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Something Lost, Something Gained

Posted on 29/11/2016
By Commonwealth Foundation


“You must be seen in the translation work that you do”, said Ida Hadjivayanis in the first session of a five-day translation workshop.  Ten translators from Mainland Tanzania, Zanzibar isles and Kenya were brought under one roof by Commonwealth Writers in collaboration with English PEN and Soma in Dar es Salaam in early November. As a Swahili and Translation lecturer at SOAS, University of London, Ida is used to being asked “To what extent does the translator own the work?”


The Concept of Foreignisation and Domestication

In an article published in The Guardian in October 2016, Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma asks “Who should I write for – Nigerians, Africans, or everyone?” He raises interesting points about the readership we write for. I had come into the workshop with the understanding that you translate without taking into consideration the audience of that language. This isn’t just a question which troubles writers but translators as well.

There are many things which influence the way a book is translated. Tanzania’s first President, Julius Nyerere translated Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as Mabepari wa Venisi in 1969. But ‘mabepari’ means ‘capitalists’, not merchants. At that time, it was more meaningful to call them ‘capitalists’ since it was a time when Africa was being liberated from colonial rule and its capitalist systems.


Right or Wrong?

“Translation is how you understand the work of the author. You are at liberty to express it as you wish,” Ida said. But that would be a totally new book, a participant said. Ida agreed.

There was a lot of discussion about whether or not it was right to make these changes.

Ida showed us the first Swahili version of Alice in Wonderland which was published in 1940, translated by Ermyntrude Virginia St. Lo Malet. This Alice was a black girl, sitting under a mango tree, barefoot. Ida has also translated Alice in Wonderland into Swahili. In her version, Alice has blonde hair. But there were other changes in language that Ida made to reflect the Swahili culture.

Although some things can be gained this way, sometimes much can be lost in translation. For instance ‘Niguse’, a poem by the African scholar Alamin Mazrui, was translated into ‘Touch Me’. Mazrui made it clear where he was in the poem – in prison. But the translation omitted the reference to prison, which could change the whole meaning of the poem.

“There is no good or bad translation,” Ida said. Her co-facilitator, children’s book author and poet Richard Mabala jumped in and said, “Yes, but there sure is one that is better or worse.” The whole room burst into laughter. Kiswahili is widely used in East Africa, connecting people across the region. Some five million people speak Swahili as a first language, and a further 135 million speak it as a second language. However, there aren’t enough works written in Swahili which have been translated to be enjoyed by a wider audience.  Hopefully, this will start to change.

Sitting around the table, it was delightful to listen to two renowned Swahili storytellers, Mzee Shafi Adam Shafi and Bi. Rahma Rashid Ahmed, who both originate from Zanzibar. We spent a whole afternoon listening to Mzee Shafi talk about his life and how he wrote Haini (Treason), a fictional memoir published in 2013. Bi Rahma’s traditional poetry recital left us all mesmerized. She said that she has piles of works of poetry in Kiswahili. They are yet to be published, let alone translated.

By the time we finished the workshop, we had translated a small part of Haini and a number of poems by Bi. Rahma.  At the end, it felt like we had just started the ignition, ready for an exciting journey. There are a lot of renowned Swahili storytellers whose works are yet to be known by the world.


Esther Karin Mngodo

estherEsther Karin Mngodo is a Tanzanian journalist, musician and poet living in Dar Es Salaam.