Volume 11, No. 2 
April 2007

  Salawu Adewuni

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Verónica Albin Interviews Amir Gutfreund and Jessica Cohen
A New Approach to Translation: The transposition or transcription system of Sub-Saharan African writers
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  Translation Journal

Literary Translation


A New Approach to Translation:

The transposition or transcription system of Sub-Saharan African writers

by Salawu Adewuni, Ph.D.
Department of European Studies
University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria



Contacts with the West encouraged written African literature which had been eminently oral. The European languages became the means of expression and communication for African writers whom some classified as creative artists and others as translators. Even though there are traces of translation in the work of African writers, this study aims at explaining that there is not enough evidence to address them as translators. Works of linguists, translators, language experts, anthropologists, and literary scholars are used as reference documents. An analytical, deductive, and synthetic approach is used. It is discovered that African writers are creative artists manifested by the presence of elements of translation in their work in combination with transposition, transcription, integration and deviation methods. The study further reveals that the attitude of African writers is gradually Africanizing the European languages they use in their works. The study concludes that the method of creativity of the African writers, which preserves some traces of translation, could be used to advance the techniques of translation.

Key words: African writers, translation, transposition, transcription, culture.

ost Africans write in the European languages. The two most prominent languages of communication are English and French. African literature is therefore the consequence of the contacts of Africa with Europe. The French encouraged assimilation in Francophone Africa, while in the Anglophone Africa, the British ruled indirectly through local administrators. Both systems led Africans to adopt the language of the master as the official language of administration and education. Africans have a local or regional language, which is usually their mother tongue, and an official language or language of administration. African writers, in an attempt to react to the existing order, had no choice but to express their displeasure and criticism in a language unknown to the majority of their people. During the colonial era and thereafter, African writers have communicated with their chosen public by educating them about African daily life, the existence of an African culture, African humanism, and their hostility to African leaders. The socio-political problems of independence were expressed, sometimes dramatically and sometimes tragically, using a story-teller's style. Writers are not only mediators, they also diffuse cultures. They are bilingual message conveyors. They are creative artists, and the African writers' main focus is Africa. They rely on historical facts, which make their creations not totally fictitious, thus bringing their readers and their subject matters closer together. They have also used various styles and forms, depending on the target public. Translators, like writers, communicate, conveying messages and adapting the cultures of the source language and text to the target language and public. Translators, but not writers, are aptly and professionally trained to break the language and cultural barriers that separate people of different cultural backgrounds, thus satisfying the desire and curiosity to communicate with others. Can writers then be referred to as translators? What remains a fact is that writers and translators have several traits in common and a few areas of conflict. In this research, we attempt to provide a critical assessment of an African writer as a translator. The research will also look for a way of deducing an approach to translation from the attitude of an African writer who behaves like a translator.

African writers and their translation status

Several theories of translation have been proposed, and yet a general theory is far from being formulated that is, a theory which is scientifically acceptable and can be experimentally proven. The difficulties result from the simple fact that the elements involved in translation are not stable and could be influenced by the flexible mind of man dominated by a variety of choices and needs. More difficult to comprehend is the variety of cultures and the limited intercultural and cross-cultural interactions. An attempt to find a solution to a serious problem in translation is also a step to promoting one. Tremendous progress has been made in the field of translation research, but the failure to prove that translation is a science kept raising more questions. The most frequent one is that of fidelity or trust in the translator, which Ladmiral quoted by El Medjira (2001) proved to be questionable because the target text cannot be the same as the original. Following the same line, Nicolas Froeliger (2005) introduces the factor of doubt, by proposing to put aside the issue of fidelity and trust in translation, thus making a clear distinction between the author and the translator in the following way.

A l'auteur de se demander si ce qu'il écrit cadre avec la vérité; au traducteur de faire en sorte que l'ensemble soit raccordé au réel, à défaut d'être vrai.

[Asking the author that his writing be truthful, and the translator that, if not truthful, it be realistic]

The factor of doubt introduced by Froeliger raises a question of choice which gives room for the translator to guess the mind of the author in the text being translated. Even if the author is by the translator' side, he cannot tell exactly what the author meant when he was writing his text. He may further confuse the translator because sometimes readers help the author to expatiate more than he intended. The theory of doubt, which is acceptable in translation, may not be suitable in the context of African writers who generally, according to Claude Wauthier (1964: 24), had the theme of Africa at the center of all their writings, thus rooting themselves in historical facts. It is better expressed by Théophile Munyangeyo (2000: 96) who suggests an onomastic study of African novels of the 1990s to help understand the history, geography, and socio-political problems of the authors' regions. He further affirms that the newly adopted attitude by writers of the 1990s removes or weakens the fictitious aspect in the novel because history is built on facts. Some practical examples are found in the novels such as Kin-la joie Kin-la folie of Achille Ngoye, Les Soleils des independences of Ahmadou Kourouma, and Crépuscule des temps anciens of Nazi Boni. If doubt widens the distance between writer and translator, the introduction of facts in African literature reduces it between the target public and the novel, thus increasing the readers understanding. The attitude of departing from history is well explained by Ahmadou Kourouma in an interview he granted to Students on 10th December, 1998. He stated:

...Ce n'est pas l'histoire que je raconte, je prends les bases historiques sur lesquelles je scanne les faits que je raconte.....Voilà! C'est ma fiction, c'est ma lecture de l'histoire....mais je présente l'Histoire comme elle est. Moi je veux aller à l'essentiel! C'est tout ce qu'il y a de cruel qui s'impose à moi et que j'écris.

[I do not tell history; I select the facts I will tell on historic bases... Look! This is my fiction, my reading of history... but I present history as is. I wish to go to the essential; I write about all that is cruel and that has impressed me.]

Going by the definition of Hermêneus1 and Interpres, African writers are translators because a simple definition of a writer is the act of conveying a message by writing, using a style. In the case of Africa, said Claude Wauthier (1964:38), an African writer was able to marry the African realities and the techniques of African oral literature to the norms of European languages. He stresses this by affirming that the attitude of the African writers to combine the techniques of the African oral literature with European languages at the expense of the techniques of the latter, was encouraged by the literary movement of surrealism, which places no restrictions on style. Still according to Wauthier, David Diop will rather prefer to use the term partial translation for the literary work of the African writer who conveys his message in the colonial language. Prefacing Les Nouveaux Contes d'Amadou Koumba of Birago Diop, Léopold Sédar Senghor confirmed the translator's status of French-speaking African writers who, like Birago Diop and Bernard Dadié, put in writing the spoken words, yet acknowledging the unwritten source. Senghor put it this way.

Voilà quelque cent cinquante ans que les Blancs s'intéressent à la literature des nègres d'Afrique, qu'ils dissertent sur elle, comme l'abbé Grégoire ou qu'ils en donnent des traductions,...Mais que les négro-Africains de langue française veulent eux-mêmes manifester cette literature, et ils se présentent en traducteurs le plus souvent. C'est le cas de l'Eburnéen Bernard Dadié...Or, donc, Birago Diop ne pretend pas faire oeuvre originale; il se veut disciple du griot Amadou, fils de Koumba, dont il se contenterait de traduire les dits. Mais, on le devine, c'est par modestie. Car Birago Diop ne se contenterait pas du mot à mot (Birago Diop, 1961:7).

[The Whites have been interested in the literature of African Blacks and have discussed it as the Abbot Gregory did, or translated it, ... but now the French-speaking African Blacks wish to write literature themselves, most often appearing as translators. This is the case of the Eburnean Bernard Dadié... Now, Birago Diop does not claim to be writing original work; he considers himself a disciple of the poet Amadou, son of Koumba, and he is content with translating his sayings. However, you can guess it, he says this out of modesty, because Birago Diop is not content with the word-for-word.]

In line with the freedom in the style of francophone African writers, Aduke Adebayo clearly makes a distinction between the first generation of writers who were bent on speaking and writing in the style of Vaugelas, that is, attaining excellence in the use of French language and targeting a limited French and francophone audience. They were Léopold Sédar Senghor, Camara Laye, Cheikh Hamidou Kane (Adebayo, 2000) and others whom Abiola Irele (1969) described as accomplished African writers for their handling of the French language and tradition at a level that no-one could guess that the author was not a Frenchman. In Anglophone Africa, Duruoha (2000) sees Wole Soyinka's English as destructive to the cause of African literature because of his standard of writing. This group of African writers left no traces of translation in their writing. For Adebayo (2000) the second generation of francophone African writers did not mind blending the language of la Sorbonne to satisfy their ambition and please their target public by using a combination of strategies, translation, transgression, integration, transliteration, transposition, and deviation. These strategies, affirms Abiola Irele, were fashioned to integrate the folk-tales by re-creating them in the French language with a new outlook. Irele adopts the word "retell" to describe the transposition made by Djibril Tamsir Niane in his book Sundiata (1960) and Nazi Boni in Crépuscule des temps anciens (1962), knowing well that translation is an act of retelling or re-creating. Adebayo (2000) describes specifically the style of writing of Ahmadou Kourouma who deliberately deviates from the norms of the language of "la Sorbonne" to be able to describe the life of the Malinke. Having being influenced by his African reading public, he imposes the structure of African languages on the norms of French language. Adebayo (2000) concludes that it is all about creativity, instead of translation, which, however, Kourouma refuses to accept as his method of writing. Kourouma's unique way of writing made him different and inspired many critics and lovers of African literature. Reporting Ade Ojo, Haruna J. Jacob (2002) says the translating skill of African writers graduated them to the status of creative artists and then to the practice of transliteration. Jacob disagrees with Ojo for equating translation with transliteration but, as a matter of fact, like Adebayo (2000) observes, it is a combination of all the strategies of translation, transposition, and transcription that resulted in creativity, aptly summarized by Joseph Ukoyen (2000: 86) in the following manner in the case of Kourouma.

Another device which contributes most decisively to the quaintness of Ahmadou Kourouma's narrative technique is the use of Malinke speech habits mediated through the French language.

Generalizing the findings of Ukoyen to African writers, Alphamoye Sonfo and Urbain Dembele (Notre Librairie, No. 75-76) reasoning like Adebayo (2000) argue as follows:

Les écrivains maliens s'inspirent effectivement de la literature orale sous le double aspect du contenu et de la forme. La culture et la civilization maliennes que véhicule la literature orale fournissent la matière de la plupart des œuvres écrites....Les écrivains maliens, voire africains agissent sur ces divers apports pour créer des œuvres originales mûries de l'intérieur vivifiées par l'extérieur, jamais gratuites, toujours engagées...
[Malian writers get their inspiration from the oral literature in both form and content. The Malian culture and civilization reflected by the oral literature supply the material for most written works... From these different contributions, Malian writers, like most of their African colleagues, create original works, which have matured from the inside acquired life from the outside, never gratuitous, always committed...]

Ukoyen (2000) by using the verb "mediate" in the above quotation agrees that Kourouma is a translator because of the simple fact that Isabelle Hoorickx-Rauq (2005) and Aiwei Shi (2004) say that a translator is a mediator, a definition supported by Alex Gross (2001), for whom translator is Hermêneus. Ukoyen, by attributing to Kourouma the role of mediator of the Malinke speech habits and the French language, agrees with the assertion of Jacob (2002) who concludes that African writers are accomplished translators, a status that makes Kourouma uncomfortable. But African writers are bilingual at least. It is a weak bilingualism sometimes because most of them do not write and read their regional language properly. They often speak the first language while the European language, i.e., the language of their education, is understood, read, and written. Ironically, most of the African writers are not trained translators, but they know their cultures and the history of their society and regions. If we consider them to be translators, then we should be asking for the original text that was translated. Because of their inability to produce a source text, the African writers could be seen as creative artists, as agreed by Claude Wauthier (1964), Abiola Irele (1969), Adebayo (2000), Ukoyen (2000) because in the process of writing, writers are largely influenced by the target public and a culturally loaded message, a message which they intend to leave as is, expecting the same reaction if the message had been in the African language. They then use different strategies but do not stick to one to the point of being considered a translator or a transliterator or a transcriber. The bilingualism of African writers is not enough evidence for them to be tagged translators who, according to Roger Chriss are by definition bilingual. Wauthier (1964: 22) is very well disposed to rightly tell us that not only African writers are bilingual, African historians, theologians, ethnologues, anthropologists, scientists, geographers and physicians are also bilingual. But historians and others in the course of their various profession may not agree to be called translators. An African writer thinks within the framework of his cultural background and expresses himself first in his mind in words guided and loaded in meaning within the structure of his culture. The writer alone can visualize, read, and re-read the chain of ideas expressed in words in the imaginary pages of his mind. The writer is the only one to have access to his memory where the ideas are kept. The words and sentences in the mind of the writer are considered not to be in either written or oral form. The African writer later puts whatever message is in his mind on paper in the European language. The source text, physically absent, is fused to the target text. The physical absence of the source text gives no room for comparison or evaluation with the translated version. Professionally, African writers are not translators. If "translation" is defined in relation to cultures and aimed at cross-cultural multi-formulation rather than communicational adjustment, as presented by Hewson and Martin (McElhanon, 2005), it appears incorrect for someone not familiar with the source culture to appreciate or evaluate the work being done. Kourouma was writing for an African reading public, a point which needs to be explored to position the African writer vis-à-vis translation. According to Adebayo (2000), the Francophone African writers who targeted a foreign (French) reading public and were considered more accomplished among French African prose-writers by Abiola Irele (1969) were those whom Léopold Sédar Senghor (Birago Diop, 1961:23) saw as dynamic such as Birago Diop who transposed African oral literature into French, like a genius fully respecting the norms and concepts of the French language. This group did not deserve being called translators. The second group, I mean the group of Kourouma, did not have a limited French or English reading public. Ahmadou Kourouma, Calixthe Bayela, Sony Labou Tansi, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Gabriel Okara, and Amos Tutuola are some of many African writers who fall into this category. They have the subject matter in their African language, but at the same time want to pass their culturally loaded message to their reading public in the European language, without destroying the message. In the process, the second group of writers sometimes behave as translators.

The transposition approach of African writers in translation

The transposition approach is not dealing at the level of equivalence because it gives no room to evaluate two texts word for word or sentence for sentence. The transposition theory could also be viewed beyond equivalence in meaning because again the African writer leaves no traces of the source text. The approach could be associated with the third text of Neubert and Shreve (McElhanon, 2005), which is a mental construct that refers to facts and fiction within a cultural context. The mental representation is then put on paper by the creative artist, which forces the linguistic norms of the target language to accommodate the source culture and language. In this way a deviation from the norms of the target language is inevitable. The whole exercise makes the African writer a creative artist, who, at the end, has passed along the message to his African reading public using a means of communication different from his own and satisfying his audience. In the case of Kourouma and like-minded African writers, their reading public is continuously increasing, with their writing style becoming a novelty. Adebayo (2000: 76) rightly wrote about the style of Kourouma:

What he has done is an acrobatic linguistic display that remains relatively new in translation practice. Since writing in another language, other than one's own is basically an exercise in translation, it is difficult to agree completely with Kourouma that he has not translated.

The mental activity and acrobatic display of the second batch of African writers such as Ahmadou Kourouma in making waves for their reading public have moved beyond the African reading public. The creativity should be welcome if not for the fact that the target reader is passionately drawn closer to the message and amused by the style. The approach could be used to the benefit of translation. Still, Adebayo (2000:80) also conclusively remarks:

It is a welcome development that more writers are exploiting to full advantage their cultural hybridity at the linguistic level. The exercise could not have been simple. If the writer had not been careful, he could have degenerated into pure babelism or linguistic irregularity...The French language will definitely have to bear the burden of linguistic hybridity in the third millennium as each Francophone community seeks to assert its individuality within the "Francophone."


African writers should be viewed and addressed as creative artists, their creativity resulting from the fact that they have the proven skill to marry African culture and language structures with the structures of European languages, even if they deviate from the norms of the latter. It is all about an acrobatic mixture of different strategies ranging from transposition, transcription, deviation, and translation. It is the combination of more than one approach that makes African creative artists different. Although some traces of translation are found in their work, there is not enough evidence to refer to them as translators, despite the fact that they think in African languages and write in the European language, which makes them seem to be translators. They are not trained translators, yet their methods could be seen as a modest approach to handling translation activities. No matter how creative is the African artist; it is not possible to have an accurate (that is without loss of information) transposition, transcription, or translation. The Africanization of European languages leads to a suggestion of adopting an African language for African literature. Phanuel Akubueze Egujuru cautions on the possibility of suggesting a local language as a national language because, he said, Africans are familiar with the European language which unifies them (Egujuru,1980: 9). Réné Richard is rather of the contrary opinion. He thinks that the foreign language deepens the distance between African elite and the African masses that constitute his target public. For him, the coming on board of an African language as the language of the African literature is inevitable and justifiable (Richard,1970: 83). Baum-Rudischhauser disagrees with Egujuru and does not support Richard. She encourages the Ahmadou Kourouma style of novel writing where various European languages are Africanized. In this form, African writers are gradually creating an independent language for African literature (Baum-Rudischhauser,1991: 89).


1. Alex Gross (2001) refers us to the god of translators and interpreters in search for a cogent definition of translation and interpretation which he equates to the Greek word Hermêneus, the god Hermes, which means, interpret foreign tongues, put into words, express, describe, clarify, and write about. Gross also wants to take us back far in the history to a Latin word Interpres, which also means a translator, an interpreter, a middleman, a mediator, a broker, and a negotiator.


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