West African Traders as Translators between Chinese and African Urban Modernities

The preliminary findings from the second phase of our research show that Chinese experiences and things Chinese have indeed left their mark on the traveling traders whom we earlier hypothesized to be translators of urban modernities between China and West Africa. We have identified indicators that suggest that Chinese manifestations of urban modernity and our informants’ selective interpretations, translations and re‐significations thereof are impacting ongoing processes of socioeconomic change under conditions of accelerated globalization. China and things Chinese – beyond providing access to global consumerist culture – have become distinctive sources of inspiration, alternative significations and ordering principles, which have been introduced into current societal renegotiations of Ghanaian  and  Senegalese  modernities.  These  renegotiations,  in  turn,  are  challenging  the  pervasive  cultural, ideological and institutional setup. That is, translations of things Chinese can be regarded as influencing ordering and disordering discourses and processes. Hence, the main objective of the proposed extension of this research project is twofold: (a) To enhance our structural understanding of the impacts selected things Chinese have on processes of social change and reordering when they are introduced to Ghana and Senegal as re‐signified products of translation in times of accelerated economic globalization. (b) To advance the general theory‐building with regard to processes of translation in a translocal setting on the basis of our case study on translating between Chinese and West African urban modernities.

With regard to the actor‐centered model of the translation process, relying mainly on introductions through African intermediaries for access to informants during our research in China has resulted in a sample that is heavily biased in favor of actors who enjoy only very limited interaction with Chinese counterparts. Our first priority is therefore to produce a balanced sample by including those African traders who mainly commission Chinese intermediaries or interact directly with sellers and producers. This will enable us to deepen our understanding of the ways in which particular  actor  constellations  impact  the  selection,  interpretation,  and  re‐signification  of  things  Chinese  in  the context of African traders’ sojourns to China and will help to advance the general theoretical modeling of translation processes beyond this case. Two additional actor groups will also take center stage. On the Chinese side, the dominance of young, female internal migrants with particular educational and semirural backgrounds in the Africa trade sector has created very specific gendered encounters with and experiences of urban China for African traveling traders. These women’s personal life trajectories and social positioning, which influence their perspectives in specific ways (cf. i. a. Cartier 2006; Yan 2008; Pun & Li 2008), have to be taken into account as central factors impacting the translation of urban Chinese modernities. This specific constellation and the general lack of transparency regarding the economic roles and positions of the Chinese in direct economic exchange with African customers both have repercussions for African traders’ perceptions of their relationships with Chinese counterparts. In several narratives of their sojourns to China informants made explicit their notion that they have “educated” their Chinese suppliers. Leaving aside its performative aspect, this perception and the idea of having established friendships with Chinese partners might be triggered by age differences, gendered constellations and cultural differences in social practices and behaviors; such claims thus have to be balanced through interviews with the respective Chinese actors.

On the African side, the central and, at the same time, highly disputed figure of the intermediary in China deserves further attention. Our interviews – particularly those in Africa – indicate that a large gap exists between these African middlemen’s self‐perceptions and the attitudes of their potential, actual, and former African customers. While the former regard themselves as holding privileged positions as old China hands and able to authoritatively interpret things Chinese, many traveling traders doubt this expertise, particularly those interviewed in Africa, and not only as a justification for avoiding these middlemen’s costly services. Further exploration needs to establish the degree to which African intermediaries, who in most instances also act as traders themselves, are able to influence their audiences’ (clients and peers) understanding of urban Chinese modernity and its translation.

As we have dug into the potential effects that introducing translations of modern Chinese things have on social processes in West Africa, we have identified a number of recurrent topics. We are convinced that instead of trying to excavate additional products of translation, intensifying the analysis of the translation, dissemination and potential impact of the core translational products that dominate the discourses is the adequate approach (if those groups of traders who have so far been underrepresented in our sample do not deviate significantly in this respect). Hence, we propose the in‐depth analysis of three dominant areas. First, the innovative adaptation of culturally laden material objects to local tastes and quality expectations, and particularly the role of traders as interpreters and re‐creators of particular modern urban aesthetics who, through these introductions, may also create maneuvering spaces for innovations in local production. Material objects and immaterial concepts meet and become deeply entangled in the fields of architecture and building – and the related business activities and management principles – as the example of the translation of the Chinese apartment building into a Hong Kong‐style guesthouse business in a central quarter of Accra clearly demonstrates. Having identified a small number of such exemplary pilot projects, we now have the privilege of being able to study their potential social and economic impacts in the making. From this kind of venture, which can be expected to also have significant impacts on spatial reordering processes, it is only a short step to the dominant examples of the translation of immaterial concepts. Second, business practices, management principles, and the related value orientations, for which our informants have identified their exposure to specific modern, urban Chinese business realities as a major source of inspiration, probably hold the greatest potential to have social and economic impacts on local development. Translations and local adaptations of concepts in the realm of economic activities (understood as social technologies) will not simply have repercussions for the way an individual conducts his or her business or which strategy a trader follows in order to increase his or her personal earnings. Issues like human resource management, the distribution of profits among partners and kin, the (re)allocation of capital, modes of cooperation, and moral vs. business priorities, among others, are heavily impacting economic and social development processes. Third, political discourses will not remain untouched. For many of our informants urban China has become a source of inspiration and point of reference with regard to the principles and values of both the spatial and the social order. Given the growing numbers of African economic sojourners in China, there are indications that their continued exposure to quotidian manifestations of urban Chinese ordering principles and their narratives of successful Chinese style modernization and development are beginning to translate into specific demands in domestic politics in (urban) West Africa, with unforeseen consequences in the long run. That said, African traveling traders still hold critical views of China, which are informed by both general Western‐dominated media discourses on human rights violations, lack of personal freedom, political oppression and the like and personal experiences in administrative matters. Nonetheless, China’s trajectory of development over the past 30 years, perceived as indigenous and disentangled from Western domination, features prominently in the narratives of our informants. The dissemination of China as a positive role model will not remain without impact on political discourses and struggles over national development strategies.

Other than the three abovementioned areas, the pacifying effects that the wider exposure to and positive evaluation of urban Chinese modernities disseminated through the narratives of traveling traders have had on the perceptions of Chinese entrepreneurial migrants in urban Senegal and Ghana also interest us. Hence it is worth exploring the indicators of positive changes related to interaction and cooperation between Chinese and local populations that we identified in the field. By adding a longitudinal perspective to our initial research in this respect, we expect to further increase the general value of our project by putting our 2011/2012 findings into perspective.

As the result of their entrepreneurial agency, traveling traders have been routinely engaging in creative processes of deconstruction, recombination, and re‐signification in their capacity as entrepreneurs and innovators (cf. Schumpeter 1934: 61). Re‐ signification in particular can be regarded as a crucial element of economic success. Hence localized narratives of global consumerist modernity routinely function as marketing tools for imported products. In the same way, these transnational traders choose narratives, tailored to their local audiences, of personal experiences in the China trade when they engage in the “marketing” and signification of their noncommercial products of translation (cf. Hermans 1999:141 on translation). These narratives are also the gateways through which we as interviewers and participating observers are granted access to the process and products of translation by our informants. Moreover, not only African translations of things Chinese but also “original Chinese” significations often have to be reconstructed by listening carefully to individual and collective storytelling (regarding personal relations between Chinese and Africans, Africa and Africans, and Chinese modernities). As we were exposed to such narratives during our research in both Africa and China, we have started to reflect upon this way of reasoning through personal storytelling as a dominant means of oral communication and a way of making sense of translational products within the context of our investigations.

Narrative, it is widely agreed (though the idea is expressed in many different ways), is “a basic human strategy for coming to terms with time, process, and change” (Herman 2009: 2). It routinely involves telling stories about personal experiences and the transition from initial equilibrium through disequilibrium to new equilibrium (cf. i.a. Todorov 1968, Bremond 1980, Kafalenos 2006), for which the narrator provides a specific interpretation – or her or his point of view (Labov 1972, Polyani 1979, 1985). Labov’s (1972: 370) understanding of oral narratives as the responder’s “method of recapitulating past experience by matching a verbal sequence of clauses to the sequence of events which (it is inferred) actually occurred” reflects the specific sociolinguistic interest in the personal experiences of research subjects. This pioneering approach was later correctly criticized for not being appropriate for narratives that occur in any setting other than controlled interview situations. To avoid the narrow and sociolinguistic focus of this understanding of narratives, we usually conduct our interviews not as controlled questioning but rather as casual conversations as part of participant observation within the natural environment of our informants’ economic and private  activities.  We  definitely  take  into  account  that  our  presence  as  white  Western  others  impacts  our interviewees’  statements,  since  there  is  widespread  agreement  that  narratives  are  situated  within  the  specific occasion of communication – and embedded in a specific discourse context (cf. Herman 2009:6). But we share De Fina’s (2003: 7) conviction that narratives “still largely respond to the expressive needs of the narrator and therefore are more likely to reveal her/his point of view on events and experiences than other kinds of talk.” Given our experiences of how our informants routinely frame and develop their oral accounts, however, we are convinced that the latter is the more important aspect, since narratives as situated discursive practice (Fairclough 1989) build upon socially shared meanings, conceptions, and ideologies (van Dijk 1998). In order to be comprehensible for their primary audience of peers, our informants engage as narrators in a dialogue with their familiar system of shared references (Bakhtin 1981), not least to challenge it and to generate new meanings and new behaviors (De Fina 2003: 5) – in other words, to introduce and legitimize their translation products. Thus, narratives understood as “ways of worldmaking” (Goodman 1978) are in many cases negotiated between narrators and the audience (Goodwin 1986). They “result from complex transactions that involve producers of texts or other semiotic artifacts, the texts or artifacts themselves, and interpreters of these narrative productions working to make sense of them in accordance with cultural, institutional,  genre‐based,  and  text‐specific  protocols”  (Herman  2009:  8).  In  the  context  of  translating  between Chinese and African urban modernities, our informants introduce their translations through narratives that result from personal experiences and individual decisions. Though introducing something novel, alien, and potentially deviating from the conventional (i.e., the translational product), they employ grammar and vocabulary shared with their peers in order to convey and make acceptable their own significations of things Chinese. It is thus crucial that we pay particular attention to this situated reasoning in order to understand the very process of translation and to assess its potential impact on social change through the successful dissemination and acceptance of translational products.

In view of the translational products, which we have identified as dominant, and their dissemination and potential impacts on social change, we pay particular attention to how translators intentionally or unintentionally apply narratives in legitimizing discourses: the anticipation of what makes a translational product acceptable to a local African audience undoubtedly influences the way transnational West African traders frame and re‐signify things Chinese as their products of translation. Due to the processual character of the phenomena we investigate, and the fact that narratives need time to germinate and manifestations of change also take time to become evident, we believe adding a temporal dimension to our research is necessary. Although an extension of 24 months cannot fulfill the requirements of a longitudinal study of social change, we are convinced that under the current conditions of accelerated globalization and change the additional time will produce tangible results with regard to the potential midterm impacts of re‐signified things Chinese introduced into West African urban social realities. Moreover, with regard to our findings and interpretations from the first research phase, which concentrated on Chinese–African interaction in Africa, we regard tracing and evaluating the indicators of change that the Africanist team members have observed during their recent fieldwork as indispensable: Do growing numbers of Africans sojourning to China and their  personal  narratives  and  translation  projects  have  positive  impacts  on  Chinese–African  interaction and cooperation in Africa?

On a more practical note, we will tackle the issue of the unbalanced composition of our current sample of African traveling traders by jointly conducting a second wave of field research in China during the International Canton Fair in Guangzhou, which draws large numbers of African buyers who are prepared to deal with Chinese suppliers without commissioning African middlemen. The Canton Fair will also provide access to more Chinese producers and suppliers who are in direct contact with African customers, a group that is scarcely present in areas with large (transient) African populations in Guangzhou and Yiwu. Hong Kong, which we initially prioritized due to its reputation as the second most important location for African traders’ business activities, has proven increasingly unattractive to our informants. Hence, we are now planning only a very brief visit to exchange, cross‐reference, and undertake reflexive triangulation with local colleagues working on similar issues. Yiwu, which we only briefly explored during our initial fieldwork in China because of the small size of the resident West African population, will be the second  field  for  intensified  joint  data  collection  since  Chinese  intermediaries  of  various  kinds  are  dominating economic exchange relations between African buyers and Chinese suppliers. In this way we expect to gain access to those groups of traders that we could not include in our first round of sampling. Jointly conducting the fieldwork will enable us to simultaneously identify and approach both African traders and their Chinese business partners.

As required by the setting (the Canton Fair in particular), we will mainly make use of the mobile (accompanying) ethnography approach and participant observation for collecting qualitative data in China. In this way we will gain access to informants and insights into their interactions with Chinese counterparts at the same time. This data set will be complemented by extended narrative interviews subsequently conducted by the China specialists in the team with the Chinese informants. A later, separate wave of interviewing will be conducted in Ghana and Senegal by the Africa specialists with the African informants. While the China specialists will make use of the calmer period directly after the fair, the later fieldwork in Africa will be scheduled for the low season in trade in order to allow for extended interview and observation sessions.

When interviewing Chinese informants in China, we will focus on Chinese significations of those things Chinese that we have identified as core translational products during the current project phase. We will also strive to cover additional issues that may surface in the interviews with African traders at the Canton Fair and in Yiwu. Since it can be expected, however, that deeper insights will only be gained through later in‐depth narrative interviewing in Africa, a second round of fieldwork in China (conducted by the China specialists in the team only) will be necessary. This will enable us to synthesize our findings on relevant translations between Chinese and West African urban modernities by confronting African translational re‐significations with initial Chinese significations.

The China specialists in the team will also join the Africa specialists during part of the fieldwork in Ghana and Senegal  in order to jointly explore and evaluate indicators of changing modes of interaction between Chinese entrepreneurial migrants and local petty entrepreneurs that may have been triggered by the increasing exposure to China of growing numbers of Senegalese and Ghanaians engaging in the China trade. As we demonstrated during the first project phase, which concentrated on these questions of African‐Chinese interactions in Africa, the perceptions voiced by one group often differ significantly from the perceptions of the other. Still, it is possible that the increased experiences in China of a growing group of African actors, among other factors, have resulted in processes of  change  that  require  us  to  put  our  initial  findings  into  perspective  through  this  longitudinal  study  approach.

Starting date: 

01.01.2011 (Phase I)

Research areas:


Hong Kong/China
Guangzhou/ China
Yiwu/ China

See interactive map