This article explores the representation of multilingual Indian Ocean pasts in novels by Amitav Ghosh and Abdulrazak Gurnah, two key contemporary postcolonial writers from the opposite shores of the ocean. It theorizes the historical impulse in the novels as anarchival drift, which refers to the self-conscious mode of rewriting the past that subjects the archive to the instability and fluidity of the sea. Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2006) and Gurnah’s Paradise (1994) both tell stories of forced displacements in the nineteenth-century Indian Ocean; both rewrite colonial archives in order to depict cross-cultural interactions, employing various self-reflexive textual strategies that draw attention to the linguistic and archival mediations operating in those encounters. This article examines these textual moments alongside the novels’ archival sources—specifically, nineteenth-century colonial dictionaries and Swahili travelogues—to argue that the self-reflexivity results from the multiplicity of linguistic registers on which these texts operate, making visible the translative processes imbricated in transoceanic historical forces. While both novels appeal to the linguistic aspects of cross-cultural interactions, the article traces the divergent ways in which the semantic drift among languages stage the materiality and historicity of trans-oceanic encounters.