A Yoruba Writer Called Achebe - By Reuben Abati

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Gen Sani Abacha

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Culled From: Yoruba Net @ Egroups
Dated: 25 Nov 2000

A Yoruba Writer Called Achebe

By Reuben Abati

One of the major highlights of the annual convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors which ended in Jos, last week, was the formal presentation of a Yoruba translation of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, entitled Igbesi Aiye Okonkwo by Wale Ogunyemi. On Thursday, the association had organised a special programme to mark Achebe's 70th birthday. Achebe is the founder of the association and its trustee. On Friday morning, at the formal opening ceremony of the convention, a bottle of champaigne specially made in Achebe's honour by the New York State and Bard College where Achebe teaches in the United States, had been presented by Nduka Otiono to propose a toast to the writer. But for many participants, (there were about 120 in all), the more memorable tribute to Achebe was Ogunyemi's presentation of his translation of Achebe's first novel, which has since become a world classic. Somehow, in this country, we tend to forget our own heroes, we despise excellence, many of our compatriots indeed consider the success of the other as a threat to their own survival. Which is why always, in nearly every aspect of our lives we have to wait first for the outsdide world to recognise and endorse the genius of our compatriots before we suddenly turn around to pay tribute.

Ogunyemi's Igbesi Aiye Okonkwo marks the very first time that Achebe's work, and indeed his Things Fall Apart will be translated into any Nigerian language. It is late in coming; after more than 30 translations of the same book into foreign languages, this Nigerian effort sounds like an afterthought. But it is praiseworthy. Prof. Charles Nnolim, author of that controversial Achebe essay: "A source for Arrow of God," and a foremost literary critic, had tried to explain that there is also an Igbo translation of Achebe in the making, but really, he sounded as if he was trying to cover up the embarrassment of having Achebe become a Yoruba writer first, before his own people read about his wondrous talents in their own mother-tongue. That Igbo translation is eagerly awaited. Achebe's Things Fall Apart deserves translation into as many Nigerian languages as possible and not this alone, the classics of Nigerian literature in all genres ought to be identified and translated into local languages, as a way of expanding the scope of our literature and to bring that literature closer to the same people whose identities and aspirations those works describe and explore.

Obi Wali had written about The Dead end of African Literature, contending that the continuous use of the English language as a primary tool of literary statement will lead African literature into a cul-de-sac. Ngugi wa Thiong'o who took the business of language and African literature to a more radical extent indeed abandoned the English language and began to write first in his native Kikuyu before translating the works later into English. Chinua Achebe in many ways sought to Africanize the English language to convey the weight of African experience, complete with its nuances, idioms and local colour. What all three had underlined was the force of linguistic alienation and how this had limited the impact of African literature in its own immediate environment, a certain kind of distancing which turns the writers into elite of another world, writing about local experiences for a foreign audience. The classics were written first in either Greek or Roman language; they came to us later in translation, such that in confronting the classics, we confront all the same the entire scope of the classical era. The translation of African literature into indigenous languages returns the literature to its roots, and resolves the dilemma of distance between it and its primary audience context.

Translation is a growing and promising enterprise in Nigerian literature which ought to be encouraged. Before now, Akinwunmi Isola had translated Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman into Yoruba entitled Iku Olokun Esin. Dapo Adeniyi translated D.O. Fagunwa's Irinkerindo Ninu Igbo Elegbeje, Dotun Ogundeji of the University of Ibadan translated Femi Osofisan's Who is Afraid of Solarin into Yoruba as Yeepa, Solarin mbo. Samson O.O. Amali's Onugbo M'loko is written in both English and his native Idoma, Wale Ogunyemi's Obaluaye is equally bi-lingual having been written in English and translated into Yoruba by its author. The translation of literature into indigenous languages may well win wider audiences since in any case, more persons speak these indigenous languages, and are closer to the experiences described in the literature.

Ogunyemi's reading of his first chapter of Igbesi Aiye Okonkwo perhaps underscored the extent to which this is true. His audience was enthralled. They remarked afterwards about how Ogunyemi had succeeded in capturing the sound, the sense, the metronymy of Achebe's English version. That audience was right with its enthusiastic response. Ogunyemi in translating Achebe plumbs the very depths of the Yoruba language to match the essence of Achebe's Things Fall Apart. He retains in translation, the simplicity of the original, the rhythm, the details, the drama, the ritual, the ceremony, the characterisation; nothing is lost except perhaps aspects of Achebe's word play. In obvious deference to the challenges of the task, Ogunyemi however retains some Igbo words in the original such as the names of trees and drums and birds: for example, he could not find Yoruba equivalents for agbala, udala, eke, udu, ogene but in general, what makes this contribution memorable is how deftly, Igbesi Aiye Okonkwo establishes the correspondences in the African cultural experience.

The story as told in Yoruba is a story that Yoruba speakers and audiences can relate to, for in the end, beyond being Igbo, Okonkwo is a universal man, an archetype embodying a broad range of humanity and experiences that all men share irrespective of tongue or space. Ogunyemi conveys the tragedy in another language placing the right accent on Okonkwo's psychological stress, his determination to amount to something and banish the memory and example of his lazy father, Unoka. But he is soon caught up with his own hubris, his unbridled anger, and his lack of a sense of timing and proportion, and his story tragically. Igbesi Aiye Okonkwo is both a moral tale as much as it teaches all its African readers something about the past and the making and unmaking of African societies and cultures.

In translating Chinua Achebe's work, Wale Ogunyemi (MON), has perhaps found for himself, another area of meaningful engagement with literature. He has been a significant presence in Nigerian literature and arts for over 40 years. He began his career as an actor, then he became established as a playwright and author of such memorable works as The Vow, The Divorce, Langbodo, Kiriji, Ijaiye War, Obaluaye, Queen Amina of Zazzau. His established province is the writing of historical plays and social dramas of piercing relevance. In more recent years, he has expanded his scope to include the writing of film scripts including the immensely successful Sango and the second part of Ayo ni Mo fe.

Ogunyemi also writes for television and all this while, he has been a staffer of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan where he is currently a Fellow of the Institute. He stands a good chance of becoming the translator of all Achebe's works into the Yoruba language, all he needs to do is to go on to the next Achebe's novel and then the next. There are five novels in all: Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savanah (1987).

I managed to secure a short interview with the translator. Oteh Patrick-Jude, a graduate of the University of Ibadan and a Jos-based theatre practitioner had taken five of us including Chief Wale Ogunyemi, Nduka Otiono, and Sunday Enessi Ododo to an eatery which he runs in addition to his theatre business on Ahmadu Bello Way. We sat on the balcony of the restaurant overlooking Ahmadu Bello Way, savouring the spectacle of the to-ings and fro-ings below as we threw dollops of pounded yam down our throats, washed down with bottles of beer, egusi and draW soup and delicious parts of goat and chicken meat, complete with all the motions, belching, picking our teeth, mixing lunch with dialogue.

"Chief," I had asked, "how long did it take you to complete the translation ?"

"Three months," he replied.

"Only three months ? You must have encountered some difficulties. Was it very difficult conveying Achebe's message in Yoruba ?"

"No. It wasn't difficult. In fact, I enjoyed it. You know, I have always done translation work for the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan. From English to Yoruba. From Yoruba to English. So, it is something I have always done at the Institute. And besides, when I wrote Obaluaye, I also translated it into Yoruba. I recall that when I did that translation, R.G. Armstrong had looked at one particular sentence in it, and he argued that I got it wrong. I told him to take another look at the translation, in the end, he agreed with me. The things about translation is that you have to be part of the language, you have to know it very deeply".

"But I don't agree that it was as easy as you are making it appear."

"I only had difficulties with the title of the novel. How do I translate Things Fall Apart into Yoruba ? It would sound somehow, I would have had to use my local dialect and not standard Yoruba, and even then, the ordinary reader will be confused. The German translation of the novel is titled Okonkwo. So I decided to title it Igbesi Aiye Okonkwo: The Life and Times of Okonkwo. You know in chapter 25 of Things Fall Apart, the District Officer had promised to write a book on the trial of Okonkwo and his people. I also had problems translating that into Yoruba. In the end, I settled for Ilaloju awon Kogbede Apa Isale Odo Oya. But apart from those two instances, it wasn't difficult at all. When you read the translation, you'd see".

"I am reading it. I have been reading it since yesterday. I try to follow the tone marks".

"Yes, that is deliberate. I think Igbesi Aiye Okonkwo is the first Yoruba book to be completely tone marked from the beginning to the end. I used a linguistic typewriter to type the work, so I tone marked everything. I was taught tone-marking by Armstrong".

"Could you give me an idea of how you worked on the novel ?"

"I first of all did a first draft. Then a second draft. Both drafts were done long-hand. Then I sat in front of my linguistic typewriter and produced the manuscript. I have bound copies of all drafts and even the bound copy of the corrected galley proofs. You know, I could die, and people may be interested in these things".

"The translation, was it your idea ? Did you seek Prof. Achebe's permission ?"

"No, I only did the translation. The work was commissioned by Prof. Abiola Irele to be published by his New Horn Press. He was the one who negotiated the permission with Chinua Achebe. In fact, if you look at the book, you'd see that it had been ready since 1997. But New Horn Press could not launch it because they were waiting for Prof. Irele to come home from the United States so that the book could be launched. But that was 1997 and Abacha was in power. Irele didn't want to come home with Abacha in power. So, the launching was delayed. But now that Achebe's 70th birthday is being celebrated, we thought we should no longer delay the release of the book".

"I see that the book has the same cover as Things Fall Apart and that you have provided a summary of each chapter and a glossary of difficult Yoruba phrases at the end of the book. I consider your effort an important contribution".

"Thank you very much".
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Gen Sani Abacha

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Apparently, there have been Igbo translations which haven't been published yet. I believe Prof. Achebe wanted to personally carry out a translation in his own Ogidi dialect rather than the Igbo Izugbe(Standard Igbo). There was also a translation supposedly carried out by a Maazi Izchukwu Nwanko, known as Ihe Aghasaa. I can't find the weblink anymore.

Here's a link to an old thread(2008) dealing with this issue here on Naijarules:
Igbo version of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart coming soon

On nairaland, there's an old forum discussing this issue here: Link.

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Gen Sani Abacha

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We should cross-translate in our local languages more of our own books. Thanks for this bro.
My pleasure bro. I would like to suggest:

1) Shaihu Umar: A Novel - By the late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, yes Naija's first indigenous head of government.
A fictional account the Trans-Saharan slave trade, seen through the eyes of a young lad, the eponymous hero who was enslaved. It was written entirely in Hausa, but has an English translation. One of the first modern era Hausa language novels. - Translations from Hausa into Igbo, Yoruba, Efik-Ibibio and so on... would be in order.

2) Omenuko by Pita Nwana - The first full length Igbo language novel, though it has an English language translation online somewhere. Needs to be translated into Hausa, Yoruba e.t.c from Igbo.

3) Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole by D.O. Fagunwa - One of the earliest Yoruba language full length novels(I'm not exactly sure if it is the very first). Although Professor Wole Soyinka had translated it into English as 'The Forest of a Thousand Daemons', translations from Yoruba into Hausa, Igbo and other languages would be nice.

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