By Dapo Adeniyi
Heart-warming is the news of the completion of yet another English translation of the novels of the late Yoruba writer, D. O. Fagunwa by no less than the author of his very first translation, Wole Soyinka. Good news because, Fagunwa is not an easy writer to translate, especially knowing that translating his peculiarly flavorous style of narration demands much more than stringing words together in a new lingual surrounding. What needs to come with the baggage must include the appropriate sounding of the speech in its original form, otherwise words may travel with the translator to his target language environment but leaving much behind. And what blatantly refuses or resists relocation would sometimes differ from narrative to narrative.
In the immediate work under reference, there are long sentential structures over-laden with similes. In Irinkerindo, translated by the writer, there is the deliberate or what I tried elsewhere to describe as Fagunwa’s insistence on a keen farcical edge.
In Ogboju Ode first of all, and also in the rest of the Yoruba writer’s fictional engagements, there is the phonaesthetic, the drumming with words; a rendering which sounds quite apt in its own natural tonal settings but dithers, disobeys the aural pattern in a different linguistic universe.
Soyinka describes an element of this as a matching of sound and action. His strategy in that first translation was to look for auxiliaries where the translator felt they served the essential purpose better than their exact English equivalents.
In other words, no one would approach Fagunwa with the mind of translating him without ensuring that he sounds right in the English text, and that takes quite a lot. In my own case, I translated one passage at a time, then read over and over to friends who had been familiar with the Yoruba text to see how they fared, thereby revising and revising until something nearly close was approached.
What a lot of critics who slammed Soyinka over the first of Fagunwa’s trilogy failed to realise was that, translating Fagunwa is like translating no other. It is partly a business of adapting, of appropriating, of multiple if not desperate attempts at encapsulating; a complete creative voyage, which was why they complained that there was too much of the translator in the work, without recognising how much we owe to Soyinka’s pioneering effort. It is the reason that there have been rare translations of Fagunwa, which I suspect is not the same as a few attempts at Fagunwa. It is just that, only a few amassed the confidence to approach completion. I mean, of what value would be a translation attempted by a scholarly mind that produces a clinical prose which leaves behind all the flavouring of the original mode of speech?
It may sound excessive to say, but statistically evident based on proof of a very low turn-out of translations in this milieu: regular theories about translation, devised on the experience of translating mostly from one European language to another, do not apply to the experience of Yoruba translations. The creative and intellectual contribution from the translator, without attempting to diminish the original author in any way, far outweighs what goes into their trans-European language counterparts. The former is more densely collaborative, creatively participatory than in the latter. I wonder how long it would take to have that well-acknowledged master of children’s stories, J. F. Odunjo, translated into English, in spite of the deceptive lucidity of their richly succinct tales, moded for imparting moral education to the young.
The translator’s decision to retain Yoruba names of towns, spirit personages etc coined by Fagunwa was made I believe in recognition of the fact that, a significant readership of the translation would be speakers of the Yoruba language who seek to experience the same text they have been familiar with in its new form. Next to those are the Yoruba-born speakers who are not good readers of the language and others of the diaspora with very scant knowledge of their mother-tongue. Moreover, there is a feeling that the original – names, pseudonyms and terminologies – evokes that tempts their retention in the new rendition. Soyinka of course introduces his translations of such, often in elucidatory terms, in a bid to drive as close as possible to their original aesthetic delights.
I will like to bear witness that no choice, however close to the original, is ever completely satisfactory. The translation of many expressions, even as delicately and deftly as they’ve been given by Soyinka from his enormous pouch of English words and expressions, still leaves the translator and his readers who have a knowledge of both languages with the feeling that something somehow has been lost to translation. In this translation of Igbo Olodumare, I particularly enjoy the translation of such expressions as “The Forest of the Lord of Deities” for “Igbo Olodumare”; “Akara-ogun, the man wedded to food to the gates of death” for “Akara-ogun, Abolonje ku”; “minnows of the air” for “alapandede”; “python of rage” for “ojola ibinu”; “The Forest of Impenetrable Silence” for “Igbo Idakeroro”; “Tiny Fiend of the Border” for “Esu-kekere-ode” etc.
In Fagunwa’s novels, names are not just names, but are indicative of character, suggestive about the nature of the person, from the human type to the otherworldly. Names evoke interest in the character well in advance and through speech and deed, they eventually fulfil their call. The Tiny Fiend of the Border is one such example, a malevolent being who solely inhabits an entire forest. His home in the Forest of Impenetrable Silence is a habitation to no other than himself because of the fierceness of his temperament. The description preceding his manifestation and the voice of his speech are typical of how Fagunwa creates some of his most gripping narratives.
Esu-kekere-ode meets the hero whose unwelcome presence is greeted with contempt and seen as a real affront. He gives the following address: “Who are you? What are you? What are you worth? Of what are you made? How are you rated? What do you seek? What do you want? What are you looking for? What do you see? What’s is in your head? Where do you call home? What earth do you tread answer me? Surely you have courted trouble this day. You have climbed the tree beyond its branches, you have fallen from a great height into a well, you have heedlessly swallowed poison, you saw an overcrowded farm yet proceeded to plant groundnuts in it! You untutored man, you know that the lion and the antelope cannot set eyes on each other, that the leopard and cattle can never be friends, even as the day when the cat glimpses the mouse is the day the mouse’s existence ends. You saw me, I saw you, I approached you approached, you did not commence a rapid dialogue with your legs, rather you swaggered towards me in disrespect. You mean you are not struck with fear? Your heart did not leap out in fight? Have you never heard of me? Never heard people speak of me? The skulls of those greater than you have served me for a cooking pot, their bones littering the corner of my room, the rib cages of such unteachable ones serve as stools within my house…”
Any wonder Fagunwa is such a reading delight and was the most popular writer in any indigenous West African language. Soyinka’s handling of his speeches and narration is most apt, especially here where Soyinka the translator is more so purposely lucid in spite of the occasional occurrence of canine-breaking words such as “tintinnabulation” which may have been occasioned by the dire need to capture sense, sound and action that are so replete in Fagunwa’s fictive universe. There is obviously a matching of mastery between the author and his translator. Fagunwa’s mastery of Yoruba and his outsize imagination and Soyinka’s sensitive absorption of Fagunwa’s spicy Yoruba and what they demand to be rendered in a strange tongue.
Long before Soyinka’s translation of it, Ogboju Ode was the most critically acclaimed of Fagunwa’s works comprising of the trilogy, two additional novels, a travelogue and other short pieces. The translation of Ogboju Ode by Soyinka was published in 1968. Soyinka himself in his long prefatory note accompanying this publication acknowledges the fact. The narrative tone in the earlier work is more felicitous.
Much as one also finds this quite enjoyable, not many Yoruba speakers and readers of the Forest of Thousand Daemons recollect how the original Yoruba text sounds anymore. We tend to prefer communing with the translation. I am willing to suggest also that Soyinka may have withheld his literary fires in this effort deliberately, unlike his no-holds-barred approach to the first. This is only a suspicion because as already indicated, the second book only ranks second. But even in Soyinka’s regular creative writings, his stylistic restlessness is to be observed. Soyinka never writes two books the same way, even when closely linked, like in the case of the two Jero plays, The Road and Madman and Specialists. with Ake: The Years of Childhood finds no stylistic continuation in Isara etc etc.
The new translation is a sturdy addition to the growing collection of Fagunwa’s writings making their crucial passage into English. And without the engagement of a talent of Soyinka’s immensity, readers who would only know Fagunwa in English could not truly appreciate his worth.
• Adeniyi writes from Lagos