The South African poet Koleka Putuma, writing in English, published a book of poetry called Collective Amnesia in 2017. It has since been translated into seven European languages. It had not, at the time of writing this, been published in any one of South Africa’s other ten official languages.
Koleka’s achievement with this collection is multi-layered. She’s won prizes, her poems are taught at schools and universities and the book has sold more copies than most fiction books sell in South Africa. For poetry. This is unheard of. For her work not to be translated into any indigenous languages in her own country, while being published in several other languages tells a fairly succinct story about translation in Africa: it doesn’t happen much.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi attributes this to a conference held at Makerere University in Uganda in 1962, where a group of writers, including Ezekiel Mphalele, Bloke Modisane and Chinua Achebe, met with the goal of defining “the parameters of an African literary aesthetic that would also be in the service of political and cultural decolonization”.
The conference was for “African Writers of English Expression”. While Italians kept writing in Italian, Russians in Russian and Germans in German, African writers threw their many and varied languages into the English pot.
There are several reasons for this. A value judgement is neither required nor useful here. But what does this mean for the state of translation on South Africa?
Bheki Ntuli, who translated Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom into Zulu, told me in an interview that “most publishers prefer to print [in indigenous languages] what is suitable for the school market. This has created the misconception that the book in indigenous languages are ‘childish’.”
In South Africa, most books are published in English (around 49%) and Afrikaans (45%). The other nine South African languages are squashed into the remaining 6%, according to Ntuli.
If we see language as carriers of more than just meaning, as holders of heritage, history, identity, politics and culture, then the absence of many languages in many books means a loss of many stories.
The University of the Western Cape has done much work to keep the little fires of multilingualism alive. Its annual UWC Creates poetry festival has featured poetry in the three main languages of the province it is in — Xhosa, English and Afrikaans — but also in Sesotho, Khwedam, !Xu, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, French, German, and Dutch.
A few year ago, Oxford published eight texts from indigenous South African languages into English.
But most linguistic imperialism holds sway.
Translation as an occupation here isn’t dead, but it is peculiar. Niche. Even a little eccentric — pursued more by language fanatics, than seen as a mainstream necessity.
I can’t help but feel sad for all the South African teenagers who don’t get to read Putuma’s work in their home languages at school.
I can’t help but feel glad that the hunger for African voices is so great now, that Europeans are reading her work in their own languages.
Karin Schimke is an award-winning poet and translator. She has written for a wide variety of national and international news and literary publications and has edited several books of fiction and non-fiction.
She runs an Instagram account on books (@readingdarling).
This month’s blog is curated by Jen Thorpe.
Jen Thorpe is a feminist writer. Her first novel, The Peculiars (2016), was long listed for the Etisalat Prize for Literature (2016) and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize (2017). Her second novel, The Fall, was published in July 2020. Thorpe has edited three collections of feminist essays – My First Time: Stories of Sex and Sexuality from Women Like You (2012); Feminism Is: South Africans Speak Their Truth (2018) and Living While Feminist (2020). Her writing has been published in Brittle Paper, Saraba Magazine, Jalada, and Litro. Find out more via https://jen-thorpe.com. Jen is also the host of the Living While Feminist Podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Anchor, or wherever you get your podcasts.