Algerian territory provides a privileged site for understanding the role of linguistic liaisons: interpreters were required for French and Arabic, but also Berber, Spanish, Italian and Hebrew. Communication with the local population was a necessary precursor for colonization, and France's dependence on an unsteady and overworked interpreter corps highlights the difficulty of imposing imperial rule. Necessity dictated that the colonial state recruit wherever and however it could, and foreign-language specialists arrived from all over the Mediterranean basin to fill positions within the new colony. Homing in on the decades that witnessed conquest and then the slow, uneven construction of an administration, I reveal an era of massive disruption, change, and adaptation. This social and political history of interpreters' experiences in French Algeria illuminates the formation of a new professional class of translators through the everyday practices of colonial governance. Periodic attempts at administrative centralization and corps professionalization, as evinced in the founding of the Colonial School in 1889, suggest a prevailing official concern with securing control over interpreters' actions. Even so, pragmatism ruled the everyday empire. By recovering the lives of these intermediaries, I shift the locus of imperial power toward largely unacknowledged men—indeed, the mark of a good translator was to become invisible—who played a key role in projecting French language, culture, and power abroad.