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To lament the almost overwhelming failure in the publishing world to translate African-language writing ironically reinforces the false, popular conception that modern Africa is an ongoing catastrophe. Even more ironic, the only remedy for such widespread misunderstanding is precisely the translation of more African-language writing. More than any other continent, Africa is not only unread—to speak of the thousands of writers in all genres who write and remain untranslated in indigenous rather than colonial languages like English or French—Africa is also misread: with the most popular and accessible African writers, who are far fewer in number, choosing colonial languages for their work. To address this problem, translation of the work of Eritrea’s premier historian, Alemseged Tesfai, who writes in Tigrinya, would be one of my first choices. While he has translated some of his short stories, plays, and creative nonfiction himself into English, the translation of his two major works of history (over 1,000 pages)—Aynfelale (“Let Us Not Separate”) and Kab Matienzo ksab Tedla Bairou (“Eritrean Federation with Ethiopia: From Matenzo to Tedla”)—could be a catalyst finally to change American foreign policy in the Horn of Africa, which was formulated in 1950 during the Eisenhower administration and has led—the word is inescapable—from one catastrophe to another, up to the present in Somalia. As secretary of state delivering a lengthy policy speech in Kenya earlier this year, Hillary Clinton asserted that although “the story of Africa is told in stereotypes and clichés about poverty, disease, and conflict—the story we also need to tell, and tell it over and over again, is that many parts of Africa are rising to 21st-century challenges. We have seen the changes, and we know what is happening right now.” But do we know, and what do we know about Africa, if we don’t recognize that it must come from Africa first and in Africa’s languages, not ours?
Charles Cantalupo is a professor of English, comparative literature, and African studies at Penn State University.
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