Proverb Translation to the Realm of the Story in Chinua Achebe’s Novels

Amechi N. Akwanya

University of Nigeria, Nsukka


Igbo proverbs and their translations are enduring themes in Chinua Achebe studies. The very first issue of African literature today led with Lindfors’ (1968) paper, the title of which is an adaptation of an Igbo proverb: “The palm-oil with which Achebe’s words are eaten.” Discussion of proverbs has continued to the present; for example, Salami and Tabari (2018) further explore and extend themes identified by Lindfors (1968:18), who writes:

Achebe’s literary talents are clearly revealed in his use of proverbs. One can observe his mastery of the English language, his skill in choosing the right words to convey his ideas, his keen sense of what is in character and what is not, his instinct for appropriate metaphor and symbol, and his ability to present a thoroughly African world in thoroughly African terms.

Achebe’s literary talents revealed in his use of proverbs include communicative efficacy, rhetorical felicity and expressiveness. Lindfors acknowledges Achebe’s artistic accomplishments, concluding that he is a great writer with convincing power. Most scholars studying Achebe’s proverbs concur with Lindfors, and have also discussed the techniques used to render the Igbo proverbs into English, some calling it transliteration (Onukaogu and Onyerionwu 2009; Asika 2013; Anigbogu and Ahizih 2016). This chapter is concerned with proverb translation, not in terms of translating Achebe’s works, but of converting and expanding Igbo proverbs as a process of text formation.

Chinua Achebe’s novels Things fall apart (1958), No longer at ease (1961), Arrow of God (1964), A man of the people (1966), and Anthills of the savannah (1987) are written in English, and have Igbo proverbs and idiomatic expressions rendered into English by lexical substitution (i.e. direct translation; see Molina and Hurtado Albir 2002). As Larson (1998:385) observes, “mismatch of semantic structure and grammatical structure” is a frequent occurrence in literal translations, which also highlight contrasts in how meaning is created and packaged in the two languages. By contrast, transliteration involves a “one-by-one rendering of individual letters and signs of a SL [source language] item in one alphabet with the closest corresponding letters and signs of another alphabet”, or “words consisting of a combination of letters and signs” rendered in another system “character by character” (Bajaj 2009:236). Thus, while Anigbogu and Ahizih (2016:61) refer to the literal translations in Achebe’s fiction as ‘transliteration’, they explain these translations in terms of realism and message transfer. Other researchers, such as Gogoi (2016), also explain the role of proverbs and their literal translations in terms of realism and information communication. According to Anigbogu and Ahizih (2016:61), in handling proverbs and the Igbo speech of his characters, Achebe “readjusts and modifies the English language to suit the cultural norms, social interactions, ideas and ideals of the traditional Igbo society”.

Translations may preserve or approximate meaning, but may equally fail in this task, especially if literal. But some have advanced the view that Achebe is so highly successful in managing literal translations that meaning and messaging are enhanced. According to Salami and Tabari (2018:22),

One of the striking discursive features of Things fall apart originates from the artistic use of the Igbo proverbs through an act of literal translation and without deviating from the Standard English. As a matter of fact, it is the result of the meticulous syntactic adjustments and vocabulary selectiveness that despite their estrangement those proverbs appear to be quite meaningful and by consequence easily perceived even by the non-Igbo English readers of the novel having little or no knowledge of the Igbo culture and its linguistic properties.

However, for most scholars investigating proverbs in Achebe’s novels, these elements have only localised functionality, and apart from Lindfors, there is no attempt to grasp the novel as a totality by means of a proverbial utterance. In interpreting Things fall apart, Lindfors, even though guided by a “sense of the conditions of plausible explanation” (Culler 2002:53), uses for a heuristic model the folktale about a wrestler who challenges his own chi, a “personal god or guardian spirit” (Lindfors 1968:7), and is destroyed in the encounter. But this folktale, which he treats as being illustrated in the novel, is not traceable in the novel’s text. Moreover, it is not possible to reconcile Okonkwo’s clash with the colonial administration in which he is destroyed with a fight with his own chi. Riffaterre’s theory, which is used in this chapter, does not accommodate such divergence. The folktale rather occurs in Arrow of God. In Things fall apart, the relevant proverb—what Riffaterre calls the “narrative matrix”—is that “when a man says yes his chi says yes also” (Achebe 1958:8).

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