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.

Blogger Christian Bwaya: “Swahili is a sign of my africanness”

We speak with our guest, blogger Christian Bwaya  (@BwayaCN)!

Christian Bwaya

Christian Bwaya : ‘I don’t only inform people by the way I think; I also learn from my readers’

Christian has been a blogger since 2005, running the Swahili blog Jielewe. He is also a volunteer translator and editor for the Swahili edition of Global Voices.

He teaches Social Studies and Biology in Moshi while still pursuing his higher education. He is married with one child.

This interview was originally published on this blog in Swahili.

You started blogging in 2005. How did you decide to get involved with online writing?

I remember that, as a student, I was a keen follower of Ndesanjo Macha‘s, a famous writer who is now editor of Global Voices for Sub-Saharan Africa.

He was the first Swahili-language blogger [I knew]. And, to say the truth, I was very impressed by his style of writing, the debates he was engaging in on his blog as well as his mastery of the language. Thus, my motivation to blog stemmed from Ndesanjo Macha’s blog.

I viewed my blog as a good opportunity to easily debate on issues I understood well: cognitive science and science in general. There, I thought it would be easy to get a platform to exchange ideas with people without any sort of hindrance and without having to meet them in person.

I do not only inform people by the way I think, I also learn from my readers. This interaction is hard to find through newspapers and other mainstream media. So this freedom to say what I think was an important motivation for me to start a blog in 2005, while I was a student.

Even now [that I work], I still make an effort to plan my schedule well so as to be able to be a more prolific blogger.

You like to say that you are a ‘Swahili lover’. What does this language mean to you?

Kiswahili is my language. I consider it as a gift from God to me and my community. I respect it as a mark of my culture.

You know, we Africans are very unlucky in that we do not care for what is ours. As far as I am concerned, Kiswahili is a sign of my africanness. It is the vehicle through which I can easily express my ideas to my community. It is my measure of understanding; what I mean is that if I cannot explain a given concept in Kiswahili, then I consider that I haven’t understood it yet.

Kiswahili is a safeguard of education. It is a legacy. This is the reason why I am among those who believe that the decision to use foreign languages as a medium of instruction for our pupils is one of the biggest issues facing our education system, here in Tanzania.

Despite its imperfections, Kiswahili can still be of great assistance in improving understanding by our students, from the early stages of schooling up to university. This is possible, unless we are people who do not love their own culture but instead admire that of others, who themselves might not love ours.

Do you speak other languages, apart from Kiswahili?

Yes. I speak Kinyaturu fluently. This is my mother’s language and she made every effort to ensure that we communicate in Kinyaturu. It belongs to our small community, the Wanyaturu, whose traditional homelands are in central Tanzania. I hold it in high esteem.

I speak English as well, since I know it is the dominant language of education and I really love to read. But it is not close to my heart nor is it a source of pride for me.

As a blogger, what is your take on the importance of using African languages?

Internet has become the library of information. If we use Kiswahili, we will help preserve our language and give it an opportunity to be a medium of information for the Swahili-speaking community.

It is very important for those who are able to use the Internet, to share information online in Kiswahili. In so doing, we will help increase access to technology amongst our communities since our people won’t be forced to know foreign languages to learn and get information on the Web.

The world is changing. It would be a shame if our language, which has millions of speakers, failed to take its rightful place online and one day came to be among the endangered languages.

Let each of us do his or her part. This is why I decided to participate in the Swahili Lingua project. I am proud to contribute to the online knowledge bank in my own language. I know that by providing content in Swahili, I facilitate access to knowledge and information for people who do not speak foreign languages.


Have you got a message you’d like to pass on to our readers?

There is no greater dignity than knowing where you came from. I call upon fellow Africans to get to know and value their own culture. One of the manifestations of this self-knowledge is the way we value and develop our native languages.

This interview was originally published on this blog in Swahili.

Translation by Marie-Laure Le Guen.

Mwanablogu Christian Bwaya: “Kiswahili ni alama ya Uafrika wangu.”

Tunazungumza na mgeni wetu, mwanablogu Christian Bwaya (@BwayaCN)!

Christian Bwaya.

Christian Bwaya : ‘Si tu ninaelimisha kama ninavyofikiri, lakini ninaelimishwa na wasomaji wangu.’

Christian ni mwanablogu wa Kiswahili ambaye ameendesha blogu itwayo Jielewe kwanzia mwaka 2005. Pia ni mfasiri na mhariri wa kujitolea katika ukurasa wa Kiswahili wa Global Voices.

Anafanya kazi Moshi kama mwalimu wa Saikologia na Elimu ya Viumbe (Biolojia) wakati mwenyewe anaendelea na masomo yake. Ameoa na ana mtoto mmoja.

Ulianza kuandika blogu mwaka 2005. Uliamuaje kushiriki katika mtandao wa Internet namna hii?

Nakumbuka nikiwa mwanafunzi nilikuwa mfuatialiaji mzuri wa makala za mwandishi maarufu, Ndesanjo Macha (ambaye sasa ni Mhariri wa Global Voices eneo la Kusini mwa Jangwa la Sahara).

Yeye ni mwanablogu wa kwanza wa Kiswahili. Na kwa kweli niilivutiwa sana na aina yake ya uandishi, mijadala aliyokuwa akiiendesha kwenye blogu yake pamoja na matumizi mazuri ya lugha. Kwa hiyo hamasa ya kublogu ilitokana na blogu yake.

Blogu kwangu niliiona kama fursa nzuri na rahisi ya kujadili masuala ninayoyaelewa vizuri ya kiutambuzi na sayansi. Mule niliona ingekuwa rahisi kupata jukwaa la kubadilishana mawazo na watu bila kikwazo chochote na pia pasipo kulazimika kuonana nao.

Si tu ninaelimisha kama ninavyofikiri, lakini ninaelimishwa na wasomaji wangu. Jambo hili ni gumu kupitia magazeti na vyombo vingine vikuu vya habari. Kwa hiyo uhuru wa kusema ninachokifikiri ulikuwa ni hamasa muhimu ya kuanza kublogu mwaka 2005, nikiwa mwanafunzi.

Kwa sasa bado nafanya juhudi za kupangilia ratiba yangu vizuri ili niweze kublogu kwa ufanisi zaidi.

Unapenda kusema kwamba wewe ni mpenzi wa Kiswahili. Hii lugha, ina maana gani kwako?

Kiswahili ni lugha yangu. Naichukulia kama zawadi ya Mungu kwangu na jamii yangu. Nakiheshimu kama utambulisho wa utamaduni wangu.

Unajua tuna bahati mbaya sana sisi Waafrika hatujali vitu vyetu wenyewe. Kwangu mimi Kiswahili ni alama ya Uafrika wangu. Ni nyenzo ya kuwasilisha kwa urahisi sana mawazo yangu kwa jamii yangu. Ni kipimo cha uelewa wangu kwa maana kwamba kama siwezi kueleza dhana fulani kwa Kiswahili, basi najichukulia kama sijaielewa bado.

Kiswahili ni hifadhi ya elimu. Ni urithi. Na ndio maana mimi ni kati watu wanaoamini kwamba kati ya matatizo makubwa yanayoukabili mfumo wa elimu nchini mwangu [Tanzania] ni uamuzi wa kutumia lugha za kigeni kuwafundishia wanafunzi wetu.

Pamoja na mapungufu yake, bado Kiswahili kinaweza kusaidia sana kuongeza uelewa wa wanafunzi wetu kuanzia ngazi za chini mpaka Chuo Kikuu. Inawezekana isipokuwa tu kama sisi ni aina ya watu wasiopenda vya kwao  tunaong’ang’ania vya watu ambao nao hatuna hakika kama wanapenda vyetu.

Je, unaongea lugha zingine, isipokuwa Kiswahili?

Ndio. Naongea Kinyaturu kwa ufasaha. Hii ni lugha ya mama yangu na amekuwa na jitihada za kuhakikisha tunawasiliana kwa lugha hii. Ni utambulisho wa jamii yetu ndogo ya wanyaturu, wenyeji wa eneo la katikati ya nchi. Nakiheshimu.

Vilevile naongea Kiingereza kwa kuwa tu najua kimetawala ustaarabu wa vitabu na mimi ni mpenzi mkubwa wa kusoma. Ila sikipendi na wala sijivunii nacho.

Kama mwanablogu, unaonaje kuhusu umuhimu wa kutumia lugha za kiafrika?

Mtandao wa intaneti umekuwa ni maktaba ya maarifa. Tukitumia Kiswahili tutakuwa tumesaidia kuhifadhi lugha yetu na kuipa nafasi ya kuwa nyenzo ya maarifa kwa jamii ya wasemao Kiswahili.

Ni muhimu sana sisi wenye fursa ya kutumia mtandao tukachangia maarifa haya mtandaoni kwa Kiswahili. Kufanya hivyo kutasaidia kuongeza matumizi ya teknolojia katika jamii zetu maana watu wetu hawatalazimika kujua lugha za kigeni ili kujifunza na kuhabarishwa mtandaoni.

Dunia inabadilika. Itakuwa ni aibu kwa lugha yetu yenye mamilioni ya wasemaji kukosa nafasi inayostahili mtandaoni na siku moja tukajikuta tumo kwenye kundi la lugha zinazopotea.

Kila mmoja wetu achangie. Na hii ndiyo sababu niliamua kushiriki mradi wa Swahili Lingua. Ninajivunia kuchangia benki ya maarifa na habari mtandaoni kwa kutumia lugha yangu mwenyewe. Najua ninawarahisisha wasiojua lugha za kigeni kupata maarifa na habari hizo kwa lugha yao wenyewe.


Je, una ujumbe wa kutuma kwa wasomaji wetu?

Hakuna heshima kubwa kama kutambua asili yako. Natoa wito kwa sisi Waafrika kujielewa na kuthamini utamaduni wetu. Kati ya vielelezo vya kujielewa ni namna tunavyothamini na kukuza lugha zetu tulizozaliwa nazo.

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

Tuesday update #1. Why is Swahili so underdeveloped in Uganda?

On 4th December, ‘The world in words’ podcast touched on some very interesting topics under the title ‘A comeback for Africa’s homegrown languages?‘. Two news items particularly drew my attention:

  • Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni pointing out the neglect indigenous languages have suffered and engaging Ugandans to promote their mother tongues. He also contends that Swahili isn’t rich enough a language to serve as an African lingua franca!
  • The recurring debate on language policy, especially pertaining to access to information for the majority of citizens. The example put forward was that of Ghana, where politicians debate in English, which is effectively a minority language as most Ghanians are not proficient English speakers.

These issues and a few more are presented in the following podcast:

While I shall take this opportunity to revive the debate on access to information in the Saturday post, I’d like to attempt an answer to one of the pending questions in the pod (11’32): ‘Why was Kenya able to preserve the status of Swahili when it became independant, in a way that was different from Uganda?

Given the high status enjoyed by Swahili in Kenya and a fortiori in Tanzania, I think the question should be turned around to read: ‘Why has Uganda not been able to retain the status of Swahili like her East African neighbours have?

I will cite two main reasons for this: the emotional baggage carried by Swahili in Ugandans’ minds and the competition with Luganda and English.

Other powerful lingua francas exist in Uganda

When I traveled in Uganda, I did meet a couple of people who could communicate in Swahili, some who were native speakers and at the other end of the spectrum, others who only had a rudimentary knowledge of the language.  Some still, were returnees from exile in Kenya where they had naturally picked up Swahili.

However, the majority of people I talked to could not communicate at all in Swahili, so that English ended up being my best chance of getting by. Like in Kenya, it has unsurprisingly become the lingua franca of the educated. Ugandans from different parts of the country and different linguistic backgrounds naturally converse in English, especially in Kampala.

Wobulenzi market, central Uganda.

Wobulenzi market, central Uganda.

The reason for the language situation I experienced is that I was traveling in a region – central Uganda – where Luganda is used as a popular lingua franca, not Swahili. Luganda is the language of the Baganda on whose traditional lands the capital Kampala is situated. Despite its controversial status especially in the West and the North, Luganda does enjoy some prestige.

Several popular newspapers and magazines are published in Luganda. On TV, the news is broadcast in English, Luganda and Swahili. There is some interest in developing Swahili, as evidenced by a daily TV programme teaching adults basic conversational Swahili.

This effort seems to remain somewhat marginal though, in the face of an existing lingua franca covering, not all, but a significant part of the Ugandan territory – including the administrative centre of power, Kampala.

An emotional stigma attached to Swahili

The other reason for the reluctance to adopt Swahili as a national lingua franca is the perception of the language in Uganda.  During Idi Amin’s regime, Swahili was the language used by the brutal military and it is still associated with crooks, thugs and the violence of the dictatorship. This stigma greatly impedes the development of Swahili in Uganda. As Joas Kajiage points out in the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen:

As a result, many Ugandans loathe the language and hardly bother to learn it. Some of the most familiar Kiswahili words among Ugandans, according to Mr Kategaya, are commanding words used by the robbers such as fungua – open – and toka – get out.

Nakulabye classroom, Uganda

Nakulabye classroom, Uganda

Despite these hurdles, things are changing rapidly. Swahili is seen as a means of integration into the East African Community and will be made a compulsory subject in Ugandan primary schools as of 2013. This move does not come without challenges including a shortage of teaching materials and a lack of qualified Swahili teachers in the country, which might create opportunities for their Tanzanian and Kenyan counterparts.

The debate is far from over…

Further reading:

The retrospective development of Uganda’s educational language policy: successes and challenges (pdf) by Phillip Oketcho

Background: In the excellent podcast ‘The world in words’, Patrick Cox (@patricox) takes a humorous look at language-related issues and information tidbits. I highly recommend listening to his programme to pepper your week with some fun facts about language 🙂

Featured images AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works by Simon Bradwell and AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike by wordloaf

Where Africa meets Asia: the Sidi communities

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure to attend a themed week on Sidi culture hosted by Alliance Française de Nairobi. From Monday to Wednesday, documentary films followed by discussions gradually introduced the audience to the history and lifestyle of this Afro-Asian community, from religious rites around the Bava Gor shrine to a dwindling poetic tradition. The week’s events culminated with a concert of traditional Sidi Goma music performed by a group from Gujarat, marking the official opening of the Samosa festival.

Here is a video of a string instrument called ‘malunga’ which is thought to have originated in East Africa:

Sidis (sometimes referred to as Habshis) are a community spread across several Indian states and beyond, whose ancestors came to South Asia from Africa as traders, soldiers and servants to the royal courts as early as the 13th century. Some trace their origins to Zanzibar and have retained a few words of Swahili used in ritual chants, although they now speak the local Indian languages natively.

Dr Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya from University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth studies has carried out extensive studies about the music of the Afro-Asian communities in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. She first became interested in a Sri Lankan community  of African descent in Sirambiyadiya, on the northwestern coast of the island:

Indo-Portuguese is a language which should have died out with the end of Portuguese rule in 1658.  Yet here in this small African community it still survives albeit spoken largely by the elderly.  How had it survived among people with African ancestry?  And what were the mechanisms which ensured that survival?

In Pakistan (Karachi and Sindh) the Shidees sing lava which encompasses Swahili words.  In the nearby Maldives, Baburu lava rings out  the music introduced by African slaves.   The rhythm-driven music of the Roman Catholic Afro-Sri Lankan community in Sirambiyadiya and their Indo-Portuguese songs, called Manhas, reverberate in my mind.  Language change is inevitable but music is more resistant and the lyrics are preserving the vestiges of an endangered language.

In her paper African Migrants as cultural brokers in South Asia, Dr. Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya notes that the Chaush living in Hyderabad sing in a Bantu language called Shambaa during religious ceremonies and at the beginning of healing rituals, even though they do not understand the words.

According to Pr. Abdulaziz Lodhi, the fact that the communities were rather scattered across the land and had Islam as an integrating factor contributed to Africans  quickly becoming indianised and in particular losing much of their linguistic baggage.

This said, he uncovered some linguistic evidence of the survival of some Swahili lexical items :

Recent fieldwork among the Sidis in Ratanpur and Bhavnagar in Gujarat during January 2007 has yielded only about a dozen Bantu/Swahili single word items and about a dozen phrases and a couple of complete Swahili-sounding sentences, e.g. ‘Ee manamuki, wapi koenda?’ (You young woman, where are you going?). In modern Swahili it would be ‘Wee mwanamke, unakwenda wapi?’ A couple of sentences were of mixed Bantu-Gujarati construction, e.g. ‘Kulya karwa jae!’ (Let us go to eat! Bantu ‘kulya’ = to eat, eating; Gujarati ‘karwa jae’ = let us go to do). One lexical item, ‘injoro’ (curry, gravy) used in Ratanpur, is not derived from any Bantu language but rather from the Ethiopian usage ‘injira’ (or Somali ‘anjera’).

Pr. Lodhi has recently published his findings … which I shall summarise for you once I get myself a copy of the booklet !

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