Diary: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, (1) The Politics of Translation
Works by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in Gĩkũyũ
In the history of conquest, the first thing the victorious conqueror does is attack people’s names and languages. The idea is to deny them the authority of naming the self and the world, to delegitimize the history and the knowledge they already possess, delegitimize their own language as a credible source of knowledge and definition of the world, so that the conqueror’s language can become the source of the very definition of being. This was true with the English conquest of Ireland, Wales, Scotland; or the Japanese conquest of South Korea; or the USA’s takeover of Hawaii: ban or weaken the languages of the conquered, then impose by gun, guise, or guile their own language and accord it all the authority of naming the world. A Captain Pratt summed it up best when in 1892 he set up residency schools for the education of Native Americans, bragging that the aim was to “kill the Indian … and save the man.” It was done with the enslaved. African languages and names were banned on the plantations; and later on the continent as a whole—so much so that that African people now accept europhony to define their countries and who they are: francophone, anglophone, or lusophone.
Today, the linguistic picture of Africa’s hundreds of languages confronts policymakers as a nightmare, and they think that if they can ignore the nightmare long enough, or frighten it away with greater emphasis on European languages, the nightmare will vanish, and they will wake up to the bliss of a harmonious European-language-speaking African nation. So they engineer a massive transfer of resources from African to European languages. Ninety per cent of the resources earmarked for language education in Africa goes to European ones, a minuscule percentage to African languages, if any. Reality, however, is stubborn, and policymakers wake up to the same nightmare. European-language-speakers in any one of the African nations are at most 10 per cent of the population; the other 90 percent are speakers of African languages.
Ironically, in some African countries, the late colonial period had a more progressive language policy than today’s, ensuring basic literacy in the mother tongue. That was how I came to learn Gĩkũyũ as a child in Kenya. But at Independence, the four years’ elementary education in mother tongue was scrapped. Through and by every means possible, children were immersed in English from kindergarten onwards. This resulted in a generation of Kenyans who could barely speak their mother tongue; or even if they spoke it, they could not read or write it. Belatedly, the state tried to rectify the damage and introduced mother tongue as a subject and even produced some texts to meet the need; but even these half-hearted efforts were later abandoned. In most schools, the hour earmarked for the mother tongue is used for further drilling in English. The delegitimization of African languages as credible sources and basis of knowledge began in the colonial era and was completed and normalized in the postcolonial one.
Every language is equally a memory bank of knowledge, information and experiences of the community that created it; and every language has the best and most detailed knowledge of the ecology of the area that produced it. Every language is equally capable of expansion to embrace new experiences, information, and knowledge, even if it has to adopt words from other languages. Languages as mediums of information and knowledge can easily make new words or borrow from one another. And beyond lexical attributes, every language has its unique musicality, which can never be replaced by another. In that sense, languages are like musical instruments. I mourn for the languages we have let die with all the knowledge they carried, all the musicality buried with them.
In reality, there are very few, if any, monolingual nations in the world. What most have is an officially imposed language as the national language: the language of power. This acquired national language has the double character of being both foreign and elitist. And yet this touted as an advantage: that it is equally accessible to the 10 percent of each linguistic community and equally inaccessible to everyone else. So its accessibility to the elite but its inaccessibility to the majority is what makes it the best language to unify the country. The European-language-speaking elite thus sees itself as constituting the nation. European languages become the knight on a horse rescuing the postcolonial state, otherwise trapped within the linguistic House of Babel, by enabling communication across a problematic plurality.
Many communities, however, like those that exist on either side of national boundaries, speak a variety of languages, and the relationship between the languages is not hierarchical but, rather, “networkly.” Hierarchy among languages assumes that some languages are more of a language than other languages. But the notion of a network assumes a give-and-take and that there is no language which is more of a language than another language. Border communities solve the challenge of a communication with one another through multilingualism, most are polyglots. There was a time when humans used to think of seas, oceans, gravity and space as barriers and enemies until they learnt how to use them. Why then not pose the question of multiplicity of languages and nationalities similarly: How can the many languages be used to bring about the unity of a people within a country and within a continent?
Translation—a kind of dialogue or conversation among languages—is another challenge to the orthodoxy of monolingualism …
Stay tuned for Part Two of this post!
This post is adapted from “The Politics of Translation” in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The Language of Languages: Reflections on Translation, published this month by Seagull Books. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is the author of many novels, short stories, essays, a memoir, and several plays. His novels include The Devil on the Cross, The River Between, Petals of Blood, and Weep Not Child.
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