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Translating books; translating culture
Book vendors and readers gathered at a local book fair

Translating books; translating culture

Cultural barriers are more difficult to overcome than linguistic. A translator plays the role of a cultural mediator and keeps the local reader in mind and the author’s intention at heart while translating. This navigation of a relatively new cultural and linguistic landscape while simultaneously retaining the fundamental message of the text is difficult to say the least. However, literature enthusiasts disparage local translators stating some are not qualified for the task pointing out atrocious mistakes made in books in recent years, writes Hiwot Abebe.  

The translation of books from one language to another is as old as the written word. Religious texts have been translated from Greek and Arabic to Geez during the Axumite Period. French, English, Russian and Italian texts have been translated to Amharic and Tigrigna. Writers like Sahleselassie Birhane Mariam tackled gargantuan works of English literature, Mulatu Gebru translated French novels and Mamo Wudneh brought astronomy and other science books to the Amharic reader.

Ephrem Endale, a writer who has worked as a translator for three decades says, “translated works allow us to read works of other cultures which would have otherwise been unreachable due to language barriers.” Linguistic limitations can be overcome when a book is available in a different language. While translations do not require the acquiescence of original authors and works many professional translators do not astray far from the primary work. Many translators state that a certain creative agency is required to transmit the message of the original work in a different language.

Ephrem has translated books on a wide range of subjects. Three works of Sydney Sheldon, three spy novels, a self-help anthology and two works on the history of Ethiopia (The Battle of Adwa by Raymond Jonas and Revolt in Ethiopia by George Schuyler). He now focuses more on history books but his fictional works have enjoyed prolonged readership by many Ethiopians.

Translations of Russian novels by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Nicolai Gogol, classical literature like the works of Shakespeare, Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo opened doors to generations of readers. Amharic translations adapted to plays and radio series introduced many Ethiopians to these writers and European culture.

Cultural barriers are more difficult to overcome than linguistic. According to Hailu Araaya (PhD), ex-lecturer at Addis Ababa University, writer, politician and translator, a translator plays the role of a cultural mediator. The translator keeps the Ethiopian reader in mind and the author’s intention at heart. This navigation of a relatively new cultural and linguistic landscape while simultaneously retaining the fundamental message of the text is difficult.

Ephrem writes in both Amharic and English, has written two novels, three anthologies of Amharic articles and four books on English conversation. He says, a translator must be proficient in both languages, have extensive experience as a writer and possess the sensitivity to enter the original author’s world and share the book’s vision. This empathetic leap distinguishes an excellent translator from a so-so one.

Fiction is an imaginative entry into the study of human nature. Kalkidan Ambachew, owner of publishing house and bookstore Book Light, believes knowledge gained from others’ fictitious experience can spread understanding and open-mindedness. Hailu has translated Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex and emphasizes the importance of the tale’s significance in highlighting human fallibility–Oedipus’s overconfidence, his self-righteousness, led to his ultimate tragic end. We keep making mistakes, Hailu says, because we have forgotten these classic stories that illustrate human nature.

Biases of ideology have no place in translation. The creative agency a translator takes is set forth in recreating the original work’s story of fundamental human behaviors and emotions in the translated piece.

Hailu points to Kebede Michael’s translation of “Romeo and Juliet”. This work retained the essence of Shakespeare’s original work but Kebede’s poetic rendering transformed a 16th century English tale to an accessible Ethiopian love story. A good translation, says Hailu, must enhance and enrich the original work. His anthology Ethiopian Folk Poetry Recreated is an English translation of Amharic folk poetry. These 207 poems were collected during Hailu’s tenure as a teacher at the Bahir Dar Poly-Technic Institute in the late 1950s. He describes the Amharic poems as compact, emblematic of Ethiopian’s cultural and social reservation, and therefore required an ‘explosive’ translation approach. Two line poems are expanded into 13 lines and 4 stanzas. “A translator must travel the extra distance so the reader can grasp the concept,” he explains. These extended poems reform the original by creating a story, a comprehensive narrative that immediately belongs next to the original. This collection forces the reader to reimagine the circumstances that led to the creation of these poems.

Hailu, who has also translated Aberra Jembere’s prison memoir Agony in the Grand Palace 1974-1982, says he chose to translate the works for their valuableness to the Ethiopian people. The value in translation is not limited to an accurate rendering of an original work; it is also in its significance to the reader. Children’s books typically translated from western fairy tales without considering local cultural context are a prime example of this fact.

The heydays of translations that produced many books, especially during the 1950-1980s, were marked by a vigorous effort to make classic English works accessible to a wider audience. The art of translation has seen a steady shift in the past few decades. Kalkidan estimates the current yearly number of fiction translations to be two or three. The trendy genres are politics, self-help, psychology and history. Kalkidan attributes this shift to the youth’s eagerness to ‘win’ at life. Many translators, he adds, choose to translate certain books based on profitability leading to many half-baked works on sale today. Many publishers play the role of printing press failing to observe their editorial responsibility and happily attaching their names to imperfect works. Ephrem opines that publishers aren’t determined to make a difference. “Publishing is largely a freelance activity. This is hurting us very badly.”

At a recent book fair in the Arat Kilo area,. Alemu Mengistu, an English teacher at a local high school, relates with this and remembers reading a book literature enthusiasts disparage local translators stating some are not qualified for the task pointing out atrocious mistakes in the books that failed to translate many English words and skipped an entire chapter from the original text. “I don’t know if it was carelessness or laziness but this is unacceptable,” he added. Alemu was unwilling to identify the book or its translator other than saying it is a story related to a conspiracy theory involving the CIA.

According to Kalkidan such unedited texts far removed from the original content don’t encourage readers. Many translations published in the 1970s and 1980s are illegally copied masquerading in a new title and cover design and published under entirely different translators’ names. Poor policy and regulation of copyright laws allow these miscreants to profit illicitly, he argues.

High printing cost and the expense of imported resources like paper and ink have added to the decline of the publishing industry. Good quality books and translations require skilled editors. Editors and writers proficient in both Amharic and English depend on a strong education policy and institutions. Attracting young readers necessitates the combined efforts of all these stakeholders. Kalkidan points out that local bestselling author Yismake Worku has sold close to 300,000 copies in a country of 20 million in the education stage. “What does that mean?” he asks.