Queries over Ngugi’s appeal to save African languages, culture
Posted Saturday, June 13 2009 at 16:59
- Indigenous languages can destroy just as much as they can restore continent
The arrival of Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s new book in Kenyan bookshops will allow his fans and critics to engage with his new thoughts.
Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance is an impassioned appeal for the preservation of African languages and cultures.
Readers will find the proposals and arguments in the book familiar, as some of the chapters are part of the lectures Prof Ngugi gave at the University of Nairobi in 2004 and 2007.
Other sections were presented at Harvard University, Makerere University, University of Dar-es-Salaam and the University of Cape Town.
Writing and Translation
Prof Ngugi is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the International Centre for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine.
A sensitive African novelist and playwright, Prof Ngugi is best known outside Africa for his essays on language and colonialism.
In the lectures, he painstakingly reminds us of the horrors of colonialism. The images he creates are stark, exposing colonialism as a form of systematic cultural and economic violence against the colonised.
He draws examples from the Irish experience as well to show colonialism as involving merciless destruction of indigenous cultures. He views the use of indigenous languages to stage an African renaissance as the only way out of the continent’s alienation.
“To starve or kill a language is to starve and kill a people’s memory bank,” Prof Ngugi declares. “And it is equally true that to impose a language is to impose the weight of experience it carries and its conception of self and otherness – indeed, the weight of its memory, which includes religion and education.”
The book was released in February, apparently to mark this year’s Black History Month. It exhorts African-Americans to learn at least one African language in order to reconnect meaningfully with the continent of their origin.
Prof Ngugi concedes that Africa is made up of different ethnic groups. Thus, it would be difficult to communicate beyond ethnic and national boundaries using our discrete indigenous languages. Writing in local languages might appear commercially impractical because the audience would be limited to the author’s ethnic group.
However, noting that classical works have reached other nations through translation and that translation powered renaissance in early modern Europe, Prof Ngugi argues for translation among and across Africa’s indigenous languages.
“Translation is the language of languages, a language through which all languages can talk to one another,” he says.
It should be noted that the kind of dialogue that Ngugi encourages has so far been conducted mainly through English. For example, Tanzanian playwright Amandina Lihamba translates Sembene Ousmane’s Wolof story Mandabi (The Money-Order) into a Swahili play, Hawala ya Fedha, through her reading of Sembene’s work in English because Wolof is inaccessible to her.
Admirers of Prof Ngugi’s theory of language have the duty to develop a systematic theory of translation among African languages. Do we assimilate the texts from other African cultures into our own, as translators of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Shujaa Okonwko) and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Wema Hawajazaliwa) into Kiswahili have tried to do?
Or do we, to use Lawrence Venuti’s term, “foreignise” the translations by retaining the idiosyncrasies of the cultures from which those texts come?