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An Idiomatic Victory: Postmodern Ethnography in Arrow of God

Julia Istomina


Leon Jaeger states that idioms are culturally-driven aspects of society and function as “unique genetic imprint that makes each national population of idioms unlike any other” (1999, 209). Idiomatic expressions also have a specific semantic nature that requires them to retain a certain order and/or connotative word choice to deliver the meaning. As such, the ability to locate similar words through the translation of an idiomatic expression often does not betray the expression’s connotative meaning. Thus, a bilingual speaker who rewrites the idiom in the source language (the translator’s language) can still retain the “culturally private” meaning of the idiom. This article argues that idioms in anti-colonialist literary texts destabilize the notion that objective and complete documentation of a culture can be produced by anthropological and ethnographical approaches. By defining the idiom as a culturally insular form of figurative language, I demonstrate how the narrator in Achebe’s novel Arrow of God is situated ironically as a “native informant.” This narrator enacts the reader’s desire to interpret certain expressions in the text and subsequently forces the reader into estrangement by highlighting his/her inability to complete viable interpretations of idiomatic speech. The novel works to destabilize the credibility of the ethnographic enterprise while simultaneously utilizing its features to highlight the self-containable in Igbo culture, a move that is at once ethnographic and postmodern.


Idiom; Idiom Translation; Native Informant; Proverbs; Postmodern Ethnography; Achebe; Arrow of God

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West Africa Review. ISSN: 1525-4488 (online).
Editors: Adeleke Adeeko, Nkiru Nzegwu, and Olufemi Taiwo.

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