Coming soon to China: African Poetry, Novellas and Parables Translated Direct from Hausa and Swahili

2021 looks set to be a banner year for what I refer to in shorthand as “Afrolit4China,” i.e., African writing in Chinese translation targeting readers in the People’s Republic. 

According to the latest statistics from the sole online mini-database in this niche, the bilingual African Writing in Chinese Translation (非洲文学: 中文译本), now lists 240 translated works by 101 African authors. This shows a robust 64 percent increase over the 146 titles in early 2018. 

Last year’s batch included psychological thrillers My Sister, the Serial Killer (我的妹妹是连环杀手) by Oyinkan Braithwaite, and Alain Mabanckou’s Mémoires de porc-épic (豪猪回忆录), novels that were penned in colonial languages, English and French, respectively. 

But East China Normal University Press (华东师范大学出版社) has announced that two of its first three titles in the VI HORAE Africa Series (六点非洲系列) are rendered into Chinese direct from languages indigenous to Africa. None of the customary “re-treads” here via the intermediary of English. According to Commissioning Editor Shi Meijun (施美均), the Chinese translators learned African languages as undergraduates, and several have lived and studied in Africa.

e5a48fe78fadc2b7e7bd97e4bcafe789b9e8af97e6ad8ce98089e99b86-e5b9b3e99da2e5b081.jpg
Shaaban’s poetry in bilingual format

[Note:  Most of the English-language titles below are for the convenience of Anglophone readers of this article; several of these works do not exist in English]

Selected Poems of Shaaban bin Robert (夏班·罗伯特诗歌选集) is translated from the original Swahili, published in a bilingual Swahili-Chinese format, and features graphics by African illustrators. The reader need only scan a QR code to access online recitations of the verse in Swahili. 

Due out soon is The Body Will Tell You: Selected Works from the Hausa (身体会告诉你: 非洲豪萨语文学作品选).  Four nouvellas make up the first part of the book, while the second consists of two hundred short parables — inspired by West African oral folk literature as well as Aesop’s fables — compiled and retold by Yusufu Yunusa. 

“Why Hausa?” I queried Shi via e-mail.

“Thanks to multiple translations of writings by Chinua Achebe, who is Igbo, and Wole Soyinka, who is Yoruba, these two ethnicities are better known in China, while knowledge and academic research about Hausa culture and literature are much less widespread,” Shi replied. 

Like Swahili in East Africa, in pre-colonial times several West African languages were written in an Arabic script (ajami). But under the British, a romanized alphabet became the official script for Hausa in 1930.  

“Modern Hausa literature was formed under the combined influence of Islamic and colonial British cultures, a phenomenon that is interesting in itself,” continued Shi. “In 1933, Hans Vischer, Director of the Colonial Board of Education in Northern Nigeria, proposed a contest for fiction written in African languages. Stories of 20,000 words or so were welcome, and they could be didactic in nature, but should not simply imitate mythology. Rupert Moultrie East, Director of the Bureau of Translation, received entries from Islamic scholars from all over northern Nigeria. 

“The four novellas we are translating and publishing in Chinese — by Abubakar Imam, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Muhammadu Gwarzo, and John Tafida — were the winners of that competition. These works marked the origin of the Hausa novel, and with them, the Latinized Hausa literature of Northern Nigeria entered a new stage of indigenous literary creation, going beyond mere translation of foreign literary works.”

At present, plans for the VI HORAE Africa Series call for publishing a remarkable 14 volumes. A brief summary:  

Literary

Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 4.33.10 PM

Selected Poems of Shaaban bin Robert (夏班·罗伯特诗歌选集) (Published 2020).

African Literature: An Anthology of African Literary Criticism and Theory 《非洲文学批评史稿》edited by Tejumola Olaniyan and Ato Quayson. (Published 2020)

The Body Will Tell You: Selected Works of Fiction from the Hausa (身体会告诉你: 非洲豪萨语文学作品选). They are nouvellas entitled Shaihu UmarJiki MagayiIdon Matambayi, and Ruwan Bagaja.  (Target publication: 2Q 2021)

No Serenity here: An Anthology of African Poetry in Amharic, English, French, Arabic and Portuguese (这里不平静:非洲诗选). Previously published by a different publisher. 

African Social and Cultural History

Six titles authored by African, American and Chinese experts. They include the 2-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought (牛津非洲思想百科全书), edited by F. Abiola Irele and Biodun Jeyifo. 

African Potentials (アフリカ潜在力)

文化平息纷争
One of five volumes from the Japanese “African Potentials” series.

Five volumes by Japanese scholars at Kyoto University will be translated into Chinese (非洲潜力丛书五卷). They conducted fieldwork in Africa, and their books explore issues of culture, violence, ecology and the marketplace.

For other collections of African writing — mainly fiction — in Mandarin, visit African Writing in Chinese Translation: 2020 Round-up and a Peek at 2021, and the older 非洲文学丛书 .

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2 thoughts on “Coming soon to China: African Poetry, Novellas and Parables Translated Direct from Hausa and Swahili

  1. Translations from foreign languages into minority ethnic languages in China are, from what I’ve seen, mostly via Chinese (except where they’ve gained rights to a translation done outside China, e.g., in Mongolia). There are probably a number of reasons for this (lack of qualified translators, small market, etc.), but much is a byproduct of Chinese political and cultural gatekeeping policies.

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    1. You’re undoubtedly right that Han-centric “gatekeeping policies” make the likelihood of indigenous African fiction being translated direct into a non-Chinese language in the PRC extremely low. In fact, precious little foreign literature of any type is translated into China’s minority languages.

      Back in 2006 when Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I interviewed his Chinese translator and learned that there were probably only a dozen or so PRC citizens qualified to translate Turkish fiction into Chinese. And that figure remains more or less unchanged today. That is pretty shocking, given that there are well over 150m speakers of Turkic languages, and Turkish (and its Turkic variants) have a long literary history.

      As I noted in my post several years ago, “A Resounding “Yes” to Mother-tongue Literature — but for Whom and about What?” , many things militate against a robust market for literature within China in any language except Mandarin. Practically speaking, the only languages with fairly large populations and a widely used script are those of the Uyghurs, Mongolians and Tibetans. Mother-tongue illiteracy is widespread among Tibetans, the use of Uyghur in school is now practically banned, and since September 2021, the Inner Mongolian authorities have largely restricted Mongolian teaching to just a few hours weekly; most students can no longer learn anything in Mongolian except the language itself. Classes once taught in Mongolian, such as maths, history, etc., are now being replaced by teaching in Mandarin.

      Just given those facts about mother-tongue teaching within the PRC, and the reality that presently it is just about impossible for Tibetans, or Turkic-speaking Muslims in Xinjiang to get a passport and an exit visa to leave the country for ANY reason — including language learning in Africa — the odds of bringing foreign literature to any of the minorities in China except via the dominant language (强势语言,即普通话) are just about nil.

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