Richard Oduor Oduku is a post-cynical humanist, a researcher, writer, editor and poet. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology and works as a Research Consultant, in Nairobi. He has been published widely and was longlisted for the 2015 BSFA Awards, and shortlisted for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. He is a Founding Member of Jalada Africa, is Program Manager for the Trust, and was the Festival Coordinator for the 2017 Jalada Mobile Festival. He is a Board Member of Youth on the Move (NGO, Kenya), and Nonfiction Editor at Panorama – The Journal for Intelligent Travel, among others.
We caught up with him at the SOAS African Literatures Conference that marked 55th anniversary of the Makerere African Writers Conference of 1962…
A. One of the challenges with publishing in African languages is that there are so many languages, how do you get around this?
R.O.O It is a challenge but also an opportunity. The continent is home to thousands of languages, but there is minimal literary production in most of these languages, and literatures exist mainly in oral and other performance arts. I think we have been socialized to believe that literatures can only exist in
some ‘dominant’ colonial languages, and that our own languages are not complex enough or suitable for capturing our imaginations, realities and ways of being. It doesn’t help that our educational systems and publishers have accepted most of the justifications for non-production in African languages. I remember attending a publisher’s conference at Michael Joseph’s Centre in
Nairobi and one of the justifications given by a traditional publisher for not publishing stories in African languages was that there was no market. While partially true, the justification evades the fact that a market cannot exist when there is no product. Africans cannot buy and read what is not in the market. Every market is created to satisfy a need. If we believe there is readership for stories written in African languages, then the primary duty is encouraging writing and publishing in them.
I believe we need to espouse a broader view, an understanding that language is a tool, a vehicle, for transporting cultural wealth, cultural meanings, our meanings, from one culture to another. Africa has a great wealth of stories. Writing in African languages is one of the ways of sharing this undiluted wealth with the world. The other issue is variances in how a single language is presented in text, that there are no standard grammar or vocabulary for African languages. I don’t think this is much of a problem. I view it as a consequence of minimal production in African languages. If writing in these languages was to increase it would standardise itself through the editing process. If we look back in history to when the Bible was being written in African languages, there was an extensive framework in which groups of languages were brought together and standard vocabularies and expressions were collected. This was possible because missionaries were trying to create a standard document for a standard purpose, a religious system, a single flow of information. If you have a catholic centre with a parish, bishops, and all the other relevant catholic operational structures, you have a single channel of information flow, but when you have diverse publishers in a market who have diverse knowledge of one or many languages you are going to encounter certain spellings that are not all the same.
The mere fact that you encounter disagreements over such things as spellings show that progress is already being made, meaning standard forms are naturally inevitable over time. Then again spellings change all the time as a language develops, they are not constant, look at English, you have British English and American English, it’s the same argument, and it’s not a problem, these are varieties that can be explained as they are known to come from those places. I think in most cases we create problems out of things that just need an explanation. And in the case of African languages, codification is still relatively new, not for all, but for some, so these issues will be teased out as time goes on, as long as there is a willingness to produce literature in these languages. In both the Languages Issue and the Translations Issue, every single piece of writing passed from the writer to editors and proof-readers to guide the editing process before being approved for publication.
A. How did you end up publishing The Upright Revolution?
R.O.O After the Language Issue which was published in over 20 languages, we realized that we could not increase readership without tackling the issue of translations. Africa is a home to thousands of languages. Without translations it is impossible to share the wealth stored in a story written in one African language with another African language. We came to the realization that languages and translations have to be bonded together as a single project.
Initially our idea was to try to translate what we had published in the Languages Issue. Instead, we changed the approach to an Issue that features one prominent author. We would solicit an original story that has not been published elsewhere, and then this story would be the primer or template
for translations. The choice of Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o came to us naturally. First, he is an eminent author and scholar with a global reputation and standing. Second, he has dedicated his entire life to languages.
Nobody can talk about writing in African languages without talking about Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. We didn’t know how to get to him directly and communicate our request, so we turned to Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ and asked if he could pass something on to the Professor. We sent Mukoma an email
detailing the entire approach and were surprised when Professor accepted our requests and set the wheels of the entire project in motion. In the end, the Translations Issue 01, featured a fable, Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ (or The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright), translated into 33 languages. But many people were not happy that their languages were not featured so we opened it up to be a continuous work. We relinquish tight control on the number of translations we desired and gave space to Africans speaking diverse African languages to collaboratively work with us to increase the representation of our languages in the digital space. The process continues. Currently, the story has been translated into 65 languages; 44 of these are African languages.
A. Do you know if all the translations have been from the English?
R.O.O Not all translations were from the English version. We intentionally allowed for mutability. The idea was to translate from the language you know best. Stories change as they travel across physical and language boundaries. A visiting Ugandan can pick up a story in Nairobi’s streets, but when they travel to Kampala and have to use their local language to retell the story, there are certain elements that will change, certain embellishments may be added or removed or twisted, even if the core tale remains the same. The changing of stories from one place to another, from one tongue to another, is a natural process that is deeply embedded in our evolutionary pathways as humans. This is why we encouraged translators to start from the language they know best, even if it was the French or Arabic version. For example, the translation in Somali was from Arabic, so it was neither from English nor Swahili, and I think from Arabic we got the Kazak. If one was to map these webs, one could visualize the mutations. A translation need not necessary be a literal copy of the original. A good translator understands that they are not only translating language but culture as well. As such, they treat the material before them with tender understanding, knowing fully well that they are bringing their full being and experiences into the work, doing a re-interpretation. No two people, even those translating to a similar language, can come up with similar translations. Besides we are interested in how a story changes as it travels across language boundaries.
I think a good example of what I’m trying to say are the many translations of the first sentence in Kafka’s Metamorphosis from German to English. There is a rich scholarship on “ungeheuren Ungeziefer”. Was it a “horrible vermin”, “monstrous vermin”, “gigantic insect”, “monstrous insect”, or “monstrous cockroach”? There are possibly hundreds of translations of what Kafka imagined and wrote. What, however, cannot be every translator was being influenced by their own cultural understanding of that strange monstrosity. Another example are the many ways English translators have rendered Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey for their contemporary readers. I can only imagine what variations have emerged over the years as translators in other languages, say French, Japanese, Austrian or Arabic, among others, use the different English translations as their primary text. So, in a sense, our decision to allow for mutations indirectly gives us a chance to learn about what stylistic
and cultural elements translators bring to the translation.
A. How are you able to see who is reading what?
R.O.O We are able to get the statistics for what has been read and where it’s been read and how many times. When we published the languages issue the English translations were not the most read, perhaps because the initial curiosity and interest of having something published in your African
language. There were high peaks in traffic to the site to stories written in African languages. We interpreted this to mean that there is a vacuum, that even though some people may want to read stories written in their languages, they are simply not there, so you see those peaks and the a levelling off. If we had a developed and healthy market, we’d be able to sustain those peaks by
having regular releases in those languages, so that you can anticipate the engagement of your audience and sustain their interest. But then also with the internet and devices, those are the things changing the literature market,
most people would start reading a story when they are in the matatu or start it in the office then finish it on the way home when there is a traffic jam, so we need to get to know this changing landscape really well so we can cater to it better. For example, the Swedish translation of The Upright Revolution was put in print and over 200 copies were sold in Sweden within a few hours, they sold out in fact, in Gambia it was also printed in three Gambian languages and they were all sold too, so we have been doing this online strategy so that once you know what the market looks like you can then create a hybrid with the print issue as you know how popular certain translations are as some are being read more than others, so you know who and where to target. We were in discussions with Chimurenga in South Africa as well to start thinking about printing translations in Southern African languages.
A. What are some of the challenges you see to publishing in Africa today
R.O.O The literary community is not doing enough to understand our audience and our market. We can learn from businesses that are doing this effectively. A good example are big telecommunication companies such as Safaricom in Kenya that are making billions in profits because of their ability to understand and meet the demands of the market. Granted that there are differences between the publishing and telecommunication markets, the book is still a product, and we need to look at the operational and corporate practises out there in other markets, scrutinise the best practices, understand what they are doing to make sure their services appeal to the customers, and upgrade
our strategies beyond the possibilities in traditional publishing. For instance, with regard to the production costs, there is a lot of outsourcing, particularly to Asia, maybe at some point we will be able to bring those production processes to our own countries. At the end of the day we need to think beyond, and see what we can do to fully capture our markets.
The book format, for example, remains resistant to change, yes we have audiobooks and eBooks, but the physical book remains popular, and giants like Amazon have seized this opportunity and now control how many people access books. Traditional publishing will continue to exist, but as Africans
we need to situate ourselves in the innovative mediums of the present and the future. As millions and millions are connected through the internet, we expect consumption of African literature through non-traditional formats to increase. The mobile revolution will force us to view the Smartphone as the site for the mass consumption of African literatures in digital formats.
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