The task of the African translator

The task of the African translator, which is to contribute to the growth of African languages, at minimum, can therefore be seen as setting out to accomplish four main tasks:

  • 1) Translating between African languages. In translating inter-African languages, there must be a recognition that different African languages will call for different approaches. In addition to universal questions such as those of equivalence and compensation, there will be other sets of questions depending on how close, linguistically and socially, the source language is to the target language.
  • 2) Putting African languages in conversation with other languages that offer a historical and political solidarity, c.g. Spanish, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, Chinese, or Vietnamese. For example, there is no reason why Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude should not be translated into Kiswahili or Gikuyu.
  • 3) Translating from European languages into African languages—so that other forms of knowledge arc stored and accessed in an African language. There is of course a crucial point here which relates to how we choose what to translate and what not to translate. A translator who relies on a British or United States literary canon that sidelines black and brown voices means that translated works and theories that emanate from that will carry the biases. And be less historically and political useful to African readers. Thus, the translator will translate different peoples’ literatures, including those of African Americans (say, Toni Morrison or James Baldwin), Native Americans (Louise Erdrich or James Welch) and women writeractivists (Angela Davis or Audre Lordc).
  • 4) Contributing to the growth of African translation theories. The African translator should also consider while translating how the choices he or she is making arc applicable outside the work at hand—and how they can be systematised. For example, Jalada Collective, a group of young African writers, took a short story, ‘Ituika Ria Mürüngarü,’ (2019) written by African writer Ngügi Wa Thiong’o in Gikuyu and had it translated into 85 languages, half of them African. This is a treasure trove for translators as two questions immediately emerge—in this digital age, what does this project add to our understanding of translation theory? And how is translating between African languages different from translating from African language into European or Asian languages?

The act of translating African literature is a political act. The task of the African translator is therefore political.

Poems: originals and translated2

Titi la Mania

Shaban Robert

Titi la mama litamu, hata likiwa la mbwa,

Kiswahili naazimu, sifayo iliyofumbwa,

Kwa wasiokufahamu, niimbe ilivyo kubwa,

Toka kama mlizamu, funika palipozibwa, Titile mama litamu, Jingine halishi hamu. Lugha yangu ya utoto, hata sasa nimekua,

Tangu ulimi mzito, sasa kusema najua,

Ni sawa na manukato, ntoyoni mwangu na pua,

Pori hahari na mto, napita nikitumia, Titile mama litamu, jingine halishi hamu.

Kiswahili

A mother’s breast is sweet to her young. Even a sow’s!

My mother-tongue I declare—I will sing of your brightness to the blind and those who have long forgotten you. Mother, feed, flow, salve our wounds and unclog our choking veins. A mother s breast is sweet, another simply will not fulfil Mother, as a child my tongue was weighed down. Now that I can speak I sec you were all around me, a perfume to my heart and senses. Whether through the wilderness, the river Nile or the Indian ocean—Mother, you carry me across. My mother s breast is sweet, another won’t satisfy my longing

Iria ra Maitu

Runyondo rwa maitu rvez-cama. Ona rwi rwa ngui Githweri nindatua, ndoiga kuri matarakuriririkana nguina uria uwega muhithe, uria wi munene

Maitu tiririka, uma tari mukiha uhature kuria kuhingikite Runyondo rwa maitu, rwi muriyo rungi rutininaga thuti Kuma rurimi rwakwa rwi rurito ndi mwana, nginyagia riu ndakurire na kwaria ni njui, ruthiomi rwakwa nita maraci magicanuka kana magitararika ngoroini Weruini kana gatagati ka iria, ningithagio ni we.

Runyondo rwa maitu rwi muriyo, rungi rutinginina thuti

Harlem

Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or docs it explode?

Mwihoko Wa Gwitiriria

Mwihoko ungiitererithio ri

Ni kii gikikaga?

No кита na kugoda ta thahihu riyuaini?

Капа ni kuhoha ta kironda

nginya ukoimia tnahira?

Utararikaga ta nyatna buthu

Капа umaga кита

Ta ngogoyo nduru?

Капа mwihoko uhohaga

Ta murigo muritu?

Капа, ni ututhukaga?

Kiswahili/Gikuyu/English trots: ‘A Mother’s Breast’ and ‘A Dream Deferred’ Titi la Mama

Runyodo rwa nyina

A mother’s breast

Titi la mama litamu, hata likiwa la mbwa,

Runyondo rwa nyina rwi-cama ona rwi rwa ngui

Breast of mother is sweet even if a dog’s

Kiswahili naazimu, sifayo iliyofumbwa,

Githweri nindatua wega waku muhithe

Kiswahili I have decided wellness yours hidden

Kwa wasiokufahamu, niimbc ilivyo kubwa,

Kuri matarakuririkana, nguina uria wi munene

To those not remember you sing how it is big

Тока kama mlizamu, funika palipozibwa,

Uma tari mukiha kunika kuria kuhithe

Come like vein close/undo where it is covered

Titilc mama litamu, Jingine halishi hamu.

Runyondo rwa nyina rwi muriyo rungi rutininaga thuti

Breast of mother is sweet, another does not finish desire

Lugha yangu ya utoto, hata sasa nimekua,

Ruthiomi rwakwa ndi mwana ona riu ndimukuru

Language mine of child even now I am old

Tangu ulimi mzito, sasa kuscma najua.

Кита rurimi rurito riu kwaria ni njui

Since tongue heavy now speak I know

Ni sawa na manukato, moyoni mwangu na pua,

Ni undu umwe/na ngoroini yakwa na maniuru

Same as perfume heart in mine and nose

Pori bahari na mto, napita nikitumia,

Weruini капа mayini, niingaga ngikuhuthira

In the wilderness or ocean I cross using you

Titilc mama litamu, jingine halishi hamu.

Runyondo rwa nyina rwi muriyo rungi rutininaga hamu

Mother’s breast is sweet, another does not finish longing

A Dream Deferred

Mwihoko Wa Gwitiririo

What happens to a dream deferred?

Nikii gikikaga kwi kiroto/mwihoko niurarie/mwitiririi

Does it dry up

Az kuma untaga

like a raisin in the sun?

ta thabibu riyuaini?

Or fester like a sore—

Kana ni kuhoha ta kironda

And then run?

Arabu gigateg’era?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Kana gitararikaga ta nyama buthu?

Or crust and sugar over—

Kana kiumaga kuma

like a syrupy sweet?

Ta ngogoyo nduru

Maybe it just sags

Kana kihohaga

like a heavy load.

Ta murigo muritu

Or docs it explode?

Kana ni gituthukaga?

Related topics

The Single Most Translated Short Story in the History of African Writing; Theory, Practice, Activism; Okyeante Poma

Notes

  • 1 Dryden, John (2000) ‘Preface to Ovid’s Epistles,' in The Translation Studies Reader. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. London: Routledge. 144-159.
  • 2 All translations by Mukoma Wa Ngugi.

Further reading

Bandia, Paul (2008) Translation as Reparation: Writing and Translation in Postcolonial Africa. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

Bandia’s contribution to the literary criticism of Europhone African literature from a translation perspective offers a ground-breaking exploration into African literatures and cultures and an important case study of the theory and practice of translation beyond Eurocentric models.

Inggs, Judith, and Libby Meintjes (eds.) (2009) Translation Studies in Africa. London and New York: Continuum.

This collection of essays on translation and interpreting in African contexts discusses the importance of translation in shaping African culture and history.

Jalada (2019) ‘Jalada Translation Issue 1: Ngugi Wa Thiong’o,’ Jalada [online] 20 January. Available at: jaladaafrica.org/2016/03/22/jalada-translation-issue-01-ngugi-wa-thiongo/ [accessed 11 April 2019].

This first special issue from the literary journal Jalada gathers together translations of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o’s story, ‘The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright,’ originally written in Gikuyu in 2012, into 88 mostly African indigenous languages. It offers an impressive example of African languages talking to each other through translation.

Ngugi, Mukoma Wa (2018) The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity, and Ownership. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

This book situates African-language literatures of the late 1880s through the early 1940s in relation to the literature of decolonisation that spanned the following three decades. The author challenges the narrowing of the identities and languages of the African novel and writer that has affected writers in previous generations.

Thiong’o, Ngugi Wa (2011 [1986]) Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: J. Currey; Portsmouth: NH: Heinemann.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s best-known and most-cited collection of essays theorising linguistic decolonisation and stressing the importance of writing in indigenous languages for African writers.

References

Benjamin, Walter (2000 [1923]) ‘The Task of the Translator,’ in The Translation Studies Reader. Ed. L. Venuti. London: Routledge. 15-23.

Dryden, John (2000 [1680]) ‘Preface to Ovid’s Epistles,’ in The Translation Studies Reader. Ed. L. Venuti. London: Routledge. 144-159.

Hawking, S. W. (1988) A Brief History of Time: Prom the Big Bang to Black Holes. Toronto: Bantam.

Hughes, Langston (2011) ‘Harlem,’ in Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. Ed. L. Hughes. Vintage. 46.

Hughes, Langston (2020) The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Vintage. 46.

King Jr, Martin Luther (2013) The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr: “1 Have a Dream " and Other Great Writings. Vol. 9. Beacon Press. 185-194.

Mazrui, Alamin M. (2007) Swahili beyond the boundaries: Literature, language, and identity. No. 85. Ohio University Press. 27-28

Ngugi, Thiong’o Wa (2019) ‘Jalada Translation Issue 01: Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.’ Jalada Africa, Jalada, 18 Dec. 2019, jaladaafrica.org/2016/03/22/jalada-translation-issue-01 -ngugi-wa-thiongo/.

Robert, Shaaban (1947) ‘Titi La Mama,’ in Pambo La Lugha. Johannesburg: Witswatersrand UP.

Rodney, Walter (1974) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington: Howard University Press.

 
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