The Jalada Translation Project

Image courtesy of Marziya Mohammedali

78 – that is the current number of languages that the short story, “Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ” has been translated into, and that number is increasing. 

For just shy of 5 years, Moses Kilolo acted as the Managing Editor for Jalada Africa. Among a great many achievements during this time, Moses has been arguably best known for his active involvement and leadership in the Jalada Translation Project. We had the honor to listen to Moses Kilolo (one of the founding members and former Managing Editor of Jalada – a pan-African writers’ collective) during the 1st Africa International Translation Conference. Later, we seized the opportunity to interview Moses to learn more about how the project took on a life form of its own, one language at a time.

Jalada – a pan-African writers’ collective

Before we delve into the Jalada Translation Project however, we must first understand its genesis. Little did any of the attendees know that a 2013, three-day writers’ workshop in Nairobi convened by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey would lead to such an amazing adventure. A group of a dozen or so young African writers assembled from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria. They listened, shared stories, and provided support and critique for each other’s literary works. It was during the workshop that a discussion broke out around the possibility of creating an ongoing collective group for young writers. The group began to throw around some names for the collective and eventually, they settled on “Jalada – a pan-African writers’ collective.” Although the Swahili word, “jalada” has a variety of translated meanings, Moses Kilolo explains that the group’s intended meaning was,

an archive of stories from every corner of the African continent, a library of anthologies online…”

In an effort to keep the group’s momentum alive, Okwiri Oduor (2014 winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing) started the online Google group, “Jalada”, and this is where conversations about the trajectory of the collective continued to happen.

An interview with Moses Kilolo

Image courtesy of Marek Pawelec

Tell us how Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o found out about your collective and why you feel he decided to donate his short story, “Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ.”

It was encouraging when Prof Ngũgĩ replied to our request within days, but a little worrisome when the story did not come through for months. Then when it came, there was a sudden realization that we had promised something that we probably would not be able to deliver. For that reason (and because in our culture when you promise your elder that you will do something then you must do it), I went to work immediately. I reached out to potential translators throughout the holidays… I wanted to be sure that we would have 10 translations at least. By February we had well over 30, and by mid-March we had 33 languages ready for publication – edited and proofread. It was like a little miracle, and then it went viral in the literary community via online platforms. And suddenly it was this monster of a project that meant so much to so many people around the world. I was moved. “Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ (The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright)” is now in 78 languages from around the world, and is being translated into many more.

From where I stood I did not know what the possibilities were. But it was a great good surprise how this project has grown, and how people continue to be inspired by it. Prof Ngũgĩ himself appreciates that this came to be, and especially appreciates that it is a project that was conceptualized and run by young people who are conscious of the place of African languages in reading and publishing today.

How did you source the translation for this massive undertaking? Did you use freelancers? How did you pay the translators or was this strictly on a voluntary basis? 

One of the most important considerations for me as I conceptualized the Jalada translation issue was that I did not want translations just for the sake. I wanted story tellers, writers, translators, academics, an inclusive mix of people who understand the importance of story and the possibilities of its movement between cultures, to voluntarily take part. From that place of interest, they could leave the project inspired to take on other stories and books which they could work on. Beyond creating a database of translators, we also wanted to create a community of literary translators who could be gathered around one project and then draw other collective projects from it. To achieve this, we reached out to people in our circles first, and kept going further and further.

How were you able to financially support the project and yourselves? What lessons can global businesses learn from this project in terms of doing effective business within Africa?

No money was involved. We had to keep our day jobs or freelance work in other fields to make sure our bills were paid. This was not done as a business in the strict terms of the word. It was a collective approach to work by people who believed in the possibility of translation and storytelling in African languages. For anything to grow, it has to start from a place of deep care, especially if it concerns some of our most important resources such as language.

How did you manage the logistics of the 2017, 28-day Jalada African Mobility Literary and Arts Festival

We had a team of 3 curators, Wanjeri Gakuru – festival producer, Richard Oduor – festival coordinator, and myself, the festival director. Planning the logistics of the festival took almost 2 years, and that is where everything happened before it was manifest. We planned everything to the tiniest detail, and drew out the itinerary and the budgets with painstaking attention to detail. But it was really made possible by all the literary institutions and cultural spaces that welcomed us to their towns and helped us co-produce in each specific location. We had sponsors for the festival, the Goethe institut, the British Council, and individuals such as Jekwu Ozoemene from Nigeria who served on our board and gave his resources in time, finances, and moral support.

Can you elaborate on the benefits that came from visiting 12 cities in 5 different countries?

We created a connection from one space to the other – bonds that persist to date. We had people who were based in one town, visit the other and work with the cultural spaces there. We expanded our database of translators, writers, and performers in African languages. We also had resident performers and writers share their work in non-traditional cultural venues and towns.

Why did you choose these specific countries to visit (Kenya, Uganda, DRC, Rwanda, and Tanzania)?

Geographic possibilities – since we were travelling on a bus. We also have many connections and people we had worked with before and who were based in those towns – Nairobi, Nakuru, Kisumu, Kampala, Kabale, Goma, Kigali, Arusha, Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, and Mombasa.

I have heard that there were translators from the 1st Africa International Conference who have spoken to you about their interest in joining. Can you elaborate?

Yes. Ellen Singer has particularly been enthusiastic about translating and connecting us to more translators and that is very exciting. We look forward to adding various European languages to the list of translations, and of course growing our database of translators.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about this project, the precedent it has set, the wave of excitement it has generated, and where you see it going from here?

Many scholars have written about the project, and there have been presentations in various conferences that centered their argument on the Jalada Translation Project. We hope that soon we will go for the second translation issue, and that the work will continue to grow from here.

What’s next on the horizon for Moses Kilolo?

I am equally curious. Whatever it is though, I am sure it will involve a lot of work in promoting storytelling in African languages.

Words to live by

For anything to grow, it has to start from a place of deep care, especially if it concerns some of our most important resources such as language.” – Moses Kilolo

It is difficult to estimate the cost of translation services as they vary greatly from region to region. Some translators charge per word, others per line or per page, and still others, by the hour. If, however, we take a look at the United States and we consider the hourly rate for an experienced, professional translator, we might be in the range of USD 40. If again, we assume that the average professional translator can translate approximately 2,000 words/day and we apply this hourly rate, this would roughly amount to USD 320/day. “The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright” is slightly more than 2,000 words long. Had translators charged for their services, the 78 translations would have collectively cost just under USD 25,000. The project would never have seen the light of day.

But, it isn’t always about profits. Sometimes, it’s much bigger than that. Sometimes, it’s about enriching people’s lives.

*If you want to get involved in the Jalada Translation Project, contact Moses Kilolo


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