Mapping the Social History of Literary Translation into Swahili

In what follows, the main phases of translation practices in the Swahili context are highlighted, together with the role of translation in the social fabric (see also Talento 2018).

The Pre-Twentieth Century Phase: Prestige and Patrician Influences

Translation already played a prominent role in the pre-twentieth century Swahili oral literary corpus, which incorporated fables, tales and narrative themes of Arabic, Persian, Indian, Turkish and Aramaic origin (Tolmacheva 1978). Translation also played a prominent role in the development of a Swahili manuscript culture: some of the oldest testimonies of a Swahili precolonial written literary corpus are translated texts or poems presented as translations, such as the renowned Utendi wa Tambuka (‘The poem of the battle of Tabuk’, 1728) and Hamziyya (‘The poem in Hamza’, 1749). During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Arabic (Islamic) historical and legendary stories were copiously transferred to the Swahili coast in the form of poetry translation, a literary form associated with high rank and therefore prestige (Shariff 1991).

In the hierarchised precolonial Swahili society, eloquence in speaking, often expressed through poetic exercise, was associated with patrician identity. This distinction was often alluded to in Swahili classical (translated) poems, which referred to access or possession of material wealth (books, libraries, collections), which were only affordable to the elite. Thus the precolonial Swahili literary field was sophisticated and characterised by an affluent professional milieu—often by the ulamaa, Islamic scholars and judges (Talento 2019b:61)—who wrote for a cultivated public in a language considered to be prestigious and literary in the East African context. Classical Swahili poems were accompanied by detailed metadiscourses on translation which depicted them as the versification, retelling or repeating of pre-existing Arabic source(s). Poets described their physical, emotional and intellectual experiences of the encounter with the alleged sources, and expounded the methods of the translation process, which, according to their comments, were based on notions of fidelity and completeness. The metadiscourse used to label these poems as translations sums up what I call a ‘default translational pattern’ used to camouflage authorship. Despite their sometimes flamboyant display of presumed fidelity to the letter, these poems included both complex combinations of multiple modes of translation and elements of original writings, and original poems (Talento 2019b). The metadiscourse refracted issues of prestige and symbolic power at both collective and individual levels. In the Swahili social hierarchy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, affiliation to Arabic ancestry was associated with high rank (Horton and Middleton 2000). However, the influence of the Omani sultanate over the East African coast from the end of the seventeenth century, culminating in the resettlement of the capital to Zanzibar in 1832, threatened the position and influence of local elites (Saavedra Casco 2007).

During the nineteenth century, the period of most of the catalogued poems, some patrician groups whose prestige was endangered by the

Omanite elite resorted to revising genealogies and chronicles to reduce the strain of social readjustments (Horton and Middleton 2000). The study of chronologies and genealogies was crucial for me to understand the social value of the claims of Arab ancestry for Swahili poems. (In fact, audiences of these poems were often addressed as Waarabu, ‘Arabs’.) The myth of foreignness was thus implemented both inside and outside the text to activate links with patrician entities. At the individual level, the label of translation enabled poets to modify their socially expected behaviour: disdaining earthly fame, refusing rewards other than the blessing of God, and denying self-ability. By presenting themselves as faithful translators, they could assert their skills and competences in the art of translation and talk freely of the beauty and perfection of their work. In this manner, they could circumvent social expectation and garner recognition and praise (Talento 2013).

The Colonial Phase: Shifting Structures and Deconsecration

The second phase of literary translations into Swahili occurred from 1867 to 1960, when German rule, the British mission in Zanzibar, and eventually British rule dominated the social and political structures of the Swahili-speaking area. Missionary and colonial translations coexisted with local translation practices as different spheres of cultural production until colonial linguistic and educational policies prevailed and shifted the structure of the literary field.

Despite the use of Swahili as a medium of instruction and the language of lower levels of administration in German East Africa, and despite prolific translation of tales, fables and religious poems into German, very few German texts were translated into Swahili. Exposure to European literature started in 1867 in the British Universities Mission in Zanzibar. Particularly influential in this regard was Edward Steere, the Anglican bishop in Zanzibar at the time, who, apart from the Scriptures, introduced summarised translations of Shakespeare and Greek mythology at the mission.

After the British took over the administration of Tanganyika in 1922, there was a consistent flow of literary translations into Swahili regulated by the Inter-Territorial Language Committee (ITLC), created in 1930 to set Swahili language standards throughout East Africa. For the ITLC, translated texts were part of the language standardisation and literacy programmes (Report 1925). To contextualise the institutional framework of translations issued in these years, I examined official committee documents and teachers’ material. Titles selected for translation were mainly English school classics of the time, including Ryder Haggard, Jonathan Swift, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Carroll, plus Molière. Most were translated between 1927 and 1935 by Frederick Johnson, first Secretary of the ITLC and Senior Clerk in the Education Department. The mainly male translators were usually colonial administrators (such as Alexander Morrison and James Murison) or missionaries (such as Serafino Bella Eros). East African translators were selected from the few with an English education who were connected to the Education Department. They included Edwin Brenn, Rawson Watts, Abdulla Abubakr and Shaaban Robert. However, their participation was often recorded as “assistance”, as was the case for Edwin Brenn who collaborated with Johnson. Translations first appeared as serialised texts in the government journal Mambo Leo (Today’s affairs), then as separate books usually published in the UK. Within the educational system, these translations were intended to construct a linguistic and literary canon, and to legitimise their version of Swahili. Furthermore, they were an attempt to dictate literary consumption. Before the colonial period, Swahili literature had the function of giving (religious) instruction, moralising and registering historical events. The translations of the ITLC were frequently extolled for their capacity to be appealing (knpendeza) or cheerful (kufurahisha). As such, they changed the Swahili conception of literature from the ideal of instruction to that of amusement. Furthermore, texts containing colonial narratives of subjugation such as King Solomon’s mines and The song of Hiawatha were selected, creating parallels between the fictionalised context and the situated context and thereby refracting and normalising social and cultural hierarchies. Excluding criteria also played a role in refracting the ideological functions of translation.

While the collection and translation of Swahili poetry into German and English had been a fundamental exercise for missionaries, linguists and ethnographers, a monopoly of prose crushed poetry translations during the British expansion in East Africa. By blocking out poetry, the ITLC annihilated a genre that embodied the sophistication and elaboration of the Swahili language and literature, and that had been associated with high rank. The discourse (and silence) on translation practised during British rule created the perception that Swahili literature lacked the prose genre, or that Swahili prose had little or no intellectual value: the British discourse on translation fuelled an image of the Swahili language as incapable of embodying the literary quality and stylistic eloquence of the source texts, and simply not qualified to be a vehicle of “high thinking” (Report 1925:160). Translation can indeed be a symbolic stratagem for gathering resources and gaining literary visibility and legitimacy, but in the Swahili context it led to the reduction and obliteration of literary and symbolic capital. Translation in this case aimed to reveal the supposedly defective nature of the target language and literature; such a (counterfeit) view proved useful to the colonial enterprise. I therefore propose the concept of translation as deconsecration (Talento 2017) as an alternative logic to describe literary exchanges (or lack thereof) from a dominant to a dominated literary field in the context of political, economic and cultural subjection.

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