Dispatches: African Literature in Translation

By Geoff Wisner


In the course of writing my book A Basket of Leaves, I looked for books that told the best stories I could find about each of the fifty-four countries in Africa. They included novels, short story collections, memoirs, travel and adventure tales, and even some poetry. About half of the books I chose were by Africans, while the others were by people who spent time on the continent.

I paid little or no attention to whether the books I chose had been translated, but when it was time for the final tallies I found that about half the books by Africans had been translated from French, Portuguese, or Arabic. (None was originally written in an indigenous language, a fact I'd like to consider in a later post.) Considering that so much of today's African literature is written in English, and considering the various barriers that prevent us from seeing more of the rest, this seemed like a pretty good showing.

In the weeks to come, I'd like to talk about some of the books I included in A Basket of Leaves, others that I didn't, and others that I've read since then. But just to kick things off, and give some sense of the pleasures that are out there, here are the African works in translation that I chose to highlight in my own book:

The Savage Night by Mohammed Dib
Algerian White by Assia Djebar

Mayombe by Pepetela

Mission to Kala by Mongo Beti

Congo (Democratic Republic of the)
Between Tides by V.Y. Mudimbe

Congo (Republic of the)
The Fire of Origins by Emmanuel Dongala
The Seven Solitudes of Lorsa Lopez by Sony Labou Tansi

Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahfouz

The Dark Child by Camara Laye

Ivory Coast
The Suns of Independence by Ahmadou Kourouma

The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

The Sand Child by Tahar ben Jelloun

Voices Made Night by Mia Couto
Dumba Nengue by Lina Magaia

São Tomé and Principe
The Heinemann Book of African Women's Poetry edited by Stella and Frank Chipasula

God's Bits of Wood by Sembène Ousmane
Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane
So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

The Scorpion by Albert Memmi

Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa. He also blogs at http://www.geoffwisner.com.



Geoff, I will be very interested to hear why you chose some books over others. For example, why Djebar’s “Algerian White” instead of, say, “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment.” Or why the particular Mahfouz or Memmi. I’ll also be interested in what other considerations you may have considered in assembling your book - a thought of gender parity perhaps? a generational representation (i.e. Achebe or Adichie?) and so on. And what do you as the author bring to the choices you make. And so on. Will be watching for future blog entries! (will that be here or on your website?)
COMMENT: Dear Professor Filer,


Thank you! My book is available at all the usual online booksellers (links are at www.geoffwisner.com).



Books from or about Uganda that are worth checking out include Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa, Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana, The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden, The Mountain People by Colin M. Turnbull, and (for fun, but it’s well researched) the heist caper Kahawa by Donald E. Westlake. (I mention only books I’ve read myself.)
COMMENT: Dear Lois,



I’ll repeat here some of what I wrote to you by email, so others can see. Future blog entries on African literature in translation will be here at Words Without Borders, though I might repeat them (or at least link to them) at www.geoffwisner.com.



I don’t want to make my posts too much about me and my book, so I don’t plan to say a lot about the selection process for A Basket of Leaves. The short answer is that I included what I liked best, with some consideration for gender and distinctive points of view,


including the viewpoints of Africans and non-Africans, and not much concern


for prizes or the conventional wisdom on what’s important. I did read Women


of Algiers and So Vast the Prison, and a number of other books by Mahfouz,


but the books I included were those I responded to most. (Other books I’ve


read and liked are listed in the back of my book.)



I say more about the selection process in the introduction to A Basket of


DATE: 02/10/2009 4:22:16 PM


Dear Prof Wisner
I am putting together a course on World literatures in English translation and was getting rather frustrated that all African writings seemed to be in the language of the ‘colonizer’ for want of a better word.
I am RATHER grateful for your info.
Do share more when poss.
my email is [email protected]
Prof Sunaina Kumar
Prof of English
School of Humanities
Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU)
New Delhi, India

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