I believe in what I call creative translation. The translator has to get into the work, and be able to not only just translate the words but to translate also the images. It’s a very big responsibility. Sometimes you get a very bad translation.
Has that happened to you?
Once or twice yes. The translator of Bones to Dutch translated mechanically. Just before the work was printed, he went and said that he was not able to get into the work. You have to translate not only the words but also the visions. I’m very lucky to have Jean-Pierre Richard in French, everybody tells me he’s very good.
He has quite the same vision as you about what translation is. He said that he doesn’t translate from one language into another language but from one writing into another writing.
He has an interesting way of working. He works on tape. He reads the text in English paragraph by paragraph and translates it and records it again. He records and records and records. It’s also to capture the mood, the rhythm, the metaphors, the images.
He spoke about movement and rhythm concerning translating your work.
Yes, you have to get the beat of the text.
About your own work: would you say, it’s English, Shona, neither? Some researchers tend to consider the original as a translation. How would you react to that as a writer?
What I do is that I take the English language and clean it up first, so that it can contain the images, the visions, the spirit – all new ones. I look at colonial language, and you have to force the language to contain, not only It is a language that was used to insult us. Now you have to clean those words and load the language with new metaphors which correspond to the dignity of human being.
It is quite a political vision of writing?
It is. Language is power. He who names things has the power. If we call something a cow, we can milk it, we can rob it, because we called it a cow. But if we had called it a gentleman, we wouldn’t milk it. He who has the power to name things has also the power to control language. As a writer you have to be able to realize that and say that you can use language in another way too. You can put the experiences of an African in the language. That means I bend it a lot, make into what I want.
Have your translators been conscious about that or do they read it like standard English ?
Most of them, I have been into contact with almost all of them. To all I have told that this is not English English. That I am going to take the language and load it with new visions. There are a lot of songs and dances in my texts and I always say that those you can’t translate. It’s not possible, when I use children’s songs and lullabies (sings) this cannot be translated.
Have any of them tried to translate those songs?
The Norwegian translator tried. But I told him that this is an African children’s song, you cannot translate it, leave it alone! I also have the names of trees in my novels. Some translators want to find the names of the trees in Europe, but I tell them it’s not possible. These trees and fruit do not exist in Europe.
Do the translators have some kind of special difficulties translating your text, which is not standard English and comes from an unknown culture?
I have always insisted that we are not just translating the text, but also the culture. Most of them, I have sent them books, telling them to read them. For instance a book of proverbs. So that they can understand what I am doing. Sometimes I take half of a proverb in Shona and put it in the text. ( )
Actually you are in contact with the translators, giving them directions and suggestions.
Yes, I insist. The translator has a serious responsibility, and if he makes a mistake, we’ll either be enemies or friends. I had a very bad translator in Germany, the translator never contacted me to ask for explanations. I was told by the critics that the translation was very bad. It’s weak German.
Have some of your translators been to Zimbabwe ?
The best of my translators is Japanese. He came and spent three months. I asked one my sons to be a tutor and teach him basic Shona. You are translating not only the text but what I call a Cosmo vision of the language. Every language is used to locate people in the world. This translator came and now we can correspond by e-mail in Shona.
You see the translator as a real re-creator of you work in another language?
He is part of the creation. If he doesn’t get into the mood, the rhythm, the vision of the work, he loses something. He is part of the process of crossing the border. Let’s call it the activity – process sounds too mechanical.
Is it difficult to give that responsibility as an author?
Yes, it can be. One of my South African friends who is a writer got his work badly translated and it gave a very odd image.
Which would be the most difficult thing to translate?
I think it would be the meaning of the landscape. What I call the emotional and psychological landscape, which can be also geographical. What the geographical landscape means. I can write a very precise and long description of a mountain, if it is a holy mountain. And the translator might not understand the meaning of this long description.
The translator has to spend a lot of time in trying to understand the work in all its details.
Yes, because the work is lived through the words. All these objects, these metaphors are lived by people with their significance. The translator might not understand that and the significances might not be the same in the translator’s culture. He might have difficulties in understanding the significance of physical things and putting them in a literary form.
Japanese, French, Norwegian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish.
There is the problem that sometimes translators translate images that they don’t understand and they are not willing to ask the author, to search for the significance. Some translators want to know the names of the birds and the trees in their languages, which doesn’t work.
I think translation is a process of dialogue. The translator is dialoguing with the text and the author.
Maybe some translators are afraid to bring these new and different and unknown elements into their language. It might not be easy, because they should be translating in a language that is not standard, and the visions and images are foreign.
I was brought up with English literature. All the images that I met in this literature were totally foreign to me. All the talk about snow, for instance. I had to imagine everything! I had to figure out! I remember when I came to Scotland and saw snow in the morning, I went and asked who had painted everything white. The foreign language just has to contain these foreign images. These little images that tell about particular landscapes, geographical and emotional, the reader has just to deal with it.
Translations into English ?
The classics are translated, contemporary literature not really. There is a big problem. I think it’s a political problem in that I don’t use the words Anglophone, Francophone or Lusophone. It’s the problem of lot of Africans accepting the linguistic borders which are containing labels. For a lot of translators that is normal, but I don’t accept it. I am an African writer, that’s all. I am not Anglophone.
But if you want to read an African writer coming from Senegal, you have the problem of language and translation if you don’t read French. And it that sense, the borders are there.
The borders are there but there is also a possibility to cross those borders. People take those differences very seriously. I have been an advisor to the Gorée institute and people kept asking me why I, an Anglophone, was there? They take borders very seriously.
Those borders are quite strong though. People who are specialists of African literature in France seldom know about contemporary publications in Anglophone Africa.
I think every translator and writer should make the effort to read. To be able to understand other landscapes. But usually, people are getting lazy. A lot of people are beginning to see things too much in a monolithic way. When I wrote Red Hills of Hope, someone told that one of my poems was a haiku. I didn’t even know what was a haiku. But he just want me to fit into some kind of box or label.
How has the reception been in France?
It has been very good. I don’t always understand all the critics but I think even a bad review is better than nothing. I have been giving readings in any libraries and it has gone well; I know I wouldn’t have all this public in England. My literature is serious literature but I try not to forget to play. It doesn’t obey the rules of English English. The French are good with playfulness. Sometimes it’s annoying when I want to buy a train ticket and the woman starts to talk and talk.
Actually you are telling that the translation can be better received than the original and have a bigger public.
I think I have been very lucky in getting a good translator.( ) Translation is also a search for the Other. That Other might be a person, an experience, a history. The search is very exciting. It’s about crossing the borders, geographical and also the borders of ideas. The book doesn’t need a visa. The translator is the person who is helping the book to cross the border. I think the topic must be discussed more. We have to accept the responsibility of the translator. I would call a good translator a creative translator who does not translate words. He is part of the creative process. ( ) Sometimes people ask me for whom I write. I tell that that is not my responsibility; my responsibility is to write well. You write because you have something in your heart that has to get out. If it finds someone who harmonizes with it, it’s good sometimes it doesn’t. To write is to fight all the time.
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