A Revolution in Many Tongues

There is not a single journal devoted to literary criticism in an African language or any writer residencies that encourage writing in African languages.

In February of 2015, Ankara Press, a romance imprint of the Nigerian publisher, Cassava Republic Press, debuted a Valentine’s Day Anthology that featured romance stories originally written in English and then translated into the author’s mother tongue. The anthology was published online and was a free download. At the same time, both the original and the translations were read aloud, by the writers themselves or others, and the recordings made available online. As the editors explained in their introduction, the Valentine’s Day Anthology was “a much truer representation of romance in Africa as we can hear and see what romancing in different languages might sound like and mean.”

This month, Jalada Africa, an online journal out of Nairobi, has upped the game: publishing a short story originally written in an African language, with translations in 30 African languages.  The story, Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ, is by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and was originally published in March 2016 in Kikuyu, a Kenyan language. It has now been translated as The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright. This makes it the most translated African language story.

Jalada’s intervention has been a long time coming. Back in 1962, a group of young African writers met at the Makerere Writers’ Conference, under the now unfortunate banner, “African Writers of English Expression,” promising to decolonize African literature. The young and optimistic Ngugi also captured this excitement when he enthusiastically concluded in his post-conference write up titled, “A Kenyan at the Conference”: “With the death of colonialism, a new society is being born. And with it a new literature.”

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 sends 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 anemic African languages desperately in need of anglo-aesthetics transfusion.

Jalada’s translation initiative is also part of a larger language awakening. Capturing the shift from an English-only consensus to a multiple-languages debate, the 2015 Kwani literary festival titled, “Beyond the Map of English: Writers in conversation on Language” centered and celebrated the language debate. At that festival prizes for the inaugural Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature were awarded. Scholar and writer Boubacar Boris Diop has started, Ceytu, an imprint in Senegal dedicated to the translation of seminal works by Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire and others into Wolof.  In 2013, Chike Jeffers edited an anthology of philosophical texts originally written in seven African languages and then translated into English. And Wangui Wa Goro who translated Ngugi’s Matigari from Gikuyu into English in 1982 has done a lot of work to make African literary translation viable and visible.

When setting up the $15,000 Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, Dr. Lizzy Attree and I were immediately confronted by the absence of structures that are simply taken for granted when it comes to English language writing; there is a dearth of scholarship, and little recognition in the way of prizes. For Kiswahili, with more than 400 millions speakers, literary prizes number no more than five. I do not know of a single journal devoted to literary criticism in an African language, or any writer residencies that encourage writing in African languages. The point is, given a population that will soon reach one billion people spread out in 55 countries, even one hundred African language-centered journals and literary prizes would be pitifully inadequate. African literature needs a lot more of everything.

To be sure, advocates for writing in and translating among African languages have their dissenters. For example, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, the author of the novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance, argued in a 2010 New York Times op-ed titled, “In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse”, that because Ngugi wrote in an African language he should not be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She argued: “I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.”

To make the argument that languages creates “tribal differences” sounds so asinine in light of Jalada’s translation issue.  As Jalada Africa shows: A thousand African languages, a thousand opportunities to make literary history.

Jalada has youth on their side: Like the Makerere generation before, Jalada is composed of young writers who understand their mission to contribute to decolonization: Moses Kilolo, the Managing Editor, Novuyo Tshuma the Deputy Editor, the Treasurer, Ndinda Kioko and other writer administrators are in their 20s and early 30s. Among many others, writer members of the collective include the 2013 Caine Prize Winner Okwiri Odour, the brilliant Mehul Gohil, featured in the anthology Africa 39: New writing from Africa South Sahara, and the gifted poet Clifton Gachugua, whose first collection of poetry, The Madman at Kilifi (University of Nebraska Press 2014) won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets.

In translation, there are no indigenous, vernacular, native, local, ethnic and tribal languages producing vernacular, native, local, ethnic and tribal literatures, while English and French produce world and global literature. There are only languages and literatures.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.