The Role of Translation in West African Multimedia Language Pedagogy

The Role of Translation in West African Multimedia Language Pedagogy

An Interview with Coleman Donaldson, by Renée Altergott

Local languages like Manding remain the dominant languages of daily life for the vast majority of West Africans, but they do not play the role that they should in building a more egalitarian and democratic society in the 21st century. I believe that learners of Manding not only enrich themselves culturally and socially when they study the language, but they also contribute to changing this situation.

I first came across Coleman Donaldson’s work on West African language pedagogy while I was conducting research on the nineteenth-century resistant leader, Samori Touré, whose empire was spread across present-day Mali and Guinea. Thanks to his background in linguistics, Coleman was able to shed light on the rich linguistic complexities of the region, and verify the translation of a song celebrating Samori’s exploits. Seeing that there was so much more to say about the role translation has played in his own linguistic journey, from learning Manding to designing multimedia videos and an online dictionary for other language learners, I invited him to answer further questions on his research and his current project, “An ka taa” (“Let’s go!” or “On y va!”).

Map of the Manding language continuum (Image: Coleman Donaldson)

Renée: What are some typical expressions in the West African languages you speak that are the most challenging to translate into English, and what do those difficulties teach us about the nature of the language and the cultural perspectives and values it expresses?

Coleman: There are far too many to choose from, but I think that in many cases, it can be the abstract categories that are well-anchored in the Western tradition because of decades, if not centuries, of intellectual and institutional promotion; words like “society,” “freedom,” “happiness” are more or less freely translatable across Western European societies. Freedom, liberty, Freiheit, etc. But what word would we use in Bambara?

In the case of “freedom,” one term that is sometimes used is hɔrɔnya, which comes from the term hɔrɔn (“noble”), and could be translated most literally as “nobility.” But nobility is a meaning-laden term in the West because it is tied to the societal arrangements associated with royalty and medieval Europe, etc. You can’t say “noble” in English without it pointing, however indirectly, to a moneyed class of people tied to monarchies born in Europe. Hɔrɔn, while commonly translated as “noble” nowadays, is, in fact, an artefact of a completely different society and societal arrangement. To simplify things, ninety percent of Manding-speakers are hɔrɔn. The remainder are either ɲamakala, so-called “casted people” who belong to a range of groups associated with a specific line of work and that marry within themselves, or, historically, various forms of jɔn (“slaves”). To translate hɔrɔnya as “freedom” therefore is not necessarily wrong, but potentially misleading because of what the idea of hɔrɔn represents and the system from which it comes in West Africa.

Difficulties such as these teach us that non-Western languages such as Manding can force Westerners to step outside of the categories that define so much of modern life as it is dictated by the institutions, writings and ideas that did and do emanate from the universities, schools, associations and government agencies tied to Washington, Paris, London, Berlin, etc. More broadly, these translation difficulties highlight how hard the act of translation is, given that, as Bakhtin would put it, “all words have the ‘taste’ of a profession, genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour.” And there we could add “culture” and “society.”

Renée: Your dissertation explored questions of indigenous language, literacy, and education in West Africa through the N’ko movement across Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, which seeks to promote a script that was invented for writing Manding in 1949 by the intellectual and author Sulemaana Kantè. What is the current status of the N’ko movement today? Has literature written and/or published in this script since flourished? What aspects of Manding are “lost in translation” through writing in N’ko?

Coleman: The short answer is that the N’ko movement (ߒߞߏ)[1] and in general the use of N’ko for writing Manding has been in near continual growth since its creation. On paper, none of the major Manding-speaking countries of West Africa have recognized N’ko as the official alphabet to be used for the language. But there’s far more “text”—that is, books, newspapers, websites, and, perhaps most importantly, messages via WhatsApp, Telegram, etc.—produced in N’ko than in the Latin-based systems that were adopted following independence in 1958–1960.

A man browsing N’ko books for sale street-side in Kankan, Guinea
(Image: Coleman Donaldson)

So, yes, Manding-language literature written in N’ko is flourishing. Annually, there are hundreds of texts published in West Africa (or in the Middle East, Europe or North America by members of the diaspora). And these works do not go unsold or unread! Titles that had printings of 5,000 or more are sometimes now out of print and impossible to buy in N’ko bookshops. And that is despite the persistent existence of black-market photocopies sold by the road or PDF copies that circulate in online communities.

One aspect of the Manding language that is potentially “lost in translation” (though I don’t think it’s necessarily something to lament too much) is the fact that it’s by and large a standardizing tradition. In his grammar and pedagogical works, Sulemaana Kantè laid out a prescriptive vision for his language. He did this not because he wasn’t interested in the various local iterations of Manding as distinct dialects (indeed, he wrote an important work on Manding dialectology), but because he believed in an original unified form of the language. He wanted there to be a written standard that would allow the language to be used across Manding-speaking society. This is, of course, not without consequence; most N’ko writings of today are in a variety of the language that is closer to spoken Maninka (a variety mostly associated with the highlands of Guinea) in terms of grammar and vocabulary. But then again, this kind of thing is typical across so many written traditions; in fact, one could argue that a written tradition requires it.

Renée: Do you have any favorite translators from this region who work from Manding into English or French? Is it predominantly literary works that are being translated for the global market today, or rather, oral cultural texts such as songs, epics, and folktales?

Coleman: Unfortunately, it’s not easy for me to speak of my favorite translators of Manding literature. Because where should we start? In the West, we think of a literary translator as someone who acts first and foremost upon a written text. In that sense, there are very few translators to speak of because so few of the original works that are penned in Manding (whether in N’ko or the Latin script) are ever translated into another language.

We could perhaps use the label “literary translator” for those who have tried to interpret Manding oral literature into a written form of other languages, such as Arabic, French or English. This tradition is old. While I’m not aware of any specific early Arabic-language translations of Manding oral literature (poems, songs, tales, epics, etc.), this may have occurred given the centuries-old presence of Islam and Quranic schooling in the Sahel region of West Africa. As for French or English, such translations would have started as soon as Western explorers, military officers or Christian missionaries laid pen to paper to translate some of what they were introduced to. Many of the published early texts that touch on or focus on Manding were primarily documentary linguistic works or practical manuals meant to serve Western knowledge production and/or language learning (often with the practical goal of facilitating rule or missionary work following conquest).

Later, there are clear examples of literary translation. I can’t really speak of my favorite translators in terms of my preference for their translations over that of others. But there are some interesting figures whom I appreciate for their dedication to investigating and sharing a major part of Manding and West African culture via their work.

For instance, in 1901 the French colonial functionary and linguist Maurice Delafosse published a practical grammar for Manding. This text includes a transcription of an oral testimony regarding the life and actions of Samori Touré—an important West African conqueror who also battled the French imperialists. He didn’t offer a translation of the text, though. Instead, he provided a Manding-French lexicon derived from the testimony so that one could translate it.

Another figure—connected to Maurice Delafosse because he worked for him—is Moussa Travélé, a native speaker of Bamanan who worked as an official interpreter for the French colonial administration. His 1923 publication of a collection of Bambara proverbs and tales (“contes” in French) with their French translation is the first published written translation of Manding oral literature of which I am aware.

Cover page, Travélé, Proverbes et Contes Bambara, 1923

Later figures that are of interest are more contemporary, but are worth mentioning. I am particularly admirative of the annotated bilingual editions of the oral epics, proverbs, tales, folksongs, etc., edited or produced by scholars such as Kassim Koné, Charles Bailleul, Charles Bird, Gérard Dumestre, Valentin Vydrin, Jan Jansen, Marie-Jo and Jean Dérive. Unfortunately, citing their names does a disservice to the colleagues who inevitably assisted them since only one of them—Kassim Koné—is a native-speaker of the language.

Renée: You have developed “An ka taa” (“Let’s go!” or “On y va!”), a web-based initiative that offers modern educational media, resources and lessons for current and emergent speakers of Manding (commonly referred to as Bambara, Dioula, Malinké or Mandingo). What role has translation played in the development of these pedagogical materials?

Coleman: Translation is central to much, if not all, of the media and resources that I have developed through An ka taa. Beyond the street interview series, Na baro kè (“Come chat!”), the most notable project would be the Bambara/Dioula-English-French dictionary web app that I wrote originally as a text-based “pocket dictionary” with a friend and colleague, Antoine Fenayon. I had always been frustrated that there wasn’t a good practical dictionary for learners of Manding. They are so often condemned to consulting basic lexicons or word lists without examples, cross-references, or tone to make sure that they can pronounce things correctly. (Manding has both lexical and grammatical tone.) Recently, as of part of this effort, we also launched a Forum that complements the dictionary in the same way that the WordReference forums do for languages like French and Spanish. It’s a place to build knowledge about the language through the serious, but not-too-scholarly discussion of Manding, English and French words, expressions and idioms and their translation. And when you search the dictionary, it also searches the Forum. In this way, the dictionary itself is always growing and becoming more useful for people.

Renée: In your video on “Speaking multiple languages,” from the street interview series Na baro kè (“Come chat!”), many of your subjects revealed that they spoke 2-5 languages, including Jula, French, English, Mooré, Gurunsi, Kousanga, Fulani, Sumogo, Senufo, and more. You also take the time to subtitle your videos in Manding written in N’ko, Manding written in Latin script, English, and French. Looking back on this period of extensive field research, were there any challenges you encountered in between languages?

N’Ko carving by Tim Brookes (from Atlas of Endangered Alphabets)

Coleman: In terms of Na baro kè and the subtitle tiers, there are practical concerns.

When most people think of subtitles nowadays, they think of the “closed captions” that can be toggled on an off on YouTube or Netflix. Some forms of US broadcasts are required to provide closed captions, which are in fact a transcription of what is being said and what is occurring on screen. The lines that appear on the screen can contain line breaks; that is, if a particular caption is too long for the designated space, then it can be presented as two physical lines of text. In this way, even long captions are time-aligned with what is being said or occurring on screen.

Foreign language subtitles such as those that appear over French films in arthouse cinema showings in the US, however, can be of a different nature. They are not “closed captions” because they do not have to line up specifically with what is occurring on screen. A subtitler may choose to elide words or entire sentences in the source language (French)—provided the translation still works literarily (that is, it captures the spirit of the “text”)—in order to facilitate readability for the audience. The readability is determined by both the amount of time for which a subtitle appears and its length (or height if it is broken across multiple lines) on screen.

In the case of Na baro kè, the challenges and affordances of closed captions and subtitles are combined because of the fact that I do a close transcription of the spoken speech. This is meant to allow students of the language to read along with the various pronunciations, stutters and hedges that are part of any language in use. At the same time, I aim to provide a synchronous parallel translation into English and French. To be readable, all three (or four if we also count the normative N’ko orthographic tier which is derived from the Latin-based source) tiers must “fit.” That is, they must all fit on screen within their respective one-line tier.

One of the challenges that came up regularly was the fact that French subtitle tier segments frequently required more characters than their English counterparts. In some cases, they were so much longer that they went over the acceptable length (that is, they spilled off-screen). In this case, I had to make a choice between modifying the translation or re-segmenting where individual subtitles appeared. In some cases, a simple orthographic convention can shorten things: t’as instead of tu as (“you have” in French). In other cases, I would re-evaluate my translation and shift it from being a literal translation to a more literary one. Or, worst case scenario, I would need to try to shift around the subtitle breaks, which in some cases led to utterances and sentence segments that were too quick for a viewer to catch. And of course, it wasn’t always French that was too long. But in general, the Manding was the shortest in characters followed by English and French. This is a nice thing because it means that the font of Manding can be larger and therefore more central, which is logical given its nature as the “source tier” of the subtitles.

Beyond these constraints, there were of course questions of how to translate things. Specifically, I struggled with whether to do a more literal translation into French and English that would be potentially be more useful for students of Manding or to use a more colloquial free translation that would suit a Western audience that simply wanted to follow along. The middle ground which I shot for was often something that leaned towards literal as much as possible without being uninterpretable for a naïve Western viewer. I did this in the hopes of relaying some of the logic found within the grammar, vocabulary and expressions of the Manding language.

Renée: What are some current barriers to learning Manding, and how do you see your project working to break these down?

Coleman: In my experience, the biggest barriers to learning Manding are not linguistic; the language is well-documented, but this knowledge is confined to academic books for professional linguists and learners’ manuals that are often low-quality, out of print, or hard to find. Learners struggle because their references are Western languages like English or French, but Manding grammar and vocabulary are significantly different. The language isn’t particularly complex in terms of morphology (there are essentially no “conjugation” patterns to learn) or syntax (word-order is more or less fixed), but learners often get frustrated when they try to learn directly from friends or family because they don’t have a formal explanation of a few key grammatical forms that English or French doesn’t have.

For instance, there is no regular verb equivalent of “to be” in Manding. Instead, there are four distinct grammatical constructions that can all translate to “to be” in English or other Western languages. But they all do fundamentally different work: identification (“That is Coleman”); description (“Coleman is tall”); equation (“Coleman is a teacher”); and location (“Coleman is in Bamako”). In a way, it is English, French, etc., that are silly; they use one single verb to cover totally different states of affairs. It is easy enough to learn it in Manding—I cover it in a few Basic Bambara lessons on YouTube—but without the explanation, learners often panic and just say, “It’s too complicated. I’m just gonna speak French.”

That’s the other side of things: French is the official language of Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea. Foreigners often just fall back on that. I get it. If you are coming from English or another Western language, it’s easier. And many West Africans that can speak French will often also default to the language when they encounter any foreigners as well. But from my perspective, ceding to this post-colonial reality is a tragedy. Local languages like Manding remain the dominant languages of daily life for the vast majority of West Africans, but they do not play the role that they should in building a more egalitarian and democratic society in the 21st century. I believe that learners of Manding not only enrich themselves culturally and socially when they study the language, but they also contribute to changing this situation. That’s why I am making high-quality modern resources such as web-based videos, courses, a podcast, dictionary, forum, etc., for learning Manding: so that there are no barriers to learning one of West Africa’s most important languages.

[1] If would like your device to recognize N’Ko script, you can download the Noto Sans N’Ko font for free from Google Fonts.

Coleman Donaldson, the founder of An ka taa, is a linguistic anthropologist and teacher of Manding, a West African trade language more commonly referred to as Bambara, Dioula, Malinké or Mandingo. He received his PhD in Educational Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, November 23, 2021

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