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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Colloquial French in Africa: between popular appeal and literary exclusion

In Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, standard French is still used in school, in the media and in official contexts. But on the streets of Abidjan and Ouagadougou, other varieties of French have flourished. How much of an influence have these colloquial forms had on the arts?

Street signs at a crossroads in Abidjan - Photo by Flickr user abdallahh under CC-BY 2.0 license

Street signs at a crossroads in Abidjan – Photo by Flickr user abdallahh under CC-BY 2.0 license

Formerly the preserve of the lower classes and informal neighbourhoods, colloquial French (français populaire) has overstepped its old boundaries to penetrate the more educated classes who adopt it in certain communication situations. The language grew out of a multilingual urban environment at the crossroads between standard French introduced by the colonisers, especially through schooling, and national languages.

According to Amadou Bissiri, it is no longer a marginal phenomenon:

Regardless of the name used to designate it – whether pidgin, colloquial French of Abidjan (FPA in the French acronym), colloquial French of Ouagadougou (FPO), etc. – colloquial French, this hybrid language born of the encounter between European languages and African national languages, is no longer a language for the ‘non-educated’ or the social misfits. It is now a full-fledged language which carries a certain perspective of the world, that of a community which identifies with it and uses it to express its representations and its preoccupations; this language is the expression of a certain culture resulting from social and historical transformations, if not evolutions, specific to a given context.

Lexical and grammatical creativity

Colloquial French is characterized by its lexical creativity, borrowing from African languages where French fails to account for local realities but also appropriating French words to give them an African colour.

In Usages du français en Afrique noire :  l’exemple du Burkina Faso, Gisèle Prignitz introduces us to features of Burkinabe colloquial French or what she calls ‘burkinabisms’ :

(reprendre) la craie [lit. (to pick up) the chalk], synecdoche meaning “to return to the teaching profession”. Part of a series; tenir la craie [to hold the chalk], laisser la craie [to leave the chalk]. See crève-la-craie

(…)

dawa, borrowed from the mooré word for “man”, term that has become eponymous with immigrants coming to Abidjan from High Volta.

Grammatically, colloquial French systematically omits articles and has a simplified conjugation system.

A language struggling to make it into literature

Studies show that in Côte d’Ivoire, colloquial French enjoys widespread popular support. It is seen as a communication tool to iron out social boundaries and facilitate understanding between speakers of different languages. Conversely, Gisèle Prignitz notes the rather negative perception among Burkinabes who refer to colloquial French as ‘beaten up French’.

Though present in music (in zouglou songs for example) as well as newspaper columns such as Soliloque de Nobila Cabaret  and Moi Goama, this vibrant language hasn’t been embraced quite as much by novelists. This is mainly due to a lack of recognition of colloquial French amongst literary circles – including critics in France – and the strong attachment to standard French as a language of wider communication.

One famous exception is of course Amadou Kourouma with ‘Allah is not obliged’. Through the narrator, Brahima, speaks a voice whose racy texture convincingly portrays the experiences of the child soldier. This literary device transforms a text that could otherwise have been a gruesome and inexpressive account of life as a child soldier into a living, humane tale.

Colloquial French, by its composite nature, allows for a more flexible turn of phrase and brings along an openness to creative word use. Like Amadou Bissiri, I see it as a beautiful, fertile space where stories can blossom. For those who love words, there is always room for more variety!


Photo credit: Attribution abdallahh

Excerpts translated by Marie-Laure Le Guen.

Note: All the sources cited are – understandably – in French. I apologise in advance to all the readers who are not proficient in this language. I made a conscious decision to write this post in English and translate relevant excerpts so as to make the information accessible to a greater number of people, especially non-French speakers.