New Kiswahili science fiction award charts a path for African languages


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Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Cornell University and Lizzy Attree, Richmond American International University

The 6th edition of The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is back. Founded in 2014, the prize recognises writing in African languages and encourages translation from, between and into African languages. Kiswahili is widely spoken across the east coast of Africa. This year’s prize also offers a special award designed to promote and popularise a Kiswahili vocabulary for technology and digital rights. We spoke to the prize founders – literary academic Lizzy Attree, also of Short Story Day Africa, and literature professor and celebrated author Mukoma Wa Ngugi – on the challenges of growing literature in African languages.

What’s the idea behind the special Nyabola prize?

Lizzy Attree: The Nyabola prize gives us the opportunity to work in a new area that is really exciting for us. Nanjala Nyabola, the Kenyan writer and activist, approached us with the idea and the funding to target vocabulary for technology and digital rights. This was particularly interesting to us for two reasons. Firstly, we have long wanted to offer a short story prize, but have stuck with longer works because of the opportunity it gives us to focus on Kiswahili literature as a fully mastered form. But we are aware that a short story prize is a good place to start for those who are only beginning to write. Secondly, Kiswahili is often considered to be steeped in archaic, or historically poetic technical words and forms. These must be updated to accommodate the modern language of science and technology. It has been an interesting adventure to find out which words can be adapted or amended to fit with modern digital and technological advancement.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: There is also the idea that African languages are social languages, emotive and cannot carry science. Most definitely not true. All languages can convey the most complex ideas but we have to let them. There is something beautiful about African languages carrying science, fictionalised of course, into imagined futures.

Mukoma, you also write speculative fiction; what is its power?

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: At the height of dictatorship in Kenya under president Daniel arap Moi, when writers and intellectuals were being detained and exiled, and their books banned, it was the genre writers who kept the politics alive. In fact I dedicated my detective novel Nairobi Heat to two such Kenyan writers, David Mailu and Meja Mwangi. We inherited a hierarchy of what counts as serious literature from colonialism, the division between minor and major literatures. It is important for us to blur the lines between literary and genre fiction – they are both doing serious work but in different styles. And the same goes between written literature and orature (spoken literature). Orature is seen lesser-than but, as writers and scholars have argued, orature has its own discipline and aesthetics.

How has African language publishing changed since the prize began?

Lizzy Attree: Sadly I don’t think African language publishing has advanced very much in the last seven years or that there are enough academic studies focusing on this area. The demise of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa was part of the decline, or indicative of it. However, book festivals are growing, and we hope that in time this will lead to more awards and more publishing in African languages. Mukoma’s father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, is a pioneer in this area, and it’s been wonderful to see his novel shortlisted for the International Booker Prize recently. Although there are many other good examples of where changes are happening, considering the size of the continent and the number of languages, there is still a huge gap.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: Jalada Journal is a good example of how attitudes to writing in African languages have changed for the better. In 2015 Jalada took a short story written by Ngugi in Gikuyu and self-translated into English and had it translated to close to 100 languages. This made it the most translated African short story. But the genius of their initiative was that most of the translations were between African languages. The Jalada example is important for two reasons – it shows that innovation can happen when African languages talk to each other. And that for the younger writers, African languages do not carry the same sense of inferiority – English is just another language. All in all I don’t think the Nyabola prize, for example, would have been possible 10 years ago. A lot has changed where it matters the most; the ideology around African languages is shifting.

Do awards work and why are there so few major literary prizes in Africa?

Lizzy Attree: I think awards certainly work in raising the profile of writers and their work, but it is difficult to find funding for these kinds of projects.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: It is all about setting up a viable and thriving literary ecosystem for writing in African languages. Literary agents, publishers, readership, critics, literary prizes and so on. Prizes are just one aspect. We realised that from the onset so our winners, in addition to the monetary awards, have also been published by Mkuki na Nyota Press in Tanzania. We have been trying to get them translated into English but as Lizzy points out, funding is a huge problem. We were lucky to partner with Mabati Rolling Mills and the Safal Group. We have a de facto slogan: African philanthropy for African cultural development. But all the living parts of the African literary ecosystem have to be thriving. In this, we all have work to do.

Why is African language literature so important?

Lizzy Attree: It’s been clearly demonstrated that learning in one’s mother tongue brings huge advantages to students. And where else must we find ourselves reflected if not in our own literature, in our own languages?

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: You can think of language as the sum total of a people’s history and knowledge. We store history and knowledge in language. To speak only English is to be alienated from your past, present and future. It is a pain we should all feel deeply. In my book, The Rise of the African Novel: Language, Identity and Ownership, I give the example of how early writing in South African languages remains outside our literary tradition. I talk about how that leads to truncated imaginations. We write within literary traditions, but what happens to your imagination when you cannot access your literary tradition?

The shortlist will be announced in October/November 2021, with the winners announced in Dar es Salaam in December 2021.The Conversation

Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Associate Professor of literatures in English, Cornell University and Lizzy Attree, Adjunct Professor, Richmond American International University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Beauty in code – 5 ways digital poetry combines human and computer languages



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David Thomas Henry Wright, Nagoya University

Since lockdown, everyone has had to rely heavily on digital technologies: be it Zoom work meetings and lengthy email chains, gaming and streaming services for entertainment, or social media platforms to organise everything from groceries to protests. Human existence is now permeated by non-human computer language.

This includes poetry. Digital technologies can disseminate and publish contemporary poetry, and also create it.

Digital artists combine human and computer languages to create digital poetry, which can be grouped into at least five genres.

1. Generative poetry

Generative poems use a program or algorithm to generate poetic text from a database of words and phrases written or gathered by the digital poet.

The poem may run for a fixed period, a fixed number of times, or indefinitely. Dial by Lai-Tze Fan and Nick Montfort, for example, is a generative poem that represents networked, distant communication. It depicts two isolated voices engaged in a dialogue over time. Time can be adjusted by clicking the clocks at the bottom of this emoji-embedded work.

A still from generative poem Dial (2020) by Lai-Tze Fan and Nick Montfort.
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The recent web-based work Say Their Names! by digital artist John Barber generates a list from more than 5,000 names of Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans who have been killed by police officers in the United States from 2015 to the present day. No judgement regarding the victims’ guilt or innocence is made. Each name is simply spoken – in a sometimes incongruously cheerful tone – by a computerised voice.




Read more:
Listen to me: machines learn to understand how we speak


2. Remixed poetry

Nick Montfort’s generative poem Taroko Gorge was inspired by a visit to Taroko Gorge in Taiwan.

Montfort writes: “If others could go to a place of natural beauty and write a poem about that place, why couldn’t I write a poetry generator, instead?” Scott Rettberg then took the code from Montfort’s poem and replaced the vocabulary to produce Tokyo Garage, turning Montfort’s minimalist nature poem into a maximalist urban poem.

J.R. Carpenter undertook a similar transformation – replacing the nature vocabulary with words associated with eating.

There are now dozens of Taroko Gorge remixes. By inspecting the source of Montfort’s poem, one can carve into the code to remix one’s own version.

Scott Rettberg’s Taroko Gorge remix.

3. Visual verse

For centuries, poets have combined poetry and images. In the late 1700s, William Blake combined poetry with engraved artwork in his conceptual collection Songs of Innocence. Contemporary poets use digital technologies to similarly adorn poetry with imagery.

The title of Qianxun Chen’s work Shan Shui means mountain and water in Chinese, and landscape when combined as shanshui. It also refers to traditional Chinese landscape painting and a style of poetry that conveys the beauty of nature. With each click, a new Shan Shui poem is generated with a corresponding Shan Shui landscape painting.

Shan Shui (2014) by Qianxun Chen makes a new illuminated poem with each click.
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Visuals also find their way into poetry performance. The Buoy by Meredith Morran is a poetic work of auto-fiction that uses a series of diagrams to create a new form of language to address political issues involving marginalised identities.

Morran combines abstract images, performance and PowerPoint presentation software to indirectly address a personal history of growing up queer in Texas.

A Brief History of How Life Works (2017) by Meredith Morran.



Read more:
Friday essay: a real life experiment illuminates the future of books and reading


4. Video game poem plays

The 1960s and 70s saw the emergence of text-based computer games, such as Zork, the source code of which is archived at the MIT libraries.

Queensland digital poet Jason Nelson has created a number of works that fuse these two modes. One is called game, game, game, and again game, which Nelson describes as “a digital poem, retro-game, an anti-design statement, and a personal exploration of the artist’s changing worldview lens”. The work disrupts commercial video game design with the player not striving for a high score – but instead moving, jumping, and falling through an excessive, disjointed, poetic atmosphere.

A still from game, game, game, and again game (2007) by Jason Nelson.
elmcip.net

The emergence of virtual reality games, such as Half-Life: Alyx, has also met with poetry.

Australian digital artist Mez Breeze’s V[R]ignettes is a virtual reality microstory series. The audience can experience this work by donning a virtual reality headset or viewing it in 3D space in browser. Each V[R]ignette combines poetic text, 3D models, and atmospheric sound design. The reader (or user) can navigate by clicking on the “Select an annotation” bar at the bottom of the screen, or simply look around in 3D space and freely explore the work.

A still from V[R]ignettes (2019) by Mez Breeze.
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5. Coded messages

Code poetry is a genre that combines classical poetry with computer language.

Code poems, such as those compiled by Ishac Bertran in the print collection code {poems}, do not require a computer to exist. However, they do use computer languages, so to comprehend the poem one must be able to read computer code.

Like so many untranslatable Russian and Chinese poems, these works require a knowledge of the original language to be appreciated.The Conversation


Ignotus the Mage/flickr, CC BY-SA

David Thomas Henry Wright, Associate Professor, Nagoya University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Jane Eyre translated: 57 languages show how different cultures interpret Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel


Matthew Reynolds, University of Oxford

Translators are the unsung heroes of literature. Or, to be fair, largely unsung – they have a share in the International Booker Prize which recognises author and translator, who divide the £50,000 prize money and there is International Translation Day on September 30. It’s a chance to celebrate the small presses which publish translated novels and poems, as well as the amazing advances in online translation and, above all, the human translators whose skills matter now more than ever.

But let’s also remember that translation has always been an engine of culture. Literary classics – as well as modern bestsellers – reach more readers through translation than the language they were written in. Take Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: it has been translated into at least 57 languages, at least 593 times.

This changes how we think about Jane Eyre. What was a thoroughly English book – anchored to Yorkshire and published in 1847 – becomes a multilingual, ever-changing global text, continually putting down roots in different cultures. In Iran there have been 29 translations of Jane Eyre since 1980. When Korean is taught in a school in Vietnam, a translation of Jane Eyre is on the syllabus, as an example of Korean literature.

It also changes how we have to study the novel. I couldn’t hope to grasp Jane Eyre as a global phenomenon by myself, so everything I have found out has been thanks to a group of 43 co-researchers in many different countries, as part of the Prismatic Translation project

Translation is creative

People often think that translations are meant to reproduce their source texts, like a photocopier. But this is a long way wide of the mark, because of course every language is different. In fact, the process is much more complicated – and interesting. Because you can never say exactly the same thing in another language, translators use their imaginations to write the book again, only with different materials, for readers with different expectations. It is more like making a sculpture than taking a photo.

Jane Eyre (Korean edition).
Amazon

You can see this right away from how the title gets re-moulded into different shapes. In Japanese in 1896 it became Riso Kaijin (An Ideal Lady – translated by Futo Mizutani), in Portuguese in 1941 it was A Paixão de Jane Eyre (The Passion of Jane Eyre – translated by “Mécia”). In Italian in 1958 it became La porta chiusa (The Shut Door – translator unknown) and in Turkish in 2010 it was rendered as Yıllar Sonra Gelen Mutluluk (Happiness Comes After Many Years – translated by Ceren Taştan).

My favourite of these metamorphic titles is the Chinese one invented by Fang Li in 1954 and copied by almost every Chinese translator since: two of the characters that can make a sound like “Jane Eyre” can also mean “simple love” – so the title says both those things together: Jianai.

Even small linguistic details can go through fascinating transformations. Take pronouns. In English, we only have one way of saying “you” in the singular. But even languages that are very close to English, such as French, German or Italian, do something different. They have a distinction between a formal “you” (vous in French) and a more intimate kind of “you” (tu). So in those languages there is the potential for a really important moment in the novel which simply can’t happen in English. Do Jane and Rochester ever call each other “tu”?

As it turns out, in French they don’t (or at least not in any of the translations we have studied). But in German they do. One of my co-researchers, Mary Frank, has looked at translations from 1887 by Marie von Borch and 1979 by Helmut Kossodo. She has found that, in both, Rochester only switches into the intimate form of you, “du”, when he first proposes. But Jane does not reciprocate. It is only in the amazing telepathic moment near the end of the book, when she hears Rochester’s voice calling to her across the moors, that she uses the “du” form of the verb to cry out the equivalent of “Wait for me!” Rochester’s tenderness is answered at last.

Should we think of this as a nuance added by the translators? Or as something that was all along somehow present in the English text, though invisible? What would Charlotte Brontë have done if she had been using German – or French (in which she did write essays and letters) with its different resources? These questions are probably impossible to answer – and if you turn to Korean, for example, which has many pronouns for different levels of formalityas I have learned from Sowon Park, the picture gets even more complicated.

Feminist passion

Jane is “passionate” in all sorts of ways. When she is a child she resists bullying by her cousins and stands up for her rights at school; as an adult she feels passionate love for Rochester. “Passion” in the novel can suggest anger, stubbornness, suffering, generosity, desire and love.

By using the word in all these ways, Charlotte Brontë was making a feminist argument. She was saying that, for a woman in the early Victorian period, love did not have to be something passive, a matter of being admired. Instead, it was connected to anger and justice. It could be a means of self-assertion.

Farsi edition.
Amazon

This feminist charge in the novel is part of what has made it so popular across the globe. Throughout Europe in the mid-to-late 19th century, and throughout East Asia in the mid-to-late 20th, some translators and readers have been thrilled – others shocked. And of course, because the cultures and languages are different, the novel’s energies have had to be channelled in different ways.

Most languages have no single word that can cover the same range as Brontë’s “passion”, so they slice up its meanings differently. Interestingly, this often divides the angry (passionate) young Jane from her mature self, and connects her to Bertha Mason, Rochester’s brutalised first wife who is locked up in the attic of his mansion.

In Persian – as Kayvan Tahmasebian has found out – “passion” is translated by a wide range of words that separate the elements of love, desire, anger and excitement. You might view this as loss (the range of “passion” has disappeared!) but it is also a kind of gain (look at all these different nuances!)

The most famous sentence in the novel: “Reader, I married him”, is also one of the most provocative, as translations can help us see. In Slovenian – as researcher Jernej Habjan tells me – it becomes the equivalent of “Reader, we got married”. Meanwhile, all the Persian translations we have seen so far have squashed Jane’s self-assertion – they give the equivalent of: “Reader, he married me”. Even today, Jane Eyre has a radical power. It will generate ever more translations.The Conversation

Matthew Reynolds, Professor of English and Comparative Criticism; Tutorial Fellow, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.