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The Translator
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Translation and Postcolonial Identity

Moradewun Adejunmobi
University of California, Davis, USA
Published online: 21 Feb 2014.

To cite this article: Moradewun Adejunmobi (1998) Translation and Postcolonial Identity, The Translator, 4:2, 163-181,
DOI: 10.1080/13556509.1998.10799018

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The Translator. Volume 4, Number 2 (1998), 163-181 ISBN 1-900650-01-0

Translation and Postcolonial Identity

African Writing and European Languages

University of California, Davis, USA

Abstract. Critics and authors of the corpus of texts designated as

African literature often consider problematic the role of Euro-
pean languages in this literature. A discourse based on the practice
of translation represents one strategy among others for resolving
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the crisis of identity of African writing in European languages.

Three kinds of translation found in African literature are discussed
in this paper. Both compositional and authorized translations seek
to confirm the African identity of the European-language text:
the former by reference to imaginary and the latter by reference
to original versions in indigenous African languages. Complex
translations, on the other hand, embrace mobility between lan-
guages and identities as inescapable in postcolonial Africa. While
these varieties of translation appear to reconcile the desire for
authenticity with the exigency of writing in a foreign language,
the relationship between the various versions indirectly confirms
the continuing hegemony of European languages in contempo-
rary African writing.

The variety of convictions expressed about the place of translation in Afri-

can literature in European languages stands against the background of larger
issues and controversies, involving the well-known ambivalent attitudes of
African writers towards those languages. These convictions further reflect
diverse apprehensions of African identity, invariably defined in terms of
essential or incidental alterity. The importance attributed to the activity of
translation in contemporary African literature therefore cannot be disasso-
ciated from the persistent nostalgia for ‘origins’, ‘original languages’, and
most significantly for ‘original identities’. The classifications and catego-
ries commonly referred to in translation yield insight into the factors involved
in this quest for origins and the resulting construction of a literature of dif-
ference, a body of texts seeking to be identified as specifically African but
written in European languages.

1. Varieties of translation

The translating process by definition requires interaction and dialogue

ISSN 1355-6509 © St Jerome Publishing, Manchester

164 Translation and Postcolonial Identity

between languages. Such interaction is rarely neutral, even less so in

postcolonial societies. Having defined translation as a form of rewriting,
Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere also add that this “[r]ewriting is manipu-
lation, undertaken in the service of power” (in Lefevere 1992:vii). The locus
of the power to canonize African literary texts is especially exposed during
the encounter between African and European languages in the act of trans-
lation. The activity of translation enables us to measure the degree to which
the African writer succeeds in frustrating institutional and, in this case,
postcolonial designs upon his or her creative text, and the degree to which
the same institutional framework succeeds in frustrating the designs and
intentions of the author of the creative text.
In the first place, however, it must be acknowledged that the very use of
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the term ‘translation’ to describe particular linguistic trends identified with

some African writing in European languages is problematic. These practices
are thought to derive from attempts to reproduce African-language speech
patterns in texts written essentially in European languages. Some critics of
African literatures therefore account for the linguistic specificity of African
writing in European languages by initial reference to the activity or termin-
ology of translation.1 For example, Oluwole Adejare confidently affirms “that
translation is used by some authors of African Literature in English (ALE) is
not a new discovery” (1987:145). Despite the extra-linguistic implications of
her understanding of the word, Eloise Briere makes a similar observation
with respect to a well-known African text written in French: “Camara Laye’s
L’Enfant Noir is thus not simply an African novel in French, but the author’s
attempt to translate the essence of his life as a Malinké” (1988:34).
Chantal Zabus has questioned the appropriateness of ‘translation’ as a
description for the processes resulting in the specific types of language use
encountered in African literature in European languages. Expressing her dis-
satisfaction with the tendency to describe as translation practices that seem
to fall short of the usual definition of the term, she proposes in its place the
term relexification and notes that “relexification is characterized by the ab-
sence of an original” (1991:106). This forms the crux of her objections to
the widespread assumption that African writing in European languages co-
incides with a sustained activity of translating. Most African texts in European
languages do not in fact correspond to European-language versions of exist-
ing texts in indigenous African languages, and from this perspective, the
objections raised by Zabus are valid.
Nevertheless, some – though not all – African writers have explicitly
described the processes involved in their writing as translation. The Nige-
rian writer Gabriel Okara, for example, remarks:
As a writer who believes in the utilisation of African ideas, African
philosophy and African folk-lore and imagery to the fullest extent
possible, I am of the opinion that the only way to use them effec-
Moradewun Adejunmobi 165

tively is to translate them almost literally from the African language

native to the writer into whatever European language he is using as
a medium of his expression. (1963:15)

In a similar vein, the Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma writes:

J’ai pensé en malinké et écrit en français en prenant une liberté que
j’estime naturelle avec la langue classique ... J’ai donc traduit le
malinké en français en cassant le français pour trouver et restituer le
rythme africain. (in Koné 1992: 83)
(I think in Malinké and write in French, taking what I consider to be
natural liberties with the classical tongue. I have thus translated
Malinké into French by breaking up the French language so as to
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recreate an African rhythm.)

In those instances where the writers themselves have not defined their
writing by reference to the practice of translation, a number of critics have
unearthed convincing evidence or traces of this activity in their creative texts.
Thus, Bandia (1993) has revealed instances of translation from African to
European languages in Chinua Achebe’s works, while Adejare (1987) has
identified similar processes in the texts of Wole Soyinka, Kofi Awonoor,
Christopher Okigbo, Ola Rotimi, and others.
My intention here is not to determine the accuracy of the claims made
about African writing in European languages according to the strict
parameters suggested by Zabus. Rather, I will direct attention to the motiva-
tions supporting this reference to translation on the part of some writers and
critics of African literature in European languages, notwithstanding the
absence of ‘original’ versions in indigenous African languages. For the pur-
poses of the present discussion, I will identify as compositional translations
texts which are published in European languages and which contain
occasional or sustained modification of the conventions of the European
language in use, where ‘versions’ or ‘originals’ in indigenous African lang-
uages are non-existent. Many texts commonly perceived as belonging to the
rubric of ‘African literature’ fall into this category. The works of Gabriel
Okara, Ahmadou Kourouma and Amos Tutuola will provide illustration for
such compositional translations. It should be noted, furthermore, that the
modification of European languages in these texts generally results from a
deliberate intent to indigenize the European language. The actual method-
ology of such projects of indigenization is in turn often grounded in references
to translation.
In referring to certain works of African literature as compositional trans-
lations, I am seeking to distinguish these works from another sub-grouping
that I will describe here as authorized translations. This term will be used
for instances where more than one version of the full text exists, even when
166 Translation and Postcolonial Identity

the indigenous language version has not been published, or has been pub-
lished prior or subsequent to a European-language version. In these instances,
the fact of translation hardly impacts on language use within the European-
language version and functions rather as a strategy for ethnic identification
of the European-language text. The writing of Mazisi Kunene, Okot p’Bitek,
and Ngugi wa Thiong’o will provide examples of authorized translations to
be considered here.
A final category of African texts relating to translation will be repre-
sented by the writing of Abdelkebir Khatibi and Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo.
This final category belongs to a trend that I will tentatively label complex
translations. For complex translators, translation does not represent a means
to an end, a method for ‘Africanizing’ European languages. Movement be-
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tween languages becomes in these kinds of texts an end in itself, the focal
point and central concern of the text.
The different types of translation identified thus far should together help
reveal the power relations at work in the emergence of a literature described
as distinctively African.

2. Compositional translation

Critics have used different terms to characterize the defining features and
impact of translating techniques involved in African compositional transla-
tions. Besides identifying the use of calques, semantic shifts, collocational
shifts and irregular syntax, among other strategies, Bandia, to quote only
one example, summarizes the overall effect of these techniques as follows:
“It is a translation process which ... is overt and not covert; it is a primary
and not a secondary exercise ... semantic and not communicative .... In short,
it is a source-text oriented translation” (1993: 58). Borrowing Friedrich
Schleiermacher’s often quoted formulation, it could be said that African
writers of this tradition, acting in their capacity of purported translators, seek
to move the European-language reader towards the African author and his
or her mother tongue. In Lawrence Venuti’s terms, it might be observed that
these texts, far from seeking to eliminate language difference, seek to make
it visible and prominent. They avoid fluency and transparency and, to a cer-
tain degree, illustrate the kind of translation that Venuti has designated
‘foreignizing’ (1995:20), where the intent is to preserve the foreignness of
the foreign text.
Although several African authors have resorted to this form of translation
on a limited scale as a means of reproducing speech patterns of indigenous
languages in their works, or for the purposes of characterization, few authors
have attempted this exercise at the level of entire works. The works of Okara,
Kourouma, and Tutuola, however, are exemplary of a more sustained
recourse to this strategy in creative writing. Zabus (1991) affirms that Okara’s
writing shows evidence of “morpho-syntactic distortions” (ibid:123), that of
Moradewun Adejunmobi 167

Kourouma relies on “lexico-semantic relexification” (ibid:129), while

Tutuola’s exploits “direct or semi-direct loan translation” (ibid:113). Evidence
of such distortion can be seen in statements like “You cannot a thing I have
done not put on my head”, made by Okolo, the main character, in Okara’s
The Voice (1964:71); it means “You cannot accuse me of an act that I am
not guilty of”.2 The postponement of the verb in Okolo’s statement here and
in many other instances in the novel reflects word order in Ijo, Okara’s first
language, and as such might be considered evidence of translation from an
indigenous language on Okara’s part. The imprint of the Malinké language
is similarly evident at the very onset of Kourouma’s Soleils des indépend-
ances, where he writes: “Il y avait une semaine qu’avait fini Koné Ibrahima
de race malinké (Koné Ibrahima, a Malinké, finished in the capital a week
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earlier; 1970:7). The sentence, readers soon realize, refers specifically to

Koné Ibrahima’s death rather than to some other undertaking, for the French
verb finir as used here derives its meaning from an equivalent in the Malinké
that can also mean ‘to die’.
While Tutuola’s style has been linked to an imperfect command of Eng-
lish (Zabus 1991:109), Okara’s and Kourouma’s linguistic experiments derive
from a deliberately undertaken project. These writers, unlike Tutuola, have
described the process at work in their texts as ‘translation’ and further jus-
tify this practice as a means of being or truly confirming themselves to be
African writers. Okara (1963:15) thus asks in his major statement of inten-
tions concerning his creative writing: “Is it only the colour of one’s skin that
makes one an African?”. By implication, the answer to that question would
recognize the need for additional proofs of Africanness inherent in distinc-
tive forms of language use, associated inter alia with translating practices.
For his part, Kourouma explains: “Ecrire le roman dans la langue française
me gêne parce que le français ne me permet pas de faire ressortir la mentalité
des personnages. Ces personnages ont des approches, des tournures d’esprit
que seule leur langue permet de suivre les méandres de la logique (sic)”
(Writing a novel in French hampers me because the French language does
not enable me to illustrate the mentality of the characters. These characters
have attitudes, thought patterns, whose logic can be understood only in rela-
tion to their own language; Koné 1992:83).3 In other words, the French
language is considered an inadequate medium for conveying specifically
African thought patterns, hence the need to modify the French language by
translating from Malinké. The representation of the Africanness of his char-
acters depends on a close approximation of their indigenous-language thought
and speech patterns in the French language.
As Zabus has pointed out, references to translation on the part of both
authors imply the existence of an original version in an indigenous African
language. This implication forms part of a chain of illusions set in motion by
the mention of translation. If the authors are translating as they allege, then
168 Translation and Postcolonial Identity

the European-language text does not legitimately have the status of an origi-
nal version. Indeed, and by implication, the text is read as if it were really
written in an indigenous language. Being neither entirely European nor fully
African, the language of the text might perhaps be an “interlanguage” (Zabus
1991:102). Furthermore, we have here authors who, prompted by the desire
for authenticity, seek to evacuate their real authorial presence by appro-
priating the posture of translators, mere mediators between a supposed
indigenous-language original and a European-language version. The trend
towards denying real authorship of the literary text in order to promote a
semblance of authenticity became a kind of convention in some early Afri-
can texts in European languages. Several narratives were presented as texts
originally recounted by an indigenous-language narrator, rather than as nar-
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ratives invented directly by the author in French. Hampaté Bâ, Ferdinand

Oyono, Birago Diop and Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, among others, had re-
course to this technique in their novels.
In the overwhelming majority of these cases, however, an indigenous-
language original does not exist either as a corresponding publication or as a
complete manuscript acknowledged by the author. Nonetheless, some Afri-
can authors continue to present their European-language works as derivative
texts, because a widespread conception prevails among African writers and
critics of African literature according to which only versions in indigenous
African languages can be truly African. In other words, texts in European
languages must demonstrate some connection with an indigenous-language
original as unequivocal proof of their Africanness. In the larger context of
preoccupations among African writers and critics, this conception can be
related to another requirement, namely that the Africanness of any given
European-language text be deduced not from the nationality of the author,
but from specific strategies mobilized within the text. Such strategies in-
clude modelling European-language texts on African oral narratives and
recreating a certain vision of African life in these texts. The argument that
has raged about the language of ‘African literature’ since the emergence of
a group of texts known under this cognomen represents only one dimension
of this wider concern.4
This preoccupation with original texts and an Africanness located within
the text is undoubtedly motivated by a desire to compensate for certain con-
sequences of the colonial encounter. The marginalization of indigenous
African languages in significant spheres of life in many parts of contempo-
rary Africa lies at the heart of this concern. While modification of European
languages as a response to this state of affairs is an established tradition in
African writing, the writers involved do not share a uniform conception of
their activity. When the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe refers to the ‘be-
trayal’ of his mother tongue in his writing (in Ngugi 1986a:7), we can deduce
that for him, the language of his fiction is a foreign language. Other writers,
Moradewun Adejunmobi 169

on the other hand, present themselves as translators. These writers tend to

devote less space to the language question, perhaps because they consider
themselves to have resolved the crisis of identity provoked by the act of writ-
ing in a foreign language. Through the identification of their language use
with translation, the works of these authors appear to successfully circum-
vent those consequences of the colonial experience that led to the emergence
of African writing in European languages in the first place. To the extent
that the European-language text represents a replica of an indigenous-
language original, the grounds for writing in European languages dissolve
as it were before our very eyes. The European-language text is apprehended
primarily as a translation, while the exigency of writing in European lan-
guages is transcended prima facie by implicit allusion to indigenous-language
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Even making allowance for differences in terminology, a critic as per-
ceptive as Zabus can come to the conclusion that the technique she has termed
relexification (and which others have called translation) succeeds in Okara’s
The Voice in letting the “Ijo tongue speak” (1991:123). In other words, this
text is read as if it were written in the Ijo language of South-eastern Nigeria.
But this is precisely the problem with the claim of translation or relexification,
as the case may be. Okara’s text, as it stands, surely differs from a text
written entirely in Ijo. The strategies used and their link to translation may
propel the impression of reading a text in Ijo to the European-language reader,
but the fact remains that the text is essentially and substantially written in a
language other than Ijo. Furthermore, the illusion created probably diverts
attention from the real impediments to publishing literature in languages
like Ijo or Malinké.
Venuti’s comments about foreignizing translations are pertinent here:
“Foreignizing translation signifies the difference of the foreign text, yet only
by disrupting the cultural codes that prevail in the target language” (1995:20).
If Africanness in literature is assumed (erroneously in my opinion) to inhere
only indigenous-language writing, then the works of writers like Okara and
Kourouma embody such Africanness more in relation to European-language
literature than vis-à-vis any literary texts actually written in Ijo or Malinké.
In the absence of an original version or a published text in an indigenous
language, foreignizing translation here involves manoeuvres in the target
European language without significant ramification for indigenous-language
writing. To my mind, the danger for literatures in indigenous African
languages lies in the failure to acknowledge that this kind of foreignizing
translation does not substantially challenge the hegemony of European
languages over published literature in Africa. In the end, African authors
who write in the foreignizing translation mode should not, on the basis of
their language use, be considered any more exemplary of authentic African-
language writing than those Africans who make no attempts to modify
170 Translation and Postcolonial Identity

European languages in their texts. This variety of engagement with European

languages in contemporary African literature represents equally ambiguous,
and as such truly African responses to postcolonial Africa’s language

3. Authorized translation

I use the term ‘authorized translation’ to refer to European-language ver-

sions of African-language texts. In the instances to be considered here, the
text in the indigenous language antecedes at least in writing the European-
language version, and may therefore be described as a real original. The
inclusion of these texts in my discussion may be seen as problematic since
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my title refers particularly to African writing in European languages. It is

my contention here that despite their original versions, these texts may be
regarded as also belonging to the genus of African writing in European lan-
guages. And perhaps more importantly, they contribute to an enhanced
understanding of the significance of translation in the constitution of a rec-
ognizable ‘African’ literature. In the cases to be reviewed here, Kunene and
p’Bitek have themselves translated and published their texts in European-
language versions, further justifying my decision to consider such texts
evidence of African writing in European languages. Ngugi has translated
two of the texts composed in his mother tongue, while the translation of a
third text, Matigari Ma Njiruungi, has been undertaken by someone else.
As a rule, the texts existing in multiple versions demonstrate a closer
connection with African oral traditions than compositional translations. They
are deliberately modelled on traditional songs, poetic forms and oral narra-
tives. Speaking about Kunene’s writing, Ken Goodwin thus remarks: “The
world of discourse of his poems is a Zulu one, and the philosophy, the im-
agery, and the rhetoric rely heavily on the oral traditions of Zulu poetry
from the eighteenth century to the present day” (1982:173). Ngugi similarly
has this to say about his first novel in his mother tongue Gikuyu: “I bor-
rowed heavily from the forms of the oral narrative, particularly the
conversational tone, the fable, proverbs, songs and the whole tradition of
poetic self-praise or praise of others” (1986a:77-78). And yet, if these texts
were initially written in indigenous African languages from the perspective
of foregrounding their formal and thematic non-Western affiliations, they
have ironically been translated into European languages in accordance with
the Western norms of fluency. Venuti has identified fluency as the domi-
nant convention of contemporary Euro-American translation, suggesting that
“a translated text, whether prose or poetry, fiction or non fiction, is judged
acceptable by most publishers, reviewers and readers when it reads fluently,
when the absence of any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities make it seem
transparent” (1995:1). He further adds that “a fluent translation is immedi-
Moradewun Adejunmobi 171

ately recognizable and intelligible, ‘familiarised,’ domesticated, and not

‘disconcerting[ly]’ foreign” (ibid:5). Unlike the foreignizing translations
discussed earlier, fluent translations expunge as much of the foreignness of
the foreign or African text as possible.
Fluency has remained the dominant strategy in translations of African-
language texts into European languages, even in instances where such
translations have been undertaken by the author. Comparing Kunene’s trans-
lation into English of certain traditional poems in the Zulu language with a
different translation of the same poems entitled Izibongo: Zulu Praise
Poems, Goodwin has this to say:

The Izibongo version seeks to keep close to the Zulu parts of speech
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and word order .... Kunene, while preserving these qualities as far
as possible, is prepared to sacrifice them at times in the interests of
making sense or achieving a more rolling oratorical rhythm. Where
the Izibongo versions sometimes read like word-for-word cribs in
which the meaning has to be elucidated by a footnote, Kunene’s
versions show the selective freedom and judgement exercised by
someone thoroughly familiar with both languages. (1982:186-87)

That is to say, Kunene’s translations eschew linguistic difference and can be

read without reference to the text or language of the poems in Zulu. Taban
Lo Liyong’s comments about p’Bitek’s Wer pa Lawino, originally written
in Acholi, and the author’s translation of the same text into English as Song
of Lawino, do not exude the kind of commendation implicit in Goodwin’s
remarks on Kunene. In essence, though, they amount to an identical assess-
ment of the English-language translation of the Acholi original. Lo Liyong
states for example that “Wer pa Lawino was watered down in translation to
Song of Lawino” (1993:88), and then he expatiates on this further by sug-
gesting that “Okot produced a simplified version of Wer pa Lawino in English
– all proverbs, wise sayings, and puns were rendered into sarcastic English.
So the depth and erudition of the Acholi original were passed over in favour
of flowery and colourful English” (ibid:89). Simon Gikandi’s reflections on
the “eloquent” English-language translation of Ngugi’s Matigari Ma Njiru-
ungi are even more explicit. Certain proverbs are omitted in the English
translation, he suggests, “possibly for the sake of fluency, and replaced by a
simpler alternative .... This translation captures the spirit of the original, but
fluency is only attained by effacing the linguistic difficulties that give the
Gikuyu language its power and identity. Such effacement makes the Eng-
lish translation of the novel into a simplistic, sanitized version of the original”
Authorized translations thus tend to be the least foreignized of African
texts existing in European languages. The translation seeks to convey the
meaning but not the language of the original. Linguistic peculiarities are
172 Translation and Postcolonial Identity

avoided or altogether omitted, and in Schleiermacher’s terms, these author-

ized translations seem to move the author towards the European-language
reader. Attention does not focus on the translating activity itself. Indeed,
were it not for indications contained in prefaces and title pages, one might
easily conclude that these texts were originally composed in European lan-
guages. So normalized are these translations that they bring back a cultural
other, in Venuti’s words, as “the same, the recognizable, even the familiar”
Nonetheless, the fact of being translations remains significant for many
African writers and their critics, even if the target versions adhere to a mode
of translation that seems to suppress the alterity of the original text in
indigenous languages. In this instance as elsewhere, the existence of these
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original versions serves by inference as a guarantee of the genuine African-

ness of these texts, since only versions in indigenous African languages can
be truly African for their writers. No study of Kunene, p’Bitek, or Ngugi’s
European-language versions is thus complete without reference to the
existence of these original versions in indigenous languages.
Kunene speaks for himself and many other writers and critics when he

... writers who write in a foreign language are already part of for-
eign institutions; to one extent or another, they have adopted foreign
values and philosophical attitudes, and they variously seek to be a
member of that culture. They cannot be said to be African cultural
representatives who write in another language because, in spirit, at
least, they speak from the perspective provided for them by the ef-
fective apparatus of mental control exercised by the former colonial
power. (1992:32)

However, statements made in this vein usually overlook the fact that the
said texts, by and large, function as literature – texts that are read and critiqued
within the original linguistic community of the author – only in their nor-
malized European-language translations. Speaking about Kunene, Goodwin
therefore concedes that “by a paradox of contemporary publishing opportu-
nities, Mazisi Kunene, who writes in Zulu and then translates some of his
poetry into English, has had much more of his work appear in translation
than in the original” (1982:173). In other words, not only is Kunene widely
read in translation, Kunene is read essentially only in translation. Another
East African publisher makes reference to p’Bitek’s magnum opus, the Song
of Lawino, in his comments on the difficulties of publishing literary texts in
indigenous African languages: “titles published in the indigenous languages
were all a ‘financial disaster’, even though one of them was a prize winning
novel in Luo and the other a translation back into the original of Okot
p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino”(Zell 1980:1071). This observation suggests that
Moradewun Adejunmobi 173

the reputation of p’Bitek’s text is founded on the initial publication of the

English-language translation rather than on the subsequent publication of an
indigenous-language ‘original’. As discussed in Adejunmobi (1994), the
publication of literature in African languages remains a risky venture in the
absence of a highly educated readership literate solely in African languages.
In many parts of Africa, education in African languages alone rarely ex-
tends beyond elementary school. At that level, readers tend to have limited
literacy in African languages and possess neither the means to purchase nor
the skills to read canonical texts of ‘high literature’, whether written by Af-
ricans or others, even though a vibrant popular literature does exist in a
number of indigenous languages such as Yoruba and Swahili.
Ngugi’s texts in Gikuyu, however, seem to constitute something of an
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exception to this trend, to the extent that they have achieved popularity within
the author’s Gikuyu-speaking community. But even in the case of Ngugi, as
Gikandi has pointed out, the act of translating a text like Matigari Ma
Njiruungi into English further exposes the disjunction in status between the
original text and its translated versions. Gikandi writes:

If Ngugi’s intention was to make the Gikuyu text the great original
to which all translations would be subordinated, this intention is
defeated not only by the political repression of Matigari Ma
Njiruungi, but by the act of translation itself ... The act of transla-
tion is hence a double-edged weapon: it allows Ngugi’s text to survive
and be read, but it is read and discussed as if it were a novel in
English. (1991:166)

Moreover, according to Gikandi the ‘sanitized’ nature of the translation fur-

ther encourages this inclination to read the text as if it were a novel in English,
since it effaces all signs that would remind readers of their “inability to mas-
ter the original and to negotiate the untranslatable aspects of the Gikuyu
language” (ibid:167).
A question arises as to why the novel should even require translation into
English. The answer lies in the existence of a significant constituency of
potential readers outside the Gikuyu language spectrum. These are readers
and critics who speak powerful languages such as English, and for whom
ignorance of Gikuyu constitutes no deterrent to reading Gikuyu-language
texts in translation. Translation can, in a variety of ways, confirm the power
of one language over another by absolving speakers of the more powerful
language of the obligation to learn the less powerful language. This is true
not only of translation between African and European languages in a
postcolonial world, but also of other European languages in relation to Eng-
lish. Interestingly, since many readers of the novel in English subscribe to
the thesis of encouraging writing in Gikuyu, the existence of a real ‘origi-
nal’ in Gikuyu comforts their consciences: they are supporting ‘writing in
174 Translation and Postcolonial Identity

Gikuyu’ through the medium of an English-language translation. They are

upholding the cause of true Africanness, albeit through the agency of a text
read in European languages. The real power of English over Gikuyu is at
once sustained and denied, with no change in the hierarchy between the
Authorized translations then remain confined within an economic and
political arrangement in which greater power is ascribed to languages like
English or French than to any indigenous African language. Indeed, I would
argue that by foregrounding – and in a sense exemplifying – the problematic
confrontation between European and indigenous languages in contempo-
rary Africa, compositional translations do direct a modicum of attention to
the real conflict prevailing outside the literary text. The fluent authorized
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translations, on the other hand, seem to accommodate the hegemonic order

even more significantly, by eliding this conflict altogether within the more
prominent European-language text. Indigenous languages are completely
banished from these European-language translations, being frequently rel-
egated to unpublished, uncirculated or marginalized ‘original versions’.
Compositional and authorized translations nevertheless have some quali-
ties in common: they seek to resolve the problem posed by the power of
European languages in Africa by recourse to the pursuit of original identi-
ties. Both seek to deal with the postcolonial context of writing by inferring
the existence of a certain ‘Africanness’ immanent in real or imaginary original
versions in indigenous languages. In so doing, they sustain an illusion ac-
cording to which the implied recovery of original versions truly alters the
balance between European and indigenous languages in their impact on con-
temporary African literature.

4. Complex translations

I have attempted thus far to reveal the invalidity of some assumptions re-
garding the role of translation in African literature. A final group of African
translations does represent, to my mind, a more realistic engagement with
the African postcolonial ‘language problem’. The authors involved deploy
the concept of translation in order to reconstruct the interplay between domi-
nant and dominated languages in a world transformed by the experience of
colonialism. The Malagasy writer Rabearivelo and the Moroccan Khatibi
problematize language contact and conflict in texts where the ability to trans-
late as languages intersect becomes a prerequisite for comprehension. The
multilingual world of their texts imposes translation as a mode of reading,
since both indigenous and European languages actually figure in the text. In
the writing of Rabearivelo and Khatibi, expressions and terms in indigenous
languages do not function as blank signals of cultural authenticity to be ex-
plicated in peripheral glossaries, but rather as components that are integral
to the construction of meaning at every point in the text. The reader, like
Moradewun Adejunmobi 175

those who live in postcolonial settings, is confronted with European lan-

guages, cannot circumvent indigenous languages, and must in the end learn
to translate.
Rabearivelo, lived and wrote in the early decades of this century, shortly
after the onset of the French colonial rule on the island of Madagascar. At
that time, terms like ‘African literature in English’ or ‘Malagasy literature
in French’ had not yet become widespread. Where the existence of a native
literature was admitted in the colonies, such recognition extended only to
transcriptions of oral compositions in indigenous languages or in European-
language translations. This arrangement had the added advantage of calling
into question the African credentials of any works that were not transcrip-
tions and whose authors expressed undisguised anticolonial sentiments.
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Where such ‘non-traditional’ texts were written in the native language in a

French colony like Madagascar, avenues for publication simply disappeared.
Rabearivelo responded to this situation by claiming that his earliest poems
in French – written in strictly non-traditional format – were translations of
Malagasy originals supposedly in the oral mode. His deep involvement in
the actual translation of Malagasy orature into French complicated the dis-
tinction between his real or authorized translations and his deliberately
compositional and complex translations.5
In the last decade of his life (during the 1930s), he moved increasingly
towards the composition of bilingual works in both French and Malagasy.
Several factors suggest that the majority of these bilingual texts were
originally written in French, though Rabearivelo always affirmed the contrary,
claiming that the Malagasy texts constituted the originals from which the
French versions were translated. This fiction enabled him to appropriate
Malagasy identity for the French-language texts, since they were assumed,
after all, to be only translations. But why write in French at all if his objective
was to produce a recognizable Malagasy literature? Rabearivelo had come
to the realization that the colonial age in which he lived to all intents and
purposes precluded non-traditional Malagasy-language texts from published
existence. Unlike the authors of the more recent compositional or authorized
translations discussed earlier, Rabearivelo ultimately intended to secure
publication for both the European and indigenous-language texts by reversing
the real linguistic relationship between them. In other words, the expression
‘translated from the Malagasy’ which accompanied his French-language texts
did not signify a true craving for original texts and identities. Rather it
represented a wilful manipulation of the barriers to publication in African
languages within the colony. From the beginning Rabearivelo insisted on
speaking of these poems as bilingual French-Malagasy texts, though they
were initially published in monolingual French versions. Through this
stratagem, he eventually succeeded in doing what later compositional and
authorized translators proved incapable of achieving: ensuring the publication
176 Translation and Postcolonial Identity

of his Malagasy-language poems alongside their French versions in their

capacity of supposed originals.
In the most recent edition of his later poems published in France in 1990,
the Malagasy and French versions of each poem appear on facing pages. A
stanza from a poem written for his children will serve as illustration. The
Malagasy version comes first and reads as follows:

Solofo anie aho ka Solofo,

Solofo eo ambondin’ ny hazo:
Maniry solofon’ ny volo
Misy tantely velon-dreny (Poémes 82)
The French version appears on the following page:
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Solofo je suis, donc une pousse neuve,

Une pousse neuve au pied de l’arbre
Je désire une pousse de roseau
Avec du miel épais dedans (Poémes 83)
(I am Solofo, and thus a new shoot
a new shoot at the foot of the tree
I desire a slender shoot
Filled with thick honey)

It is worth noting that Solofo, the name of Rabearivelo’s son, is the Mala-
gasy equivalent for ‘shoot’ or ‘sprout’. The poem is constructed around the
selective translation of Solofo in the French version, where it is left untrans-
lated in the first line and then glossed in succeeding lines. Using these kinds
of strategies in his bilingual works, Rabearivelo is able to demonstrate the
complex linguistic identities and loyalties of the postcolonial writer, encom-
passing both the French and Malagasy in his creative work.
Rabearivelo’s growing intuition concerning the significance of transla-
tion for the postcolonial writer led him to make it the theme of his final
collection of poetry, entitled Traduit de la nuit (Translations from the Night).
In addition to the bilingual format of the work, the French-Malagasy poems
provide images of the many possible ways in which the phenomenon of
night can be ‘translated’. In Adejunmobi (1996:278-79), I attempted to ex-
plain the significance of Rabearivelo’s translations of the night as follows:

In effect, to translate night or translate from the night does not

mean to describe night as a static state. Rather it means to evoke
the transmutations undergone by the phenomenon of night, to
consign night to an unending mobility intended to be symptomatic
of the original condition of colonized man and nature. Rabeari-
velo’s ideal for man and the elements resided in the capacity for
mutation or ‘translation’.
Moradewun Adejunmobi 177

Translation in Rabearivelo’s writing therefore does not lead back to uncon-

taminated origins and linguistic states; on the contrary, it substantiates the
inevitable linguistic mobility that had in his time become the vocation of the
postcolonial writer.
In the late 20th century, several North African writers have, according to
Réda Bensmaïa (1987:137), sought to resolve language problems identical
to those confronting Rabearivelo by choosing between the many languages
contending for supremacy in the region: Classical Arabic, different varieties
of dialectal Arabic, Berber languages and French. Khatibi responds to this
situation by embracing all of these languages, as illustrated in Maghreb
pluriel, the title of one of his works. Mary Ellen Wolf observes that Khatibi’s
writing tends toward the empowering of a “collective, ethnic, decentered,
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multi-lingual” voice (1994:58). Since he does not choose one language over
another, Khatibi is therefore freed from the obligation of attempting to cre-
ate an original version in any one chosen African tongue: his allegiance is to
all rather than to the one. Furthermore, for him, the very complexity of the
language situation imposes the exigency of translation as a fundamental form
of communication. Translation is therefore implicated in every form of com-
munication within the postcolonial context rather than in the exclusive and
elusive quest for origins alone.
The organizing principle of Khatibi’s language use and linguistic identity
finds expression in the notion of the ‘bi-langue’ and in his real sense of
belonging to more than one language. In practical terms, Khatibi’s demon-
stration of the ‘bi-langue’ does not lead him to resort to the strategies used
by the compositional translators. As Bensmaïa has pointed out (1987:141),
Khatibi writes classical French in his many works, and does not attempt to
modify the structures of the French language. It might even be argued that
Khatibi does not translate as such. Rather his writing proceeds by a system
of ‘doubling’, allowing an unending play on the multiple meanings of a word
within individual languages, and between the different languages in use:
French, classical, and dialectal Arabic. In Amour bilingue in particular, while
exploring the possibility of loving in two languages, the text maintains what
Samia Mehrez has described as a “perpetual migration of signs” (1992:134).
Simple translations no longer suffice, while meaning becomes infinitely
This particular text addresses the translating activity explicitly. Words
like ‘translation’, ‘equivalence’, ‘language’, ‘mother tongue’ in their multi-
ple meanings play a prominent part in the unfolding of the text, as do words
in classical and dialectal Arabic in the same manner. That is to say, the
theme of the text itself is the unequal and unending dialogue between several
languages in the postcolonial context. Furthermore, that theme is elaborated
not only in the form of a discontinuous narrative but also through consciously
orchestrated references to the numerous possibilities of meaning and
178 Translation and Postcolonial Identity

interpretation from one language to another. At a certain point in Amour

bilingue for example, the narrator is described as recovering from disturbing
thoughts, and we read:

Il se calma d’un coup, lorsqu’apparut le mot arabe “kalma” avec

son équivalent savant “kalima” et toute la chaîne des diminutifs,
calembours de son enfance: “klima”... La diglossie “kal(i)ma” revint
sans que disparût ni s’effaçât le mot “mot”. (1983:10)
He calmed down instantly when an Arabic word, kalma, appeared,
kalma and its scholarly diminutives which had been the riddles of
his childhood: klima ... The diglossal kal(i)ma appeared again with-
out mot’s having faded away or disappeared. (1990:4)
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In this excerpt, the word calma (meaning ‘calmed down’) in French prompts
recollection on a phonological level of both kalma and kalima in Arabic,
and ultimately leads back to ‘word’, for kalima means ‘word’ in Arabic,
and prefaces calma in the text. Thomas Beebee (1994:75) perceptively ob-
serves that the narrator does not, however, indicate that kalima is the Arabic
equivalent for ‘word’. It is left to the reader to undertake this act of transla-
tion and decoding. Thus, Khatibi explores and constructs a network of unusual
associations between French and Arabic that can be fully deciphered only
by multilingual readers acquainted with both French and Arabic. Transla-
tion in this work is not therefore an invisible activity resulting in the
emergence of an ‘original text’ in Arabic; it is the primary focus and ‘method’,
as it were, of narrative progression. Indeed, as Mehrez has argued, it is in
addition the only form of reading authorized by the kind of “postcolonial
plurilingual texts” that “resist and ultimately exclude the monolingual and
demand of their readers to be like themselves: ‘in between’, at once capable
of reading and translating, where translation becomes an integral part of the
reading experience” (1992:122).
Both Khatibi and Rabearivelo published their works in European lan-
guages. So also do compositional and authorized translators notwithstanding
appearances to the contrary. Unlike authorized translators, however, Khatibi
and Rabearivelo locate the postcolonial language conflict within the pub-
lished text (instead of in the unpublished text) as theme and central focus.
While the strategies exploited by compositional translators are suggestive of
the same conflict, they too, in the end, refer the reader to an unpublished and
in many instances non-existent ‘original’ in an indigenous language. This
brings us to the most fundamental difference between Khatibi and Rabeari-
velo on the one hand, and the other kinds of African translators on the other:
Khatibi and Rabearivelo imply the futility of pursuing original versions in
indigenous languages as a means for resolving the postcolonial crisis of iden-
tity. For them, translation does not connote derivation, source text, fixed
Moradewun Adejunmobi 179

meaning or primal essence; rather it incarnates change, mutability, a persist-

ent mobility between languages not so much inherited from Babel as inflicted
by the postcolonial order of things.

African-American and African Studies, University of California, Davis,
CA 95616, USA.

Acknowledgements & Notes

Extracts from J. J. Rabearivelo, Poèmes (collection Litterature francophone),

1990, are reprinted with the kind permission of Hatier.
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1. Critics who have explored the role of translation in African literature in

European languages include: A. Afolayan, Oluwole Adejare, Paul Bandia,
Eloise Briere, Bernth Lindfors, and Amadou Koné, among others.
2. It is important to note, though, that the style used by writers like Okara or
Kourouma does not necessarily correspond to actual African speech pat-
terns in English, French or even Pidgin (Schmied 1991:133). The style is,
as Zabus (1991:102) has pointed out, a special literary code, which is
undoubtedly ‘African’ but quite distinct from widely spoken African va-
rieties of English or French.
3. In a recent interview (Gauvin 1997:156), Kourouma does, however, place
greater emphasis on the objective of correctly presenting the Malinké
worldview than on the linguistic process of translating from Malinké to
4. Obiajunwa Wali was one of the earliest to raise this issue in a 1963 edi-
tion of Transition magazine. The matter has received renewed publicity
with the 1981 decision of the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to aban-
don writing in European languages.
5. Details of Rabearivelo’s elaborate deception and exploitation of the role
expected of colonized writers are recounted in Adejunmobi (1996).


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