Glossing Africa.

Namwali Serpell at NYRDaily writes about an interesting topic that I haven’t seen much discussion of:

Whenever African writers are on a panel together, we are asked about the continent as a whole—its literature, its future, its political woes and economic potential. Whenever African writers get together on our own, we talk about glossaries. These additions to the main text, often vetted, if not entirely decided, by publishers, are crucial to how it will be received by readers. But when African writers talk about glossaries, we don’t just exchange tips. (How long? How comprehensive? By whom?) We talk about whether to include one at all, whether to offer glosses within the text or omit all glossing entirely. To gloss, or not to gloss? That is the question.

Most of us reading in the postcolonies never received glosses for the strange foods and weather of Europe. We had to figure out what snow and crumpets were on our own. […]

The politics of language in African literature have long been fraught. The very first conference on the subject, “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression,” held in Makerere in 1962, began by begging the question of its own title. Why was most extant African literature written in European languages? the writers wondered. Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, in attendance, would decide within a decade that he would henceforth write only in his native language, Gĩkũyũ. He has nevertheless translated all of his Gĩkũyũ novels into English—full-scale glossaries, so to speak. A footnote to his Devil on the Cross reads: “In the original work, written in Gĩkũyũ, certain words and phrases appear in English, French, Latin and Swahili. In this translation all such words and phrases are printed in italic type.” This is a neat obverse of the norm: in many Anglophone African novels, the words from African languages are italicized. This is the other perennial question African writers toss around when we are alone together. To italicize, or not to italicize? […]

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s brilliant novel Kintu, reissued this past May in the US by the independent press Transit Books, doesn’t have a glossary (nor a map nor a family tree). It does, however, italicize non-English words. It offers an object lesson in how African writers these days gloss words without a glossary. Within two pages, Makumbi adopts three modes of glossing.

You’ll have to click the link to learn about the three modes; me, I now want to read Kintu. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. Matthew Roth says:

    To make things more fun, in Devil on the Cross, the main character has name of Spanish and Portuguese origin. I read it in high school, and my copy, while marked up in many sections, isn’t leaving because who knows if I will find one again.

    As far as glossing goes, I get the point about (post-) colonialism, but Penguin & OUP gloss so much now that their original point is less weighty. Just gloss & be done with it, on both sides.

  2. Reminds the story about Burmese dictionary seen by Anna Korosteleva

    http://willie-wonka.livejournal.com/528771.html

  3. Here is the passage in Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World (1966) where the word ansible first became known to the world:

    “Is this the War, then?”

    “I think not. Yaddam, whom you knew, was staying with the ship; he would have heard news of that on the ansible in the ship, and radioed me at once […].

    […]

    “[…] You remember the ansible, the machine I showed you in the ship, which can speak instantly to other worlds, with no loss of years — it was that that they were after, I expect. It was only bad luck that my friends were all at the ship with it. Without it I can do nothing.”

    “But if your kinfolk, your friends, in the City Kerguelen, call you on the ansible, and there is no answer —” Mogien saw the answer as Rocannon said it.

    “In eight years ….”

    Since then the term has spread to other writers, and is also the name of a software package. According to Le Guin its etymology is answerable (that it is an acronym of lesbian is sheer coincidence).

    We see here how sf and fantasy authors gloss their words, since they need to do so in order to have any readers at all. Mainstream readers in the inner circle of the Anglosphere can in fact leave out glosses only if they are writing about things that will be very familiar to their audience already.

    (In tracking down this passage, I found out that the French for ansible is likewise ansible, but in Spanish it is the fairly self-explanatory transmisor instantáneo, and in Dutch it’s weerwort.)

  4. Anagram of lesbian.

    Ursula Le Guin’s claim that she derived ansible from answerable raises this question for me: why ansible with an i, rather than ansable?

  5. Maybe just because there are more English words ending in -nsible than in -nsable.

  6. Reminds the story about Burmese dictionary seen by Anna Korosteleva

    That was a delightful read, thanks! (A teacher of Russian to Burmese students gets a look at a big Burmese-Russian dictionary and is overwhelmed with delight at the definitions, e.g.: “skha’ – 1) Indian elk; 2) descendant (in the sixth generation).”)

  7. January First-of-May says:

    Reminds the story about Burmese dictionary seen by Anna Korosteleva

    Wow, hadn’t seen that post in years!

    …am I correct that I introduced you to her LJ by linking it on some other thread, and then you liked it and eventually decided to link it yourself?
    (She does write extremely cool stories, however.)

  8. I think I run into her blog years ago, but you introduced me to her novel about Chinese student in Moscow who is actually a magical fox in disguise. That was one of the best book recommendations on this blog ever (along with Helen De Witt’s “Last Samurai”)

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    Some of those interested in this topic might be interested in this review from a few years ago about Ngugi’s reasonably affectionate memoir of his time at the boarding school that was trying to make him an Anglophone writer.

    https://herandrews.com/2013/05/01/ngugis-education/

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    Re snow and crumpets, E.O. Ashton’s classic 1940’s “Swahili Grammar,” whose example sentences make clear it was intended for the use of young Oxbridge grads being sent out to take up the white man’s burden and administer the Empire in East Africa, includes an example sentence like the Swahili for (this is from memory and imprecise) “in my home country the ponds freeze solid in wintertime.”

  11. I just opened my ancient Teach Yourself Swahili (by D.V. Perrott) at random and found, on p. 68, the following sequence of sentences: “A child has been born. Many people were killed by the lion. This plan has not yet been accepted by the natives. My letter has been answered unsatisfactorily (badly). The drum will be heard at night.” That particular exercise ends with the following eloquent passage: “This road is impassable. His words are not forgotten. This work was not well done.”

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’ve never come across an example sentence more evocative of Empire than the one I recall from Gulian’s “Elementary Modern Armenian Grammar”:

    “England has a wise old queen.”

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW if you look for “wise old queen” in the google books corpus, the referents for four of the first five hits are gay males of certain age (including one rather spectacular passage from the early work of Wm S Burroughs), with the fifth being this interesting African monarch: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labotsibeni_Mdluli. Perhaps none of these books have been translated into Armenian, though.

  14. Rosie: The suffix -able is productive in English, appearing not only in borrowings, but attached to even purely native verbs like answer, whereas -ible is only found attached to Latin or Latino-French verb roots which are generally not used as verbs in English, like poss-ible, terr-ible, ostens-ible, neglig-ible. So to a first approximation -able attaches to whole verbs, -ible to word-fragments. Because ans- is not an English verb or even root (its etymology is Old English and-swerian ‘swear (take an oath) against’), it fits well into the second group, producing ansible.

    There are of course exceptions on both sides. In Latin the suffix was -bilis and the -a- was the thematic vowel (the vowel separating a root from its suffixes) of the first verb conjugation, whereas -i- was used with all other verbs, with thematic vowels -e- or -i-. Thus durable, mutable are from first-conjugation verbs dur-a-re, mut-a-re, even though dur- and mut- are not English verbs. Per contra, flexible is from Latin flect-e-re, and the English verb flex is a back formation from flexible.

    There are a few words that can be either -able or -ible, often with a difference in meaning: contractable ‘easily contracted (of a disease)’ vs. contractible ‘able to be shrunk’, collectable ‘able to be collected’ vs. collectible ‘worth collecting’. In both cases the underlying Latin verbs con-trah-e-re, col-leg-e-re have -e as the thematic vowel, and the -able forms were created productively within English.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    From the truly interesting ‘pedia account of a woman evidently worthy to be described as a “wise queen” (and, eventually, “old”), as linked by @JWB:

    “…much of it finding its way into the pockets of corrupt white advisers, including the egregious and venal Theophilus ‘Offy’ Shepstone…”

    One feels sorry for the writers of fiction, being so constantly upstaged by reality.
    The page as yet only exists in English, SiSwati and Sinhalese. Armenian to follow?
    (Why Sinhalese? Well, why not?, I suppose…)

  16. Lars (the original one) says:

    Outside of the first conjugation, is there any way to predict if -bilis attaches to the present or participial stem? We have vincibilis and flexibilis already in Classical Latin, not victibilis or flectibilis. Euphony?

    Also note that Late Latin had a habit of replacing irregular verbs with 1st conjugation ones based on the pptc, so that forms like adaptabilis would be natural. This is of course also the reason we have doublets like construe/construct. (I believe Classical Latin could form iteratives the same way, but wouldn’t base further derivatives on them as long as the process was transparent).

    (But some forms must have been derived in English, like dependable, since none of the explanations above will fit).

  17. Mark Rosenfelder, the Zompist, quotes somewhere, iirc (I can’t find it quickly) from a textbook of Aymara: “My cow has worms in her anus.” I guess that explains Evo.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    Why Sinhalese?

    Probably because a Sinhalese speaker found the topic interesting enough to translate the article, most likely from English.

    Too bad there was no photograph of this amazing woman.

  19. Evo Morales, reputedly, was named after his mother Eva. Added the wags, lucky she wasn’t named Ana.

  20. From Leon Smith’s 1843 Guide to English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Conversation:

    —How tedious it is for us utter strangers here, to be unacquainted with any body to speak with!
    —Let us draw near these ladies.
    —̵Let us have some talk with those gentlemen.
    —Take care what you say; lest they should hold you but an ill-bred fellow.
    —What do you mean?
    —It is not proper you should address any persons you do not know.
    —A few words are enough to get acquainted.
    —Pshaw! You must be introduced by the master or mistress of the house.

    Further on:

    —The lady who is playing on the harp, is english.
    —What postures are hers! She looks like a Sapho.
    —She is attired as a druidess.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    —Let us draw near this intriguing hovercraft full of eels.

  22. Re: “Wise Old Queen”

    Reminds me famous “Queen of Fiji” story.

    Briefly, a stamp collector kept adding many stamps featuring Queen of Fiji over several decades, but only on Queen of Fiji’s 50th Jubilee did he realize that the Queen of Fiji was not some wise native woman as he mistakenly thought for forty years, but Queen Elizabeth II of the UK.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    of the UK

    And of Australia, and of Canada, and of lots of other places. And Lord of Mann [sic].

  24. January First-of-May says:

    And Lord of Mann [sic].

    As well as, IIRC, the Duke of Lancaster.

  25. January First-of-May says:

    Update to the “Duke of Lancaster” thing:

    There’s a tradition on Wikipedia that on April 1, everything on the Main Page is changed to sound silly (but still be factually correct). This used to extend to recent news; one suggestion was to refer to Elizabeth II by one of her more esoteric titles (“Duke of Lancaster” was vetoed as possibly not legally valid).
    So – I’m paraphrasing from memory here, as I was unable to find the original text – there was a reference to a “wedding of a grandson of the Queen of Jamaica and the Queen of Belize” (that is to say, of Prince William, to Kate Middleton).
    [EDIT: found the phrase – “Detailed plans are released for the upcoming wedding of the grandson of the Queen of Belize and the Queen of Jamaica.” The suggestion was not accepted to the final list.]

    Ultimately, after a bunch of actual non-humorous breaking news happened in the immediate vicinity of April 1 (2011, apparently), it was declared inproper to pollute the news section with humorous stuff, and since then it became the only non-silly part of the Wikipedia Main Page on April Fool’s Day.

  26. @Y: Lol! Or perhaps, Pshaw!

    I now long to see Sappho attired as a Druidess. I miss Bloomington.

  27. Lars (the original one) says:

    “Duke of Lancaster” is actually one of the less ornamental titles of the British Monarch, since the county is held as personal property separately from the Crown Estate (as The County Palatine); income from leases and tenancies go to the Royal Household, and certain administrative functions are carried out by the direct representatives of the Queen in Right of her Duchy and are not under the purview of the Treasurer of Her Loyal Government.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    From Leon Smith’s 1843 Guide to English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Conversation:

    A few years ago there was a discussion here of similar “literature”. It brought up souvenirs of the fun my family (especially the teenagers) had after discovering a similar (though not so multilingual) guide for travelling in foreign parts. Among sentences I remember:

    – ( for the lady traveller):
    “Do you have ready-made shoes? Show me a few pairs in different sizes”
    “(to the hotel concierge) Send me a pedicurist and a dentist.”
    – (for the well-bred gentleman at a party):
    “Are you the queen of this country?”

  29. More from Smith:

    —We drank no more than twenty bottles between us; it was not a great many.

    —Waiter, have you any French newspapers?
    —No, sir, they are prohibited by the government in all coffee-houses.
    —My dear, no traveller, if prudent, ever talks about politics in public.

    —Had I known I was to have your company, I would have ordered some macaroni.

  30. “Harold is swift. His hand is strong and his word grim. Late in life he went to his wife in Rome. Grind his corn for him and sing me his song. He swam west in storm and wind and frost.” —Old English textbook

  31. January First-of-May says:

    Since this thread was bumped recently, might as well link the continuation of the Burmese dictionary post.

    (Also featuring the bandicoot – the original one, that is, which the more famous Australian one was named for.)

  32. It’s Sumatra that has the giant rat, not Burma.

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