1 Oct 2009

Dialogue among African languages The case for translation Ngugi wa Thiong’o









Losing language....everything ends up in English or Spanish or Mandarin or whatever and culture is lost....however translations allow dialogue, just been sent this....an important essay from Africa's most important living novelist....plenty of lessons for political organisation and culture. Get a taste and read the full article



It took me ten years before I embarked on my major novel in Gikuyu. Mugori wa Kagogo took me many years to write, from about May 1977 to December 2002. The novel, a fantastic epic on a dictatorship, takes place in the fiction Africa territory of Aburiria. Its spatial and temporal landscape is wide. Eastern, Africa and western religious and philosophic systems interact in the text. The action of the novel takes us to India, across Africa, to New York and back to Africa. Many subjects and themes including space exploration are touched upon. But many of these religious, philosophic and technological systems are not part of the Gikuyu language tradition. So in writing the novel, I found myself doing mental translation in verses, where a concept, like space and spaceships, would come to me in English and I had to find a way of rendering them in Gikuyu which often forced me to coin new words in Gikuyu or simply domesticate the English word in Gikuyu.

I did my own translation into English, eventually published in 2006 under the title, Wizard of the Crow. [The process was complex because quit often I found myself having to translate a draft I had thought was complete, only to find, in the process of translation, that there were original was inadequate. The muse would possess me again and I would go to the Gikuyu original, wrote more draft, which I later subjected to yet another translation into English. I would say that in the course of writing and rewriting it, translating and retranslating it, there was continuous dialogue and interaction between Gikuyu and English in away that would have been different had I been translating from a finished and published text the way I had done with Devil on the Cross.

My one determination was that I would not try to make the source language intrude overtly in the target language. I was no longer interested in trying to make the reader feel that he was reading a text that had been written in another language. If one wanted to authenticate the original language of its composition, he or she could go to the Gikuyu language original. My novels in Gikuyu have now been translated into German, Spanish, Finnish, Swedish, thus putting Gikuyu in some sort of dialogue with those languages. My hope is the novel would eventually be translated into other African languages within Kenya and Africa and also into other languages in Asia and Latin America.

Translation is definitely one way of enabling that that complex dialogue among languages. In my book Re-membering Africa, I have talked of translation is truly the language of language, or call it, the common speech of languages. But only if the vision and practices are seen as embodying the idea of translation. It is sermon, a lecture, an order, or a statement. Translation, seen as conversation among languages, can help in undermining the false notions of networking among languages, thus generating the oxygen of a common inheritance that Césaire talked about.

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