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Introduction by Wanjeri Gakuru

Introduction by Wanjeri Gakuru

The second anthology in Jalada Africa’s Translation Series was launched on October 1st 2023, the same day Nigeria marked 53 years since the proclamation of independence from British rule.  

We selected this special day in honour of our Featured Author, Prof. Wole Soyinka who hails from the nation. He has been a lifelong political activist and agitator for better governance who was even imprisoned for 22 months in 1967 during the Biafra war. 

Prof. Soyinka has written numerous plays, essays, poetry, memoirs, operas, short stories and three novels: “The Interpreters” (1965), “Season of Anomy” (1973) and “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth” (2021). He has also worked as a translator, making the first novel written in the Yorùbá language by Chief Daniel Fágúnwà available in English as A Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga.

Prof. Soyinka also holds the distinction of being Africa’s first Nobel Laureate for Literature, winning the prize in 1986. 

It is a unique and challenging task to render a single text into as many languages as possible. For us, this journey started in 2015 when former Jalada Managing Editor, Munyao Kilolo conceptualised the series. The first issue, quite fittingly, featured a Gĩkũyũ fable, Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ by Prof. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. This story has since been translated into 100 languages.

This was a historic milestone, an absolute first in African publishing which we celebrated in 2021 during the two-day Jalada Language & Translations Symposium where 40 participants, including writers, poets, performers, scholars and editors gathered together to discuss how literature and translation could be tools for cultural preservation and how indigenous languages could push back against colonial legacies. These discussions are available on our Youtube page.

As I took over the mantle in 2021, a year into one of the most destabilising global events in recent memory, I began to see how the Translation Series also served as a legacy project that preserve and celebrate the works and ideas of Africa’s literary giants while also engendering intergenerational and cross-cultural conversations. 

Prof. Soyinka’s poem, “Mandela Comes to Leah”, engages with dissidence across space and time. It was written in 2019 as a companion piece to a special bi-lingual pamphlet written for World Poetry Day in Italy. 

The three figures within the piece; Malala Yousefzai, Leah Sharibu and Nelson Mandela are luminaries. Deliberately selected for exhibiting tremendous bravery and, in the case of the young women, to highlight the predicament of the woman in this age of religious fundamentalism. 

In just 100 words, Prof. Soyinka paints a stirring picture of how each one refused to kowtow even under the most difficult, life-threatening circumstances. Each one saying “no” to their oppressor. 

We are deeply honoured to have been gifted this piece for the new issue. I cannot thank enough the generous men and women who have contributed to the translation work. We have over 50 languages in this issue representing more than 20 countries across the globe.

It’s everything from Akan to Korean, Belizean Creole, Runyankore, Dutch, Marakwet, Nepali and Shetlandic. It is a vast and beautiful Tower of Babel. A good number have sent in audio recordings of their translations as well. This ensures greater accessibility of the text and ideas within the work. 

As with all of Jalada’s offerings, this new issue will be published on our website for free access by all interested parties. However, the Internet is a pen with many hungry animals. And, in this age of A.I., where learning is by consumption of huge data sets without honouring the artists and thinkers who created the work, I hold a genuine fear of unleashing new data points that could later undermine our original genius. 

However, this fear is trumped by the necessity of this work. While we have many active speakers of our vernaculars within the older generation and there exists music and broadcast stations transmitting our languages into the world, we still don’t have enough literary texts in our mother tongues. There aren’t enough stories, books and academic writing in our vernaculars. 

We remain in the deep shadows cast by the invading and pillaging forces from our past.  

In the words of French-Tunisian writer and essayist, Albert Memmi: “The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community. Colonization usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.” 

We are glad to be among the exciting and valiant efforts to publish short stories, novels and children’s literature in our vernaculars but millions of people still only access text in their languages through the bible. This is too narrow of a vessel and our languages are disappearing. The statistics are astounding: every 40 days a language dies, half of all the 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world are projected to become extinct by the end of the century.

In the face of such dire realities, Jalada’s Translation Project then becomes a vehicle for representation; it becomes witness and archive, a reminder that our languages exist and we exist and our ideas and the music within our mother tongues matters. 

As Kilolo once put it, this series “increases the spectrum of African expression” and with UNESCO’s declaration of 2022-2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, I am honoured to have worked with so many generous and talented translators and language enthusiasts to put a little bit of ourselves into the world. 

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