Reading Progress:

Why is there no Igbo translation of Things Fall Apart?

It is hard to believe that out of 50 translations of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, not one is in the novel’s mother tongue: Igbo. An Igbo translation would unveil a hereto undiscovered level of meaning, from the littering of translated proverbs to the metaphysical happenings that in Western readings are merely supernatural. In an age of growing Nigerian control over African literary production through publishers like Cassava Republic, an Igbo translation of Things Fall Apart is an important assertion of Africa’s literary history and future despite, rather than because of, English influences.

The Jalada Translation Project is responsible for the most widely translated piece of African literature. Available in 78 languages, most of them African languages, it is a short story called “The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright” by Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, an academic staple that earned Achebe his ‘father of African literature’ tagline and came to define the field, falls far behind at 50 languages. While Brittle Paper confirms that “there is indeed an Igbo translation” manuscript, there is no authoritative Igbo language publication to date. As can be inferred from the mere fact of an existing manuscript, there is a market for such a translation in Igboland, and a meaning for it everywhere else, too. In an age of growing Nigerian control over literary production through publishers like Cassava Republic, this translation would be an important assertion of Africa’s literary history and future despite, rather than because of, English influences.

An authoritative, affordable translation is due to Igbo speakers in areas where the use of English reserved for formal registers. If published in the same spirit, it would powerfully reinforce the objective of Jalada’s project: to show that African languages are rich with untapped potential and thereby stimulate their use in education. What could be more linguistically productive and revelatory than literature? Many trade and educational versions of Things Fall Apart are equipped with a glossary, a publisher’s appendage that Achebe famously disliked. From the littering of translated proverbs and italicised Igbo words that encompass entire concepts to the metaphysical happenings that in Western readings are merely supernatural, an Igbo translation would unveil a hereto undiscovered level of meaning. In line with the failings of the first glossary by Aigboje Higo, an Edo man carelessly selected by Western publishers whom Achebe asserted is not an Igbo speaker, the West has turned Things Fall Apart into a metonym for Africa. Repatriating the novel to the thought system that it is already a translation of is a powerful reminder that Things Fall Apart only tells the story of 1 out of Africa’s estimated 3000 ethnic groups.

There is a market for such a translation in Igboland, and a meaning for it everywhere else, too.

A representative of Achebe’s first publisher, the Heinemann African Writers Series, once recounted being greeted by the locals’ refusal “that a recent student of the University of Ibadan should have written a novel that was of any significance at all.” In short, the real power of an Igbo translation lies in how it might shape the minds of Africa’s future leaders. Achebe often insisted that the story is also for children and that the Western tendency to shield children from the world’s evils is foreign to Africa, or at least to the Africa he knows. The evils of racism and neo-colonialism are felt early, and youths should have the resources to combat that violence—if only its psychological manifestations—equally early.

What better resource than Things Fall Apart, a novel that grants dignity to a story often reduced to a footnote in the Western canon or, as in the novel, “a reasonable paragraph” in the District Commissioner’s ethnography. This is not an ethnography that reduces its subjects to objects: it is a novel that explains exactly how the unthinkable came to pass through the grandoise story of a man in a face-off against the waves of history. There are many pioneering doctoral students who are writing their theses in African languages, and an Igbo student interested in Achebe should have the ability to access all the meaning that Things Fall Apart has to offer. It would be because of this translation, and its true valuation of Igbo culture and thereby language, that that hypothetical student may devise the adequate critical perspectives that the tired overstudy of this essential text so richly deserves. This repatriation is inevitable and calling for a publisher to rise to the occasion.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her @verybookishjane on Twitter.

Why is there no Igbo translation of Things Fall Apart?Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Published by Penguin Books on 2006
Genres: African, Debut, Existentialism, Folktale, Historical fiction, Literary fiction, Supernatural
Pages: 197
Format: Paperback
Afrori
Goodreads

First published in 1958 by Heinemann's African Writers Series, this is a simple story of a "strong man" whose life is dominated by fear and anger written with remarkable economy and subtle irony. Uniquely and richly African, at the same time it reveals Achebe's keen awareness of the human qualities common to men of all times and places

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