Reading in translation: Swahili literature in French

Growing up a monolingual reader, I was obviously exposed to a lot of dubbed films and books in translation. At some point, I was such a fan of Dostoevsky and Chekhov that I pledged to learn Russian so that I would one day be able to read the original text. That didn’t happen and up to this day I still read Russian authors in translation.

I do read other languages though, including Swahili. A glance at my makeshift bookshelf got me wondering: which Swahili authors would I have access to if I had to read them in French as my 12-year-old self would? The short answer is: few, very few of them.

And when I speak of access, it is in a very loose sense of “the text existing in a language I can read”, without taking into account the price barrier, the availability of the book at a library, or the possibility of ordering it. Out of the books listed below, only one can be purchased in ebook format (Kindle), which means that readers outside Europe and north America will have to pay dearly for shipping or wait for a friend to bring it in their suitcase.

The Swahili > French language pair is rare enough to make any new translation an event. To be fair, French is not doing too badly in this department, maybe because Swahili is taught at university level and has been made an examinable language for the Foreign Service entrance examination.

For someone who’s interested in Swahili literature, there is really no shortcut: go learn the language!

Swahili literature available in French

Euphrase Kezilahabi, “Nagona” (1990) and “Mzingile” (1991) translated by Xavier Garnier as “Nagona suivi de Mzingile” (2010).

Aniceti Kitereza, “Bwana Myombekere na Bibi Bugonoka, Ntulanalwo na Bulihwali(1981) translated by Simon Bwaguma Mweze and Olivier Barlet as “Les enfants du faiseur de pluie” (1996) and “Le tueur de serpents” (1999)

It worth noting that this family saga was initially written in Kerewe, though the author had to resort to undertaking a Swahili translation on his own in order to find a publisher. Bwana Myombekere na Bibi Bugonoka, Ntulanalwo na Bulihwali was completed in 1945 but it was published for the first time in 1981 in Swahili translation.

Robert Shaaban, “Maisha yangu” (1960) translated by François Devenne as “Autobiographie d’un écrivain swahili, Tanzanie” (2010).

Adam Shafi, “Kasri ya Mwinyi Fuad” (1978) translated by Jean-Pierre Richard as “Les girofliers de Zanzibar” (1986)

Carl Velten, “Safari za Wasuaheli” (1901) translated by Nathalie Carré as “De la côte aux confins: récits de voyageurs swahili” (2014)

Further reading:

  • In Kiswahili

Tafsiri ya fasihi kama mbinu halisi ya kujikomboa kutoka katika mtego wa utandawazi ? Blog post by Pascal Bacuez

  • In French

Alain Ricard. La publication de la littérature africaine en traduction. IFAS Working Paper Series / Les Cahiers de l’ IFAS, 2005, 6, p. 58-62.

Xavier Garnier. “Traduire le swahili en français. À propos de Nagona et Mzingile d’Euphrase Kezilahabi“, Études littéraires africaines, n° 34, 2012, p. 19-27.

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