The translation issue

In December 2015, we embarked on a translation project with the aim of having one short story translated into as many languages as possible. Since March 2016, when we first published Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s story ‘Ituika Ria Murungaru: Kana Kiria Gitumaga Andu Mathii Marungii,’8 the story has been translated into 92 languages. The story was originally written in Gikuyu, the most widely spoken language in Kenya after English and Kiswahili. In my introduction to the issue I wrote9:

Following Jalada’s ground-breaking emphasis on translation in African Languages in its 2015 Language Issue,10 we reached out to Ngugi wa Thiong’o who graciously agreed to send us a previously unpublished story for our inaugural Translation Issue. Professor wa Thiong’o is uniquely placed to be the first distinguished author and intellectual featured in our periodical translations issue. He has, for many years, been the most vocal proponent in publishing in African languages.

Ngugi, who is Kenya’s best-known author and a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, not only believed in the vision from the beginning but has continued to be its most vocal activist. In his seminal essay, ‘The Politics of Translation: Notes Towards an African Language Policy,’ Ngugi described the work as astounding, and a rare feat. ‘It is indeed rare for the publication of a story to become news, but several newspapers carried reports on the Jalada translation feat’ (Thiong’o 2018). He observed that the issue, in a

practical sense, made the arguments that ... African languages have been and still arc legitimate sources of knowledge; that thought can originate in any African language and spread to other African languages and to all the other languages of the world.

(Thiong’o 2018)

The Jalada initiative has also been critically lauded as one of the most essential projects in fostering communication amongst readers and speakers of different languages across the globe. In the introduction to their book, Tendai Rinos Mwanaka, Wanjohi wa Mako-kha, and Upal Deb described the initiative as an important landmark in postcolonial studies that goes ‘against the mainstream translation tendencies of working with European versus African languages only, it breaks and provides a fertile ground for academic inquiry and literary experimentation’ (Mwanaka et al. 2018: xxi). Indeed, for the first time, a story originally written in an African language was appearing in translation into over 50 other African languages, as well as tens of others from around the world. The same sentiment was captured by Mukoma wa Ngugi in his essay ‘A Revolution in Many Tongues,’ in which he stated:

Translation between African languages has yet to be practiced and theorized into critical and popular acceptance. Jalada is undertaking both theory and practice and saying that African languages can talk with each other. Its call and answer send out a challenge to writers, scholars and publishers who see African languages in the service of the more useful English. Or conversely, those who understand translation as most desirable when coming from superior European languages into anaemic African languages desperately in need of Anglo-acsthctics transfusion.

(Ngugi 2016; see Chapter 20)

The translation did not take shape without its fair share of teething problems. As earlier stated, translation between African languages is still in its formative stages in the most part. Few people in target languages could use the Gikuyu original. Perhaps only the translation into Kimeru by Njagi Brian, edited by Ngartia J. Bryan, made direct reference to the Gikuyu original. Cognisant of this fact, we requested Ngugi to give us an authoritative English translation. It was from this English translation that most other translations were done. However, also I reached out immediately to one of Jalada’s dear friends, Edwigc Renee Dro, an Ivorian writer, editor, and English-to-Frcnch translator for an authoritative French translation as well. French became an intermediary language between the English language and the translators from French West Africa. Ismaila Samba Traore, the Bama-nankan (Bambara) translator, made use of the French translation. The Lingala translation, done by the award-winning Congolese writer Richard Ali A Mutu, was also done from the French. In a similar vein, Khaloudy Mohamed Sa’ccd and Abdillahi Raagc from Somaliland preferred to translate the story from the Arabic translation. Neither was confident in their English but they were highly proficient in Arabic.

As the story travelled, challenges of orthography were also witnessed. A case that stood out was the Ewe translation. Though the translators did a commendable job, the editor noted some inconsistencies with the approved Ewe orthography. Not only did he meticulously edit the work, but he also shared the Ghanaian font with us. Without this special font, the work could not open properly on my computer. We were also forced to upload either a jpeg or PDF version of the translation. Several other languages did not have Roman scripts. Among these were Amharic, Arabic, Russian, Nepali, Kannada, Kazak, Marathi, Kurdish, Persian, and Malayalam. We were forced to publish some of these in PDF to maintain the integrity of the text which might have been distorted by html.

Under the umbrella of the powerful magic of storytelling, online publishing enabled different languages and cultures to find expression and converse with each other. The Jalada website (, where the story and its translations arc published, acts as a portal to a multiplicity of languages wherein you can find languages about which you may never have heard. Because for us at Jalada we arc keen on multiple narrative modes of textual and visual storytelling, the story is also made available in the form of podcasts and live multilingual dramatisations.

We conceptualised the Jalada translation issue with a specific focus on African languages. Each language represents a specific culture on the continent. From my own Kikamba language, largely spoken in eastern parts of Kenya, to Lingala in the Congo, Ngambai in Chad, Tamazight in Algeria, Wolof in Senegal, XiTsonga in Southern Africa, and many others from all parts of the continent, we brought together a beautiful mix that is representative of hundreds of millions of native speakers. Taken together, our continent is infinitely rich in its cultural resources. Over 2,000 languages exist across 54 nations. Imagine the monumental impact of a story in all these languages. Ngùgî’s short story is only in 88 languages as of now, yet it stands as an immovable symbol. In history and in scholarship, it will stand as a testament to the fact that all languages arc equal. The origins, the colour, and the number of people who use any specific language, and the standardisation of such a language or the lack thereof should not limit or determine our engagement with them. The coming together of all those languages, as was done by the Jalada translation issue, destroys any doubt that in our diversity immense beauty can be created with a great and lasting impact.

The Jalada translation issue was born from the firm faith that one day, whether during my lifetime or in the generations to come, one short story will exist in all African languages. I want to imagine that over the years the spill-over effect of this will transform our attitudes towards the use of our mother tongues and the languages that we learn from our neighbours through our daily interactions. I want to imagine the impact it might have on the access that our children have to texts written in all languages, especially the marginalised languages, such as Suba, El Molo, Sabaot, and tens of others in Kenya alone. We continually learn to reap from the resources that we have. One such irrefutable resource is the language of our mother tongues.

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