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The case for translation

‘Translation is what enables the traffic of ideas between languages,‘ Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes in this week’s edition of Pambazuka News. In the second part of a keynote address given at the 6th Pan African Reading for all Conference, wa Thiong’o shares his own experiences of and views on writing both in English and in his mother tongue Gikuyu, and of translating works from one language into the other.

A question frequently asked, after talk about the necessity of using African languages as literacy instruments, is that of the multiplicity of languages. But many languages within nations can be a strength if the relationship between them is not based on the nations of hierarchy, but rather on nations of a network.

In the vision of a network, there is not one centre there are several centres, equidistant with each other but connected in a give-and-take. Every language draws from another. Every language gives to another. All languages end up giving to, and taking from, each other, laying the groundwork for a complex independence and interdependence of cultures within and between cultures. Translation is what enables that traffic of ideas between languages. In his book, Discourse on Colonialism, the Martiniquan poet, Aimé Césaire, once described culture contact and exchange as the oxygen of civilization. Language networking through translation can only help in the generation of that oxygen within and between nations.

I could talk about the role of translation in the history of ideas in philosophy, politics and science. European renaissance is inconceivable without translation. And religion? Can you think of the spread of Christianity without translation? Also the Qu’ran? I have discussed some of this in my book Re-Membering Africa. What I want to do is briefly discuss my own work and my relationship to translation. I started writing seriously in 1960s when I was a student at Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda. I wrote in English. It seemed natural. The writers that I had read and studied had written in English. I had not read or come across any intellectuals who questioned the wisdom and desirability of writing on African writing in European languages.

My first two novels Weep not Child (1964) and The River Between (1965) were in English and it was not until I published my third novel, A Grain of Wheat (1967), that I started questioning my linguistic choice seriously. This did not stop me from continuing the habit and I published Petals of Blood, in 1977. As it turned out, that was to be my last novel in English.

I wrote my first novel in Gikuyu, Caitani Mutharabaini, on toilet paper in cell no 6 in Kamiti maximum prison where I had been placed because of my work in theatre in an African language, principally because of my play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will marry when I want).The novel, and the play Ngaahika Ndeenda ,were published in Gikuyu in 1982, two years after I had come from prison. It is then I embarked on the task of translating from Gikuyu into English.

Kenya and Africa have many African languages and I did not want my non-Gikuyu to feel that they had been left out. I did not want their inaccessibility to be used as an argument against writing in African languages. This was my first exercise in translation, auto-translation, in this case. Or was it?

Thinking back about it, I realise that I have always live in translation. First my own when I expressed my sentient interaction with the world around me, hunger, thirst, pain, discomfort, need, in a continuous cry; and happiness, contentment and well being, in laugher; to which people, my mother mostly, responded by meeting desires. This was self-translation of the world within and around me, through the only sounds that I could make. It was my first exercise that, through unconscious, in auto-translation. Later my mother helped me make sense of the same material world – the one I touched, tested, saw or heard and which I had earlier expressed in cry and laugher – by translating it into definite sound which, when I repeated, elicited response. This was another exercise in translation, not my own, but which I later come to know as my mother tongue.

My mother tongue, Gikuyu, communally inherited and continually enriched through time, was a storehouse of knowledge, attitudes, feelings and moods and I drew from this granary of communal memory to understand the world around me. Gikuyu became my primary language. Initially, it was simply my spoken language. When later I went to school and learnt to read and write, a kind of translation of sound images into visuality, it also became my first literary language.

In my third year in school, I started learning Kiswahili and English. To understand the languages, I kept on referencing back to my mother tongue, a process that Marx described as characteristics of all who learn a new language. According to him one has mastered a new language when one no longer feels it necessary to first translate the new into the old to understand it. But while relationship to Kiswahili followed that Marxian observation in peaceful way, I soon came to realise that my relation to English was based on coercive system of rewards and terror. I was rewarded with praise and distinction when I did well in English, spoken and written, but punished and humiliated when I was caught speaking Gikuyu in school compound. In have come to learn that the same was done to Welsh kids who were made to carry a placard, Welsh Not, when they were caught speaking English in the compound.

Soon English took over and became the language to which I referenced back in relation to other languages even my own.

It is now easy to see that when years later I wrote novels of African life in English, I was simply continuing the practice we had established in church. Writing in English became a literary act in mental translation. The people about whom I wrote in my first four novels had been shaped by their experience of Kenyan history. In real life they spoke Gikuyu or Kiswahili. They voiced their interactions with the natural and social environment in an African language. They talked an African language in their homes, in their fields, in education of their children. They argued and settled disputes in their own language. They imported knowledge and morals in their own language. They sung in their own language. They planned and carried out their ant-colonial resistance in their African languages. And yet when I presented the same characters and actions in the literary text, I made characters emerge as English speakers. By a sleight of literary hand, I had obliterated an African language speech community and created English language speaking African peasantry. I effected this through the act of mental translation of my earlier silent reading in church.

All writing in a language that is not a mother tongue, or the first language of one’s upbringing, is largely a mental exercise in translation. Underlying the exercise persists the question: How much of one’s language does one retaining the mentally translated text? The question – which is really one of the relationships between the source language and the target language – is at the heart of all translation even a mental one.

In my case I had to try making the reader feel that these characters were speaking an African language. One finds the proliferation of African sayings in my English language novels. Sometime songs are given in the original language. At other times, I would mention an African language word and then indicate the meaning in the context. Proverbs are the hardest to render in another language where one is tying to make the reader feel the rhythm of the original. Sometimes, as in Petals of Blood, I left a whole lot of African words without any attempt at their translation either directly or in the context.

Thus when in 1978, at the maximum security prison, I decided to break with English as the language of my fictive imagination and wrote in Gikuyu, I suddenly felt liberated from these exercises in mental translation. Psychologically, I felt I had restored African characters to their own language. They had re-possessed their own voice in the original sounds and structures of their language. In other words, I had stopped bringing death to an African language-speaking peasantry and then having them resurrected as an English language-speaking peasantry.

One of the saddest results in writing in English was that, through mental translation of my creative process, I had lost what would have been the ‘original text’ in Gikuyu. It was lost in the mind. It did not exist. Writing in Gikuyu directly now ensured the existence of original text. Its life was not dependent on translation. That is why I felt that my first novel in Gikuyu, Caintaani Mutharabaini, was an act of self liberation.

I translated the novel into English under the title Devil on the Cross and it was published by Heinemann (Kenya) and Heinemann (London) under the same title in 1982. The translation followed the same track I had followed in my ‘mental translation’ days that had produced Weep Not Child and The River Between. That is, I try to make the reader become aware of the source language through the target language in such a way as to suggest the structure and the rhythm of the original source of language. The only difference was that now there was a real material Gikuyu language text from which to work. In this method as in the first, African characters who are otherwise mature and wise and complex often emerge as simple, though the English words which they voice their thoughts about the inner and external world. This is one of the unintended consequences of trying to make source language be very present in the target language.

My second novel In Gikuyu was Matigari. It came out of Kenya in 1986 and it became famous when the Moi Dictatorship sent police to arrest its eponymous hero, intelligence reports having reached him that Matigari was a real living person going about the country asking question of truth and justice. The novel was translated into English by another hand, Wangui wa Goro and published in London, in its English translation bringing back the old contradiction. Its Gikuyu language original had been banned. But it acquired a second life, Walter Benjamin’s notion of surviving life, through the English translation. Wangui wa Goro avoided the pitfalls of mental translation and that of making the rhythms and syntax of original language overly present in the target language. In this way she manages to capture the complex thought process of Matigari’s question for truth and justice. In other words, readers could concentrate on their identification with the world of the novel without tripped through constant reminder that one is reading a translation.

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.

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.


* This speech was made as the keynote address at the 6th Pan African Reading for all Conference, hosted by the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 11 August 2009.
* Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and director of the International Centre for Writing and Translation, at the University of California Irvine.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.