The translation of African literature, whether self-translation or institutional translation (i.e. a professional translator working with a publisher), has always been a double translation process whereby a fictionalised text—which is itself a translation from oral to written language, from a peripheral language culture to a global language—is in turn translated into another alien language (whether global or not) far removed from the source language culture of the original. In other words, post-writing translation of African literary fiction is in many ways a translation of a translation. The translator of African fiction has to contend with issues embedded in orality and culture. However, unlike the original writer who dealt with similar issues at the pre-writing translation phase, the post-writing translator often lacks the perspective and insight of a member of the depicted language community. In the case of a self-translator like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who resorted to fictionalising in his native Gikuyu before translating into English, there is a clear advantage of being immersed in the source language culture, coupled with his gifts as a writer, despite his experiment turning out to be not entirely satisfactory even for him, as his initial frustrations with expressing Gikuyu worldview in English were not easily resolved with the self-translation approach. The institutional or professional translator, especially one who is not native to Gikuyu, has to surmount the task of first acquainting themselves with the Gikuyu language and culture before grasping the nuances of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s artistry and literary aesthetics. And therein lies the rub. Translators of African European-language fiction have the task not only to convey the content or storyline of the work, but also to weave in the oral narrative and stylistics often embedded in the discourse of the protagonists and the varied linguistic fabric of the novel. Speaking about her novel The ministry of utmost happiness, which was translated into forty-eight languages, Roy (2018:6) states:
Each of those translators has to grapple with a language that is infused with many languages including, if I may coin a word, many kinds of Englishes (sociolects is perhaps the correct word, but I’ll stay with Englishes because it is deliciously worse) and translate it into anotherlanguage that is infused with many languages ... I use the word infused advisedly, because I am not speaking merely of a text that contains a smattering of quotations or words in other languages as a gimmick or a trope, or one that plays the Peter Sellers game of mocking Indian English, but of an attempt to actually create a companionship of languages.
Besides dealing with issues of orality and culture, translators of postcolonial literature are often faced with the linguistically multi-layered nature of the language of writing, which often draws from the heterolingualism of postcolonial society, where multiple languages co-exist and are engaged in constant transaction and translation for communication. Besides numerous indigenous languages, there are many other languages of wider diffusion (e.g. pidgins, creoles and some lingua franca). Many of these languages are the result of contact between African indigenous languages among themselves and with European and Arabic languages of trade and colonisation. The situation in the post-postcolonial era is even more complex, given the residue of language or polylingualism brought about by transnational and global phenomena of migration and diaspora, and the effects of globalisation. The post-postcolonial generations, for whom multilingualism is a fact of life, have infused the African linguascape with a profusion of hybrid languages reflective of their lived experiences within the continent or in the diaspora. There are, for example, locally derived varieties of colonial languages but often with some connection to global linguistic experiences. Many of these hybrid languages show signs of linguistic contact both nationally and globally. They are in some ways products of enhanced cosmopolitanism and rampant globalisation. For example, although Franglais is spoken in predominantly French-speaking countries such as Cameroon and other francophone countries in West and Central Africa, one finds traces of this hybrid language among the youth in Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean. Similarly, post-postco-lonial hybrid varieties of English (and perhaps Spanish and Portuguese), often the preserve of post-postcolonial generations, can be traced in most English-speaking countries in Africa and among African communities in the diaspora. Globalisation has helped spread these hybrid languages through migration and various art forms such as music, audio-visual media and sports. Thus in many respects the translation of contemporary African literature has become even more complex than it was in the early days of postcolonial writing, given the complexity of lived experiences and the attendant linguistic and cultural evolution over the decades since independence.
Translations of early postcolonial African literature were concerned primarily with familiarising a mainly non-African readership with the budding literature that was peripheral to the literary landscape of the colonising power (Bandia 2008). There was also the need to showcase African culture and oral aesthetics in order to debunk notions of backwardness, and of Africa as a
Translating Africa 29 tabula rasa still to be written and brought into the fold of civilisation through European colonisation. This might explain why early African literature in colonial languages was occasionally seen as sociological or anthropological rather than literary, because of the heavy input of the African oral tradition and the efforts to twist the colonial languages to capture and convey the oral artistry and culture. Drawing on the examples of colonial translations carried out mainly by missionaries and colonial administrators, who set out to turn oral languages into written ones, early postcolonial literature invested considerable effort in representing Africanness through the composition and translation of orality in the European language of writing. The results ranged from rudimentary publications like the Onitsha chapbooks and pamphlets with oral folktales, wisdom and moral stories, often written in basic English, literature in semi-literate English such as the works of Amos Tutuola (see The palm wine drinkard 1952), deliberate wholesale translations from indigenous languages, such as Gabriel Okara’s The voice (1964), and literature written in educated language but tweaked to convey African linguistic and cultural sensibilities such as Achebe’s Things fall apart (1958). Early African francophone writing might have shown similar traits but with a major caveat in that there was a strong pull towards emulating standard metropolitan French as a result of the colonial assimilation policy and the influence of the Académie Française watchdog.
Translators of early African literature, who were generally European and trained in other disciplines, worked essentially under the aegis of publishers such as the Heinemann African Writers Series and Présence Africaine, established mainly for works coming out of former colonies or multilingual peripheral societies. These publishing firms had an interest in promoting African literature, though they also had a stake in directing and shaping African writing in a European language for consumption in the colonial metropole and the global community. Without much literary capital, African-language writing was limited to a small niche of experts with sociological and anthropological designs on African art, while European-language writing became the means to reach a wider global readership. The latter provided the conduit for the struggle for independence as well as for the introduction of African literature to the global community. However, the framework for the production and publishing of early European-language writing had its flaws. First, they were initially based in the colonial metropole and extended colonialist control over such African art. There was a tendency to exoticise these translations to meet the expectations of readers in the colonial metropole. Rather than encourage the use of standard European language varieties, they seemed to prefer absurd and unusual literary language not only for the amusement of the reader but also to confirm certain long-held notions of primitivism of the native in the colonies (see Gikandi 2002). For example, Amos Tutuola’s The palm wine drinkard (1952) enjoyed great attention from Western literary critics mainly for its supposedly childlike use of
English. The translation of Camara Laye’s L’enfant noir (1953) as The dark child (1954) by James Kirkup, Ernest Jones and Elaine Gottlieb was also seen as feeding the metropole’s impressions of childlikeness, naivety and raw innocence. John Reed’s translation of Ferdinand Oyono’s Une vie de boy (1956) as Houseboy (1966) also fits this category of African novels chosen for translation in the metropole for their exotic appeal and the amusing stereotypes in the minds of Western readers. Although based in Europe, these publishing houses quickly realised that they were having great commercial success in Africa, especially when these novels were included in school educational programmes. The African Writers Series opened a branch in Nairobi, Kenya, mainly to meet educational demands (see Chinweizu and Madubuike 1980). They were not to replace the European classics at the core of educational programmes on the continent, but rather constituted a whole new domain of specialist interest in African literature. The same was true for the Présence Africaine, whose publications (both original writing and translations) were integrated into the educational system as specialist domains without interfering with the dominance of French or European classics imposed as ideal for the civilising mission (Bandia 2008). The translation of early African literature therefore played an ambivalent role of educational necessity and colonial control and imposition. On the one hand, translation provided the means to sustain and circulate African literature. On the other, given the agency of the European-based publishing firms, translation provided life-support for the waning colonial authority by enabling the continued control and commodification of culture and knowledge on the continent. It is interesting to note that, in spite of the dense cultural and historical content of these works, few Africans were hired as translators at these publishing houses, and most, if not all, of the translators translated African literature as a hobby (see Bush 2013). Most of these translations seem to have been published within a year of the publication of the original, which, given the presumed unfamiliarity with the source culture, raises questions about the depth of the research and the commitment to getting things right in the translation. Over the years, numerous graduate theses and publications have analysed the shortcomings of these translations (see, for example, Bandia 2008). This might explain why some novels have been retranslated. Whether driven by commercial success or political or cultural motives, the translation of early African literature served its purpose. The current professionalisation of the art of translating African literature has moved from its colonialist foundation to be competitive and to assert its presence in the global literary space.
African literary translation has since evolved, as translation becomes an invaluable component of the global literary market. Intercultural writing, literary heteroglossia and multilingualism, orality, translingualism and interculturality are now considered trademarks of literary production from the Global South, and indeed their selling point and a mark
Translating Africa 31 of distinction within the global literary space. The originality and the aesthetic appeal of this literature worldwide, buoyed by effects of globalisation such as the migration of peoples, capital and technology, have raised the profile of literature originating from the Global South, which in turn has led to an increased interest in its translation. The fact that many of these works have figured prominently in international book prizes and book fairs has indeed increased the demand for their translation and enhanced their presence in the global book market. This is the condition in which post-postcolonial African literature seems to find itself, and has thus benefited from a more professional interest in translation driven by commercial incentives for some major publishers endowed with robust distribution networks in the global literary marketplace. Post-postcolonial African literature is temporally and spatially characterised as literature written by authors born, for the most part, after independence, whose main preoccupation is not colonial governmentality or anticolonialism, but rather neo-colonialism and the reality of life in the postcolony or in the African diaspora (Bandia 2018). The ambitions of post-postcolonial literature are more in line with an ideology of decolo-niality (rather than anticolonialism), involving the exposure of the dark forces of the continued economic (and in some ways, political) domination of subaltern societies. As such, post-postcolonial literature takes on corrupt or failed states, as well as their ‘midwives’ or ‘godfathers’ within the current culture of globalisation. This literature explores a variety of themes, including poverty, development, dictatorship and kleptocracy, social disharmony, urban decay, language and cultural dislocation or displacement, feminism, gender and sexual orientation, migration, internecine conflicts and child soldiering, the Anthropocene and the environment (Bandia 2018). These are themes that resonate with the concerns of the global community and may not be limited to issues of colonisation.
The translation of African literature has therefore followed the evolving trend of post-postcolonial literature, and has attracted the attention of translators with a passion for the trade and an awareness of the global significance of their work, which is often commissioned by well-established publishers with global name recognition, rather than specialist or tailor-made for African publishing enterprises (Bandia 2018). Unlike translators of early African literature, for whom the art was mainly a hobby, translators of contemporary post-postcolonial literature are often themselves writers, academics or artists with a vested interest in the art of literary translation with a specific focus on Africa. A good example to showcase this current trend is the translation of the work of Calixthe Beyala, the Cameroonian-French writer, born in 1961, which I consider relevant to establishing the claim for a post-postcolonial African literature, as evidenced in the themes of her works and the views exposed by the author herself. Beyala’s novels are, strictly speaking, not (post-)colonial but post-postcolonial, as her preoccupations are with thecontemporary experiences of life in the postcolony and the diaspora. Her fiction summons the reader to engage with the unsavoury conditions of life in the postcolony, and the experience of marginalisation and hardship faced by racialised communities in the Western metropole. A theme that runs through Beyala’s works is feminism, which, of course, is of global significance, and allows her to explore it from the perspective of an African woman. Beyala’s brand of feminism, which she has dubbed “féminitude”, is about the plight of racialised women and is therefore uplifting, but also challenges the mainly Western view of feminism. It is telling that Beyala’s main publisher is the influential Albin Michel in Paris, which gives her a much grander presence in the French literary landscape and confirms the insertion of African literature within a more global literary market (Bandia 2018). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Beyala’s main translator into English, Marjolijn de Jager, is an accomplished academic, writer and translator with a mastery of three languages, namely Dutch, English and French. De Jager acknowledges quite clearly her interest in translating African women writers and giving them a voice in a literary landscape in which they are often marginalised. For her, translating these women writers is an outlet for her political activism, as she strives to sustain and convey the specific feminism espoused by the writers. De Jager is a respected translator of African literature and in 2011 won the ALA Distinguished Member Award for Outstanding Service to the African Literature Association and “Exemplary Commitment to Translation, Teaching and Scholarship in African Literature and Film Studies” (De Jager 2020). She has translated works by several francophone African writers including The amputated memory (2007) (La mémoire amputée) by Werewere Liking, with whom she developed a close relationship. She has translated many of Calixthe Beyala’s novels, including Loukoum: The little prince of Belleville (1995) (Le petit prince de Belleville), Your name shall be Tanga (1996) (Tu t’appelleras Tanga), The sun hath looked upon me (1996) (C’est le soleil qui m’a brûlée). De Jager uses the metaphor of the Baobab tree, which for her symbolises the cultural abundance and strength of African writers, particularly women writers who deserve to have their voices heard. There is a subtle equation of the Baobab tree—known for its endurance, and nourishing and spiritual qualities—and the African woman writer whose voice must not be stifled and who must be given a platform for engaging issues related to marginalised women’s concerns (De Jager 2020). Hence, encouraging and perhaps nurturing subaltern women’s feminism becomes a motivating factor in practising African literary translation. The latter has indeed kept abreast of the evolving preoccupations of African contemporary literature that addresses the lived experiences in the postcolony and the diaspora. At this point in history, African literature has in many ways gone mainstream, as exemplified by the agency of Albin Michel as the publisher of Calixthe Beyala, and the translations of her works being
Translating Africa 33 commissioned and published by Heinemann, Oxford, outside the more restrictive African Writers Series (see De Jager 2020). This is indeed a far cry from the days when small, specialist and somewhat colonialist publishers catered to African literature for a rather restricted audience.