Speaking each other’s languages

Reading each other’s classics, 13 May 2012, Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek.


“In order to start this session in the right spirit,” Njabulo Ndebele begins, “we should greet each other in our African languages. Sanibonani.” The crowd echoes him in Zulu and then the beloved Xhosa poet Sindiwe Magona pitches in: “Molweni.” Now it’s the Liberian writer Hawa Golakai’s turn: “Ya kuneh.” The crowd repeats the words, most of us (myself included) only realising later on that we were speaking Vai – a small indigenous language spoken in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Petina Gappah is the last panellist to greet us: “Makadini zvenyu?” The Shona “zv” catches the crowd off guard and we burst out laughing – a good way to start a talk that would turn out to be equally multi-faceted.

“There is so much beauty in African languages, so much wisdom in our proverbs, so much visuality and music,” says Ndebele. “Why then are we not reading each other’s classics? Why isn’t there a much bigger push for translation between our languages?” Ndebele’s introductory remarks are astute and to the point. “On a formal level, we have a conversation going between African and European languages – there are English-Xhosa, English-Sotho and English-Zulu dictionaries. But why not between African languages? Why have our classic authors, people like Mkhayi and Jolobe, not been translated into more South African languages?”

Ndebele continues: “On an informal level, there’s been a lot of interaction, a lot of cross-fertilisation, between local languages, especially in Gauteng since the gold rush of the late 19th century. The question I want to pose then, is why we have a situation where very little is being done about translation? How do we encourage conversations between African languages in order to share each other’s worlds, and why is there this silence in communication between African languages?” He directs the question at Sindiwe Magona.

Magona reckons that it is more fundamental to ask why there are so few books in African languages to begin with: “First of all, it is not economically viable to write in, say, Xhosa and secondly, we lack the awareness that to read and write in your mother tongue is a political act. This is where I take off my hat to Afrikaners and their commitment to Afrikaans literature. But to get back to the discussion: We can’t begin to talk about translation if publication in African languages isn’t happening. When I write a book in Xhosa, it is an act of love, not of profit. Why would anyone now go and translate this book into another African language? It’s a kind of double jeopardy: I must be dumb enough to write the book in Xhosa, and then go and find someone who’s also dumb enough to go and translate the book into, say, Zulu.”

The crowd starts giggling and although we’re spread out thinly amongst the chairs, it is clear from our agreeing uhm’s, yes’s and hahaha’s that the state of mother-tongue literature in Africa is a communal concern.

Petina Gappah starts talking about the need to teach African languages in school and how this should be the primary focus before we can talk about intra-African language translations. She develops the point that Magona was making regarding the profitability of translation: “It seems to me that we are talking here about the economics of translation, but it is also about language development and growth. I’m in the process of applying to translate Animal Farm by George Orwell into Shona. That’s how we grow our languages, that’s how we bring the world into our languages. Translating is one of the most rewarding things: if not because it will make money, at least because it allows a language to develop and grow.”

Hawa Golakai tells a story to illustrate the point that we have not yet overcome certain prejudices regarding African languages: “I was at the Sunday Times dinner last night and was busy talking about African languages with a woman. I told her how we speak a kind of creole English in Liberia, a mixture of all sorts of local languages and English, but that we speak ‘proper’ English in ‘good society’. The woman said that we should just forget about the other languages, because it will make things simpler. She said that we should all just learn proper English. It made me sad, because it says something about the perception of African languages and how we allow this perception to continue. Because of my history and the history of Liberia I don’t speak a local language. We have come to rely on English as a means to unite us. Luckily there are all sorts of debates going on at the moment regarding the installment of Pele, on of our biggest indigenous languages, as the official language.”

The conversation has, perhaps inevitably, turned to questions that seem much more pertinent than the one of intra-Africa translation. The panellists talk further about the linguistic legacy of colonialism, the lack of commitment to mother-tongue education in South Africa, the lack of readers in African languages, the mistaken perception that English is a passport out of poverty and that your mother-tongue should be sacrificed in order to acquire a visa. We laugh at anecdotes and the talk jumps from continent to continent: We visit the Dutch Antilles, India, Senegal, the Pacific, England. If it wasn’t for the panellists’ sense of humour and intelligence, the conversation might have seemed hopeless and the problems insurmountable.

“If you sacrifice your mother tongue because you think it is needed in order to learn English,” says Magona, “you don’t only lose the language, you lose the culture. If you’ve lost your culture, you will have no strength to face the world.” An audience member sneezes and Magona blesses her with the word “ukhule”: “It’s what we say in isiXhosa.”

“My language is imbued with the wisdom of my culture. Learning another language and keeping your own should not be mutually exclusive. This is something that a lot of South Africans don’t understand.” Her voice takes on a more sombre tone. “What people are doing to their children today is what was done in America to the slaves who were robbed of their language. We are doing to ourselves what slavery did to African-Americans in the US. That is one of the saddest things for me.”

Unfortunately, the time has almost run out. Ndebele ends the discussion by summarising some of the issues that were addressed and ends with a call to action: “We need to ask ourselves what the enabling factors are which can move us into the right direction in order to ensure linguistic diversity. We need effort. Once you have the enabling instruments, like the language rights enshrined in the South African constitution, you actually have to start doing something.” The audience engages passionately with the panellists during question-time and I’m sorry that the talk has come to an end. Luckily there are people like Gappah, Golakai, Magona, Ndebele and the engaged audience-members around to continue this conversation outside – people who are all doing what they can to tackle the complex issues surrounding our languages and their development on this continent.

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