African Proverbs in African Literature

A Critical Resourcebase

Introduction, 4


F. The Nuances of the Proverbs and the Problem of Translation

The real import of these proverbs can be appreciated and understood better if heard in the original languages in which the proverbs are couched. Translating them into another language (especially, Egnlish, which may not have the appropriate linguistic resources with which to convey the nuances) means a loss of these nuances. To adequately represent the notions inherent in the original constructions of the proverbs means using the language of owners of the proverbs.

The impact would be greater in that case because the exact meaning would emerge. But when translated, the impression is watered down by the difficulties associated with the linguistic choices to be made in an attempt to represent the ideas in their original nature.

The constructions presented here must be viewed against this background though they make sense when read. My contention is that these proverbs can be better relished if presented in their original nuances and unadulterated conditions. These limitations are noteworthy as far as cross-cultural issues in linguistic representations are concerned.

What you see here is the result of intercultural convergences at the linguistic level and the impact on concepts. How do we adequately represent original concepts from one language to the other without losing their original nuances?

G. Colonialism and African Proverbs

The activities of the European colonizers created many problems for the African continent. The artificial boundaries separated ethnic groups from each other and disrupted oneness. In most areas, the artificial boundaries separated the people into different countries though they speak the same language and have similar cultural traits. The Ewe people of West Africa are found in three different countries—Ghana, Togo, and benin as a result of British, German, and French colonization. But they do things in common as Ewes.

Rwanda and Burundi give us a peculiar situation – the Hutu-Tutsi divide in both countries: two ethnic groups occupying two different countries. The Hutus and Tutsis are the dominant population groups in these two countries and make Rwanda and Burundi share common features in terms of proverbs. Artificial political boundaries created by the colonizers have not wiped off the cultural ties between the indigenes occupying the separate countries.

Some of the proverbs are common to the various ethnic groups on the continent, indicating that the influence of proverbs is pervasive. Proverbs know no boundaries. For example, we have “In a court of fowls, the cockroach never wins a case” (Burundi/Rwanda), which translates into “The fowl is never right in the court of hawks” (Ewe proverb in Ghana); or the Akan proverb (“The moon moves slowly but it crosses the town”) which is also found in the Yoruba ethnic group of Nigeria (“The moon moves slowly but by daybreak it crosses the sky”); or “Kola nut lasts long in the mouths of them who value it!” (Yoruba of Nigeria) and “Cactus is bitter only to him who tastes of it” (Ethiopia).

Another instance is shown by “When two dogs fight over a bone, the third one that passes by just picks it and walks away” (Ghana/Nigeria), which is similar to “Two birds disputed about a kernel; when a third swooped down and carried it off” (Democratic Republic of the Congo).

A third example comes from the Akans (Ghana) (“If you want to know what death looks like, ask sleep”) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (“Sleep is the cousin of death.”)

What can we learn from this attribute of proverbs in the African situation? We must learn that neither geography nor artificial political boundaries have eroded anything from the nature of the African proverbs. Whether spoken in Swahili, Ewe, or Yoruba, the proverbs retain their substances and teach lessons to the people.




One thought on “Introduction, 4

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