The Early Postcolonial Phase: Translation and the Nation-Building Endeavour

After independence, the import of translated literature affected Tanzania to a greater extent than Kenya because of the different linguistic policies enacted by the respective governments: in contrast to Kenya, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) enacted a strong linguistic policy to ‘Swahilise’” the national sphere. Translation flows in this phase underwent considerable changes in three areas: directionality (with the inclusion of more geographies); text types (with the enrichment of source genres); and agency (translators were mainly East Africans, although males still predominated).

From the 1960s to the 1980s there were three main translation flows into Swahili. The first trend concerned the translation of canonical Western authors such as Plato, Shakespeare, Molière and Conrad. During the decade following independence ( 1962—1972), Tanzania constructed a cultural nationalism based on socialism and self-reliance in terms of political, economic and intellectual resources: translation was considered part of the intellectual nation-building endeavour. Translators were usually members of the political field involved in the project of developing the Swahili language and literature. They included Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, Samuel Mushi, Promoter for Swahili in the Ministry of National Culture, Joseph Kotta, a Tanzanian UN official, and Lugo Taguaba, a diplomat at the Embassy of Tanzania in Paris. At this juncture, political discourses were fundamental in defining the role of translations in state policies.

The second trend, from the 1970s to the 1980s, was the translation of outstanding voices of contemporary African literature. This conscious cultural step was part of a general tendency in the newly independent nations to “Africanize the cultural and intellectual environment” (Madumulla et al. 1999:318). African literatures were mainly translated and published in Kenya, which still plays a prominent role in publishing Swahili literature. The third trend, which flourished in the late 1970s, involved the import of literary texts (mainly children’s literature) from Russia and China to Tanzania because of their political affinities. These translations were done by East Africans studying or working in Russia or China, or by Russian and Chinese translators proficient in Swahili.

In the early postcolonial context, literary translation provided a cultural and symbolic tool to validate the Swahili language. This was particularly evident in Tanzania, where a national literary field was being constructed and where a conflict of status between English and Swahili was taking place. Here, translation (especially of English classics) sustained the linguistic policy by demonstrating that Swahili was capable of becoming the national language and the means of high culture. In this sense, translation worked as a force of reconsecration to recuperate the literary and symbolic capital previously negated. Additionally, translation performed a celebration of local culture(s). Domestication strategies undertaken in many of the translations of this period are defended by translators as a conscious effort to respect local cultures and thus can be linked to a public discourse characterised by the recovery of the past and of tradition. However, at the same time translation was conceptualised as a participative process, enabling the Swahili community to take part in a universal experience. Indeed, translation practices and the discourse on translation after independence embodied a synthesis between the local and the global. This was particularly striking in poetic translation practices aimed at validating blank verse in Swahili in Tanzania. There were strong parallels between translation practices and political goals: creating a cultural nationalism based on local resources while avoiding cultural isolation. The introduction of blank verse was mediated by a discourse on translation which linked this form - deemed unconventional - to the tenets of Swahili prosody. In doing so, translators synthesised foreign repertoires and local initiatives; for them this synthesis was an instrument of innovation to foster the expansion of the Swahili poetic corpus (Talento 2019a). This development sheds new light on the dichotomy between orthodoxy and heterodoxy as the propeller of change and innovation in a literary field (Bourdieu 1996; Casanova 2004). The Swahili context offers a case in which there is no conformity or subversion to the doxa; instead it illustrates the possibility of linking heterodoxy with orthodoxy (Talento 2019a).

Contemporary East Africa: Global and Local Challenges

While literary translations currently play a lesser part in state policies, they are increasingly governed by a high rate of commercialisation. Book publishing in East Africa faces the challenge of creating a reading culture beyond the consumption of textbooks, which are favoured because they guarantee consistent financial returns (Bgoya 2008). Publishing houses produce two to three translations annually, mainly proposed by translators, provided they can form part of the school syllabi (Hadjivayanis 2011).

From the mid-1990s, there has been a renewed interest in the translation of classics. In 1993, Macmillan’s Nairobi branch launched the series Hadithi za kukumbukwa (‘Tales to remember’) to (re)translate European classics. From the 1990s, literary imports into Swahili have been characterised by a more pronounced diversification and internationalisation, involving a broadened geography beyond the UK, the USA, France, Russia, China and various African countries, and now include sources from countries such as Norway, the Czech Republic and Egypt. Furthermore, translation has started to involve Swahili-speaking countries from the ‘peripheries’, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a deliberate attempt to do justice to the multiple forms of the language. Contemporary translation enterprises also contemplate a diasporic dimension, with increasing numbers of Swahili translators and publishers (such as the US-based Genesis Press) living in the UK or the USA. Literary translations are also sustained by self-publishing and by strong support from academic circles: many translators in the Swahili literary scene are academics (e.g. Ida Hadjivayanis, Emmanuel Mbogo, Alena Rettovâ, Ayub Mukhwana and Iribe Mwangi).

While many differences can be found in the various periods of translations presented here, my findings reveal that literary translation is a unique site where different spheres (intellectual, political, economic) speak to each other, where the nature and tenets of a literary field can be negotiated, and where the demands, needs or visions of individuals or social and political groups can be channelled.

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