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Translate Kiswahili works into English to broaden readership

By ZAKAYO AMAYII | February 1st 2014 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300


That the East African literary landscape has witnessed unending debates on the choice of language used in creative writing and other forms of artistic expression cannot be gainsaid.

Following the 1962 “Conference on African Writing of English Expression” at Makerere University in which leading Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o and cohorts of other like-minded scholars debated whether to use English or our African native languages in literary communication, there have been divergent views regarding the same.

Whereas the late Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka had supported the use of English and other languages of the colonisers, Ngugi and company defended calls for the utilisation of native languages on the grounds that Africans needed to do away with whatever was associated with colonialism as well as promote their our culture.

Since the debate is far from over, a number of East African scholars, who support Ngugi’s line of thought, have, however, felt that the East African people should write in their mother tongues or most preferably in Kiswahili since it is widely spoken and read.

According to Tubman Walaba, an academician at Kibabii University College, writers from this region ought to adopt the use of Kiswahili language because it is far more developed and unifies us as a people. “Above all, it helps protect East African writers from ethnic rivalry in the world of literature. Already, there are those who have labeled Ngugi as a writer who favours his Kikuyu simply because he writes in Kikuyu.”

His line of thought is shared by Eric Wamalwa, a Kiswahili lecturer at the same university. In a recent interview with The Standard On Saturday, Prof Kithaka wa Mberia similarly advocated for the use Kiswahili stating: “Kiswahili is a very rich language which is not lesser than English, Polish, Danish and other languages of the colonisers. The notion that our native languages are less developed is but misleading.”  

With this understanding, there is need for East African writers to support the use of Kiswahili in artistic expression on the grounds that we share a common culture and the language unifies the people of the region. Furthermore, some universities in the West have begun to teach it both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels because of its richness.

In the recent years, there have been an increased number of texts written in Kiswahili and some of which can be treated as classics. Examples of these works include Ken Walibora’s Siku Njema, Ndoto Ya Amerika and Kidagaa Kimemwozea; Katama Mkangi’s Walenisi; Shaban Robert’s Kusadikika; Kithaka wa Mberia’s Kifo Kisimani and Maua Kwenye Jua La Asubuhi; and Wallah bin Wallah’s Kitanzi Cha Utandawizi and Mbwa wa Majini.

Onerous task

The demand for Kiswahili books has remained at level high though there are those who prefer reading them in English. With such kind of demands, a section of publishing firms have begun to offer readers translated versions of the creative works. Kithaka wa Mberia, who is both a writer and publisher, has seen his two books translated into English as Death at the Well and Flower in the Morning Sun.

In the recent years, the Kiswahili version of Death at the Well was used in schools as a set book possibly because of its style, content and good command of language.

This text is set in a fictitious African state of Butangi, which is headed by Bokono. Like in Francis Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City, Death at the Well focuses on poor political leadership, violation of human rights, political patronage, corruption and looting of public resources.

Mwelusi, one of the most respected characters, decides to change all that. However, his activism lands him in trouble and he pays the price with his life. But luckily, the fire that he has ignited in the people is not extinguishable. Led by Atega, a young woman and Mwelusi’s girlfriend, the people carry on with the struggle.

At the end of the book, the old order is brought to its knees.

This English version is well done and nothing is lost in translation. At the Kibabii University College, Death at the Well is among the texts that are studied in African Drama.

In my view, therefore, publishers ought to energise their efforts in ensuring that they translate classic Kiswahili into English in order to give as many people as possible an opportunity to read them.

Though the venture is both expensive and time intensive, I do believe that if such pattern is set things will naturally take its course. Above all, courses in literary translation ought to be offered in institutions of higher learning to help cater for the seemingly onerous task.   


— The writer teaches literature and creative writing at Kibabii University College in Bungoma. [email protected]


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