The Linguist

The Linguist 56,5 – October/November 2017

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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16 The Linguist Vol/56 No/5 2017 What we can learn from African oral traditions about translation as inspiration. By Georgina Collins I have always been interested in how far translators can take adaptation, and to what extent we can justify such an approach when translating poetry and prose into English. Can we simply take inspiration from the source text without being restricted by its style and content? In my research on the translation of Francophone African literature, I found that translation strategies in an African context were much more fluid, and perhaps less rigid, than in the North. Many African texts written in French are highly embedded in orality, with a strong performance element, so it may be more fitting to take a flexible approach to their translation, and pursue an African (rather than French) model of textual rewriting. To do that, it is useful to look back at translation traditions. According to Myriam Salama-Carr, literal translation was taken very seriously in the French tradition, with Étienne Dolet burnt at the stake in 1546 for 'mistranslating Plato'. 1 Rules of translation were formed at the time, and there were debates regarding the extent to which translation could be a creative activity. In contrast, according to Paul Bandia, 2 the earliest record of any kind of 'professional linguist' in Africa is the griot, who recorded and narrated history and culture, and mediated between kings and their people. The griot could be more creative in his interpretation, the concept of an 'original' text being more flexible in oral traditions. The notion of originality is one that arises frequently in debates on literary translation. In Senegal, as in folklore, stories are transmitted orally from one generation to the next and change over time, whether due to the impact of time on memory, an individual adding his or her own touches, or audience participation. Albert Lord has stated that "our concept of the 'original,' of 'the song,' simply makes no sense in oral tradition… We might as well be prepared to face the fact that we are in a different world of thought, the patterns of which do not always fit our cherished terms. In oral tradition the idea of an original is illogical." 3 If translation is no longer viewed in terms of a static 'original' source text, but instead as a more fluid font of inspiration, can this take translation of African poetry on a new journey of orality, performance and originality? Putting orality into literature By putting orality into literature, Francophone African writers are conserving their stories. However, their appropriation of a traditionally Western genre may lead the translator to assume that the text is as fixed and stable as other written works, yet this may not be the case. In terms of oral literature in general, Ruth Finnegan believes that the scope of the artist to improvise or create may vary, but there is almost always some opportunity for 'composition'. 4 Unlike with written texts, extemporisation or elaboration are far more common, she asserts, and there is no concept of one authentic version, as there often is in traditional written literature. If the translator accepts the lack of an 'original', it opens up creative possibilities. Take, for example, this extract from 'Hommage à une jeune paysanne' by Fatou Ndiaye Sow and its English translation: 5 Mère de la terre De ta sueur pétrie, Souffle chaud des savanes, Ton pas, rythme de Xalam MOTHER OF THE EARTH And your sweat Beats your brow In the burning Savannahs Of the Jolof. Your steps chase the rhythm As the Griot strums the Xalam While the rewritten text has clearly taken its inspiration from the alleged 'source text', it has used new words, and its content has been elaborated on with further historical and cultural references to the Jolof kingdom and the traditional player of the Xalam (a stringed instrument). Its structure now includes a refrain which breaks up the poem, lengthens it, and can be repeated by the audience after each verse, thus building on the performative nature of the poem. The capitalisation may be read as a change in tone. This idea of translation as inspiration in literature could be considered an extreme form of adaptation and it may be rejected by some; the concept of a permanent written original is firmly embedded in the post- Renaissance Western psyche. In the 12th and 13th centuries, however, written and oral forms, such as the Arthurian cycles, were regarded as material for rewriting and transformation. The advent of the written word in a visual world brought about homogeneity and uniformity, but in a culture that embraces orality this can appear Extreme adaptation

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