The Francophonia Chronicles: 2 writers to watch

As literature lovers interested in contemporary writing from Africa, it’s already hard enough keeping up with all the exciting content coming out every month in English. What of the francophone scene? Here is a selection of news items you may have missed recently.

Benin’s 8th Plume Dorées Prize

Eva Natacha Fanou is the winner of the 2015 Plumes Dorées prize for her short story ‘La Tranchée’ (the trench). She is the first woman to receive this prize, which is awarded every year to a Beninois writer.

As part of Plumes Dorées, a short story anthology is being published, bearing the name of the winning story ‘La Tranchée’. It will also include the 9 shortlisted stories by Yves Biaou, Annette Bonou, Mylène Flicka, Mireille Gandebagni, Michel Henri Hlihe, Fiacre Kakpo, Jordy Hounhoui, Jovencio Kpehounsi, and Djamile Mama Gao.

Next year’s prize will be awarded to a novelist.

Aminata Sow Fall wins the Francophonie Prize

640px-Aminata_Sow_Fall

In June 2015, Aminata Sow Fall received the Grand Prix de la Francophonie for her literary work in French. With 10 novels to her name, the Senegalese author is no newcomer to the literary world. Her most famous novel “La grève des battu” (1979) was translated into English by Dorothy S. Blair as The beggars’ strike”.

Francophone Manuscript Day coming up

On 24th October, UNESCO will host the 3rd edition of francophone manuscript day (#JDMF2015), during which hundreds of new writers will have their books published for free. 30 shortlisted manuscripts will be distributed commercially in partner bookshops.

Manuscript submissions are open until 30th September.


Photo Credits:

Aminata Sow Fall” by may! from New York City – IMG_1159. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

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.

(South) African languages in Ekow Duker’s novel ‘White wahala’

The title of Ekow Duker‘s novel grabbed my attention : the plot is set in South Africa, but could there be a link to Nigeria somehow ? On Zukiswa Wanner’s recommendation, I read the book and found several other points of interest related to African langages in White wahala.

Wahala : the word that travelled

My curiosity wasn’t really satisfied as to the origin of the title. Or rather, I was left to my own imaginary devices to find out how the term got to Constance’s lips. Wahala is a word meaning ‘trouble’ or ‘problem’ in Yoruba – and I was told by my lecturer that it’s a loan word from Hausa. I’ve heard it used in Pidgin Nigerian English as well so one could safely say it’s a nigerian word.

The first occurrence of the word in ‘White wahala’ – other than in the title – is found in chapter 26 :

‘I am going now, madam,’ said Constance nervously. She edged towards the door. This was white-man wahala and had nothing to do with her. The Zambian gardener, Elisha, had taught her that word. She rolled it on her tongue, relishing the way it stumbled about in her mouth like a half-sucked sweet. She even said it out loud, ‘White wahala‘.

‘What did you say?’ Agatha gave Constance a sharp look. ‘I told you never to mutter in Zulu when you’re in this house’

‘I’m sorry,’ Constance said, with not quite enough deference. (emphasis mine)

And how did the Zambian gardener Elisha come across this word then? The answer isn’t provided in the novel but I’ll offer some hypotheses : Elisha watches a staple of Nollywood movies and ended up adopting the word. Or maybe he used to have Nigerian neighbours, whether in Johannesburg or in his hometown in Zambia. Who knows, what if Elisha were very well-travelled and multilingual ? He might have been to Nigeria before moving to South Africa.
Well, I probably need to ask Ekow Duker himself…

Edit: I did ask and here is what the author had to say:

Zulu and Sesotho, familiarity and struggle

Ekow Duker’s writing is nothing like the weaved bilingual prose of Junot Diaz, but langage issues are ever lurking in the background, as you can tell from the quoted passage above.

In the few instances where it is mentioned, Zulu is charged with emotional undertones: it is the langage people use to get close to someone, to express familiarity. When the plumber (chap 32) comes to beg Cash Tshabalala to lend him money, it is Zulu he uses to appeal to the loan shark to respect his privacy and to not have him expose his money woes in front of Cash’s white girlfriend. It’s interesting to note that in two instances where a character does not understand an utterance and feels left out, they wrongly assume the langage to be Zulu (Agatha in chapter 26 and a prison guard in chapter 27 who mistakes Sesotho for Zulu).

Yet, despite the language being mentioned in several places, there is only one sentence in Zulu in the dialogues (Uya ngidinisa :she annoys me, she makes me tired). It is pronounced by Solly, Agatha Nicholson’s lawyer, to complain about his rich client’s attitude and create an atmosphere of familiarity with the hospital receptionist. But Agatha knows enough Zulu to get offended by this !

Hawu ! A ubiquitous interjections

I was bit quick in saying there was only one Zulu sentence in the whole novel. As a matter of fact, the Zulu interjection Hawu ! Is used so frequently that I had to look it up.

Isizulu.net translates it as ‘oh my, eish, wow, good heavens’. According to White Zulu, depending on the tone pattern (falling or rising, to put it simply), hawu! can express pained surprise/strong disapproval or joyful surprise.

I found examples of both types in the novel, which you have to understand from context :

Joyful surprise :

‘Comrades !’ roared Elvis. ‘Your oppressor is on his knees!’

‘Hawu! Hawu! Hawu!’ chorused the crowd. (chap 22)

Strong disapproval :

Elisha snorted in disgust. ‘Hawu! That one? She is like a snake that suns itself on top of a wall at midday’ (chap 35)

Anyone familliar with the linguistic landscape of South Africa? Drop your insights below!

P.S. I read the novel in Kindle format so I can’t provide page numbers but each chapter is not very long. You should be able to find the relevant passages easily on your own copy.

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.

Are African languages relevant today?

That night I sit at the desk and start the story of Warĩĩnga in the Gĩkũyũ language. It flows just like that, and for the first time since my incarceration, I feel transports of joy. That which I have always toyed with but feared – writing a novel in Gĩkũyũ – is happening before my own eyes.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1981) in Detained, a writer’s prison diary.

Floating around, there is the perception that somehow African languages would be less apt than their European counterparts to express things of the modern world. For instance, many of us use computers on a daily basis but would be quite challenged if we were to describe the machine in our mother tongue. African languages thus suffer a loss of prestige for being deemed inadequate, obsolete and hence inferior.

Relevance lies in the tongue of the speaker

Of course, relevance lies in the tongue of the speaker…The more a language is used in various spheres, be it at home, at school, in political circles, in the media etc, the more it develops ad hoc vocabulary to cover all those areas. That is to say that words are created or borrowed when the need arises for the speakers to use it.

We could spend a whole post detailing how this may happen but the bottom line is that, as new concepts or objects emerge, ALL languages are faced with the issue of filling lexical gaps. The ability to generate new words is a strong indicator of a language’s dynamism.

However, since most African countries use English, French or Portuguese as the medium of education, the need to find appropriate terms for ‘software’ or ‘microbiology’ in the local languages is hardly felt. The reference then becomes the European language and African languages are in turn limited to “home discourse”.

Literature upholds African languages

In the absence of a supportive educational system, I believe literature can have a redeeming role. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel evoked above is a case in point: writing serves as a rediscovery of the language and one’s own mother tongue becomes an object in creation.

Besides the writer’s effort to tell the world in the language at stake, written material can revive the interest of the speakers in their own mother tongue and elevate its perceived status. Online publishing has the potential to give rise to new forms of expression, with the ability to reach out to geographically scattered speakers at little cost.

Since many of the speakers of African languages never learnt them formally, reading even a simple text in their mother tongue can turn into a fastidious task. This is where oral literature can come in to engage all types of audiences.

So, have fun being creative in your language and throw your words around … who knows, your linguistic inventions might end up in the dictionary a few years down the line!