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.


Valentine’s Day multilingual anthology by Ankara Press: a real treat!

I generally don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day but an anthology released yesterday by Ankara Press gave me a reason to change my ways.

Being the literature fan that I am, I was overjoyed to hear of seven African writers putting together short stories about love on Valentine’s day. I already knew of Ankara Press for their daring romance collection, so this sounded very much within their scope but the supreme treat for me was that each story was translated into a langage other than English spoken by the author.

We thus end up with this collection, that can be downloaded for free here:

  • Fish – by Chuma Nwokolo, translated into Nigerian Pidgin English by Victor Ehikhamenor
  • Candy Girl – by Hawa Jande Golakai, translated into Kpelle by Yarkpai Keller
  • The Idea is to be sealed in – by Binyavanga Wainaina, translated into Kiswahili by Elieshi Lema
  • Woman in the orange dress – by Sarah Ladipo-Manyika, translated into Yoruba by Kola Tubosun
  • Cotyledons – by Toni Kan, translated into Igbo by Chikodili Emelumadu
  • Solitaire – by Edwige-Renée Dro, translated into French by the author herself
  • Painted love – by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, translated into Hausa by the author himself

I may have pored over Arábìnrin inú aṣọ ọlọ́sàn for longer than I care to say. As a learner of Yoruba, it was a fantastic opportunity for some self-study, since I could go back and forth between the English and the Yoruba texts. I must salute Kola Tubosun‘s effort here, for coming up with such beautifully worded sentences (with tonal marks, a rather rare occurrence):

Títí tí wọn fi jẹun tán, ó sá n rẹrìín, ó sì n f’ojú nlá rẹ tó dúdú mininjọ sọrọ, bíi pé inú rẹ n dùn fún nkan àsírí ìkọkọ kan tó lárinrin.

[Yes, I am totally smitten. Valentine’s day magic in action!]

Each story is available online in audio format as well. I highly recommend Edwige Renée-Dro’s French reading of Solitaire : her characters’voices just don’t sound the same in my head as they do when the dialogues are read out loud.

Out of the seven translations, I could only read Kiswahili, Yoruba and French but I hope many other readers will be able to appreciate the stories in Hausa, Igbo, Kpelle and Nigerian Pidgin translation.

Review: Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa (The Merry Wives of Windsor)

Falstaff (Mrisho Mpoto) and his associates

Falstaff (Mrisho Mpoto) and his associates

Translated into Swahili and localized in the Kenyan context by Joshua Ogutu (@ogutumuraya), a boisterous interpretation of Shakespeare’s comedy ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ was presented at the 2012 Globe to Globe festival before embarking on an India tour in November 2012. This co-production by Better Pill and The Theatre Company is back in Kenya, much to the delight of local theatre buffs who had been impatiently waiting for a chance to see the show.

A comedy of manners

The plot revolves around a small community – located in Kiambu in the Swahili version – where intrigues are born of ambition, lust, greed and pure complacency. Falstaff, a corrupt politician who deludes himself into believing that he’s irresistible, tries to woo two married ladies with the exact same ‘love’ letter. When Bi. Ford and Bi. Page uncover the trick, they decide to take him for a ride, a plan that ends up creating a cascade of comical situations.  A jealous husband, a shrewd, down-to-earth maid, a young couple whose love is threatened by the girl’s parents’ misplaced ambition and a host of grumpy undisciplined servants, complete the hilarious gallery of characters.

Here is the preview posted on The Theatre Company’s YouTube channel:

In an interview recorded by Globe International, actors Joshua Ogutu and Sharon Nanjos talked about their experience of rehearsing ‘Wanawake wa heri wa Winsa’ and performing the play at the Globe Theatre. They worked with director Daniel Goldman who brought on board a different perspective on theatre performance and managed to whip up a localized interpretation although he did not understand Swahili.

One of the most notable influences of this collaboration was the breakdown of the ‘fourth wall’, with audience members becoming participants in the unfolding of the story.

A performance shining through the language barrier

While some critics felt that the adaptation betrayed the spirit of Shakespearan comedy, most reviewers were enthusiastic about the performance given in April in London and Statford-upon-Avon.

The fact that part of the audience decided to brave the rain to attend the show testifies to the interest raised by ‘Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa’ at the Globe to Globe festival. Only a handful of Swahili-speakers were present, but this did not seem to mar the success of the play, as Dr. Sarah Olive reported :

The audience’s unceasing mirth was proof of the way in which the actors captured a panoply of characters’ essences through their mannerisms, facial expressions and intonation in a way that transcended language and appealed to a global community.

This view is shared by Rob Wilson of Think Africa Press:

While information about the bare bones of the plot were projected on a side-screen in English during the play, the quality of the performance was such that the audience did not need to be Kiswahili speakers to understand what was going on and laugh in all the right places.

Some of the finer details and nuances might have been lost in the process, but the excellent acting definitely made the show worthwhile even for non-Swahili speakers.

Reception in Nairobi

Being Swahili-speakers and familiar with the setting of the play, Nairobians had access to the full experience, including the social cues and linguistic nuances. The translation uses modern, conversational Swahili to reflect the contemporary context, which facilitated understanding but missed the opportunity to include a certain poetic turn of phrase one would expect of a Shakespeare play. I think the Swahili language would lend itself graciously to such an endeavour.

In ‘Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa’, langage is widely used as a social marker highlighting Kenyan stereotypes: the scheming, greedy maid spoke in a Kikuyu accent, the aggressive kanzu-wearing doctor was supposed to be a Somali and only expressed himself in broken Swahili, and the shady characters serving as Falstaff’s valets were Sheng’ speakers. This added a comic twist to the plot, with each appearance of Bi. Quickly (the maid) causing new fits of hilarity.

Also worthy of note is the successful transposition in Kenyan society of issues originally set in Elizabethan England. Women’s empowerment within a conservative society and the lurking power of greed were themes that ran through the play, evoking current social tensions in Kenya. Had I not known that it was a translation, I would easily have believed that the play was written by a Kenyan with reference to today’s Kenya.

In line with the expectations set by earlier reviews, the acting did not disappoint. The cast of 8 deployed immense energy to manage 18 parts, bringing to life the Windsor community in front of our eyes and constantly engaging the audience to take part in the action. It is however regrettable that several of the initial cast members were replaced, thus compromising the harmony of the group.

Poor lighting and distracting background banner at the Nairobi performance, 15th December 2012

Poor lighting and distracting background banner at the Nairobi performance, 15th December 2012

For all its merits, the performance had some major technical shortcomings. The lighting had clearly not been thought through, to disastrous consequences. A lone white projector lit only part of the stage … and a house in the background which was not part of the set. The technician tried to rectify this during the show, unfortunately to no avail. As a result, the actors could not make full use of the space and had to wriggle around, upsetting stage balance.

Finally, I understand the sponsors’ demands for publicity but having a sponsors’ banner as a backstage wall is really taking it too far!

Disappointing turnout for this quality production

Overall, we were treated to a quality performance. I especially want to salute the translation effort and the creative work that went into adapting ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ into a lively, truculent Kenyan play.

It is a shame that despite the show being advertised on the popular blog Nairobi Now, on Facebook and at Alliance Française, Nairobians still did not turn up in large numbers for Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa:

Did you attend the play in England, in India or in Kenya? Share your experience with us in the comments section below or on Twitter (@hardcorekancil) !

Photo credits: AttributionNoncommercial Maneno Matamu

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!

News flash: Tolkien translation in Swahili by Oliver Stegen


If you are into poetry, you are going to love this.

If you are a Tolkien fan, you are going to love this.

If you are a Tolkien fan AND you speak a decent amount of Swahili, you’ll have the jitters when you read this:

M. Oliver Stegen is in the process of translating Tolkien’s works in Swahili! This lifetime pursuit which borders on megalomania (he says so himself) has started in the form of a poem that you can find on his website:

Bilbo’s Aragorn Poem in Swahili

To be enjoyed with absolutely no moderation.

Comments and feedback : @babatabita