Kenya, Tanzania…’No Edges’, the first Swahili-to-English anthology

By Olivia Snaije

Posted on May 19, 2023 08:28

 © The cover of No Edges, the first-ever Swahili to English anthology, published by Two Lines Press in San Francisco.
The cover of No Edges, the first-ever Swahili to English anthology, published by Two Lines Press in San Francisco.

One of the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world is Swahili, with over 200 million speakers, according to UNESCO. Moreover, as Swahili to English translator Richard Prins writes, “the Swahili language is host to a historically and globally significant poetic canon dating back to at least the mid-17th century.”

It is at long last that the first collection of stories, No Edges, translated from Swahili into English, launched in April. The anthology is published by the San Francisco-based Two Lines Press, part of the Center for the Art of Translation, which looks to bring translations into English by overlooked and underrepresented voices.

The idea for the collection came about when Kelsey McFaul, who was finishing her PhD at the University of Santa Cruz on literature from East Africa, connected with Two Lines Press which was looking to support more African literature in translation.

Funded by her university, McFaul became a fellow at the Center for the Art of Translation, and began to research the Swahili literary scene, contacting researchers, authors, and translators, as well as soliciting suggestions from those involved in Cornell University’s Kiswahili Prize, established in 2014 to promote and encourage translations into and from African languages.

Taking care to shape the anthology

Two Lines editor Sarah Coolidge usually prepares an anthology of literature in translation each spring and fall, but for the Swahili edition “we took the time and resources and worked for a year to put it together”.

“For me the greatest challenge was how to editorially shape it,” Coolidge tells The Africa Report. “With any underrepresented literature there’s an intense pressure on what translators choose to translate, and who in this vast body of work deserves attention and resources,” she says.

“We hope it speaks to what’s happening now, and the way writers are working together with Swahili literature,” she says.

The collection includes excerpts from four novels, and four short stories. The authors are from Tanzania and Kenya; most are young, only two in the collection are no longer alive. The stories take place in villages, amidst urban chaos, on a long-distance bus ride, and even in outer space, and are masterfully well-balanced in their choice, with equally varied voices and language. The translators are also a diverse mix of authors, poets, musicians, and academics.

Translating the story from Sheng to English was interesting because it just revealed new things, to me, about how language works, especially when it’s in relation to another language.

Idza Luhumyo (a Kenyan author and 2022 AKO Caine Prize winner) translated Timo and Kayole’s Chaos – a high-octane, rapid-fire story that takes place in Kayole Town in Nairobi. The author of the short story, Mwas Mahugu, is also a Kenyan writer and an Afro-hip hop artist. He wrote the short story in Sheng, the city’s Swahili-based urban language that integrates English and other local languages to it, which has also spread to cities in Tanzania and Uganda.

Luhumyo, who grew up speaking Swahili, among other languages, tells The Africa Report: “Translating the story from Sheng to English was interesting because it just revealed new things, to me, about how language works, especially when it’s in relation to another language. The slippage between the languages was interesting to work with,”

Ever-changing Swahili

Uta Reuster-Jahn, a German academic and lecturer in Swahili language and literature, translated an excerpt from Tanzanian writer Lilian Mbaga’s second novel, Selfishness. The novel and the chapter included in the anthology are about a widow who finds herself bullied by her late husband’s family.

“It’s about oppression,” says Reuster-Jahn. “In Swahili literature there are very few women writers. Over the past seven years, a number of female writers have appeared who are young and write about women within a patriarchal society.

Reuster-Jahn tells The Africa Report she has closely followed the evolution of literature in the region from the time she lived in Tanzania where she learned Swahili.

“The language fascinated me from the start. I very much loved the sound. Swahili has open syllables, which means the vowels are very prominent in each word…Later, when I learned the basic grammar, I came to love the wit and how people communicate – they talk indirectly, there are many allusions; they like to tease each other, laugh, and joke.”

Today, the Swahili that was standardised in the 20th century is evolving. “There is a lot of creativity and use of metaphors and metonymies,” she says, speaking of a figure of speech in which an object or idea is referred to by the name of something closely associated with it, instead of its own name.

“There is a creative manipulation of existing words and new words are being formed,” she says.

Reuster-Jahn sourced Mbaga’s book from Kona ya Riwaya, a small bookshop in Dar es Salaam run by writer Hussein Tuwa, president of a recently created writer’s association called UWARIDI, of which Mbaga is also a member.

Translation stimulating more translation

Having translated the novel Titi la Mkwe by the late Tanzanian author Alex Banzi into German, Reuster-Jahn is hoping to find a German publisher for Mbaga’s entire novel. This is precisely what McFaul and Coolidge would like to see happen following the publication of No Edges.

“Our hope would be that getting some of this work out there, especially with novel chapter samples, will generate interest among publishers,” McFaul tells The Africa Report.

“An important goal was that it would be a jumping off point for more Swahili literature after that,” says Coolidge.

For Idza Luhumyo, this translation project, the latest in several she has done so far, has benefitted her as a writer.

“I think that the more translation work I do, the more I begin to see how every translation adds yet another layer to a piece of work, no matter how subtly. As the translator, it’s like you’re the story’s messenger, yes, but you also affect the story in some form just by virtue of having it pass through you. Translation is probably something from which many writers could benefit,” she says.

© Cover of the UK version of ‘No Edges’, the first Swahili-to-English anthology, published by Tilted Axis Press in the UK.

Coolidge says it was extremely exciting to edit and work with translators who could create new rhythms in English.

“There were strong voices in this collection. Sometimes [in translations] there’s too much effort to Americanise the language and you lose some musicality. I had back and forth exchanges with translators, with Richard [Prins] for example, in A Neighbour’s Pot by Lusajo Mwaikenda Israel; there was a lot of slang in there. We talked a lot about how to keep the voice and musicality without making it too silly or have a dissonance.”

Richard Prins also translated the story  for the collection that fits under the sci-fi genre, an excerpt from the 1995 novel Walenisi by Katama G.C. Mkangi, which lent its name to the anthology.

In the excerpt, the character Dzombo is in a spaceship called Sayari. “This womb bore him into outer space, into a universe with no edges,” it says.

“It’s pushing the edges around whatever the ways we want to see African literature and the way it’s understood in the US. It explodes categories and labels we put around it. It’s the boundlessness and multiplicity that I hope people get swept along with,” says McFaul.

The UK-based Tilted Axis Press will publish the British edition in June. In late May an audiobook will be available produced by Audible and narrated by actors Anita Kavuu Ng’ang’a and Ali Zayn.

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