Academic journal article Hemispheres

"Translation" as Validation of Culture: The Example of Chinua Achebe

Academic journal article Hemispheres

"Translation" as Validation of Culture: The Example of Chinua Achebe

Article excerpt


Since language constitutes a crucial component of culture, it is not surprising that the language question in modern African literature has been a source of intense, even perennial controversy. Two literary giants, Chinua Achebe of Nigeria and Ngugi wa Thiong'o of Kenya, well encapsulate the two principal viewpoints. While the latter has resolutely turned his back on English as his creative medium, the former and several other African writers have not succumbed to the wind of nationalism sweeping through the African literary landscape. Rather, they have maintained the status quo, preferring to produce their works in non-African languages. While wa Thiong'o announces with enthusiasm and valedictory finality: "This [...] is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings. From now on it is Gikuyu and Kiswahili all the way",1 Achebe himself declares as follows: "I have been given this language and I intend to use it".2

For Achebe, it is imperative for Africans to know, "where the rain began to beat us," in other words, African writers must first dispose of what he has called the fundamental theme. "This theme," he declares, "put quite simply - is that African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity".3 This can justifiably be called Achebe's literary-cum-artistic "manifesto" as he pursues his overriding objective of demonstrating the reality and authenticity of the African culture, especially before the very dawn of Western colonialism.

Achebe's figure unarguably looms large in African literature. Ezenwa-Ohaeto observes that "Achebe is the man who invented African literature because he was able to show [...] that the future of African writing did not lie in simple imitation of European forms but in the fusion of such forms with oral traditions".4 Nnolim adjudges Achebe, "the chief inaugurator of the great tradition which is concerned with cultural assertion or cultural nationalism which stresses and promotes the innate dignity of the black man",5 while Bernth Lindfors labels Things Fall Apart, "the first novel of unquestioned literary merit from English-speaking West Africa".6

A real colossus, Achebe has contributed immeasurably to the task of getting the world to comprehend the African and his continent. Regarding such an assignment, he actually considers himself a missionary : "The whole purpose of African literature [...] is to change the perception of the world as far as Africans are concerned, and for me that's being a missionary. So I have been very busy spreading that good news that Africans are people, that we are not savages and cannibals".7 The Igbo culture, it must be said, remains a relatively understudied one. In the introduction to their book,8 Andrzejewski, Pilaszewicz and Tyloch remark as follows: "We particularly regret some of the omissions; we hope that the Igbo speakers of Nigeria, for instance, or the Shona speakers of Zimbabwe, will understand our inability to provide total coverage of the continent, given the multiplicity of languages". Thus, this article is also envisaged as a contribution to the growing scholarly corpus on Achebean criticism, especially concerning his very efforts to interpret and validate African culture.

By focusing on Achebe's trilogy,9 this article demonstrates that his works are fundamentally a portrayal of the pristine African society, its clangy clash with Europe, and the destructive impact on the indigenous societal structures. The article thus explores how Achebe has risen to the challenge of employing a "foreign" language as his creative medium. It will be shown that Achebe remarkably surmounts the hurdle of crossing the source-target language divide. This is essentially by means of what is here termed as creative "translation". A major thesis here, therefore, is that by his deft manipulation and fusion of the resources of both Igbo and English, Achebe achieves his artistic goals with great conviction and remarkable success. …

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