The October 2013 issue of translation journal Words Without Borders focuses on African Women writing in indigenous languages. The magazine has an impressive pedigree. Check out this statement from their “about” page, for example:
Every month we publish eight to twelve new works by international writers. We have published works by Nobel Prize laureates J.M.G. Le Clézio and Herta Müller and noted writers Mahmoud Darwish, Etgar Keret, Per Petterson, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, W.G. Sebald, and Can Xue, as well as many new and rising international writers. To date we have published well over 1,600 pieces from 119 countries and 92 languages.
I am encouraged that they are drawing attention to the literature being written in African languages that often falls below the radar. Please check out their latest issue.
Words Without Borders Draws Attention to African Women Writing in Indigenous Languages
BY CARMEN MCCAIN, 12 OCTOBER 2013
The online translation journal Words Without Borders, which has published English-language translations of creative work in 92 languages from 119 different countries since it started in 2003, has devoted its October 2013 issue to African women writing in indigenous languages.
The special issue, which also includes never-before-seen translations of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poetry, features fiction translated from Hausa, Luganda, Runyankole-Rukiga, Tigrinya, and a non-fiction essay which includes translations of Wolof songs. In an African literary landscape where English-language literature often dominates discussions, this is a refreshing and important contribution. Because the journal is online and free, it is accessible to anyone in the world to read, and several of the stories have a bilingual version, where you can read the original and the English translation side by side. (See the English translation of “Baking the National Cake” side by side with the Runyankole-Rukiga original and the English translation “My New Home” side by side with the Luganda original).
Closest to home is Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Nigerian author Rahma Abdul Majid’s massive Hausa novel Mace Mutum. This timely English translation comes close on the heels of the “child marriage” debate in Nigeria. [I’ve previously reviewed Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila, which also deals with the theme of young marriage.] In the opening of the novel, which is set in a rural village, an eight year old girl Godiya narrates, “My father, a farmer, has three wives. The only difference between our compound and others is that our household is not a kid factory; my father has only three children, while most of his compatriots boast a complete Barcelona team against Real Madrid, excluding the reserve.” Godiya tells her sister Lami’s story in this opening chapter, a girl who at fourteen is considered by gossips to be “old goods” until her father bestows her on a “haggard old” itinerant Qur’anic teacher. By the end of the chapter Godiya is nine and has seen girls die in childbirth and aunties divorced for being late with the cooking. What will she do
when she hears her parents talking about marrying her off as well? While I do not have the original Hausa novel on hand to compare it with the translation, Professor Malumfashi successfully carries the story over into English. I wonder whether the vocabulary used by the young characters is not sometimes too sophisticated for their age and level of education? Fourteen year old Lami, for example, in one of her soliloquies about the suffering of women, complains about the “Herculean task of taking care of another man’s household.” However, on the whole, the angry tone of the narrative reminds me of the novels of Egyptian novelist Nawal El Saadawi, whose Arabic novels available in English translation harshly chronicle the abuse, disrespect, and violence against women in Egyptian society. I’m so glad Professor Malumfashi has made Rahma Abdul Majid’s work available to English speakers.
Ugandan author Glaydah Namukasa’s story “My New Home” translated from Luganda by Merit Ronald Kabugo is similarly narrated by an impoverished child, the young boy Musika. He begins his narrative: “I started drinking alcohol the day I fell into Maama’s womb. Maama died of alcohol. She started drinking young and died young. She drank too much alcohol until she could no longer drink; and then the alcohol in her body started drinking her up until she dried up dead.” Alcohol drives the conflict in the story. Musika hates his grandmother and adores his grandfather. His unreliable childish descriptions paint a portrait of a woman, Jjaja Mukyala, who is afraid her grandson will merely follow the footsteps of the other drunks in the family. Musika describes how Jjaja Mukyala resents him because she thinks he reflects badly on her dead son, who conceived him with a bar maid while drunk. She also hates Musika to accompany his grandfather Mukulu to bars. But Musika loves how tender Mukulu is when he is drunk. “Mukulu was drunk when he told me that he loved
me, drunk when he told me that Maama loved me, that Maama’s friends Aunty Lito, Aunty Karo, and Aunty Naki, who took turns taking care of me after Maama died, all loved me. Every time he is drunk he tells me he is glad he has a grandson.” Musika ends up wondering “How can alcohol be so bad and so good? Every day Jjaja Mukyala shouts, ‘If there is anything that will kill you it will be alcohol.’ But Mukulu says that if there is anything that keeps him alive, it is alcohol. How can alcohol be so bad as to kill Maama, and yet so good as to keep Mukulu alive?” “My New Home” is beautifully written and beautifully translated. I’d love to read more translations of Namukasa’s work.
I found Eritrean author Haregu Keleta‘s story “The Girl who Carried a Gun,” translated from Tigrinya by Charles Cantalupo and Rahel Asgedom Zere, the most haunting of the fiction published here. As in Mace Mutum, the narrator’s family is trying to force her into a marriage with a man she does not love. She runs off to Ethiopia to join the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, hoping to meet up again with her childhood sweetheart. In the meantime, she becomes a strong and fearless fighter. “… a few months of military training made my soft
body hard. I had muscles. My skin grew darker. I could run up and down the mountains. I sprinted over the sand. The oppression of Eritrea and especially of its women changed me into a fighter–far from a girl who was afraid to go outside.” Yet while the freedom fighters talk “about the oppression of women,” the actions of the men she fights with are not always consistent with their ideology, and she faces betrayal and disappointment. Despite her sacrifice to “liberate” her country, her family sees her only in terms of her body, caring only about whether she is married or has had a child. Keleta, who herself is a former member of the independence struggle in Eritrea, ironically invokes the double bind women find themselves in.
The final story “Baking the National Cake” by Ugandan author Hilda Twongyeirwe, translated from Runyankole-Rukiga by Juliet Kushaba, is quite different from the others in its opulent political setting and third person narration. The story describes the inner struggle of David, the Minister for the Presidency in a fictional African nation who “covers the tracks” of the hedonistic president and vice president: “They leave for two-day conferences and stay away for weeks. It
is David that ensures that the accounts are balanced to include the nonofficial days.” Although he is tired of their shenanigans he finds himself caught ever more tightly in the political web of the despised Vice President. The story was written originally in Runyankole-Rukiga, but the politics of it feel familiar.
The last “African” piece is a nonfiction essay in English, “Breaking the Taboo of Sex in Songs: the Laabaan Ceremony” by Marame Gueye that analyzes the sexual language in Wolof songs sung by women during the Laaban ceremony that is a part of Wolof weddings.
The journal importantly showcases writing in African languages often neglected in wider discussions of African literature. Ironically, however, in seeking out these stories, it also demonstrates another problem. Although there are thousands of works in Hausa, as well as literary communities working in Amharic, Arabic, Swahili, Shona, Yoruba and other African languages, Words Without Borders seems to have had trouble finding translations it could publish for this issue, despite a call for submissions put out months in advance. While most of its issues feature eight to twelve pieces that speak to its theme, only four translated works from African languages and one nonfiction essay written mostly in English were published here. It seems to me that this highlights the striking need for literary translators from and into African languages.
I hope several things come out of this issue: 1) An awareness on the part of those who talk about African literature that African literature goes much deeper than literature written in English or French (or even Portuguese); 2) An awareness on the level of writers who write in English but who are fluent in African languages that translation is an important contribution to African letters and that there are well-respected venues for publishing translations; 3) An awareness on the part of writers writing in indigenous languages that while the primary audience may be the most important, as it should be, that there are wider global audiences that could benefit from reading such work; 4) An awareness on the part of institutions that financial and infrastructural support for publication and translation would be a great boon to African literature. Overall, we need to see more interaction between writers in African languages and European languages and more support on the continent for both African language literature and translations.