Interview with linguist Oliver Stegen

Today, we speak with Oliver Stegen the man behind the Swahili translation of Bilbo’s Aragorn poem !

Oliver Stegen was born and grew up in rural Northern Germany where he found his calling at the age of 14: he was to be a linguist. After completing his M.A., he moved to Tanzania together with his family to work with the international organisation SIL. For ten years, they lived and worked in Kondoa District among the Rangi people, first learning Swahili, and then the Rangi language. In May 2011, he successfully defended his thesis “In search of a vernacular writing style for the Rangi of Tanzania: Assumptions, challenges, processes”. He currently advises linguistically a number of SIL’s language projects in Northern Tanzania and Uganda.

Despite devoting a lot of his time to his work at SIL and to editing Swahili Wikipedia, Oliver Stegen has participated in several other projects, among which :

  • Google’s “Kiswahili Wikipedia Challenge” and “HealthSpeaks”
  • The Kenyan Wikimedia Chapter which he co-founded
  • The Institute for Natural Church Development (World Summit in Johannesburg, 2004)
  • SACHES (Southern African Comparative and History of Education Society), as affiliated member of their executive committee 2005-2008
  • NewTactics, as featured resource practitioner at their November 2011 online dialogue on “Using citizen media tools to promote under-represented languages”
  • ANLoc (the African Network for Localization)
  • Translators Without Borders

You are a linguist at heart. What do you find most exciting about your work?      

My linguistic interests have certainly changed over the years. It may be symptomatic that my MA was in theoretical linguistics whereas my PhD (almost 20 years later) was in applied linguistics. I started out being fascinated by language structures like sound correspondences between related languages. However, once I had worked in an actual minority language and seen the impact of literacy on mother tongue speakers, I was sold on the development of literature (both original and translated) and of vernacular writing style. Among the most exciting highlights of my work must be those moments when a newly published vernacular book reaches the hands of someone who sees his or her mother tongue in print for the first time. Very rewarding that!

How did you come to choose East Africa as your base?       

Ha! My wife and I had originally wanted to work in Siberia (we both had learned Russian in our teens and were interested in the changes of socialist societies after the Berlin Wall had fallen; we actually grew up on different sides of it). But when that door closed (we simply couldn’t get any positions there, merely being young linguists fresh out of college), we were contemplating Anglophone Africa, both for cultural and linguistic reasons. SIL, the organisation we work for, had a number of openings in Tanzania, and the Rangi language project appealed to us. After ten years in rural Tanzania, our family of five has now been living in Nairobi since 2007 – which is an easier location for our children’s education and for travel to the various language projects in East Africa which I am advising linguistically now.

Could you tell us a bit about your involvement in the Rangi language documentation and expansion of language use?

As I believe in participatory research, i.e. involving mother tongue speakers in the research itself right from the start, I spent a lot of time visiting Rangi villages and talking to elders, government officials and school teachers. Then, our family lived for two years in the village of Mʉnéen’ya (Mnenia in Swahili spelling) in order to learn the Rangi language. Initially, the focus was on helping those small groups of interested Rangi speakers to devise an orthography and to publish literacy materials.

After a few years of very humble beginnings (which saw the production of an alphabet chart, of a primer and of a story booklet), a couple of Rangi speakers joined us full-time – two as literacy supervisors and two as Bible translators under an affiliated interdenominational Bible translation project. This meant that the focus shifted to training our Rangi colleagues in topics ranging from literacy teaching to discourse analysis. On the academic side, I endeavoured to document and publish the results of our linguistic research (the academic publications can be found here).

I continue to take an interest in further expansion of the Rangi language. For example, last year we started a Rangi chatgroup on Facebook which now boasts well over 300 members with daily traffic predominantly in Rangi.

I gather that you are also very active in the online Swahili-speaking community. What have you learnt from this experience over the years?             

Well, my knowledge of the online Swahili-speaking community is actually restricted to the Swahili wikipedia community; I wouldn’t be familiar with, for example, the Swahili-speaking blogging scene. Still, my involvement with the Swahili wikipedia has shown me how much there is still to be done when it comes to the online representation of general information in languages other than English. And if Swahili is severely under-represented, even though it is spoken by tens of millions of people and is the national language of two major East African nations, what about the hundreds of smaller languages which are not officially recognised, yet whose speakers rely on their mother tongues as their major and often only medium of communication? These languages are needed just as much for the acquisition of education and for all kinds of literacy practices in everyday life. That is why I am promoting the use of regional and local languages as much as possible (unless I’m trying to reach an international audience like in this interview). There is much more room to use local languages on the web, from writing your Facebook status updates in local languages to building vernacular dictionaries on Wikimedia’s incubator or, as I said earlier, initiating local language chatgroups.

What are your current topics of interest?     

I am both a networker and an academic, so I love to bring people together who can mutually benefit from cooperation and exchange of information. Currently, I am investigating the opportunities connected with pro-bono translation – on the one hand, I am in contact with Translators Without Borders who are doing an excellent job and have just expanded into East African languages; on the other hand, I am learning Spanish via Duolingo with the hope of applying that approach to Swahili.

On the linguistic research front, I am working together with a colleague on functions of rhetorical questions in East African languages (particularly Swahili and a couple of local Tanzanian languages which we are familiar with; yes, Rangi is among them) and on the implications for translating rhetorical questions. Also, I am looking into the development of Swahili as an academic language (I have been sitting on a nice data corpus for a couple of years now which just waits to have a detailed discourse analysis conducted on it).

In addition to all of those responsibilities, activities and interests plus the megalomaniac project of translating Tolkien into Swahili (mentioned in your previous post), I am probably collecting enough projects for a very busy retirement – which, Mungu akipenda, won’t be due for another quarter of a century.

What is your favourite Rangi proverb? (with translation please!!) 

That’s easy, I even have it printed on a t-shirt: Mʉʉ́mba njʉlʉ adoma, mʉʉ́mba masáare akaarɨ afíindaa. Literally, “the creator of mountains went away, the creator of words is still sculpting.” This illustrates nicely that there are certain things in our environment which we cannot change but with words, we most certainly can continue to be creative.

Haya, tusonge mbele katika kuboresha dunia yetu; let’s get on with making our world a better place!

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