African Novelists Aren’t Travel Guides

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An Interview with Nii Parkes

Q. Your first novel, called Tail of the Blue Bird, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize, has just been translated in France under the title Notre Quelque Part, which roughly translates to “Our Somewhere”, and it has already won two awards here in France. Language is so important in this novel. How was it dealing with the two Ghanaian languages that feature in the book?

A. I think what was lucky in that sense, for French particularly, is that in Ghana for instance, we share languages with Cote d’Ivoire, a francophone country, so you do have that kind of shift between languages that we have, but also in French. And my translator born and grew up in Benin. Even though she doesn’t speak Twi, she speaks Gbe, so there’s a kind of similar structure to the language. So she was able to understand some of the games I was playing in the language, and some of the changes that happened, and the fact that changing languages is an everyday thing for most of us in sub-Saharan Africa. When you’re buying something you’re speaking one language, you’re talking to your teacher you’re speaking another language. Talking to one grandmother, you’re speaking one language, talking to another grandmother you’re speaking another language. So she understood that so it made it possible to get a great translation.

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