For decades I stubbornly refused to translate my own work into English. For most of my life, I lived and worked in East Africa, the cradle of the Swahili language, so I didn’t realize how little of Swahili literature was read outside the region. I have since realized the need to share the riches of Swahili literature through translation. It also dawned on me that poor translations done by others may ruin the beauty of the original. This point was driven home by the frustration I felt when I read my own stories translated by others from Swahili into English. The first to be translated was my children’s story, Bobby the Dog, from English to Swahili by the Swahili Language Council of Tanzania (Baraza la Kiswahili la Tanzania). It is interesting that the Council didn’t give the translators’ specific names, perhaps to save them from individual censure.
Unlike Bobby the Dog, “Poor Grandpa” is my own translation of a story I originally wrote in Swahili, “Maskini Babu.” In a sense, there was novelty associated with, first and foremost, translating from Swahili to English and the act of translating one’s own literary text. I had tried this before with my awarding winning children’s storybook Ndoto ya Amerika, which I rendered The American Dream. If translating Ndoto ya Amerika had presented challenges, they were nothing compared to those of translating “Maskini Babu.” At any rate, Ndoto ya Amerika was primarily directed at elementary school readers and was devoid of complex sentence structures.
What eventually became “Poor Grandpa,” was preceded by a more arduous and enigmatic process of self-translation. “Poor Grandpa” is one of my two short stories in Damu Nyeusi, (Black Blood), an anthology of short stories Nairobi-based Moran Publishers commissioned Professor Said A. Mohamed and I to edit for a high school and college audience. Like the rest of the stories in the volume, “Poor Grandpa” was decidedly more complex and dense in style and language than The American Dream.
While working on the project it occurred to me that translating from English to Swahili, which I had done for years, was a totally different ballgame from translating from Swahili to English. For me, Swahili words and structures for the English counterparts seem to flow naturally. Quite honestly, the reverse translation doesn’t have the same spontaneity, perhaps because English isn’t my first language.
The challenges started with the title itself. How do I translate Maskini Babu into English? “Oh Poor Grandpa”? “The Fate of Grandpa”? I eventually settled on “Poor Grandpa” because of its apparent fidelity to the original. For one thing it does not include the somewhat redudant ideophone “oh”; neither does it give away too much about the ebb and flow of the narrative as in the “The Fate of My Grandpa.” But deep down I knew, and still know, that it does not fully capture the connotations and nuances that the Swahili Maskini Babu carries. The Swahili adjective “maskini,” coming before a noun, evokes a deeper sense of pathos, empathy, and sympathy than the English “poor.”
Other challenges I encountered included the disparate linguistic norms between Swahili and English. I had to be alert to know where to determine the gender of the person alluded to in order to insert the correct English pronouns “he” or “she.” Swahili has only neutral pronouns that are represented by the prefix “a” often occurring before a verb. In speaking or writing Swahili one is not bothered by grammatical gender differentiation.
Rendering Swahili idiomatic expressions into English is no kid stuff, either. How does one deal with the image of the tropical sun’s rays menacingly striking the top of peoples’ heads in the Swahili structure “Jua lilikuwa la utosini”? Literally it means, “the sun was of the top of the head.” I struggled with this and ended up with, “It was during the midday sun.” But that hardly comes close to recreating the image of the tropical sun’s effects implied in the Swahili original.
Such is the bane of translation, an approximation, sometimes a poor one, of the original text. And yet despite all these limitations or because of them, translation opens up endless possibilities for the reader, the translation, and more importantly, the original text. As Walter Benjamin suggested, translation affords a text in a particular language an “afterlife” in another language. I am, therefore, deeply elated to have played some role in enabling “Maskini Babu’s” afterlife as “Poor Grandpa” in English.