I: Methodological and Sociohistorical Overview

Translating Africa

Paul F. Bandia

Concordia University, Montreal


The title of this chapter seems audacious in claiming to speak of translating an entire continent, especially one that is characterised by its imposing multilingualism and multiculturalism revealing the varied ethnoscapes that constitute its ecology. What is more, the title can be extended to include Africanity in the diaspora at a moment in history when one is inclined to speak of a global village because of the sense of proximity and shared circumstances brought about by globalisation. Yet “Translating Africa” allows one to assess the importance of translation for the continent, as well as to trace the role of translation and its evolution in the making of African literature and in elevating African oral artistry and aesthetic on to the global literary space.

The subject of African literary translation is tied closely to the question of language, or more specifically the conundrum of language choice for literary expression on a continent with multiple languages and histories that inform the ideological underpinnings of the language polemic regarding the competing interests of indigenous and colonial languages. The issue is further complicated by the competing relevance of an aesthetic of orality within a universe where modernity privileges literacy or writing. The abundance or privilege afforded by multilingualism is often tailgated by the nefarious language hierarchy, its attendant ramifications of inequality in matters of local social class dynamics, and power relations within the global community. Societies and cultures steeped in orality have been systematically undervalued in the modernist appreciation of literacy, which is equated with the kind of literary sophistication often deemed unavailable to non-literate oral cultures (see Ong 1982).

African literary translation is better understood within the discourse of African literature in terms of its production, dissemination and consumption within the global literary space. The interface between translation and African literature can be viewed as operating at two distinct levels, namely the pre-writing and post-writing translation moments. In other words, African literary production intersects with translation during the initial compositional process, and in the dissemination phase in various languages in Africa and globally. The pre-writing translation phase is akin to what I have previously referred to as “writing-as-translation” (Bandia 2008)—intercultural or intermedia! writing. Post-writing translation refers to the myriad of activities involved in the interlingual translation of African literature for transnational and globalised circulation. Prewriting translation is the main prerogative of the African writer engaged in literary aesthetic involved in the manipulation and expression of an oral culture and worldview via a literate medium. Post-writing translation involves the creative output of a literary translator charged with carrying across the culture-specific idiosyncratic artistry of the African writer into another (alien) language, and often signifies the relative success of the African writer in the global literary market. It is important to grasp these two distinct phases when discussing literary translation in Africa as, given the continent’s inherent multilingualism, diverse ethnoscapes and colonial historiography, translation is at the core of literary production in Africa, from its inception to its circulation locally and globally.

Pre-Writing Translation

At the heart of pre-writing translation is the debate that raged in the 1970s between the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and the Kenyan Ngùgî wa Thiong’o about the choice of language for African literature. While Ngûgî rejected English as unfit to represent African literature for a variety of reasons, including its colonial and imperialist status, and championed the cause of indigenous languages, Achebe claimed the right to English as a vehicle for writing African fiction. Achebe acknowledges the imperial ills of English, but sees its benefit as a unifying language providing a means for communication among disparate ethnolinguistic communities brought together by historical circumstances. He also sees English as the means for African writers to reach a global audience. On this latter point, Achebe’s thought is on a par with the language philosophy of the francophone Négritude movement, which embraced the French language and saw it as a weapon to combat colonialism by addressing the global community and garnering support for anticolonialism and decolonisation. Partisans of Achebe’s language choice (see Damrosch 2014) were quick to point out the irony of Ngûgî using English in his famous and eloquent treatise against English as a literary language for Africa in Decolonising the Mind (1986). It has also been noted (Bandia 2008) that after fictionalising in his native Gikuyu language, Ngûgï’s works were subsequently translated into English in order to reach a wider, global audience. However, although Ngûgî was bidding farewell to English, he also stated that he hoped to continue dialogue with his non-Kikuyu audience through the age-old medium of translation. In his seminal essay, The African writer and the English

Translating Africa 23

language (1975), Achebe asserts his right to use English but cautions against the servile mimicry of an imperial English, arguing for creatively tweaking the language to reflect African writing and African sensibilities:

[M]y answer to the question “Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing?” is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask: “Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker” I should say, I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.

(Achebe 1975:82)

In this stirring appeal, Achebe was trying to find a balance between the mindless mimicry of colonial language and imperialist ideals and the likely creolisation of English that might result in the exoticisation of African literature and hence feed into imperialist stereotypes of the continent. He was aiming for a decidedly Africanised English which would enjoy global recognition and respect. However, it did not escape NgugTan supporters of indigenous-language writing that Achebe’s appeal and his celebrated early novel Things fall apart (1958) were written in ‘the Queen’s English’. The novel’s enduring global success can be attributed to its fairly standard use of English with a smattering of Igbo words and expressions and the occasional tweaking of the English language. For proponents of indigenous-language writing, Achebe was not Africanising English, but rather pandering to colonialist interests.

Other African writers who have claimed translation as a strategy in their creative process are the Anglophone writer Gabriel Okara, who states unequivocally that he is translating from his native Ijaw language, and the francophone writer, Ahmadou Kourouma, who coined the term Malinkisation to describe his writing strategy of bending and moulding the French language to reflect the Malinke language and culture (see Magnier 1987).

Both sides of the language debate have their strengths and weaknesses, but what seems remarkable is the unavoidable presence of translation in either approach. For indigenous-language writers, there is a twofold need to capture an oral language culture in writing, often in a language without a stable writing alphabet or system, and subsequently translate the indigenous text into other languages for the benefit of readers outside the work’s indigenous language community. The sameis true for European-language writers who must also cope with the representation of orality in writing, albeit in an alphabetised colonial language, as they strive to convey the cultural experience and worldview of their society. Given the global reach of such writings, translation often follows into other languages of wider communication in the continent and abroad. Colonialism and orality seem to have conspired to confer an inescapable, if not chronic, condition of ‘translated essence’ at the core of African literary production. While a native English-speaking writer can delve straight into the creative process seemingly without the impediments of history and transculturality, postcolonial writers must contend with such obstacles, which may be either inspirational or stifling. Translation is indispensable to postcolonial writing and is both catalyst and determinant of the outcome of postcolonial literary aesthetics and practice.

In a 2018 lecture at the British Library, the acclaimed Indian author Arundhati Roy (2018:3) echoed Achebe’s views: “[w]riting in English is not a tribute to the British Empire ... it is a practical solution to a problem created by it”. She goes on to say that although English is spoken by a small minority in India, it is “the language of mobility, of opportunity, of the courts, of the national press, the legal fraternity, of science, engineering, and international communication. It is the language of privilege and exclusion” (Roy 2018:3-4). Yet, as she points out, English “is also the language of emancipation, the language in which privilege has been eloquently denounced” (Roy 2018:4). Like many postcolonial writers who have a relation of ambivalence with the colonial language, Roy’s reasoning is fairly expedient. She states: “As the wrecking ball of the new global economic order goes about its work, moving some people toward the light, pushing others into darkness, the “knowing” and the “not knowing” of English plays a great part in allocating light and darkness” (Roy 2018:4). Roy is by no means elevating English above indigenous Indian languages. Rather, like many postcolonial writers, she is claiming the language as a medium of communication across the multitude of Indian languages and for writing back at colonial power and its various incarnations of oppressive governmentality in postcolonial India. Like Achebe, she imagines a sort of Indianised English suitable to the Indian context. Speaking in personal terms she states, “My English has been widened and deepened by the rhythms and cadences of my alien mother’s other tongues” (Roy 2018:2), highlighting the unavoidable influence the many Indian languages she had inherited must have had on her creative works in English. Roy’s thoughts on the use of English are at the basis of her understanding of pre-writing translation as a strategy for crafting Indian literature in English. It was her answer to the existential question she has had to grapple with, given her multilingual background: “What was—is—the politically correct, culturally

Translating Africa 25 apposite, and morally appropriate language in which I ought to think and write?” (Roy 2018:2). Pre-writing translation becomes a sine qua non for postcolonial writers who must weave the devices of translation into their writing process. Writing and translating are fused into a creative process, rife with psychosomatic affect that seeks to convey subaltern experiences in a dominant imperial language.

About twenty years after her acclaimed novel, The god of small things (1997), Arundhati Roy published her second novel, The ministry of utmost happiness (2017), which she describes as a novel virtually translated from many languages into English. She jokingly states that she was tempted to replace the author’s name on the cover page with “Translated from the original(s) by Arundhati Roy” (Roy 2018:5). She asserts that “The Ministry is a novel written in English but imagined in several languages” (Roy 2018:5). Here Roy is alluding to the role of translation in the creative process of composing a novel in English based on a multilingual and multicultural experience. This pre-writing translation process is integral to the work of most postcolonial writers, who often draw inspiration from the multilingualism and transcultural practices that are an intrinsic part of daily life in postcolonial societies. Roy (2018:5) further states:

Translation as a primary form of creation was central to the writing of it... Regardless of which language (and in whose mother tongue) The Ministry was written in, this particular narrative about these particular people in this particular universe would had [sic] to be imagined in several languages.

Like the characters in The ministry, for most postcolonial subjects “translation is not only a high-end literary art performed by sophisticated polyglots. Translation is daily life, it is street activity, and it’s increasingly a necessary part of ordinary folks’ survival kit” (Roy 2018:5). Therefore, in this novel written in English but inspired by many languages, “it is not only the author, but the characters themselves ... who constantly translate for and to each other, who constantly speak across languages, and who constantly realise that people who speak the same language are not necessarily the ones who understand each other best” (Roy 2018:5). Speaking about the Booker Prize-winning The god of small things, Roy (2018:11) noted: “I wrote it in English, but imagined it in English as well as Malayalam ... The whole novel is constructed around people, young and old, English-knowing and Malayalam-knowing, all grappling, wrestling, dancing, and rejoicing in language”. Her introspection resonates with the experience of postcolonial writers when she says, “For me, or for most contemporary writers working in these parts, language can never be a given. It has to be made. It has to be cooked. Slow-cooked” (Roy 2018:11). Speaking in somewhat clinical terms she offersa therapeutic assessment of the pre-writing translation process of postcolonial literature:

It was only after writing The God of Small Things that I felt the blood in my veins flow more freely. It was an unimaginable relief to have finally found a language that tasted like mine. A language in which I could write the way I think. A language that freed me.

(Roy 2018:12)

Roy’s musings aptly sum up the deep feelings of postcolonial writers who must seek out a new language that can capture their multifaceted experience embedded in multiple languages and cultures, usually coexisting in a terrain characterised by unequal power relations. African literature in European languages is overwhelmingly a product of pre-writing translation practice inasmuch as its creative process relies on translation as a mechanism for enacting the interface between orality and writing, between lived experiences of multilingualism and imperial monolingual-ism, between subaltern and dominant language cultures.

In today’s post-postcolonial world, African European-language authors are experiencing a more open and fertile ground for cultivating a literary language that is at once national and global. Their fortunes have increased significantly with the rise of global English which, far from being a flattened, uniform or banal language, has managed to create space for peripheral or marginalised literary cultures. This is borne out by the number of international literary prizes, such as the Booker Prize, won by writers from Africa and other former English colonies. The story is different for African French-language writers, who have had to contend with the exigencies of the French literary space. The concept of a global French has met with strong resistance, as the boundaries have always been clearly defined between what emanates from hexagonal France and other French-speaking spaces across the globe. These divisions are often spelled out in institutional references, such as the distinction between ‘French’ and ‘francophone’ in academic institutions and literary circles, the former referring to mainland France and the latter to French-speakers outside France. In an attempt to emulate their Anglophone counterparts, and possibly strive for similar global recognition and success, some francophone writers and literary scholars coined the term Littérature-monde (World Literature), in order to elevate their work and seek recognition beyond the confines of the French literary establishment. The concept of Littérature-monde has been welcomed by some, but has ruffled feathers in other influential literary circles. There is indeed no such thing as a global French in the same way as one speaks of global English. Although African francophone writers engage in similar pre-writing translation practices as their Anglophone counterparts, and their literary artistry and aesthetics are appreciated, they

Translating Africa 21 remain Othered—outside the expectations of the French literary establishment. It is therefore not as fashionable in the French literary world to speak of bending or disrupting standard French, translating at it were from an oral culture in order to write back at the imperial centre. The notion of postcolonialism is still making its way into the French psyche, and it might be throwing in a monkey wrench at this stage to speak of “post-postcolonialism” (Bandia 2008)—the contemporary experiences of postcolonial subjects that are far removed from the immediate post-independence context—in France.

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