Nyabola Prize for Science Fiction in Kiswahili.

As a fan of both sf and languages (and a quondam student of Swahili), I was delighted when Trevor Joyce sent me this interview:

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.

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.

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.

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    All good, no question.

    I’m not convinced that creating a modern technical vocabulary is going to lead to expanding the domain over which Swahili is used (desirable though that surely is.) It’s putting the cart before the horse: technical vocabulary is created by people (technicians, not linguists) who have already decided to use a language for technical purposes. However, I suppose it might have a useful role in encouraging people to see Swahili as the sort of language you could use that way (in which case, the prior creations of technical vocabulary will soon be discarded, as scaffolding that has served its purpose. May it happen soon!)

    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

    I can see no reason at all not to have both. After all, English is also steeped in “archaic, or historically poetic technical words and forms” (and as for Welsh …)
    But I may be overinterpreting “these must be updated.”

  2. Lars Mathiesen says

    As for many languages, considerable resources were expended to create a Danish vocabulary for IT (or ADP as it was then known) and it was almost universally ignored. But we still can and do talk about IT in Danish, all the words from English are just terms of art — though everybody working in the field can probably read technical literature in English, and advanced stuff generally is not translated, English is just a tool to access that.

    The danger of domain loss is present when companies start conducting their meetings in English, and universities start teaching classes in English because they think that’s what students need or want. Then you get procurements where bids have to be in English, and by then the bus is past the tipping point into the ditch.

    So the way I see it, “native” Kiswahili technical or scientific vocab may be a nice-to-have, but it’s not borrowing that’s the danger. It’s when people think it’s easier to switch to English entirely, and it’s not inconceivable to me that the risk of that would have been greater if people felt they would have to learn the official Danish words for things instead of just using the same terms of art as in English.

    (After all, words like server, client and protocol are used in very metaphorical senses in IT English, and being a native English speaker may not help much when learning those meanings; conversely, using Danish or Kiswahili terms instead of nativized English ones would probably not appreciably diminish the cognitive load of learning about server operations).

  3. ” considerable resources were expended to create a Danish vocabulary for IT ”

    Situation 1 is me and my friends. We have been coining new words for newly invented concepts since when we discussed math problems (and then life problems) in school. And when I read to my freind aloud in Russian an artcile written in English in a field that she is much more familiar with than I am, I just coin a new term “for the purposes of this conversation” without thinking, as we always did and as our professors sometimes did.
    When there exist a Russian term she may tell me it… or not, if she is satisfied with mine.
    Anyway: communication is not hindered at all.

    Situation 2 is a professional from a country where education and professional discussins are in a foreign langauge (or involve code-switching).
    And then the answer is for a boarding school graduate is “I don’t know how to discuss it in Bengali” and for a speaker of a language X that does not have the vocabulary “it is impossible to discuss it in X, there are no words for this”.
    I understnad a half of the Bengali speaker’s problem (and he’s ashamed of his ignorance of Bengali literary register), but only a half, because apart of lack of familiarity with already existing vocabulary there is also a mental barrier that I do not understand.
    And I do not understand the speaker of X: why this lack of vocabulary does not trasform naturally in creative freedom? (it does, but this creative freedom is called : code-switching).

    (situation 3 is when you are translating a book and spend 2 evenings thinking about a good term for something and, tormented with perfectionism.)

  4. i’m a big fan of “archaic, or historically poetic technical words and forms”, however they arise! one of the few good impulses that the language engineers of ivrit/israeli had (as much as i disagree with a lot of their motivation in the choice).

    but/and i tend to think that the dynamics of these things are almost completely different from each other depending on whether the languages in question are (to use examples that have mostly already been raised) a colonially imposed language and an indigenous regional lingua franca; an imperial language spread by ‘soft power’ and a nation-state’s dominant & official language; a colonially imposed language and an indigenous national language; etc.

  5. I really like your comment, rozele! Thank you.

    I used to have very strong, puristic opinions on how new technical vocabulary should be coined and introduced for Kurmanji, on the Icelandic model, but now I don’t know what to think anymore. These days, I hope that, at least, I have the good sense to just lean back and listen to all segments of community voice their concerns.

  6. Lars Mathiesen says

    It’s true that Danish has a stronger position in Denmark than Kiswahili has where it is the regional lingua franca, but rozele’s comment makes it sound like that is a given conclusion given that Kiswahili is “indigenous” — if that means “not from the outside”. (An ancestor of) Danish has been spoken in Denmark for about as long as ancestors of) Bantu languages have outside their starting point near Nigeria; the iron age in Africa began about 1000 years earlier than in Scandinavia.

    Danish has had the benefit of being used to define an affluent nation state, but nation states do not automatically possess the affluence that enables them to anchor their languages in a published literature and a system of public schooling and so on. Most European ones do, of course, but just saying “national state” when you mean “powerful national state” is imprecise.

    (I am aware that relevant UN organs define “indigenous” as “less privileged than other local groups, and we don’t care if they drove off the previous inhabitants last Wednesday.” In that sense, an indigenous language is by definition vulnerable. It just makes me grumpy, I want to be indigenous too).

  7. @Lars:

    just to be clear:

    i was using “indigenous” here only in contrast to “colonially imposed”, precisely to mark what you point out: one flavor of the relations of power (economic, political, and social) that shape “a published literature and a system of public schooling and so on”. denmark’s been unusually lucky enough to have never been on the colonized side of that dynamic, but that doesn’t make its language less autocthonous (as far as that’s a thing for languages).

    and i certainly wouldn’t say that all nation-states can (or actually do, whether or not they could) the same things for their dominant and official languages (where there is one language that’s both; there isn’t always either, and where there’s one there isn’t always the other – i’m extremely glad we’ve managed to fight off officialized english in the u.s. so far, though i still have to look forward to its decline from dominance!).

    in any case, my examples were just trying to describe parts of the specific situations of kiswahili, danish, and bengali in relation to english, which i think are illustratively different, and by no means a comprehensive list.

  8. Lars Mathiesen says

    Actually, as a point of separate interest, I learned from Wikipedia that there seems to be a 5000 year continuity of material culture in the assumed homeland of the Bantu languages (Mambila/Mambilla, “the highlands between Nigeria and Cameroon”). That would make the people there rank pretty high on an autochthonocity scale. (WP also tells me that they speak a Mambiloid langue, a subgroup of Benue-Congo that is not listed on the latter’s WP page. But it’s listed at the same taxonomic level as the Bantoid languages, so either there’s a clash of taxonomies or they adopted a new language at some point. EDIT: At “Mambiloid languages” the infobox places them under Northern Bantoid, so I fixed the infobox at “Mambila language”. And you can now put a time limit on watching edited pages, that’s nice).

    @rozele, I agree that languages like Danish are probably less prone to domain loss in the face of large imports of technical vocabulary than the two other categories you list, never mind what we call the categories.

    Someone, I think Lameen, once mentioned how you can’t get your car serviced in Algerian(?) Arabic — since all service manuals are in French, you have to know how a car works in French to talk to the mechanic. (I may have exaggerated just a little, I can’t find the thread just now).

  9. i’m extremely glad we’ve managed to fight off officialized english in the u.s. so far


  10. ktschwarz says

    The discussion of car mechanics in Algeria was in the comments to Language and Identity. As you suspected, “you can’t get your car serviced” was an exaggeration: Lameen didn’t say what language the *customer* speaks to the mechanic, he said the manuals, parts ordering, and vocational training were in French. So you have to know French to *be* a mechanic, but not to patronize one.

    That post also links to Lameen’s blog on domains that some languages don’t have a vocabulary for.

  11. John Cowan says

    I am aware that relevant UN organs define “indigenous” as “less privileged than other local groups, and we don’t care if they drove off the previous inhabitants last Wednesday.

    Up to a point, Minister. We don’t want to say that Algerians are indigenous to France or Black Americans are indigenous to the U.S. (In addition, different agencies have different definitions.)

    Lameen’s blog post is “Why having ‘no word for X’ can matter”.

  12. The matter deserves a book, not a post. I particularly say so because I, for one thing, do not understand what it looks like for Algerians – despite my numerous attempts to understand it and opportunities too. We have different childhoods.

    But clearly we mix up several things.

  13. One is transplanting a school of thought to foreign ground. You have people who do not know mathematics or biology, you need them to understand it, to become curious about it, to start discussing it.

    Another is choosing a sign.

    – signs are usually anchored in something.

    – specifically linguistical (morphological, phonetical) properties of these signs.

  14. First transplanting. It means both “people” (local specialists, teachers etc.) and “a body of texts”. For the body of texts I know two approaches:

    – translating (like in Russia). I have issues with this approach though, I do not think it is “ideal”.

    – teaching everyone English. Letting them work with English books in school and attend English universities later.

    The seconds seems cheaper, because obviously making 70 million kids learn a foreign langauge is always cheaper than making 70 specialists work hard. It is the trick with kids: you can beat them up and it is still for their own good. So you can do anything to them and it “costs nothing”. Millions or quintillions, does not matter.
    Obviously, learning foreign langauges is even better for them.

    I am sarcastic, but it is how I think people see it. Otherwise I do not see much difference between the two options: obscure texts in a weird register of your native langauge (when a corpus of many other similar texts exists) are not really different from obscure texts in weird registers of a foreign langauge (when a corpus of many other similar texts exists). Both times you have to struggle with the register, and both times there is that corpus that provides you with the necessary context. The situations are strictly identical – and maybe the problem is the “people” part.

    I am comparing two similar children without prior experience with either register. Not a “child who have not been schooled at all, dealing with her first science book” vs. “a child who have been schooled in English dealing with yet another science book in English, when there are many more such books around”. This comparison would be dishonest. Nevertheless, as a former child I still think, one book is doable (every given child deals only with a few science books…) and one really needs to think about the “people” part, not about translations.

  15. Second, what I called “to anchor a sign in something”:

    It can be for example your experience (when I coin new terms for my own use). Or your and your listener’s shared experience (this is what I did when I coined new terms when tranlating from English for my friend – and this is what we do when coining a new term “for the purposes of this conversation”).

    Or expectations: you studied computer science in English and you use an English term unfamiliar to your friend, because you expect her to connect to the community of users of this term in future. “This is how educated people call it”. It has to do with some things that were said about discussions here: many things written here are written as if everyone is professional. I think Brett liked it.

  16. Lars Mathiesen says

    We don’t want to say — maybe not using the word indigenous, but you do get things like Romani being assigned minority language status in Sweden while for instance Övdalską doesn’t get it. (Or didn’t, it may have changed).

    (Despite Danish reputedly being the third most common home language in Sweden, after Swedish and Finnish, it will never appear in those 13-language pamphlets about voter registration. “They can just read the English version!” — and that’s true, it would be a waste of public resources to do it. But there are also things like all children having the right to mother tongue instruction in the Swedish public school system, but Danish is just not available while Somali is. Unlike the rest of my peevery, that was a real problem for us: the kids would have no idea about Danish vocabulary for school subjects when we moved back, so we actually stayed a year longer until the youngest could finish high school).

    different agencies have different definitions — they would, wouldn’t they. Do any of them accept Danes as indigenous in Denmark?

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