Translating Linguistic: Hybridity and Indigenous Words in Mia Couto’s Novel A varanda do frangipani

Celina Cachucho

North-West University, Vanderbijlpark


Postcolonial literature offers important insights into understanding African society and its struggles, and the translation of postcolonial texts plays a significant role in the construction of new images and representations of foreign cultures in receiving cultures. However, translating postcolonial texts comes with challenges, since key features of such works are the use of hybrid language and indigenous words, which, imbued with cultural and linguistic nuances, are often deemed untranslatable.

Scholars have debated what it means to translate in postcolonial contexts (Mehrez 1992; Cronin 1996;Tymoczko 1999; Bandia 2008). Bandia (2008:9) notes that “the happy confluence of postcolonial-postmodernist discourse and literary and cultural translation theory has the potential to enhance our understanding of minority writing practices and their role in the emergence and location of African Europhone literature in the international literary space”. However, Fernández Ruiz et al. (2019:58) contend that publishing criteria for translations of postcolonial literature are erratic, and academic research in postcolonial studies is Eurocentric. There is therefore a need for clear, non-Eurocentric guidelines regarding the translation of hybrid and indigenous language in postcolonial texts.

While several studies (Gyasi 2006; Bush 2012; Batchelor 2014) investigate African literature in the French and English literary polysystems (see Even-Zohar 1990), African literature emanating from Lusophone countries such as Mozambique and Angola—known collectively, together with Brazil, as Países Africanos de Lingua Oficial Portuguesa—have largely been ignored as very few of these works have been translated (Bandia 2008). Among the few is Mozambican writer Mia Couto’s (1996) novel A varanda do frangipani which has been translated into several languages, including English. This is a positive step towards the dissemination of Lusophone literatures and towards understanding these literatures in the global postcolonial context. Brugioni (2017:69) regards translation as “a crucial critical tool to read and understand a variety of aesthetic practices that are inscribed in the so-called ‘Lusophone African literatures’”.

The question whether literary translators convey or deconstruct linguistic and cultural aspects embedded in postcolonial literature still generates debate (Klinger 2015; Karpinska 2016; Fernandez Ruiz et al. 2019). In this chapter, I address this question in the context of Lusophone African postcolonial literary translation by investigating the translation of hybrid and indigenous language in the English translation Under the frangipani (2001) by David Brookshaw, of Mia Couto’s (1996) A uaranda do frangipani using a descriptive translation studies (DTS) framework.

Literature in Postcolonial Contexts

According to McEwan (2009:82), colonialism represents “the imposition of political conquest and territorial expansion over people and places located at a distance from the metropolitan power”. Following the independence of most African colonies in the twentieth century, many writers have endeavoured to tell their stories and address topics related to the violence and trauma both during colonialism and after independence. According to Bandia (2008:8), however, there has been a shift in African literature towards acceptance of the postcolonial condition, as writers explore the richness and plurality of cultures which characterise the contemporary cosmopolitan African world.

Various postcolonial writers (Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, Amos Tutuola, Ahmadou Kourouma) have endeavoured to refashion (and subvert) the colonial language by using a mix of colonial and indigenous language that incorporates written and oral traditions. This innovative way of writing even seems to be expected by dominant cultures as an expression of the Other identity. As Carbonell (2000:52) suggests:

Postcolonial theorists agree that it is not possible for the dominant culture to conceive of the identity of cultural groups or discourses in a homogeneous and essentialist way, just as it is no longer possible to reduce to homogeneity the new presence of the Other as in a sealed urn in the secure space of the museum.

Bandia (2008:150) notes that when mixed languages become the basis of a literary culture, the resulting texts are self-consciously hybrid (see also Simon 2011:51) :

Colonially-derived hybrid languages are made to contrast with authentic indigenous languages, or used materially and symbolically as a go-between language straddling the African world and the alien colonial presence; and alternating language also occurs for the sheer artistry and poetics of placing a highly signifying local word in a discourse written in an international idiom. In some ways, it is designed to alert the international readership to the literary aesthetic emanating from the postcolony.

However, homogeneity and hybridity are not binary concepts. Instead, Assis Rosa (2012:77) argues that:

No language is homogenous, because any language is subject to linguistic variation. Accents differ, and so do dialects ... Language changes over time, with the most apparent consequence that even different generations speak the same language in different ways. At a given moment, it also varies since speakers belonging to different regions, and social groups, involved in different professions, using language in situations ranging from the extremely formal to the most informal, will speak the same language in sometimes very different ways.

If the existence of a homogeneous language is a fallacy, how then do we define hybridisation? The Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin (1981:358) describes hybridisation as “a mixture of two social languages within the limits of a single utterance, an encounter, within the arena of an utterance, between two different linguistic consciousnesses, separated from one another by an epoch, by social differentiation, or by some other factor”. In the postcolonial context, these utterances and encounters are between the languages and worldviews of the coloniser and the colonised. Therefore, a hybrid language is rooted in both worlds, its ultimate function being to bring together the languages of the coloniser and colonised. As Tymoczko (1999:23) argues, the balance is important if writers want to have an inclusive readership:

A minority-culture or post-colonial writer will have to pick aspects of the home culture to convey and to emphasize, particularly if the intended audience includes as a significant component international or dominant-culture readers.

In multilingual Mozambique, Portuguese is spoken mainly by urbanised and educated people, but the vernacular Portuguese is strongly influenced by indigenous languages such as Ronga, Shangaan, Chisena and Tsonga (Ngunga and Faquir 2011; Lopes et al. 2013). The result is a hybrid Portuguese which deviates from European Portuguese at phonological, lexical, semantic and syntactic levels (Gongalves 2001; Timbane 2018), but which allows Mozambican peoples to communicate in a common language. For Bhabha (1994), this hybrid language creates an “inbetween” space, allowing writers to express the African worldview in a European language. Mehrez (1992:121-22) highlights the importance of hybridity in the postcolonial context:

It was crucial for the postcolonial text to challenge both its own indigenous, conventional models as well as the dominant structures and institutions of the colonizer in a newly forged language that would accomplish this double movement. Indeed, the ultimate goal of such literature was to subvert hierarchies by bringing together the ‘dominant’ and the ‘underdeveloped’, by exploding and confounding different symbolic worlds and separate systems of signification in order to create a mutual interdependence and intersignification.

From this relationship between coloniser and colonised, and the willingness to connect with indigenous cultures, emerges a narrative space with different ideas, which in turn allows postcolonial writers to experiment with literary aesthetics that promote not only their culture but also their identity. According to Casanova (2004:282), such writers feel compelled to devise new idioms from their own language in order to subvert the dominant literary poetics of the coloniser. Freed from the demands of the coloniser’s poetics, writers express themselves using indigenous languages, even if all they use are isolated words. In this way, linguistic hybridity contributes to two important linguistic functions in postcolonial literature, namely the defamiliarisation and the exoticisation of language (Forsdick 2001).

The idea of transmitting the African experience through the colonisers’ language is not accepted by African authors such as NgugT wa Thiong’o (1986) and Niyi Osundare (2000), who suggests that African literature should be written in indigenous languages. Ngugi (1986:9) contends that the coloniser’s language is a vehicle that “held the soul prisoner” and “the means of spiritual subjugation”, therefore to neglect the colonised languages is tantamount to blasphemy. However, authors such as Gabriel Okara and Chinua Achebe believe that colonial languages can and should be adapted to convey African experiences. Achebe (2015:434) declares:

I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experiences. But it will be [a] new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.

Undoubtedly, language plays an important role in contexts where sociopolitical confrontations take part, as it facilitates intercultural communication and understanding. Perhaps what Achebe is trying to impart is that postcolonial texts should be written in such a manner that readers are able to grasp this ‘in-between’ language based on authors’ efforts to establish their identity. This challenge has been taken up by many postcolonial authors, resulting in literary works imbued with different forms of syntax, neologisms, and a hybridisation of coloniser and colonised linguistic aspects. From this perspective, Bandia (2008:9) argues that African writers have transcended having to choose between the coloniser’s language and their native vernacular:

The Europhone writer has chosen to forge a language which allows him or her to use both language systems at once, thus doing away with colonial norms of expression and subverting the implied language hierarchies.

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