on 28 July 2003
I am pleased to see another English translation of Ahmadou Kourouma's great work, En attendent le vote des betes sauvages, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, translated by Frank Wynne. The content of this great novel has been reviewed many times; I would like to address problems of translation.
I think Wynne's version is the better one--more musical, more of a pleasure to read than the American translation, by Carrol Coates, which seems stilted and academic. It would be interesting to discuss many aspects of the Wynne translation, such as whether to adhere to the author's style with regard to verb tenses, sentence length, omission of articles, capitalization or lack thereof, repetition of words and structures, creation of neologisms, use of foreign words, and so on, but that would take many more than the allowed number of words, so I'll concentrate on the translation of a culture.
When we work with texts dealing with our own culture, we already have a store of intuitive knowledge that keeps mistakes of tone, meaning, and vocabulary to a minimum and preserves the context effortlessly. Working in a different culture requires not just a dictionary but research. I think both translators fell a bit short in this respect.
These examples are from the first chapter. As the hunters sit in a circle to begin the first vigil (FW)/sumu (CC), CC says their hunting cloaks are bedecked with gris-gris, etc. The garment is not a cloak but a quite distinctive long shirt or tunic. (Kourouma's book for children about hunters has a good photo of a hunter's tunic; see below.) FW leaves this garment out altogether and says that the grigri are attached to the Phrygian bonnets. This is not the case. The hunters are wearing rifles not slung over the shoulder but attached to a bandolier. It is part of the uniform, the costume, the tradition. And the rifle itself? A "fusil de traite." A slave rifle? A trade rifle? or a home-made rifle, as Kourouma defines it in Une journée . . . ? Both translators say the hunters are holding fly-swatters. They are actually ceremonial fly-whisks, better for brushing flies away than killing them and part of the "uniform." The ones I have seen are beautifully made, the whisk part made of the hair (perhaps the tail) of an animal. And, the hunters are sitting in a circle; both CC and the author say "cross-legged," but FW says "crouched."
The hunters are gathered in Koyaga's garden. The author says in the "apatam" of the garden. CC uses that word and would have us refer to his glossary at the back for enlightenment. There it is defined as a rough shelter. FW leaves it out. The Dictionnaire Universel Francophone (available on-line) describes a traditional structure built to receive guests-a large mat held up by posts. A photo on another website shows a very attractive open building with a thatch roof designed for community get-togethers. I imagine that the appearance of an apatam depends on the means of the person who builds it, and that Koyaga would probably have a very nice one built on his grounds. I would use the word "pavilion."
Another area of misunderstanding is the environment of the "Paleos," the montagnards, the naked men. The author says they live in "fortins." Anthropologists have struggled to describe these well-defended homesteads: "strongholds" and "little fortresses" are two terms used. Both translators call them "fortified villages," but for the most part they are not villages but individual homesteads, or compounds, with one man and one or more wives, perhaps some relatives, with sleeping quarters, kitchens, granaries, brewing huts, and so on, all enclosed by a stone wall and often another wall of thorny plants. Thus, the French had to conquer the area mostly one family at a time. Several "fortins" might cluster to form a village, but each would still have to be taken singly. This type of homestead (whether fortified or not) is usually called a compound and is common in Africa, with many variations in style and layout.
Translation of the proverbs is another ticklish problem. Some are difficult indeed, making it all the more important to get the easier ones right. Here again, some research into the plants, animals, and situations mentioned is profitable. I won't detail the examples I found of translation based on inexact understanding of what's being talked about except for one: the one about the canary falling on your head (FW). A "canari" is not a bird but a container, usually pottery, here used for carrying water (on the head). If it breaks and the water spills, you might as well use it as wash water.
Translators face a daunting task. Every word, every combination of words, is an opportunity for error. And we all do make mistakes-of tone, meaning, vocabulary. But an author of Ahmadou Kourouma's stature deserves a first-rate translation. I don't think either translator worked hard enough.
Demougin, J., ed. Dictionnaire Universel Francophone. Paris: Hachette/Edicef, 1997.
Gassama, Makhily. La langue d'Ahmadou Kourouma. Paris: ACCT/Karthala, 1995.
Kourouma, Ahmadou. Une journée avec Le chasseur, héros africain. Orange: Grandir, 1999.
Middleton, J., editor in chief. Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara. New York: C. Scribner's sons, 1997. 4 Vol.
Seignobos, C. Nord Cameroun, Montagnes et hautes terres. Roquevaire: Editions Parenthèses, 1982.
Seignobos, C. and Olivier Iyébi-Mandjik, Scientific editors. Atlas de la province Extrême-Nord Cameroun. Paris: IRD and Yaoundé: Republic of Cameroon, 2000.