FM: What got you interested in the area of translation where I know you have done some cutting-edge work?
: It is, firstly, linked to personal circumstances; it’s also because I am interested in the Anglophone world in general and in Anglophone Africa in particular. I’ve lived in different countries: Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa (for 14 years), so of course, I am interested in seeing my books translated into English, in order to continue the conversation. I wouldn’t be happy without English, although French is my mother tongue. I work in both languages.
FM: What is the role of translation in a polyglot context such as ours (South Africa?)
VT: I am still amazed that you have eleven official languages. It’s such an incredible example for many countries. I know that on the ground it's is not that easy ... and that some languages are dominant. But the mere fact of making that decision at the national level is extraordinary. It is the recognition of the linguistic diversity of the country. That’s vitally important.
I can see that the dominant languages are English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa. It is all about the number of people speaking a language. Another element that is a determinant is the allocation of resources – the fact of having a whole structure and funding behind the chosen languages. Languages are expensive to keep alive; so you need real political vision and the will to maintain those languages in a written form as well. Sure people continue to speak their languages. But if you want to give equal status to all the 11 official languages then you should be putting a lot of money behind those languages. They need books, pedagogical material and all sorts of other components -- including a commercially viable publishing industry to back them.
FM: In our transition, what interests me is the route we took with respect to the different languages and their position in relation to each other. For example, we didn't use our national broadcaster more aggressively to advance marginalised languages nor did we use it to introduce people of dominant language groups (Afrikaans and English) to other official languages. We took the softer route. Any comment on that?
VT: Something we forget is the economic dimension of languages. It’s obvious that they cost money. It is one thing to declare that you have eleven official languages, but it’s another story to invest some money in them. And that is the problem. Radio could have helped a lot in terms of promoting those languages while waiting for a written culture to develop. You could say that SA was too ambitious in choosing so many official languages. Maybe four could have been more manageable. But then, it soon becomes a political issue. You can see this in many other African countries. To respect linguistic diversity is indeed a political and economic issue.
Q: What can a writers' magazine like Calabash and publishing linked to our new national writers’ organisation do in terms of linguistic diversity? The Calabash journal’s first edition had a balance similar to that of Staffrider in the sense that most submissions were in English. What can it do in terms of using translation and other aspects of multilingualism?
VT: I think you just have to continue to put the emphasis on linguistic diversity. There is no other way. It must be consistent. You might feel that there isn’t a resonance – or that people are not getting it but with time it will happen. Calabash magazine needs to be bilingual – translating indigenous languages into English and vice versa. There’s another issue which bothers me a lot. Translating is not enough in itself; you need quality translators. Sometimes, we think that just because someone can speak a language, he or she can translate. This is not true. I fear that this side is not always properly taken care of. The quality of translation is very important. As a writer, there’s nothing that I fear more than a bad translation because it will leave readers with the feeling that I can’t write. As an organization, you have to work with a pool of translators you can trust – people who have a mastery of the different levels of a given language. For example, there are some translators who can master classic Zulu, the way older people like to hear it. Then there are those who can render the flavour of “urban” Zulu, a language that borrows new words all the time. This is something to take into account: at which level do you want to pitch your translation? If you can’t find someone who can satisfy your requirements, it is better not to do it, as it will be a disservice to authors.
FM: What can publishers do (that is, start doing or do more of) to address the challenge of diverse and interrelated language needs and requirements?
VT: As I indicated earlier, this is not typical to South Africa. Your question is also relevant to the rest of Africa. In many countries, it has not been solved yet. Again, governments should provide more money for the promotion of translation. Translators require remuneration. It’s not reasonable to ask publishers to bear the whole burden of this issue. At the pan-African level, why doesn’t the African Union have a department geared to providing financial support for translation? In a way, it’s a highly emotional issue. Yet we need to look at it with clear-sighted objectives.
FM: National Writers Association of South Africa (NWASA) will be an integral part of the Pan African Writers Association, opening up further possibilities for dialogue and engagement. If a South African writer wishes to learn a language to communicate better with writers in the rest of the continent, which languages should they consider first?
VT: You may hate me for this but let me suggest French and Swahili. Swahili, because it is widely spoken on the continent even if there are variants. And French because at the end of the day, people do speak it in large numbers on the continent. It has become “a language of Africa”. In Côte d’Ivoire, we have several “French”. We have our own French that is spoken in the streets. It is similar to the pidgin in Nigeria and Liberia. Then you have the French that educated people use. The two forms one linguistic sphere. So, coming from SA, apart from English, you would need French (but let’s not forget Portuguese) and a big language like Swahili.
FM: It’s interesting that in South Africa recently the Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture, on a national news channel, emphasized the importance of learning Swahili and indicated that his ministry would be encouraging that. Let’s move on to focus on In the Company of Men which was released in 2017 in French; translated into English in 2021. What inspired you to choose the subject matter and theme; a focus that turned out to be so prescient in terms of the parallels between Covid-19 and Ebola.
VT: The Ebola epidemic started at the end of December 2013, although many cite the start as January 2014. It spread in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It lasted until 2016. It was intense, traumatic and attached to a great deal of stigma concerning Africa. During much of that time, I was in Johannesburg and teaching at Wits University. So I was following it from South Africa. As I am originally from Côte d'Ivoire – I was really, really worried that the disease would come to the whole of the West African region.
Côte d’Ivoire shares a border with Guinea in the north and with Liberia in the west. So the fear was real, people were saying: “It’s going to come; it’s going to come!” Everyone was tense. I was worried about my family and friends. As a consequence, I followed the story closely. You see, at times, the more you are far away from home, the more you worry; you start thinking all sorts of terrible things because you are not there. That is partly why I started researching and trying to find as much information as I could on the Ebola epidemic. I was at the right place at Wits University because conferences on the subject were held and there is also a good Science department. Moreover, SA doctors went to Liberia and Sierra Leone. There was an abundance of information and I kept digging. However, when the epidemic was officially declared “over”, a complete blanket silence fell on the region. It was like this thing never happened. After the intense media coverage … nothing! It felt strange, “Did it happen, did it not happen?” Why as Africans were we not talking about what had happened? I didn’t like the wayEbola had been treated as an African disease. I thought it was terrible. This was the worst stigma that could affect the continent. I had the urge to reclaim the story. There was much more to say, much more than what we had been shown on the television and told in the press. I wanted – in one sense – to break the silence; to express in a different way how the events unfolded.I was also motivated by a sense that Ebola in West Africa wasn’t a once-off. There had been smaller-scale epidemics in DRC since 1975 when the virus was discovered. The whole thing needed to be viewed in the broader context of an environmental crisis. An epidemic doesn’t just come down from the sky. Very often it’s due to various circumstances. I thought it was important to talk about that as well.
FM: That gives a good background. How did you get to adopt the title, In the Company of Men?
It is understood better in the text. At some point in the narrative, I talk about bats and how when they lose their territory, their habitat, because of deforestation, they tend to come closer to human beings. And therefore they seek the company of men. The title refers to men with a capital M, meaning all human beings. It also refers to the fact that non-humans are looking at us and observing our behaviour. We are not separate from them anymore. Men are in the company of animals and animals are in the company of human beings. It’s a more holistic view of the world.
FM: I also note that the wholeness is extended to nature. I note you bring in the idea of the tree as a character; the baobab tree, which speaks.
Yes, I really wanted to bring in the ecological dimension. You cannot understand Ebola – and to a certain extent Covid-19 – if you don’t bring in the environmental issue. Unfortunately, we tend to separate the two. We put Covid-19 on one side and then ask … should we talk about the ecological crisis/climate change? No-one really wants to put them together because then, it’s ten times scarier.
FM: In the book, you make use of a range of devices: snapshots; portraits, magic realism, a combination of history and poetry and the inclusion of a sense of testimony to powerful effect? Have you made use of this set of devices in previous works?
Yes, I’ve always written like that. It’s a tendency that I have because I am trying not to tell a story in a linear way but rather to show different facets. That’s how we function in life. We have so many things happening at the same time in our heads. In fact, it’s a “fiction” to think that a story can be told from beginning to end like a river flowing in one direction. We live among people; people tell us things. We listen to what they have to say and it influences us. You can never get a full grasp of what is happening around you unless you acknowledge different points of view.
FM: How was the French version (first edition) of In the Company of Men received? Do you have sense of numbers distribution and what else can you tell is about the response to it?
I don’t have numbers off the top of my head. I know that the book was well received. What I am pleased about is that, because of the situation with Covid-19, there has been a renewed interest. It is only now that the book is going to be published in Francophone Africa first, and then in Anglophone Africa. I’m a bit disappointed that some people asked why I wanted to tell a story that had been such a stain on the continent. My response to them was: “Don’t you want to tell your own story in your own words? I think people have now come to realize that Ebola was hiding another story. If you had immersed yourself in the crisis at the time, you would have understood that something else was bound to come up. Given the way we live, we have made ourselves vulnerable to many diseases. Let’s face it, in Africa, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/Aids, and many other diseases are endemic. So, health should become the priority of priorities. We have to address and understand that because it says volumes about the state of governance. If you can’t protect your population, then there is something seriously wrong.
FM: On writing for children, can I ask your views on the significance of that category of writing and whether you are continuing your work in that sphere?
VT: Yes I am continuing with children’s writing. I like it a lot and I believe that it is the foundation of African literature. Many say very casually that on the continent, people don’t read … you can’t get people to sit down and read. But they fail to acknowledge that an important base is missing, that is, providing children with books in which there are stories they can identify with; stories they can grow up with. You can’t be deprived of books when you are young and then – almost like a miracle – when you grow up, have this deep interest in literature.
FM: That’s an important area. And I would hope that, as a writers’ organisation, the National Writers Association of South Africa (NWASA) will continue to place emphasis on literature for children.
VT. But, you know, literature for children has been undervalued for a long time, often being seen as a sub-literature genre. There is the view that anyone can be a writer for children. That is a fallacy. It’s very demanding. You have to work on language and find new imagery; new ways of saying things. You have to find topics relevant to the youth. Furthermore, when we talk of 'Literature for young people', we tend to forget that it spans several age groups – from toddlers to teenagers all the way to pre-adults. It’s very diverse. That’s why many writers specialize in one particular age group. It’s not uncommon to find an author who can create for five year old children but who is not at ease with an older group and vice versa.
FM: So there are many needs in that range, and they are not being sufficiently addressed.
VT: The way I see it, there is a huge potential and many good things coming out of literature for young people in Africa. We have a very big opportunity to be extremely original in both the illustrations and the content. Because, with the novel, we tend to copy and emulate the conventional Western genre of what a novel should be. But if you take literature for young people, paradoxically, because it’s been overlooked, there’s a lot of freedom in terms of creativity and form. This should be encouraged.
FM. Has any publisher been identified to release or distribute the English version in South Africa?
The distribution of In the Company of Men in South Africa should not be too much of a problem. In terms of publishing, there is an interest, and it needs to be confirmed.*
FM: Thank you. Great to be discussing the two topics, In the Company of Men and the challenge and opportunity of translation in both directions – into indigenous languages and for writers of indigenous languages to share their work in the lingua franca.
VT: Thank you. I’ve appreciated and greatly enjoyed this discussion.
Veronique Tadjo is a Francophone African writer who has published in a variety of genres, including short stories, poetry, novels, and children's literature. A painter as well, Tadjo often illustrates her children's books and has exhibited her artwork in solo and group exhibitions. Among her writings that have been translated into English are the novel A vol d'oiseau (1986; As the Crow Flies) and L'Ombre d'Imana (2000; The Shadow of Imana), about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In 2005 Tadjo was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix Littéraire de l'Afrique Noire (The Grand Prize for African Literature) for Reine Pokou (2005; Queen Pokou), a novel about the legend of the mythical Queen Pokou and the establishment of the Baoulé kingdom, in present-day Côte d'Ivoire. In 1993 she became a full-time writer. She has conducted workshops on such topics as literature for African youth and the illustrating of children's books. In 2000 and 2001 she served as a judge for the Caine Prize for African Writing.
* In The Company of Men has been released in South Africa (March 2022) by Jacana Media. The book can be found here.
** This interview, in a slightly abbreviated form, first appeared in Calabash literary journal, Sept. 2021.