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Dispatches: African Literature in Translation

In the course of writing my book A Basket of Leaves, I looked for books that told the best stories I could find about each of the fifty-four countries in Africa. They included novels, short story collections, memoirs, travel and adventure tales, and even some poetry. About half of the books I chose were by Africans, while the others were by people who spent time on the continent.

I paid little or no attention to whether the books I chose had been translated, but when it was time for the final tallies I found that about half the books by Africans had been translated from French, Portuguese, or Arabic. (None was originally written in an indigenous language, a fact I’d like to consider in a later post.) Considering that so much of today’s African literature is written in English, and considering the various barriers that prevent us from seeing more of the rest, this seemed like a pretty good showing.

In the weeks to come, I’d like to talk about some of the books I included in A Basket of Leaves, others that I didn’t, and others that I’ve read since then. But just to kick things off, and give some sense of the pleasures that are out there, here are the African works in translation that I chose to highlight in my own book:

Algeria
The Savage Night by Mohammed Dib
Algerian White by Assia Djebar

Angola
Mayombe by Pepetela

Cameroon
Mission to Kala by Mongo Beti

Congo (Democratic Republic of the)
Between Tides by V.Y. Mudimbe

Congo (Republic of the)
The Fire of Origins by Emmanuel Dongala
The Seven Solitudes of Lorsa Lopez by Sony Labou Tansi

Egypt
Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahfouz

Guinea
The Dark Child by Camara Laye

Ivory Coast
The Suns of Independence by Ahmadou Kourouma

Libya
The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

Morocco
The Sand Child by Tahar ben Jelloun

Mozambique
Voices Made Night by Mia Couto
Dumba Nengue by Lina Magaia

São Tomé and Principe
The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry edited by Stella and Frank Chipasula

Senegal
God’s Bits of Wood by Sembène Ousmane
Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane
So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ

Sudan
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Tunisia
The Scorpion by Albert Memmi

Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.

English

In the course of writing my book A Basket of Leaves, I looked for books that told the best stories I could find about each of the fifty-four countries in Africa. They included novels, short story collections, memoirs, travel and adventure tales, and even some poetry. About half of the books I chose were by Africans, while the others were by people who spent time on the continent.

I paid little or no attention to whether the books I chose had been translated, but when it was time for the final tallies I found that about half the books by Africans had been translated from French, Portuguese, or Arabic. (None was originally written in an indigenous language, a fact I’d like to consider in a later post.) Considering that so much of today’s African literature is written in English, and considering the various barriers that prevent us from seeing more of the rest, this seemed like a pretty good showing.

In the weeks to come, I’d like to talk about some of the books I included in A Basket of Leaves, others that I didn’t, and others that I’ve read since then. But just to kick things off, and give some sense of the pleasures that are out there, here are the African works in translation that I chose to highlight in my own book:

Algeria
The Savage Night by Mohammed Dib
Algerian White by Assia Djebar

Angola
Mayombe by Pepetela

Cameroon
Mission to Kala by Mongo Beti

Congo (Democratic Republic of the)
Between Tides by V.Y. Mudimbe

Congo (Republic of the)
The Fire of Origins by Emmanuel Dongala
The Seven Solitudes of Lorsa Lopez by Sony Labou Tansi

Egypt
Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahfouz

Guinea
The Dark Child by Camara Laye

Ivory Coast
The Suns of Independence by Ahmadou Kourouma

Libya
The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

Morocco
The Sand Child by Tahar ben Jelloun

Mozambique
Voices Made Night by Mia Couto
Dumba Nengue by Lina Magaia

São Tomé and Principe
The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry edited by Stella and Frank Chipasula

Senegal
God’s Bits of Wood by Sembène Ousmane
Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane
So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ

Sudan
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Tunisia
The Scorpion by Albert Memmi

Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.

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Words Without Borders is the premier destination for a global literary conversation. Founded in 2003, WWB seeks to expand cultural understanding by giving readers unparalleled access to contemporary world literature in English translation while providing a vital platform for today’s international writers.
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Words Without Borders is the premier destination for a global literary conversation. Founded in 2003, WWB seeks to expand cultural understanding by giving readers unparalleled access to contemporary world literature in English translation while providing a vital platform for today’s international writers.
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