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Interviews

The National Book Award Interviews: Scholastique Mukasonga & Mark Polizzotti

“"One thing that makes 'Kibogo' such a compelling work is the critical distance it maintains from all the power structures it describes.”
At left face of French language translator Mark Polizzotti and at right face of French Rwandan...

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Kibogo came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?

Scholastique Mukasonga (SM): Ancient Rwandan society had no system of writing, yet it had a rich literary culture. The courts of kings and chiefs gave rise to a learned and sophisticated literature. Epic poems lauded sovereigns and celebrated the exploits of warriors, or the beauty of cows and women. These legends were most likely based on historical facts. As such, ethnologists often classify them as “historical legends.”

Alongside these learned narratives, there also existed a popular literature, in other words, stories. If court literature was usually reserved for men, the vast domain of stories was the realm of women. These stories, which enlivened evening gatherings among family members or villagers, transmitted the values that every Rwandan was supposed to adopt: behavior, politeness, societal values. Humor and satire were naturally among the qualities one expected from a good teller of tales. I hope that readers of my Kibogo will find some of that humor in it.

Belgian colonization essentially relied on Catholic missions. The deposing in 1931 of King Yuhi Musinga, who was hostile to Christianity, entailed the conversion of the main chiefs, followed by most of the population. These mass conversions, many of which were opportunistic, often led to forms of syncretism that were more or less tolerated. The story of Prince Kibogo offers an excellent example.

In search of a past that has too often been hidden or denatured, I consulted dusty old tomes written by white missionary priests in the 1930s, who collected the old traditions from recent converts as if wishing to give them a proper burial. Among others, I consulted Father Pagès’s book A Hamite Kingdom in Central Africa and the one by Father Delmas, Genealogy of Batutsi Nobility. It was there that I rediscovered the story of Kibogo. I had heard it before. It was a story that my mother, Stefania, used to tell, one of the stories that rocked me to sleep when I was a child. According to this story, Kibogo, the king’s son, sacrificed himself to save Rwanda from drought. He rose to Heaven, spirited away by a cloud or struck by lightning. The rains returned. Kibogo was a umutabazi, which is the Kinyarwandan term for Saviors who sacrifice themselves to save the country. Many stories relate that in times of war or natural calamity, the court soothsayers would ask a prince – or even the king himself – to sacrifice himself in order to save the country. They memorialized the sacrifice of Prince Kibogo: a sanctuary was dedicated to him at court, tended by a vestal virgin. The missionaries lost no time in comparing Kibogo’s ascension to that of Jesus – and there I had the makings of a novel. Why not imagine a character, whom I named Akayezu (or “Little Jesus”), who with the help of an old priestess of the Kibogo cult would also ascend to Heaven to save Rwanda from the twin domination of colonialism and Christianity. Jesus ascended to Heaven, says the Christian Credo; Kibogo ascended to Heaven, state the Rwandan traditions. What better starting point for a novel?

Mark Polizzotti (MP): I was aware of and attracted to Mukasonga’s work, but hadn’t yet had a chance to discover it. When Jill Schoolman approached me about translating Kibogo, I insisted on doing something that I rarely do, which is submit a sample before committing to the translation so that we could both feel reassured of my ability to credibly render her voice and tone. I also familiarized myself with some of her previous books to understand the continuities and context.

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

MP: The obvious ones are the history and rich storytelling culture of Rwanda as described in the novel, which sadly are unfamiliar to most American readers as they were unfamiliar to me when I started this project. I did a certain amount of reading to try to grasp the social and political background against which the story is set—not that one needs it in order to savor the narrative on its own terms, which are universal, but in order for me to feel that the atmosphere I was recreating in English was appropriate to the work. There is also the challenge of the many words in Kinyarwanda that are left in the original—not so much for themselves, but in terms of integrating them smoothly into the language of the narrative, keeping it intelligible to the reader while preserving its particular flavor. But more than anything—though I suppose you could say this of virtually any translation, but it’s no easier for all that—it’s about rendering the very particular tone, music, rhythm, humor, and spiritual yearning that emanates from the text, and trying to introduce this delicious and heartbreaking chorus of emotional registers into a time, language, and culture very different from the one Mukasonga conveys.

WWB: Mark, at this point you’ve translated more than fifty books from French, and you’re also the author of eleven books, on subjects ranging from translation to Bob Dylan to André Breton. In addition, you’re director of publications at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. First of all, where do you find the time for all this? But more seriously, it seems as if all of these diverse interests might have prepared you to translate Kibogo in a rather unexpected way: this book provides a lens on the clash between Rwandan founding myths and the attempt of European missionaries to convert Rwandans to Christianity. Given your work on Dylan and Breton, one suspects you have an interest in apostasy (real or perceived) and that Kibogo might have much more in common with some of your other work than immediately meets the eye. Have you ever stopped to consider the links—serendipitous or intentional—between your many works?

MP: As Dylan once said, all my songs are protest songs. You’re absolutely right: my heart has always been with the rebels and heretics, rather than with those who uphold the status quo or simply accept the dogma, on whatever side. One thing that makes Kibogo such a compelling work is the critical distance it maintains from all the power structures it describes, whether the Catholic priests bullishly trying to impose their belief system, the well-meaning but obtuse sociologists who see only their own view of Rwandan traditions, or even some of the villagers themselves. While relating all this with great warmth, the narrator nonetheless never loses her grasp of human folly and self-delusion, her sense of the absurd, or her irreverent eye (especially appropriate in this case)—and her story becomes all the more convincing because of it. Truth is complex, and the ability to embrace it with both skepticism and compassion is truly a feat.

WWB: Scholastique, you have now had several of your books published in English translation, and of course, into many other languages, among them, Brazilian Portuguese, via the admirable publishing house Nós. I wonder if you’ve given any thought to the question of the reception of your work in different countries, and what you might have noticed about the relationship between authorial intent and the aspects of your work that readers seem to latch on to in the United States, Brazil, or other countries where your work is published.

SM: My books have indeed been translated into about twenty languages, some of which I hadn’t even known existed, such as Malayalam in southern India. What makes my books interesting is perhaps, first of all, their documentary side, at least regarding Inyenzi, or the “cockroaches.” The genocide of the Tutsi, and especially its long preparation since the 1960s, was little known. There is also what I might call the books’ “ethnographic” side: the reader enters into an intimate relation with a traditional society from the viewpoint of women, unencumbered by the theories of “professional” ethnologists. This is no doubt the reason behind the success of The Barefoot Woman, especially in Brazil, where the theme of motherhood seems to touch a wide audience. The book elicited such a fervent response that it is now on school syllabi.

Scholastique Mukasonga and Mark Polizzotti’s Kibogo is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

English

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Kibogo came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?

Scholastique Mukasonga (SM): Ancient Rwandan society had no system of writing, yet it had a rich literary culture. The courts of kings and chiefs gave rise to a learned and sophisticated literature. Epic poems lauded sovereigns and celebrated the exploits of warriors, or the beauty of cows and women. These legends were most likely based on historical facts. As such, ethnologists often classify them as “historical legends.”

Alongside these learned narratives, there also existed a popular literature, in other words, stories. If court literature was usually reserved for men, the vast domain of stories was the realm of women. These stories, which enlivened evening gatherings among family members or villagers, transmitted the values that every Rwandan was supposed to adopt: behavior, politeness, societal values. Humor and satire were naturally among the qualities one expected from a good teller of tales. I hope that readers of my Kibogo will find some of that humor in it.

Belgian colonization essentially relied on Catholic missions. The deposing in 1931 of King Yuhi Musinga, who was hostile to Christianity, entailed the conversion of the main chiefs, followed by most of the population. These mass conversions, many of which were opportunistic, often led to forms of syncretism that were more or less tolerated. The story of Prince Kibogo offers an excellent example.

In search of a past that has too often been hidden or denatured, I consulted dusty old tomes written by white missionary priests in the 1930s, who collected the old traditions from recent converts as if wishing to give them a proper burial. Among others, I consulted Father Pagès’s book A Hamite Kingdom in Central Africa and the one by Father Delmas, Genealogy of Batutsi Nobility. It was there that I rediscovered the story of Kibogo. I had heard it before. It was a story that my mother, Stefania, used to tell, one of the stories that rocked me to sleep when I was a child. According to this story, Kibogo, the king’s son, sacrificed himself to save Rwanda from drought. He rose to Heaven, spirited away by a cloud or struck by lightning. The rains returned. Kibogo was a umutabazi, which is the Kinyarwandan term for Saviors who sacrifice themselves to save the country. Many stories relate that in times of war or natural calamity, the court soothsayers would ask a prince – or even the king himself – to sacrifice himself in order to save the country. They memorialized the sacrifice of Prince Kibogo: a sanctuary was dedicated to him at court, tended by a vestal virgin. The missionaries lost no time in comparing Kibogo’s ascension to that of Jesus – and there I had the makings of a novel. Why not imagine a character, whom I named Akayezu (or “Little Jesus”), who with the help of an old priestess of the Kibogo cult would also ascend to Heaven to save Rwanda from the twin domination of colonialism and Christianity. Jesus ascended to Heaven, says the Christian Credo; Kibogo ascended to Heaven, state the Rwandan traditions. What better starting point for a novel?

Mark Polizzotti (MP): I was aware of and attracted to Mukasonga’s work, but hadn’t yet had a chance to discover it. When Jill Schoolman approached me about translating Kibogo, I insisted on doing something that I rarely do, which is submit a sample before committing to the translation so that we could both feel reassured of my ability to credibly render her voice and tone. I also familiarized myself with some of her previous books to understand the continuities and context.

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

MP: The obvious ones are the history and rich storytelling culture of Rwanda as described in the novel, which sadly are unfamiliar to most American readers as they were unfamiliar to me when I started this project. I did a certain amount of reading to try to grasp the social and political background against which the story is set—not that one needs it in order to savor the narrative on its own terms, which are universal, but in order for me to feel that the atmosphere I was recreating in English was appropriate to the work. There is also the challenge of the many words in Kinyarwanda that are left in the original—not so much for themselves, but in terms of integrating them smoothly into the language of the narrative, keeping it intelligible to the reader while preserving its particular flavor. But more than anything—though I suppose you could say this of virtually any translation, but it’s no easier for all that—it’s about rendering the very particular tone, music, rhythm, humor, and spiritual yearning that emanates from the text, and trying to introduce this delicious and heartbreaking chorus of emotional registers into a time, language, and culture very different from the one Mukasonga conveys.

WWB: Mark, at this point you’ve translated more than fifty books from French, and you’re also the author of eleven books, on subjects ranging from translation to Bob Dylan to André Breton. In addition, you’re director of publications at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. First of all, where do you find the time for all this? But more seriously, it seems as if all of these diverse interests might have prepared you to translate Kibogo in a rather unexpected way: this book provides a lens on the clash between Rwandan founding myths and the attempt of European missionaries to convert Rwandans to Christianity. Given your work on Dylan and Breton, one suspects you have an interest in apostasy (real or perceived) and that Kibogo might have much more in common with some of your other work than immediately meets the eye. Have you ever stopped to consider the links—serendipitous or intentional—between your many works?

MP: As Dylan once said, all my songs are protest songs. You’re absolutely right: my heart has always been with the rebels and heretics, rather than with those who uphold the status quo or simply accept the dogma, on whatever side. One thing that makes Kibogo such a compelling work is the critical distance it maintains from all the power structures it describes, whether the Catholic priests bullishly trying to impose their belief system, the well-meaning but obtuse sociologists who see only their own view of Rwandan traditions, or even some of the villagers themselves. While relating all this with great warmth, the narrator nonetheless never loses her grasp of human folly and self-delusion, her sense of the absurd, or her irreverent eye (especially appropriate in this case)—and her story becomes all the more convincing because of it. Truth is complex, and the ability to embrace it with both skepticism and compassion is truly a feat.

WWB: Scholastique, you have now had several of your books published in English translation, and of course, into many other languages, among them, Brazilian Portuguese, via the admirable publishing house Nós. I wonder if you’ve given any thought to the question of the reception of your work in different countries, and what you might have noticed about the relationship between authorial intent and the aspects of your work that readers seem to latch on to in the United States, Brazil, or other countries where your work is published.

SM: My books have indeed been translated into about twenty languages, some of which I hadn’t even known existed, such as Malayalam in southern India. What makes my books interesting is perhaps, first of all, their documentary side, at least regarding Inyenzi, or the “cockroaches.” The genocide of the Tutsi, and especially its long preparation since the 1960s, was little known. There is also what I might call the books’ “ethnographic” side: the reader enters into an intimate relation with a traditional society from the viewpoint of women, unencumbered by the theories of “professional” ethnologists. This is no doubt the reason behind the success of The Barefoot Woman, especially in Brazil, where the theme of motherhood seems to touch a wide audience. The book elicited such a fervent response that it is now on school syllabi.

Scholastique Mukasonga and Mark Polizzotti’s Kibogo is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

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The covers of the 10 books longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award in Translation
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