Why Nigeria Needs a Translation Bureau

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Sep 10 13:31:50 UTC 2007

Why Nigeria Needs a Translation Bureau

Samuel Jide Timothy Asobele, a professor of Comparative Literature and
French in the Department of European Languages at the University of
Lagos, is a prolific and versatile author with more than 50 books to
his credit. He recently delivered his inaugural lecture titled:
Misunderstanding Too Often Leads to Conflict. In this interview with
Akatu Ajonye, reporter/researcher, Asobele speaks on the increasing
relevance of interpreters and translators in governance and his
approaches to evolving solutions to the Niger Delta crisis. He also
speaks on the under-funding of universities, and how to promote a
reading culture in Nigeria. Excerpts:

Newswatch: What was the major thrust of your inaugural lecture?

Asobele: My inaugural lecture could be summarised in the following
way: "Let us try to understand our differences, so that we can live in
peace with one another." The copyright of this quote belongs to the
late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello. Over the years, I decided
to emulate his good leadership qualities. He was misunderstood by
Southerners. The North was in a hurry to catch up with the South, and
he needed the support of the South in the North's war against
ignorance. He knew that if that war against ignorance did not succeed
Nigeria, as an entity, cannot work.

Newswatch: How can Nigeria maximise the advantages of the knowledge of
European languages, especially French?

Asobele: In my recommendation at the end of the lecture, I said that
the Nigerian government should have what I called a translation
bureau. Nigeria is surrounded by francophone countries. It is about
time we set up such a translation bureau at the presidency, a clearing
house where all the communication problems that our ambassadors would
encounter in their effort at making ECOWAS or the African Union work
would be handled. Translation can be done from English to French and
other European languages, there at the presidency. That way, Nigeria's
leadership role will be real.

Newswatch: What roles can interpreters and translators play in a
multi-ethnic society like Nigeria?

Asobele: When Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, was asked what would
be his first policy if he were given the presidency of China, he said:
"It is to correct language. If language is not correct, what is said
is not what is meant. If what is said is not what is meant, what ought
to be done remains undone and the people will stand in confusion."
That is why translators and interpreters whose role it is to correct
language in what they interpret and to correct language in what they
translate are important in any society and in any new government. We
are in the threshold of a new administration in Nigeria. That is why
the role of translators and interpreters is central to the success of
Yar'Adua's government. If he were speaking in Hausa language, the
Kalabari people would not understand his Hausa. They only know
Alamieyeseigha who they call their governor-general. They don't
understand his Hausa. But now that Asari Dokubo has been released they
can start dialoguing. Dialoguing with the rebels in the Niger Delta.
Yar'Adua is now speaking in their own language. And it is the
governor-general, Alameyeiseigha that can interpret the language.

Newswatch: What is your opinion about the absence of a Nigerian
indigenous language as the lingua franca?

Asobele: There is politics about the lingua franca. If we use the
Hausa language, the Yoruba will talk of Hausa-Fulani imperialism. If
we choose Igbo, the Efik and the Ibibio and Kalabari will say they
don't want to be under the subjugation of the old Igbo imperialism in
Eastern Nigeria. So they are going to kick against it. If you choose
Yoruba, the Edo and the Badagry people who do not speak Yoruba will
say it is the old Western Nigeria Yoruba imperialism that is being
imposed on them. That is why the policy in which every state will make
a compilation of their own indigenous word list and dictionary is
important. I have just finished a one-thousand-page English-Kabba
dictionary for Kogi State, for our people so that we would not be
neglected in the scheme of things. Our language should not die. There
should be a plural linguistic policy for Nigeria. The people in each
state must create a dictionary and a bilingual word list and then set
out to do a linguistic description of their own mother tongues so that
no matter how small an ethnic group is, their values which are carried
in their natural language will not be lost if it is jettisoned as a
language of communication.

Newswatch: What can be done to encourage a reading culture by Nigerians?

Asobele: If we use the radio and television and organise reading clubs
in schools and give prizes to the best readers, a reading culture will
be engendered in our youth. As the chairman of the Lagos State Library
Board for five years, 1995-1999, I decided that we should have mobile
libraries. Buses were used to carry Yoruba books to market women and
their children read the books to them. I carried the battle back to
Kabba and organised the first Kabba Book Fair, to encourage a reading
culture available among the people.

Newswatch: Foreign based Nigerian writers win international awards
from time to time. But there are gifted writers who are also potential
award-winning writers in this country who do not have the opportunity
to publish their works. What would be your advice to them?

Asobele: Get this right, we are not writing to commercialise
knowledge. How many people will they give awards to? Is it because
they give an award to one person every year that good quality literary
works that are being churned out by their thousands all over the world
will not be relevant to cultural value and national heritage? They are
relevant. What we should do at the local government level is that we
should organise our own literary prizes. We can organise folklore
prizes, because the originality of the mind of the people is embedded
in their folklore and in their legends and their myths. Charity begins
at home, so we should start at local level and don't mind about Nobel
prize. How many people will win Nobel prize in literature in a year?
Only one. But you know that there are quality literary works that have
not won the Nobel prize for years. So we have to play down on winning
of awards. Prominence and pre-eminence should be given to folklore
like we saw in the idea of folktales in the television programme,
Tales By Moonlight, which was killed. We should rekindle interest in
going back to our villages to collect oral tradition and publish them,
because it is the mind and the genius of the people which are embedded
in those oral folktales. Fela Anikulapo Kuti used to borrow a lot from
Yoruba oral tradition (chants in Yoruba). He has popularised a known
oral tradition in Yoruba through music. Some have popularised it
through theatre. Hubert Ogunde also popularised Serankoseniyan, the
myth about someone who saw the skin of an animal and wore it and the
animal came and sang that whoever took its skin should return it. So
the emphasis should be for us to have an abiding faith in our culture,
an abiding faith in our values and in our oral tradition because that
is where our cultural patrimony is embedded. And there could be no
superior literature and inferior literature. There can be a superior
mode of giving publicity to it, like the cinema which is not our art,
and like the radio which is not our art. Those radio technologies
helped popularise oral traditions. And that is why the whiteman is
ahead of us, not that our values are inferior to their values. So we
should not look for prizes in Europe. We should not be content with
our people winning prizes in Europe. We should create the enabling
environment for our culture to flourish at home. Young and upcoming
writers could begin by publishing their write-ups in school magazines.
My school article in 1969 was used in my inaugural lecture. It was
published back then at the Federal Government College, Sokoto. They
could begin by writing in school magazines and when they mature they
could look for people who have faith in what they are doing, to help
get them published.

Newswatch: What can be done by writers to fight the prevalence of
social vices among Nigerian youths?

Asobele: Publish for peace. In the lecture, I referred to the book,
Let My People Go by John Albert Lithuli who won the Nobel Peace Prize
in 1964. Television stations should be made to play down on crime and
violent programmes from America. NGOs should step up the fight to
ensure that whatever TV stations beam to our children must be
uplifting, must have values that are positive for our society. Drug
addiction and wilful termination of people's lives should not be shown
on our screens. And those of us who are writers should emphasise
publishing for peace.

Newswatch: How do you intend to carry out advocacy to the government
concerning the setting up of the advisory committee on francophone
countries which you have recommended?

Asobele: I am working on changing the title of my inaugural lecture
to: Conflict Resolution: The Role of Interpreters and Translators as
Peace Makers. This is an issue that is uppermost on my mind. I am
working on what I call: The Niger-Delta Crisis Dilemma: The Best
Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BARTNA). I will not let the cat
out because this is a research proposal. I will advocate for peace in
the Niger Delta.

Newswatch: What is your prescription against the incessant strike
actions by academic staff of Nigerian universities?

Asobele: As you know, the strikes are because the universities are not
well funded. If we had universities that had grants for research like
those from the Ford and Carnegie foundations in America and the
lecturers were busy, their energy would not go into politics of the
university and shutting down of universities.


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