Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Culture Talk - Translating World Literatures

‘Translators are the shadow heroes of literature.’ - Paul Auster
‘I never wanna shame
The blood in my veins and bring pain
To my sweet grandfather's face
In his resting place
I made haste to learn and not waste
Everything my forefathers earned in tears
For my culture’

- ‘My Culture’ (song) by One Giant Leap ft Maxxi Jazz and Robbie Williams 

Prolific Somali novelist Nurrudin Farah, speaking at a Kwani Lit Fest in Nairobi, Kenya:

I don’t think you think in languages. I write in four languages. I don’t think you think in languages. You think in images. It’s an image that comes (to your mind).

Ugandan intellectual Prof. Austin Bukenya, speaking at the AMKA writing forum in Kenya:

 If you write in your own language, you are giving it an image. Experiment. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to be ground breakers...Write in your mother tongue – or father tongue...Every language is storehouse of knowledge. With every language that dies, a culture dies.

An insight from the non-fiction book Positioning: The Battle for Your Brain[1], by American advertising gurus Al Ries and Jack Trout:

When you were a child, you first learnt to speak and then to read. And you learned to read slowly and laboriously by saying the words out loud as you forced your mind to connect the written word with the aural sound stored in the brain. 

By comparison, learning to speak requires much less effort than learning to read. We store sounds directly and then play them back in various combinations as our mental dexterity improves.

As you grow up, you learn to translate written words into the aural language needed by the brain so rapidly that you are unaware the translation process is taking place.

Author Tess Lewis at Translators' Relay:

 Translating is like copying a painting with a different colour palette. The structural elements of the text can often be reproduced relatively easily, but capturing the harmonies and clashes between the subtler shades, tones, and hues is the hard part.

Uday Shekatkar (India) on the ‘Challenges of Translating Indigenous African Languages’ (A group discussion on

No translation ever is perfect as every language has its cultural background, words coined to the requirement. For example Konkani is one of the Indian languages and has 14 different words used for waste generated from fish. Say like fish left at sea after fisherman collects marketable stuff (Now I need full sentence to explain single word), fish market waste, waste after eating cooked fish, fertilizer made of fish and so on. The historic reference, the religious reference and as language shifts with the geographical or the flora/fauna reference so the translation is guaranteed for deviation.

 Noted Ugandan scribe Juliane Okot:

When Okot p'Bitek translated his play Lawino into English, he spoke about the challenges of translation. And how the process was a clipping of wings. English, with its many words, cannot often find the heart or the expression which we have in our own languages. And so when Wapa Lawino was translated into English, Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Luganda, Swedish and many other languages, we have to admit that even though the wings were clipped, the magic translated. And continues to inspire dialogue, and stimulate intellectual debate.

 The African Linguist Network is one of the notable organisations offering translation, editing and voice over services for African languages. Another translation company is Lingual Translations Europe which offers translation into African Languages such as Sotho, Kiswahili, Somali, Hausa, Zulu, Venda, Chewa, Ndebele and Tonga.

Bestowing an honorary doctorate to Ngũgi wa Thiong’o during Yale University’s 316th Commencement (in 2017), Yale President Peter Salovey said:

 Author, playwright, activist, and scholar, you have shown us the power of words to change the world. You have written in English and in your Kenyan language, Gikuyu; you have worked in prison cells and in exile; and you have survived assassination attempts — all to bring attention to the plight of ordinary people in Kenya and around the world. Brave wordsmith, for breaking down barriers, for showing us the potential of literature to incite change and promote justice, for helping us decolonize our minds and open them to new ideas, we are privileged to award you this degree of Doctor of Letters.

Prof. Ngũgi wa Thiong’o receives his 12th honorary degree
(Yale University, 22 May 2017)

A Distinguished Professor of comparative literature and English at the University of California, Irvine, Ngũgi wa Thiong’o was one of eight recipients conferred the honorary degrees which ‘celebrate those with distinction in their respective fields.’ Other honourees included Marin Alsop, Jessie Little Doe Baird, Cornelia Bargmann, Irwin Jacobs, John Kerry, John R. Lewis, and Stevie Wonder.

Speaking at a separate event, on the subject of ‘Moving the Centre: Language, Culture and Globalization’, Ngũgi wa Thiong’o said:

My argument has always been that we have to accept the reality of many languages in Africa...And when I talk about Africa, I am actually talking about more than Africa because the question of the relationship between marginalised languages and dominant languages is everywhere in the world. But I don't think we should worry about the many languages, even here in America, because what is important is for those languages to talk to each other. In the case of Africa, and in practical terms, this means developing literatures and knowledge’s in these languages (and) at the same time encouraging translations into the different languages. In other words...I see translation as playing a very important role in enabling cultures to dialogue with each other. In the case of Africa, for example, I envisage a story written, say, in Tigrinya being translated into Kiswahili, into Igbo, Yoruba, Zulu and so on.

 Assorted views on Translation:

‘What is the purpose of one culture translating another? One reason Slavic departments thrive during political crises would seem to be so that we can better understand the cultures of the post-Soviet East. Another reason, though, may be something more akin to the motives of the CIA in translating Doctor Zhivago.’ – ‘Of Translation and Politics in Russian Literature’ (essay) by Ian Singleton[2]

 ‘Translation is very important but what’s happening now is that the novels being translated are very weak as the gov’t is choosing them. Unfortunately, they choose weak novels because they give limited freedoms. I hope that international print houses start to look for artists on their own, without waiting for gov’ts to recommend writers.’- Sara Aljarwan Alkaabi, whose books have been translated from Arabic, in an interview with the BBC at Sharjah Book Fair

 ‘The deprivation of African languages as carriers of information, knowledge in the areas of the arts, science and technology, and modernity, is one of the major causes of Africa’s underdevelopment. African languages are still spoken by the majority. So to deprive those languages of books, is really to deny the majority access to information.’ - Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

 ‘Languages, as one philosopher said, are the Houses of Being. And I wanted to journey to these houses. I wanted to strut up their sidewalks. I wanted to knock on their doors and peek in their windows. I wanted to see what they were hiding in their basements … even if it meant a little bit of trouble.’ – From Pilgrim in the Palace of Words: A Journey Through the 6,000 Languages of Earth by Glenn Dixon

‘I have been to Jerusalem, Greece, Turkey, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, the   South Pacific, Machu Picchu, the Amazon Basin, the Maya, the Haida and to a few other North American peoples. Even to the Innuit. a book. But I feel like I have toured these countries. First, after reading Pilgrim in the Palace of Words: A Journey Through the 6,000 Languages of Earth by Glenn Dixon, a Calgary Journalist and Linguist, I feel like to ask for a one year leave, get good cash and just travel to these countries and some more. That is what Glenn has done to me. Secondly, Glenn has made my learning of language and anthropology something I can read about and enjoy.’ - Kenyan writer/lawyer Salem Lorot

‘First, let me put my presentation within the larger context of Heinemann's publishing history. Heinemann has had a long history, one that goes back to 1890, of giving world writers a voice. Besides publishing periodicals and journals, Heinemann also published British authors such as John Galsworthy, Somerset Maugham, and John Masefield in addition to publishing non-English European literature in translation. Bjornson and Ibsen, Gerhart Hauptmann, George Brandes, Guy de Maupassant, and Gabriele d'Annunzio were all given voice in places other than their home countries and linguistic regions by the imprint. Alan Hill's title In Pursuit of Publishing charts Hill's early formative years forged in the strict tradition of English nonconformist radicalism. In recounting the experiences which became the driving force of his vision in starting the series, he recalls: As I now discovered when I visited Nigeria for the first time in 1959, British Publishers operating within West Africa sold mainly textbooks and regarded the territory as a place where you sold books rather than a source for new writers.’ - Becky Clarke, Literature Consultant, Oxford, UK[3]

 International Translation Day

 ‘The original is unfaithful to the translation.’ - Jorge Luis Borges

 ‘I just enjoy translating, it's like opening one's mouth and hearing someone else's voice emerge.’ 

- Iris Murdoch

International Translation Day is celebrated every year on 30th September on the feast of St. Jerome (The Bible translator who is considered ‘the patron saint of translators’).

In celebration of International Translation Day in 2015, PEN International asked PEN members from around the world to translate War's Curse, a poem by Eritrean poet and journalist Amanuel Asrat, ‘in order to demonstrate the significant role translation can play in furthering freedom of expression by highlighting the ongoing plight of journalists in Eritrea.’ PEN’s Girona Manifesto stated:

The translation of texts, especially the great works of various cultures represents a very important element in the necessary process of greater understanding and respect among human beings.

 According to a statement on the PEN International website:

Amanuel Asrat, an award-winning Eritrean poet, critic, songwriter, and editor-in-chief of the leading newspaper Zemen (meaning The Times), has been detained incommunicado for over 16 years. Asrat was arrested at his home on the morning of 23 September 2001 amid a crackdown on state and private media. Other independent journalists, opposition politicians and students were also arrested during the crackdown. It is believed that Asrat and the other journalists have neither been charged nor tried.


[1]  Warner Books.  (c) 1981 McGraw-Hill, Inc. ISBN: 0-446-30800-5

[3] The African Writers Series--Celebrating Forty Years of Publishing Distinction Research in African Literatures (Indiana University Press) - Volume 34, Number 2, Summer 2003, pp. 163-174.

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