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Translating the Postcolonial in Multilingual Contexts

Judith Misrahi-Barak
Srilata Ravi

Translators’ Africa

‘Translated from Gikuyu by the Author’: Ngūgī wa Thiong’o’s Self-Translation of Wizard of the Crow

Charlotte Baker


Ngūgī wa Thiong’o wrote Murogi wa Kagogo in Gikuyu in 2004, and published the English version, Wizard of the Crow, in 2006, announcing on the title page that the novel is ‘A translation from Gikuyu by the author’. The complex interplay of languages in Ngūgī’s self-translation is central to understanding the novel for two main reasons. Firstly, Ngūgī’s dictator novel depicts the political, economic and social intricacies that have characterised the postcolonial African state and, as stories and realities collapse into one another, the reader realises that the eponymous Wizard of the Crow is the embodiment of the writer in postcolonial society. Consequently, the play of languages in the text raises questions about the role of the writer in the face of dictatorship. Secondly, the reader is invited to question the status of the translated text in light of Ngūgī’s advocacy of writing in indigenous languages. The author of a literary work must first make a choice of language and then consider how the language will be used. When that work is, in turn, translated, this raises another set of questions about the status of the text, as well as the status of the translation. My interest here then, is not in the similarities or dissimilarities between Murogi wa Kagogo and the English version, but instead Ngūgī’s preoccupation with the question of language in Wizard of the Crow and the text’s critical status as self-translation.

Texte intégral

1The Kenyan writer and critic Ngūgī wa Thiong’o wrote Murogi wa Kagogo in Gikuyu in 2004, and published the English version, Wizard of the Crow, in 2006, announcing on the title page that the novel is ‘A translation from Gikuyu by the author’. My interest here is not in the similarities or dissimilarities between Murogi wa Kagogo and the English version, but instead in Ngūgī’s preoccupation with the question of language in Wizard of the Crow and the text’s critical status as self-translation.

2The complex interplay of languages in Ngūgī’s self-translation of Murogi wa Kagogo is central to understanding the novel for two main reasons. Firstly, as Robert Spencer remarks, ‘Wizard of the Crow is not merely about dictatorship, but rather enacts the dictator’s power through language and imagery in order, potentially, to undermine that power’s force and anticipate its dissolution’ (146). The novel is played out in the fictional Free Republic of Aburiria which has long been under the dictatorship of the Ruler, whose Machiavellian grip on power is absolute. The narrative focuses on the struggle between the wizard and his associates on the one hand, and the dictator and his regime on the other. Thus Ngūgī’s novel depicts the political, economic and social intricacies that have characterised the postcolonial African state and, as stories and realities collapse into one another, the reader realises that the eponymous Wizard of the Crow is the embodiment of the writer in postcolonial society. Consequently, the play of languages in the text raises questions about the role of the writer in the face of dictatorship. It also brings us, secondly, to question the status of the translated text in light of Ngūgī’s advocacy of writing in indigenous languages. As he elucidates in Decolonising the Mind, ‘language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world’ (1986: 16). For Ngūgī, the colonial imposition of foreign languages taught African people to disdain their own language. What Africans need to do, he argues, is free their languages from this colonial burden. For this reason, the analysis of African literature is almost inseparable from questions of language. The author of a literary work must first make a choice of language and then consider how the language will be used. When that work is, in turn, translated, this raises another set of questions about the status of the text, as well as the status of the translation.

3In his study of Ngūgī’s literary work, Simon Gikandi proposes several approaches to reading the writer’s fictional and critical works in their historical and cultural context, signalling the impossibility of removing Ngūgī’s later texts from the context of what Jameson calls the ‘life-and-death struggle with first-world cultural imperialism’ (1986: 67, cited in Gikandi 2000: 10). Ngūgī’s preoccupation with language is bound up with his struggle with the crisis of representation in his non-fictional writings and, as Gikandi remarks, it is striking that so many critics have written on his ideological dilemma as if it were independent of aesthetic problems (2000: 11). This chapter combines a number of the approaches proposed by Gikandi to read the English translation of Murogi wa Kagogo as an experiment in narrative form, drawing at the same time on the ideological perspective provided by Ngūgī in his essays and social commentaries.

4Ngūgī’s satire of the abuse of power by the Ruler and his regime in Wizard of the Crow reveals the political, economic and social intricacies that have characterised the postcolonial African state. The Ruler is preoccupied with gaining financial support from Western global institutions for his Marching to Heaven Project, ‘the first and only superwonder in the history of the world’ (2007: 17), while attempts to gain power within the regime result in political infighting amongst his ministers. The daily struggles of the people of Aburiria and the actions of the opposition party, the Movement of the Voice of the People, are central to the narrative, which focuses particularly on two characters, Kamiti, the Wizard of the Crow, and Nyawira, the leader of the Movement of the Voice of the People. Although Ngūgī’s adoption of scatological imagery (Ndigirigi 2010), satirical magic realism (McLaren 2008), a mythic-trickster paradigm (Chakraborty 2012), and manipulation of narrative time (Colson 2011) in Wizard of the Crow have been discussed elsewhere, in the first part of this chapter our interest is in his use of language as a means by which to challenge the performance of power.

  • 1 Sheng is a Swahili-based slang that combines English and Swahili.
  • 2 The Gikuyu language is widely spoken in Kenyan towns, even by members of other ethnic groups. Gikuy (...)

5Ngūgī’s preoccupation with language is apparent throughout Wizard of the Crow, as he portrays the linguistic landscape of Aburiria as well as the strategic possibilities of controlling, manipulating or switching languages. Ngūgī gives us an immediate indication that the novel is set in postcolonial Kenya. Written in standard English, this multilingual novel includes untranslated passages of Swahili (including Sheng),1 Arabic, and Hindi, that reflect the nation’s linguistic diversity. While Swahili and English—inherited from colonial rule—are widely spoken as lingua franca in Kenya, sixty-eight other languages are used in daily life in different parts of the country. Ngūgī’s mother tongue, Gikuyu, is the language of the Gikuyu people, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, and is closely related to the Embu, Mbeere, and Meru languages spoken by neighbouring communities in the Mount Kenya region.2 Ngūgī’s decision to begin writing in Gikuyu arose as a consequence of his involvement in cultural work at the Kamiriithu Community Educational and Cultural Centre near Limuru, some thirty kilometres outside of Nairobi. The Cultural Centre was putting on a play for the community and Ngūgī and Ngūgī wa Mirii were asked to prepare the script: ‘In 1977 we could still ask ourselves, “In what language should we write a play for performance in a Gikuyu-speaking village?” Well, it was simply common sense and practical necessity that persuaded us to start writing in Gikuyu’ (1985: 152).

6Ngūgī’s Gikuyu texts reflect the linguistic diversity of Kenya, which he retains in the English translation. The shop fronts of Ngūgī’s fictional Aburiria are one way in which this is achieved in Wizard of the Crow: ‘They were mostly in Hindi, Kiswahili, and English. NAMASTE. KARIBU. WELCOME. SHAH DRAPERIES, SHA KA HURI KHANA’ (2007: 9). Even the beggars on the streets of Aburiria know ‘one or two words of English, German, Japanese, Italian, and French, although Kiswahili dominated their speech. Help the poor. Saidia maskini. Mak-sheesh’ (2007: 35). Emphasising the linguistic, cultural and religious diversity of the nation, the muezzin calls the people to prayer at the same time as the bells for the evening service ring at the church:

For a moment it was as if the two were in competition, the bells intoning Angelus Domini and the muezzin calling out:
Allahu Akba! Allahu Akbar
Ash-hadu an la llaha illa-Llah
Ash-hadu anna Muhammada-r-Rasuwlu-Llah
Hayya ala Swalaah
Hayya alal Falaah... (72)

7In Wizard of the Crow, language is used to draw into question the hegemony of the Ruler, the discourse of the political regime and the world of meanings it creates. Achille Mbembe defines this ‘world of meanings’ in his article ‘Provisional Notes on the Postcolony’, on which he elaborates in On the Postcolony (2001), as:

the ways in which state power (1) creates, through its administrative and bureaucratic practices, a world of meanings all of its own, a master code which, in the process of becoming the society’s primary central code, ends by governingperhaps paradoxicallythe various logics that underlie all other meanings within that society; (2) attempts to institutionalise its world of meanings as a ’socio-historical world’ and to make that world fully real, turning it into a part of people’s common sense not only by instilling it in the minds of the cibles, or ’target population’, but also by integrating it into the consciousness of the period.
(Mbembe 1992: 3)

8The dictatorial regime in Aburiria silences voices of opposition, controlling or manipulating forms of expression to protect their own interests. The national newspaper, The Daily Parrot, operates as a form of propaganda for the regime, while educational materials and literary works carry the name of the Ruler as original author. Anyone who aspires to write can do so only under his name, and he will only allow his name to be given to those books that are carefully examined and permitted by the department of Youth Conformity.

9In a direct challenge to the regime’s attempts to control hearts, minds and voices, Wizard of the Crow is a polyphonic novel, whose multiple voices encompass those of the dictator, the functionaries of the regime and the voices of the people in excerpts from newspapers and songs, political slogans and chants, radio broadcasts, proverbs and folk tales. The narrative complexity of the novel is a challenge to the assertion of one single truth by the regime. As Magalí Armillas-Tiseyra remarks, ‘composed of a series of frames and fragmented by ellipses and interruptions, the novel points to the fact that there is another story, another version of events, another argument to which the reader should attend’ (2012). As such, Wizard of the Crow is characteristic of the African dictator novel genre; those hard-hitting, formally innovative novels about dictatorship that have emerged from the African continent in the years since independence. African dictator novels are not simply novels about dictatorship, but literary responses to dictatorship that provide readers with an understanding of the psychology of the dictator. Writing about dictators represents the writer’s incursion onto the terrain of politics but, as Armillas-Tiseyra reminds us, reading these texts solely in terms of their political intent or significance ignores the more complicated elements of these narratives: we risk overlooking the fact that the aesthetic itself provides a critique of authoritarianism independent of its political referents (2012). Indeed, in his foreword to the edited collection Unmasking the African Dictator: Essays on Postcolonial African Literature (2014), Ngūgī remarks that full-fledged dictatorship combines the tragic, the comic, the absurd, best described by Daniel Moi of Kenya, who publicly called on his ministers and politicians never to ask questions: ‘Slowly, fiction began to capture this combination of the tragic, the comic, and the absurd. African dictator fiction was born’ (Ndigirigi 2014).

10In Wizard of the Crow, the regime’s drive for conformity is explicitly ridiculed by Ngūgī as he describes the one day seminar organised by Kaniuru, who is heavily implicated in the unquestioned parroting of the regime:

Attendance was abysmal. Even the members of his youth wing had not bothered to turn up, because they assumed that the seminar was intended for those who had not yet accepted parrotry as a norm. By eleven o’clock, the main speakersa professor of the history of parrotology, a professor of the philosophy and psychology of parrotology, a professor of the politics of parrotology, a professor of literary parrotology, a professor of the science of parrotology, and finally the chairman of the seminar, Kaniuruwere the only people to turn up. (572)

11The poor attendance at the seminar is just one example of the people’s contestation of the performance of power by the regime. As Gichingiri Ndigirigi reminds us:

By answering back [...] through unscripted performances including silence where they are supposed to applaud, the average citizen subjects of the fictional state of Aburiria engage in a dialogic exchange with the repressive state, contesting what Simon Gikandi has described elsewhere as the postcolonial state’s ‘monopoly of meanings, performances and discourses’. (Ndigirigi 2010: 89)

12Numerous examples are found in the novel of the people’s nonattendance at meetings and seminars, and passivity in response to events in which their participation is required, such as the Ruler’s Birthday speech when, ‘except for members of Parliament, Cabinet ministers, officials of the Ruler’s Party, and representatives of the armed forces, nobody clapped’ (Ngūgī 2007: 17).

  • 3 The Swahili phrase ‘Macho kali’ translates as ‘sharp eyes’.

13Ngūgī also levels his critique by embracing the fluidity of language. Names, in particular, are slippery. Markus, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, has his eyes enlarged, ‘to make them ferociously sharp, or as he put it in Kiswahili, Yaw Macho Kali, so that they would be able to spot the enemies of the Ruler no matter how far their hiding places’.3 The Ruler is so impressed with his devotion that he declares that Machokali will be his representative eye, and in time Markus forgets the name given to him at his birth. A similar fluidity is unpicked as Kamiti and Nyawira introduce themselves to one another:

‘I am Kamiti wa Karimiri. But there was a time I used to be called Comet Kamiti.’
‘Comet? That’s a new one.’
‘When I was a kid I read somewhere about stars and something about comets streaking across the sky, and I said: That is my Christian name.’ ‘Comet? A Christian name?’
‘Why not? It is as European as your Grace.’
‘When I was in Brilliant Girls High School I was in charge of saying grace before meals. We thank you Jesus for the food we are about to eat, etcetera. The other students started calling me Grace, and soon after I adopted it as my own, replacing Engenethi.’
‘Engenethi? A version of Ingrid?’
‘I believe it is derived from Agnes.’
‘Engenethi? Ingrid or Agnes? A Christian name?’ It was his turn to wonder aloud. (63)

14The fluidity of names undermines the very importance placed on them by the regime, which is revealed in the description of Dr Yunice Immaculate Mgenzi as she is presented to the people by the Ruler:

  • 4 The Swahili phrase ‘Alikuwa mtu ya Beijing’ translates as ‘She was/became a woman of Beijing’.

‘Do you see this woman?’, he [the Ruler] continued. ‘In the days of the cold war this one you now see was a revolutionary. Very radical. Her name said it all. Dr Yunity Mgeuzi-Bila-Shaka. You see? A revolutionary without doubt. Maoist. Alikuwa mtu ya Beijing.’4 (21)

  • 5 The Swahili phrase ‘Haki ya Mungu’ translates as ‘God’s justice’.

15Identities too are slippery and this opens a space for subversion of the regime’s control from within Aburiria. The Wizard of the Crow is not one, but two people, with both Kamiti and Nyawira assuming the role at different points in the narrative. Other characters are not immediately recognisable to the reader by their name, but become so by association with linguistic traits. For example, Constable Arigaigai Gathere, known by the people as A.G. repeats the phrase ‘True, Haki ya Mungu’,5 and while he is absent for large parts of the novel, the reader recalls his identity when he reappears by association with his repetition of this phrase, even when his name is not mentioned.

16Ngūgī’s characters often use the English language to assert their superiority over one another. On learning that he has been nominated chairman of the Marching to Heaven project, and keen to take maximum financial benefit from the situation, Tajirika instructs his secretary: ‘ “Keep answering the telephone and making appointments in the usual way. This is manna from Heaven”, he said in English, as if loudly talking to himself’ (Ngūgī 2007: 103). By means of contrast, the exchange between Superintendent Njoya and Kamiti reveals how the characters attempt to manipulate languages in their attempts to outstrip one another:

Njoya cleared his throat and said, ‘Mr. Wizard of the Crow, we know that you may not be too familiar with what we in government call protocol, and, quite frankly, I don’t blame you. Oh, I am sorry for speaking to you in English. What I meant is that you may not know all the rules of good manners in dealing with the government.’
No need to explain’, the Wizard of the Crow replied in perfect English. ‘Even witch doctors are not strangers to languages. Manze enda mtell buda na masa wenu ati sitao. Murogi wa Kagogo hachure-wangwi na mtu. Haneed vinaa. Hello-na-zuribye’, the Wizard of the Crow said in Sheng.

17Sheng is used here by Kamiti as a counter to the Superintendent’s assumption that Kamiti does not speak English to remind him that he is not his superior.

18Language is also the key to understanding Ngūgī’s pointed references to the collusion of the Aburirian state with big American, European and Japanese companies who are destroying the natural resources of the region. As Joseph McLaren observes, the novel ‘shows that the West and global capital are implicated in the dilemmas of African leadership’ (McLaren 2008: 152). The Aburirian state and foreign corporations are all united by one slogan: ‘A loot-a continua’ (Ngūgī 2007: 210), a parody of the motto of FRELIMO’s struggle against Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique: A luta continua (the struggle continues). Likewise, at the ceremony at which the dictator’s birthday gift is announced, by playing with language, Ngūgī highlights the shortsighted interests of the regime. Machokali invites everyone to step forward and speak in support of the Marching to Heaven project. An elderly man takes the stage:

But when the old man began to speak it was clear that he had difficulty in pronouncing Swahili words for the Ruler, Mtukufu Rais, calling out instead, Mukutu Rahisi. Horrified at the Ruler’s being called a Cheap Excellency, one of the policemen quickly whispered in the old man’s ear that the phrase was Mtukufu Rais or Rais Mtukufu, which confused him even more. Coughing and clearing his throat to still himself, he called out into the microphone, Rahisi Mkundu. Oh, no, it is not Cheap Arsehole, the other policeman whispered in the other ear, no, no, it is His Holy Mightiness, Mtukufu Mtakatifu, which did not help matters because the old man now said, with what the old man thought was confidence, Mkundu Takatifu. At the mention of ‘His Holy Arsehole’, the multitude broke out in hilarious laughter, which made the old man forget what he had wanted to say, and he stuck religiously to the phrase Rahisi Mkundu, which made Machokali quickly signal that he be removed from the microphone. (18)

19It is striking then that the failings of those in positions of power— namely Tajirika and the Ruler—are highlighted by an inability to speak. When Tajirika is appointed Chairman of the Marching to Heaven project, he increasingly receives visits from people wishing to be considered as subcontractors on the project. They queue outside to meet with Tajirika and take advantage of his position, handing over thousands of Buris with their business cards so that they might obtain preferential treatment. Tajirika accumulates so much money in just one day that he does not return to his office the next day for fear that he might be attacked, but while at home he becomes ill:

He sat in front of the bathroom mirror all day long, his chin in cupped hands, staring vacuously into space. Sometimes his sight would stray into the mirror, slightly, ever so slightly, and he would mutter the word if and then resume looking nowhere. [...] Vinjinia helplessly watched as Tajirika scratched his face between his ifs and if onlys. [...] He had lost all speech, save two words. (166–167)

20The Wizard of the Crow diagnoses Tajirika as suffering from a longing to be White and powerful, or what he calls ‘white ache’ (179), a disease that had long been dormant in him. This ‘white ache’ came with the realisation that with his new position he could end up being the richest man in Africa and the only thing missing to distinguish him from the other rich black people is a white skin. The only cure is to embrace whiteness, become a willing slave of the West and demonstrate this by giving up his name. The only English identity that he can assume is that of ‘a punk, a prostitute or at best a homeless ex-colonial’ (179–180). This final option shocks Tajirika and his wife Virginia into a temporary cure: “‘No! No!” Tajirika and Virginia shouted, opening their eyes in fright. “Black is beautiful. Give us back our blackness,” they moaned as if the Wizard of the Crow had already shorn them of it.’ (188). Here, we see the questions of language, identity and the legacy of colonialism that preoccupy Ngūgī played out on a thematic level; questions he approaches from a different perspective in his short autobiographical article, ‘Translated by the author: My life in between languages’ (Ngūgī 2009) as well as in his memoirs In the House of the Interpreter (2012) and Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1981).

21Ngūgī developed an early sensitivity to the power of language, which was reinforced by his schooling. In the House of the Interpreter recalls the influence of his English teachers at primary school, such as the literature teacher Principal Smith, who dwelled on the students’ tendency to use long words:

‘Above all, learn from the Bible. It has the shortest sentence in English. Jesus wept. Two words. So follow the example of Jesus. He spoke very simple English’. I was puzzled. No trying to be clever or to correct him, I raised my hand and said that Jesus did not speak English: the Bible was a translation. (Ngūgī 2012: 23)

22Ngūgī recalls that his first reflection on his relationship to English and Gikuyu occurred after his arrest and imprisonment without trial at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. During his prison term, he wrote his first novel in Gikuyu, Caitani Mutharabaini, on toilet paper and it was published in 1982, two years after his release from prison. Ngūgī was concerned to bring writing closer to ordinary people in terms of the inclusion of elements of traditional orature, as well as a clearer plot line and content that was relevant, which conveyed ‘the weight and complexity and the challenge of their everyday struggles’ (cited in Williams 1999: 118). Although faced with anxiety as to the form that a novel in Gikuyu would take, he describes the experience of the writing of the original text in Gikuyu rather than English as ‘an act of self-liberation’ (Ngūgī 2009: 19). The process enabled him to retrieve the original Gikuyu text that had previously been lost to him in the writing of his English language novels. Acknowledging Ngūgī’s attempt to rethink the novel form, Simon Gikandi describes Devil on the Cross as:

[...] a work that wants to maintain its generic identity as a novel in the European sense of the word while rejecting the central ideologies that have made this form what it is, including the assumption of an elite audience. [...] More importantly, the double identity of the novel as a work that draws both on Gikuyu traditions and the European concept of the novel points us in two important directions which culminate in the writing of Matigari, a work now considered to be Ngūgī’s most successful attempt to transform the nature of the novel in Africa. First, it leads to Ngūgī’s rethinking of the place of the reader in the production of the narrative; second, it initiates a rethinking and re-representation of the postcolonial space beyond the discourse of disenchantment that dominated African writing from the middle of the 1960s to the end of the 1970s. (2000: 210)

23Read against this background, Devil on the Cross is central to an understanding of Ngūgī’s difficult relationship with both his British liberal education and Gikuyu cultural nationalism. Ngūgī describes his mother tongue as ‘a storehouse of knowledge, attitudes, feelings and moods’ (2009: 18) from which he drew in order to understand his relations to the world around him. Gikuyu was his first spoken language and, he recalls, his first literary language. However, having been schooled in English and been punished for speaking Gikuyu in school, he had come to view the world around him through English eyes.

24Recalling the process of translating Caitani Mutharabaini into English, Ngūgī remarks: ‘This was my first exercise in translation, auto-translation in this case. Or was it? Thinking back on it, I realized that I have always lived in translation’ (2009: 17–18). Writing in English had in itself been a literary act of mental translation as Ngūgī wrote about characters whose lives had been shaped by their experience of Kenyan history, who spoke Gikuyu or Kiswahili. Yet, he acknowledges, when he represented the same characters and actions in a literary text, the characters emerged as English speakers: ‘By a sleight of literary hand, I had obliterated an African language speech community and created an English language speaking African peasantry’ (2009: 18–19). Like many other African writers writing in European languages, Ngūgī adopted a range of strategies to remind the reader that characters were speaking an African language, ranging through lexical borrowing, calques and neologisms. Songs and proverbs are often left untranslated in the text, and Swahili words are used with their meaning indicated in context. As Ngūgī remarks in ‘Translated by the author: My life in between languages’, he ‘tried to make the reader become aware of the source language through bending the target language in such a way as to suggest the structure and the rhythm of the original source language. The only difference with Caitani Mutharabaini was that now there was a real material Gikuyu language text from which to work’ (2009: 19).

25The experience of translating Murogi wa Kagogo into English was rather different however. Ngūgī remarks that many of the subjects and themes are not part of the Gikuyu language tradition, such as space exploration, and he therefore found that in writing the novel, he was translating in reverse, trying to render such concepts in Gikuyu by coining new words or simply domesticating the English words in Gikuyu (2009: 20). Likewise, Ngūgī found the process of translation complex because:

Quite often I found myself having to translate a draft I had thought was complete, only to find, in the process of translation, that there the original was inadequate. The muse would possess me again and I would go to the Gikuyu original, write more drafts, which I later subjected to yet another translation into English. (2009: 20)

26Ngūgī acknowledges here the problematic status of Wizard of the Crow. Raoul J. Grandqvist describes Ngūgī’s ‘translational practice of shuffling between the two language versions [as a process that] was bound to modify each text in a mutual way, thereby parodying in fact the essentialist question of which came first, the African language or the Western’ (2011). Indeed, the status of the self-translated text is much-debated by translation theorists. As Jan Walsh Hokenson and Marcella Muson remark in the introduction to their study of literary self-translation, it is difficult even to classify self-translation as a literary and cultural endeavour (2007: 2). When an author writes a novel, and then writes it again in another language, the standard binary model of author and translator collapses and questions arise regarding the status of the resulting texts. As Walsh Hokenson and Muson ask, ‘Are the two texts resulting from self-translation both original creations? Is either text complete? Is self-translation a separate genre? Can either version belong within a single language or literary tradition? How can two linguistic versions of a text be commensurable?’ (2007: 2).

27Writing about his experience of translating Murogi wa Kagogo into English, Ngūgī comments on the writing and rewriting of Wizard of the Crow and the resulting dialogue and interaction between Gikuyu and English in a way that would have been different had he been translating from a finished and published text as he had done with Devil on the Cross (2009: 20). Rather, Ngūgī experienced the translation of Murogi wa Kagogo as a process of rewriting, embracing the notion of an original as ‘a fluid rather than a fixed concept’ (Bassnett 2013: 19). He recalls:

My one determination was that I would not try to make the source language intrude overtly in the target language. I was no longer interested in trying to make readers feel they were reading a text that had been written in another language. If they wanted to authenticate the original language of its composition, they could go to the Gikuyu language original. (Ngūgī 2009: 19)

28As Susan Bassnett reflects, ‘translating one’s own writing seems to involve more than interlingual transfer, it involves reconstructing, perhaps, as Ngūgī puts it, being possessed once again by the Muse and starting off along another creative path’ (2013: 20). Wizard of the Crow is a text that mirrors the original in many ways, even though that original was in the making at the time at which it was being translated, influenced by that very act of translation. At the same time, it is a text that stands apart from Murogi wa Kagogo. For many readers there is no need to go or indeed no possibility of going to the Gikuyu language original to authenticate the original language of its composition, as Ngūgī proposes. Both texts have been influenced by the other; they have resulted from a parallel and simultaneous creative process. The resulting texts resist readings that look for consistency and pattern. Opting for one language or another is a strategic decision in Ngūgī’s work, foregrounding the very politics of the act of writing and the context in which that writing takes place.


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1 Sheng is a Swahili-based slang that combines English and Swahili.

2 The Gikuyu language is widely spoken in Kenyan towns, even by members of other ethnic groups. Gikuyu people run the majority of Kenya’s businesses, and it is common to find people conducting business in the Gikuyu language.

3 The Swahili phrase ‘Macho kali’ translates as ‘sharp eyes’.

4 The Swahili phrase ‘Alikuwa mtu ya Beijing’ translates as ‘She was/became a woman of Beijing’.

5 The Swahili phrase ‘Haki ya Mungu’ translates as ‘God’s justice’.


Lancaster University
Is Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. A specialist in contemporary African literature written in French and English, Charlotte is broadly interested in questions of power and marginality. She is the author of Enduring Negativity: Albinism in the Novels of Didier Destremau, Patrick Grainville and Williams Sassine (Peter Lang, 2011) and editor of Expressions of the Body: Representations in African Text and Image (Peter Lang, 2009). Charlotte is currently working on a book project examining the critical engagement of post-independence West African writers with dictatorship and editing a special issue of Research in African Literatures on ‘Performances of Sovereignty and the African Novel’. Her most recent publications include ‘Necropolitical violence and post-independence Guinean literature’ and ‘Multilingual Literature and Official Bilingualism in Cameroon: Francis Nyamnjoh’s A Nose for Money and Patrice Nganang’s Temps de chien’, both in the International Journal of Francophone Studies.

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