Joseph L. Mbele


I have been translating Matengo folktales into English since around 1975, eventually publishing a book of them, Matengo Folktales. [1] Here I discuss some aspects of this process, specifically focusing on one of the tales in the book, "Hawk and Crow." The translation I present here is a revision of the one in the book. Translating oral folktales is a multifaceted process, beginning with the act of watching, hearing, and recording the storyteller. Transcribing the tales is another kind of translation. Only after these steps can there be a translation as we typically understand it: the rendering of the tale in a different language. These processes need to be deconstructed further; translation has intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic dimensions, as Roman Jakobson states. [2] It also has diachronic and synchronic dimensions. The translation of oral folktales is therefore much more complex than the move from one language to another.

Watching, hearing, and recording a storyteller entails processing and appropriating the performance—not only the words, but also the gestures and the pauses. Following and understanding the performance is, in fact, translating all those dimensions.As we listen to the words of the storyteller, we translate those words—to use Jakobson's term, we reword them. Jakobson observes that rewording is "an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language." [3] Rewording, which makes the linguistic dimension of the performance comprehensible to the listener, is a form of intralingual translation.

Transcribing, on the other hand, is an intersemiotic form of translating. In Jakobson's words, "[i]ntersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems." [4]  In transcribing a tale, one tries to convey meanings and other effects from the oral to the written realm. One cannot say with certainty what it is that we hope or manage to carry across from the oral language to the written. There is much of the oral that we fail to preserve, much that changes or is lost on the way. In addition, the transcription emerges with elements and qualities that were not in the original communication. Whereas the oral language is audible and transient, the written version is visible and fixed. These are great transformations.

Ibrahim Muhawi offers a good discussion of the process of translating folktales. Noting that "[f]olktale translation is a complex process that cuts across semiotic boundaries, even when translation into a foreign language is not involved," [5] he argues:


Rendering folktales, which are normally transmitted in oral performance, into the medium of print will thus involve intersemiotic translation even if it takes place within the same language, for oral performance is a semiotic system in its own right. It may also entail intralingual translation if obscure lexical items or constructions are rendered into the standard language. The translation of an orally performed folktale into a foreign language will therefore involve all three types. [6]

Muhawi also expresses the difficulty of translation:


Translation is also fraught with compromise; there is unfortunately, no canonical way of translating any text, be it oral or written. And in the case of an oral genre like the folktale, compromise begins with the medium of recording, itself a form intersemiotic translation. The print medium has its conventions, which if severely violated may hamper readability. Translation being a cross-cultural event, compromise takes place at the level of culture as well. [7]

In translating "Hawk and Crow" and other Matengo folktales, I have had to devise an orthography, since Matengo is not a written language. In addition, Matengo has certain peculiarities, such as long vowels and several different tones designated as normal, mid-high, and high. In my transcription, I have used double vowels to represent the long vowel sounds. I use capital letters to designate high tones and high pitch. I do not use capital letters to signal the beginning of a sentence. I could have devised a method for representing the mid-high tones, such as bold letters, but I did not think this was necessary. In my translation, however, I have paid attention to, and sought to retain, any factors, semantic and otherwise, that these tonal differences convey. Therefore, even though the transcription needs to be further refined, the translation endeavors to capture the intention and content of the original.

In translating folktales, I have learned to appreciate the complexity of the oral language, as compared to the written. As Jan Knappert states,


Whoever has heard an African narrator tell a story to his family and friends in his own inimitable way, will agree that much that he communicates to his audience cannot be caught and confined in a book. All the characters of the drama are introduced with their own voices: the wild pig's snorting, the snake's hissing, the bird's fluting, the lion's lazy yawn. Alas, the Roman alphabet has no letters with which these languages could be printed. [8]

Writing, which Walter Ong describes as the technologizing of the word, restricts and impoverishes a language. No writing system is adequate to represent all the features of an oral language. With its limited resources, a writing system simplifies and reduces language to only what it can represent visually. Writing imposes a further restriction: whatever is written must mean something. Writing does not accommodate or accept the many elements of oral language that have no meaning in the literate sense. To these features, writing assigns disparaging and dismissive labels, such as "nonsense words."

Readers are cultivated in this restricted world of writing; they are conditioned and shaped by it. The written text and the mind of the reader operate in the restricted realm of meanings. Readers not only want but expect to read only what has meaning, in the denotative and connotative sense. They are neither willing nor prepared to understand, let alone celebrate, meaningless words and sounds. Writing renders us insensitive to the mysterious and the incomprehensible in language. Yet people in oral cultures, it would seem, are gifted with a consciousness that accepts the mysterious and the incomprehensible without any problem.

In my first attempt to think carefully about translation, based on my experience of translating Matengo folktales, I realized that there are certain concepts that can only be expressed in Matengo. As I wondered whether I could fully substantiate this view, I came across this statement by Walter Ong:


Some cultures make more of taste than do others. Whereas modern English, for example, has only a handful of concepts formed directly from gustatory sensations (concepts such as sweet, bitter, sour), complementing these with analogies borrowed from other sensory fields (a taste is flat or sharp) or with crude similitudes (it tastes like an overripe pineapple), the Korean language, I am told by Korean friends, has many more concepts referring more directly to taste. [9]

Ong discusses the differences that exist between languages, noting, for example, that concepts are understood or presented differently in different cultures. Citing Benjamin Whorf, Ong notes how, for example, the concept of time is different in the Hopi view than in a typical European view. Whereas the Hopi view time as duration, the Europeans view it as "long" or "short"(as though it were a stick) and discontinuously quantified, with one minute or hour or day broken off from the next as on a clock face or calendar, while time itself is continuous. [10]

In the song about the crows, we hear the phrase Mwakanakoungou malangu nzeilalei, which I have translated as "You crows, you have no brains." However, there is no verb in the original Matengo statement. It can be construed as saying: "You crows, brains scattered all about." But the ideophone nzeilalei cannot be translated; in Matengo, it speaks for itself. I can write descriptions about it and add footnotes, and still I will only be validating Derrida's point that "to add a gloss, of the translator's note sort... even in the best of cases, the case of the greatest relevance, confesses the impotence or failure of the translation." [11] The footnotes, while masquerading as proof of knowledge, are in fact an admission of defeat.

Now that I have textualized the tale of Hawk and Crow, it is available for readers to do another kind of translating, which we call reading. I recall Derrida's statement that "at the very threshold of all reading-writing" lies a "summons to translation." [12] Reading is a form of translating. I have translated the tale from Matengo into English, but the reader, each reader, is going to translate this translation into different conceptual, linguistic, semantic and aesthetic realms. Readers will process the one text and produce infinite texts, since each reading—whether by the same reader or by different readers—is a reproduction of the text.

Reading is only one kind of translation to which "Hawk and Crow" is amenable. One can turn the written version of the tale back into an oral performance by telling the tale to an audience. One can turn it into an opera, a play, a painting, or a piece of sculpture, all of which are forms of translation. In fact, Peter Hamlin, a music professor at St. Olaf College, has arranged the songs in Matengo Folktales, including "Hawk and Crow." His compositions, sung by the Cantus group, are included in a compact disc "Let Your Voice be Heard." [13] Hearing the recording makes me appreciate this dimension of translation: the Matengo musical idiom is different from but enhances certain effects of the original. These compositions fascinate me, for they exemplify what good translations can accomplish.

The following tale was told by Stella, the daughter of Mr. Malouba of Timbwili, Litembo, Southern Tanzania. She spoke very quickly. I recall that this was mid-1976. As I note in Matengo Folktales, in which I have included an English version of this tale, I did not record all the information relevant to this performance because of my inexperience.


Works Cited
Bertoncini, Elena Zubkova. Outline of Swahili Literature: Prose, Fiction and Drama. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989.
Derrida, Jacques. "What is a 'Relevant' Translation?" Critical Inquiry 27 (2001): 174-200.
Hamlin, Peter. "Songs From Matengo Folktales." "Let Your Voice Be Heard," CD by Cantus Recordings. Minneapolis: Encore Publications, 2001.
Jakobson, Roman. "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation." Language in Literature. Ed. Krystina Pomorska and Stephen Rudy. Cambridge: Harvard UP: 1987.
Mbele, Joseph L. Matengo Folktales. Haverford: Infinity Publishing, 2000.
Muhawi, Ibrahim. "Between Translation and the Canon: The Arabic Folktale as Transcultural Signifier." Fabula 41 (2000): 105-118.
Ong, Walter. The Presence of the Word. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1981.


1. Joseph L. Mbele, Matengo Folktales (Buy Books on the, 1999).
2. Roman Jakobson, "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation," Language in Literature, ed. Krystina Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987) 429.
3. Jakobson, 429.
4. Jakobson, 429.
5. Ibrahim Muhawi, "Between Translation and the Canon: The Arabic Folktale as Transcultural Signifier," Fabula 41 (2000) 107.
6. Muhawi, 107-108.
7. Muhawi,. 108.
8. Quoted in Elena Zúbková Bertoncini, Outline of Swahili Literature: Prose Fiction and Drama (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989), 11.
9. Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981) 4.
10. Ong, 4.
11. Jacques Derrida, "What is a 'Relevant' Translation?" Critical Inquiry 27 (2001) 174-200. 
12. Derrida, 175.
13. "Let Your Voice be Heard" CD-ROM by Cantus Recordings (Minneapolis: Encore Productions, 2001).