Translating the plural

By Taina Tervonen

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Can African literature consider itself « world literature » without translations?

The issue of the circulation of African texts highlights circulation and distribution problems firstly, since African works have difficulty breaking the geographic and economic barriers separating Africa and the West. However, a second – linguistic – barrier is also of concern. Danish readers would hardly be likely to read Chenjerai Hove and Koreans would scarcely throw themselves into a novel by Dany Laferrière if they were not translated. Without translation, Wole Soyinka would not feature as prescribed reading in Senegalese high schools. The very notion of « world literature » presupposes that the texts be available in several languages. What is the place of African books in this « literature of the world »?
African literature is little translated, even into and out of European languages spoken in Africa such as English and French. Some writers are translated years after the fact, as in the case of Dambudzo Marechera whose collection of short stories, The House of Hunger, was first published in 1978 and was eventually published in French in the Dapper collection some 19 years later!
These translations mostly pass through Europe (Paris and London), where the originals are also published, the two going hand in hand. The fact that the great majority of translators are Westerners and there are very few translations done in Africa or by Africans is also of some influence. Fortunately, there are exceptions to the rule, as is the case for the French translation of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy (Saros International Publishers, 1985, Actes Sud, 2000) by two translators from Burkina Faso, Samuel Millogo and Amadou Bissiri.
Publishing outside the traditional poles can sometimes be salutary – Moses Isegawa, a Ugandan writer who both lives and is published in the Netherlands, is a good example of this. His first novel, Chroniques abyssiniennes – published in 1998 – was an outstanding success for an African author, with 100,000 copies sold in the Netherlands and translation rights for over 10 languages sold almost immediately. It is pointless trying to find a similar success story in either English-language or French-language African literature. These days we can safely also talk of Dutch-language African literature.
There are several reasons for the lack of translations of African works. Firstly, this is due to a general ignorance of African literature, the political situation in African countries, and an imbalance between tradition and different literary fields. Furthermore, translation is expensive from the publisher’s perspective since they have to buy the rights and pay the translator, as well as taking on the financial risk associated with publishing unknown authors – who are African what’s more. The article by Jean-Pierre Richard, who has translated works by close to 30 African authors, discusses the translation of South African works into French and offers a detailed analysis of these issues.
Translation research has rarely touched on African literature. Translatology was long marked by simplistic, binary models such as « faithfulness versus betrayal » and « target focussed versus source focussed translation ». It therefore had trouble accommodating the study of African texts, which are characteristically hybrid. Zimbabwean author, Chenjerai Jove, and his translator, Jean-Pierre Richard, raise the question of the multitude of languages in African literature in their interviews.
It was not until the arrival of post-colonial theory that translatology moved away from this somewhat non-mechanical vision of the relationships between languages. Then it accepted the notion of a unique work of writing that maintains its power across several languages, creating a third language, being that of the author. The contribution made by post-colonial theory is also to be found in the relationship of power and domination between languages. Indian researchers exploring translation as a political act notably developed this aspect.
It now remains to develop the study of translation in Africa. It is of some surprise that on a continent where the plurality of language is a given of everyday life, where pidgin and slang vocabularies flourish, where the interpreter played a fundamental role during the colonial period, where one of the main characteristics of the various literatures is their linguistic conscience – in short, on a continent where translation is omnipresent – translation should studied so little.

///Article N° : 5681

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