Interview with Dr. Ida Hadjivayanis on Kiswahili Translation

Dr. Ida Hadjivayanis

Translation is a mammoth but necessary task. Oftentimes the translator, who also acts as the mediator between the text and it’s designated readers, brings his or her own understanding to the original text being translated. Though a growing feature within African literature, it is less still talked about. Afrikult. caught up with Dr. Ida Hadjivayanis in 2016  to discuss her Kiswahili translation Alisi Ndani ya Nchi ya Ajabu,  of Alice In Wonderland written by Lewis Carroll.

A. Having recently translated Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland into Kiswahili, what did you find most challenging?

I.H I had to decide who my audience was going to be; once I had decided that it was not the little unexposed children that the previous translator had translated for, it became easier. I was translating for a wide audience, children and hopefully adults; who in today’s world, would be exposed. I now had to tackle the work itself and the first issue were the puns. The work is full of puns, word play, non sense words that somehow make sense in English, how was I going to translate those into Swahili so that the Swahili would have a similar experience as that felt by the English audience. That I think was my main challenge – to offer a similar experience.

What are you most proud of?

I.H I think I’m pretty happy that I was able to finish translating the workJ Though I think that I am really proud that for the most part, I have managed to make the Swahili reader smile. When suddenly, they read a pun and they get it.

Translating literature can go different ways, you mentioned at the Baraza Conference in 2015 that you enjoyed ‘growing the language’ in relation to Kiswahili, could you expand on this?

I.H There were a number of words, turn of phrases, similes even that we don’t have in Swahili, I suddenly had to find an equivalence for these, and often this equivalence would be a word that I would, in a way, make up. For instance, the dodo, we do not have a Swahili term for this bird. It is a popular extinct bird and interestingly it lived on the Indian Ocean – so historically the Swahili would have been familiar with it. Anyway, I believe that Lewis Carroll identified with the bird itself – I’m not sure if he saw himself as someone who was outdated or lazy – but I believe he nicknamed himself Dodo because he stammered and would say his name was – ‘Do –do –dodgson’. Interestingly I also have a pretty bad  stammer, so I really liked this idea of keeping the term dodo. This is why I translated the bird as ‘bata-dodo’. So here, I grew the language.

Why do you think it is important to translate non-African literature into African languages such as Kiswahili?

I.H I think it is rather unfortunate that we have an amazing oral culture that does not always translate into the written. This would, above all else, ensure continuity. I think it is really important that we do this. Also I think that we must translate non African literature into African languages; I felt so proud last year when Alice was translated into Kiswahili, Zulu, Shona, Ndebele, Afrikaans and other African languages. This ensures that our polysystems are also enriched with foreign literatures that we can access through our own languages.

For Swahili, as you are aware, the novel, prose, was initiated through translation. Swahili has always had a rich literary history that was poetic, but it is translation that was the spark that gave us prose. All the early translations have actually been accepted as pieces of Swahili literature. The Swahili talk of the Arabian Nights, Alfu lela ulela, as a Swahili piece of of literature, not as a translation. I believe Mazrui agrees with me here. And classical Swahili authors such as Shaaban Robert were hugely influenced by these first translations. And so we see that translation has been vital in the development of Swahili literature as we know it.

We now have a huge issue with an absence of a reading culture in Swahili. And I fundamentally believe that translations, particularly non African translations can play a huge role in closing this gap.

On literature more generally, as you know Kiswahili is estimated to have over 80m second language speakers, do you think this means the need for literature translation into Kiswahili is set to increase? But also, what do you think this means for literature already in Kiswahili?

I.H I really hope that literature translation into Kiswahili increases. It will only do so if individuals like you and I go out of our way to translate; publishing houses cant afford to commission what they see as a luxury. I hope this helps raise the bar among the more recent Kiswahili authors so that they too can write and get translated into those non-african literatures. When we think about it, not many Swahili works have actually been translated into foreign languages, and this needs to change.

Finally, is there a book that you love that currently isn’t translated into Kiswahili, but should be /hopefully will be in the future?!

I.H I really want to continue with Alice – I’m now eyeing Through a looking glass…

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