Man of Scarce Means

I was testing not for accuracy, but possibility

Sculpture featuring a stack of books atop a column, against a dark-gray wall
Nolan Oswald Dennis, Xenolith I (installation view). 2019, rammed earth monolith, collected books, ribbon. 11.8 × 11.8 × 55". Image courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.

Earlier this year, I began to translate an Igbo novel into English. Omenuko, written by Pita Nwana, was published in 1933 after winning an all-Africa literary contest in Indigenous African languages organized by the London-based International Institute of African Languages and Cultures. It is agreed to be the first work of fiction published in Igbo. Nwana, who worked for thirty years as a carpenter and foreman at a Methodist college in Uzuakoli, Nigeria, published no other novel, and little is known of his origins as a writer.

I had never translated a book from Igbo but first considered doing so three years ago, after reading Kate Briggs’s This Little Art. In her work of memoir and literary criticism, Briggs recounts her experiences translating a collection of lectures by Roland Barthes into English and contemplates the workaday labor of translators. She also wrestles with the persistent questions the process raises about authenticity and originality. The central argument of the book, if it can be said to have one, is that translation is an art open to amateurs.

As I read, I was reminded of my final year of secondary school, in which I was examined in a total of nine subjects, some of which qualified me for entry into university. A year earlier, I had moved with my family from Lagos to Ile-Ife, a town in southwestern Nigeria, considered by the Yoruba to be the cradle of human civilization. For one of these exams, I was asked to choose between three indigenous Nigerian languages: Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba. Since I was ethnically Igbo and had rudimentary knowledge of the languagemore than the one or two Yoruba and Hausa sentences I knewI thought it best to register for the Igbo exam. It didn’t matter that the last time I’d sat in a class where Igbo was taught, I was a boy of 7 in primary school, and even then I struggled to memorize the alphabets. Or that, growing up, when I was occasionally taken to my hometown of Afikpo to visit my Igbo-speaking relatives, they laughed at me when I responded to them in English or poorly enunciated a word in our dialect, Ehugbo. I remembered a range of such embarrassments, all of which had kept me from mastering the Igbo language.

My secondary school, which was in a Yoruba town, did not have an Igbo teacher. In the weeks leading to the examination day, I studied a raft of textbooks handed down to me from a family friend. I had in mind to work long enough and hard enough to write the examination, but once I began engaging with Igbo grammar and orthography I realized that I couldn’t read several portions of the comprehension tests. My courage failed. On the day of the exam, I stayed at home. When I got the result, several months later, Igbo was ungraded.

For a long time I considered myself lacking in something essential to the identification of my core self, an English-only, foreign-sounding Igbo person. I wondered what it would mean to rectify that. I had never read an English translation of Omenuko, and so, as I began translating it, I discovered the story it tells. There are fifteen chapters in the book. I planned to work on a chapter every day for fifteen days.

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