The members of Jalada Africa first broached the idea of translations on the fringes of a spoken word event in uptown Nairobi in June 2015. The event showcased, among other acts, dramatized performances of stories and poems published in an earlier edition of the serial Jalada anthology, Sext Me. We had already begun work on the Language issue, our fourth, in a bid to move beyond talk and actively respond to long-running conversations around the lack of publishing in our African languages. With the Language issue, we sought to stretch our limits as writers-turned-publishers of creative works by other African writers. We were determined to do the Language issue at a scale that had never been attempted before. After an intense five months of editing, we published an anthology of essays, short stories, poems and photo essays that featured 23 African languages, alongside Mandarin, Bengali, Hindi and Polish.
Publishing the Language issue introduced us to the infinitely intriguing possibilities of translation for a literary magazine. That late night in a Nairobi bar, talking serious things in the most unserious of environments, we failed to consider the magnitude of the work that lay ahead. But the seed had been sown, and was later nourished by the warm reception for the Language issue. We quickly realized that a submission from Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in our next anthology would give it both historical and ideological grounding. It was this idea that spun into the first Jalada Translations issue.
Our initial communication with Professor Ngũgĩ – through his son, Mukoma, who has been so generous and supportive – was borne out of the need to bridge the gap between his generation and ours. If only we reached out, we could tap into the cultural wealth that distinguished scholars have garnered over the years. We believed that, by this, younger visionaries could access and amplify the voices of those who came before us, leveraging the infinite possibilities of technology and the growing connectivity between peoples of the world.
The enthusiasm for the Translations issue from across the continent was deeply encouraging. We had conceived it with little experience and knowledge of the very complex world of literary translation. Our hope was to draw in translators from across the continent and with all levels of experience, and in just a month, we had forged connections with a diverse set of skilled people – from a Professor in Cape Coast in Ghana, a university student in Somalia, to a recent high school graduate in southern Nigeria. We nurtured a close relationship with all translators and worked to create a warm and supportive environment of sharing, learning and working. This initial kernel grew into a team of more than 100 people, with translators working alongside editors, proofreaders and assessors to fine-tune every single sentence.
There was a new high every day. Texts in African languages I had never seen before kept coming through; I was ecstatic! There were also low moments. A translator lost a friend. Another was involved in an accident and had to be hospitalized. Another was mugged on the streets of Johannesburg and lost valuable personal property including a laptop and a translation in progress. Many translators also battled days of creative crises and doubt. In the end, it was a transformative endeavour for many in the team. I learned that translation is not an industry of manufactured words, but a subtle human relationship with words and language and individuals and love and life. We will forever appreciate the time and effort that translators, editors, proofreaders and assessors across the continent and diaspora volunteered to help Jalada create something that had never been done before.
This mass hard work and sacrifice culminated in the publication of Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ (The Upright Revolution: or Why Humans Walk Upright) by eminent author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in over 30 African languages, effectively making it the single most translated short story in the history of African writing.
Media outlets in at least four continents wrote with the greatest enthusiasm about the achievement and impact of what we had done. And, for me personally, it was then that I began to understand the true significance of the process, not out of prior knowledge or experience, but out of love and the faith that all languages are equal. I stand safe in the knowledge that I have attained a language conscience, and hopeful that this language awakening will do the same for millions of Africans who can easily access wonderful stories in their own languages on any device.
Visit Africa as a Country to read Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ’s response to Jalada’s translation of his father’s work.
Find out about more great African literature in translation at Africa Writes 2016, 1 – 3 July.