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from the January 2020 issue

The Reader’s Openness to the Unfamiliar

In examining whether international literature can make us better travelers, Emmanuel Iduma, a writer who splits his time between Lagos and New York, takes a deep dive into the headwater of Igbo, his own estrangement from the language, and the intentions of writers and translators alike.

The introductory paragraph of Omenuko, Pita Nwana’s 1933 novel, the first to be written in Igbo, reads as follows:

N’akụkụ obodo anyị n’ime Africa, okwu a dị ka iwu e nyere enye; a na-asị na ọ buru na onye ọ bula agaa n’obodo ọzọ biri n’ebe ahụ dị ka ọbịa, ma ọ dị mma, ma ọ bụ onye ebere, ma ọ bụ onye amara, ma ọ bụ onye na-ekpe ikpe n’ụzọ ziri ezi, mbge dum ihe ụfọdụ ga na-echetara ya na ya onwe ya bụ ọbịa, n’ala ahụ, ọ ga na-ejikere onwe ya na ọ ghaghi ịla obodo ebe a mụrụ ya. Mgbe ọ bụla a tụrụ ya n’ilu, ma a gwawara ya agwawa na ọ bụ obịa, ọ ghaghi ịla.

This is how I translated it:

In the part of our land inside Africa, this saying is like a law: if anybody goes to another place to live there as a visitor, whether such a person is good, or the person is a person of mercy, whether such a person is graceful, whether such a person does what is just on a broad road, on several occasions circumstances will remind such person that he or she is a visitor in that land. Such a person will begin to prepare to return soon to the land where he or she was born. Whenever this saying is expressed, if they do not tell such a person he or she is a visitor, he or she will not leave.

This is how it was translated by Frances W. Pritchett:

Around our town in Africa, this belief is accepted as law: if anyone goes to another town and lives there as a guest, even if things are good, or he is a merciful person, or a gracious one, or a fair judge, he will always be reminded that he is a guest in that land and he will be preparing himself for his inevitable return to the town of his birth. At any time he may be told, proverbially or directly, that he is a guest and must not fail to return home.

The distinctions between both translations are less substantive than they are technical and syntactical, even if mine suffers from a lack of concision. We express the same sentiment: a person remains a stranger, regardless of how good or important they become in a place away from home. But in some of the translated sentences, particularly the last, there is an obvious contrast in our grasp and mastery of the language.

Once I consulted Pritchett’s translation, I realized that because I hadn’t understood that “a tụrụ ya n’ilu” referred to the subject of the sentence, as did “gwawara ya agwawa,” I ended up with a conditional statement instead of a declarative one.

I am under no illusion as to my skill as an Igbo-English translator. That paragraph, in fact, was the first time I’d attempted any translation. I undertook the exercise to test my comprehension of the language—and, perhaps, the degree of my alienation from it.

In his 1999 lecture, “Tomorrow is Uncertain: Today is Soon Enough,” delivered at the Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri in Nigeria, Chinua Achebe tells of the missionary fervor of a minister known as T. J. Dennis. Dennis began to translate the Bible into “Union Igbo” less than six years after he arrived in Igboland. Though there were several dialects of the language, he forged ahead with a plan to translate the Bible into a centralized one, borrowing words from other dialects. If he were merely working to translate the Bible into a different language, that would be agreeable. But he ventured further, writing in the Church Missionary Review of the poverty of the Igbo language, declaring it barbarous.

Achebe says in his lecture: “The story of Dennis and the Union Bible has been a great regret to me in several ways. But the greatest one of all is how the opportunity the Igbo Bible had to be the headwater of Igbo literature was thrown away.”

Can international literature make us better travelers? Who are the supposed beneficiaries? What pitfalls await? These are complex questions. For me, Igbo literature, though written in a language I am yet to master, isn’t international, even if it is to some degree foreign. I might, then, extend my reflection to include work written in all languages I am not yet competent in, whether international or not (the indigenous languages of the Americas come to mind). In the case of Dennis, the complexities extend to the motives for translating in the first place and the translator’s dismissive attitude toward both the Igbo language and his audience. In addition, Dennis sought to retranslate what was already a work of international literature—and he was not doing so directly from the original. To what extent had previous translators responsible for the Bible’s global journey inscribed their own bias onto the text that Dennis would bring into Igbo and that had informed his worldview?

Sometime this year I will embark on a journey through nearly a dozen towns of southeastern Nigeria, to research a book I am writing. The ethnic composition of those towns, and the language spoken, is predominantly Igbo. I will arrive with a sense of alienation from Igbo, a determination to immerse myself in the language, and a mastery of English. The matter for me, as I suppose it was for Dennis, is the terms of such an Igbo-English exchange. On my trip I hope to treat Igbo with the same attention I have paid English all my life—to consider, for instance, the subtle shifts in meaning in a word as it is used in a range of Igbo dialects. For while international literature can enable nuanced, cross-cultural understanding, the reader’s openness to the unfamiliar is but one component: what is also at stake are the attitudes and competencies of those involved in making the exchange possible in the first place.

© 2020 by Emmanuel Iduma. All rights reserved.

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