In June, we brought news of the publication of the first ever novel from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English.  Abdulai Sila’s The Ultimate Tragedy, published in 1995, was originally written in Portuguese. The English translation was published by Dedalus Books and launched at the Africa Writes festival in July. Jethro Soutar is the translator. In this essay, he details the hurdles he faced in bringing the novel to an English speaking audience. 


Translators take it as a given that opening lines will create headache. Writers like to create a strong impression at the start and that often involves doing something tricksy. But the opening line of Abdulai Sila’s A Última Tragédia proves harder than most: “Sinhora, quer criado?”

While ‘Sinhora’ is a misspelling of ‘Senhora’ (Mrs), ‘Criado’ is the masculine gender term for servant. Which means it should really be the feminine gender, ‘Criada,’ because the person asking the ‘Senhora’ if she wants (‘quer’) a servant is a girl. The girl’s imperfect Portuguese suggests she’s not speaking her mother tongue. Then there’s the polite form and the servile nature of the transaction, even the etymology of the word ‘criado,’ which comes from ‘created’; in other words, ‘bred in the master’s house.’ The sentence is loaded.

Abdulai Sila wrote A Última Tragédia in 1984, though it wasn’t published until 1995. It’s the first in a trilogy of novels set before, during and after Guinea-Bissau’s struggle for independence. The second book he wrote, Eterna Paixão, became the first to be published, in 1994. Guinea-Bissau’s independence was declared in 1973 and recognised by Portugal a year later. A revolutionary council then ruled for a decade, until 1994, when the young nation was deemed sufficiently stable to hold its first elections. The situation was nevertheless tense and Sila chose to test the waters by publishing Eterna Paixão—set in an unspecified African country, albeit one that is recognisably Guinea-Bissau—rather than A Última Tragédia, with its spelled out place names: Bissau, Quinhamel, Catió, Biombo. The third book in the trilogy, Mistida, came out in 1997, a year before the outbreak of civil war.

The Ultimate Tragedy sits in the coming-of-age tradition of African writing, but its methods and message remain fresh today. The wider world knows precious little about Guinea-Bissau. More informed readers will have heard of Amílcar Cabral, visionary leader of the independence movements in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. He is still revered in both countries and his presence looms large in The Ultimate Tragedy, not least in the character of the Régulo, a village chief who builds a school believing that emancipation will come through education.

Passages told from the Régulo’s perspective are written in a Portuguese that is correct, but slightly off kilter. The intention is to reflect Crioulo speech patterns, for although Portuguese is the official language of Guinea-Bissau, Crioulo is more widely spoken, and so those who do speak Portuguese tend to do so through a filter. (Bissau-Guinean Crioulo derives from Cape Verdean Criolou and is a Portuguese-based creole, but it has been influenced by other regional languages such as Mandingo, Manjaku and Pepel.) It sounds a little as though the Régulo is translating his mother tongue into Portuguese in his head. And this poses another problem to the translator: How to replicate this inflected form of language. We’re not in Amos Tutuola territory; Sila’s writing is much more precise and calculated. Besides, it’s arguably inappropriate to impose the same linguistic game in English: Portuguese readers will be aware of Guinea-Bissau’s colonial history and be forced to think about what this corrupted version of the Portuguese language means; English readers will likely just think Sila’s writing odd.

It is my duty, as the book’s translator, to reflect the original prose, but also to make other calculations: By being faithful to the text, am I being faithful to the sentiment? Does the same approach produce the same effect in both languages? If the author had written this in English, how would he have done it? I decided to flip the English on its head where I could, but not to force the situation where I could not. I avoided superlatives—‘most-good’ instead of ‘best,’ for example—and inverted certain sentences to show the Crioulo tendency to front-load sentences, an example of which is this one: “Very different is the world of the whites!” But there are also multiple Crioulo words left in italics, just as in the Portuguese original.

In that opening line, ‘Sinhora’ is really a mispronunciation of ‘Senhora,’ rather than a misspelling: the girl speaking the open line—Ndani—is illiterate and merely repeating a word she’s heard said. I considered ‘Lidy’ as a mistaken ‘Lady,’ but I would be stuck with whatever I chose for the whole book, and ‘Senhora’ cropped up a lot, indeed represented a whole other conundrum. ‘Senhora’ is the title a servant uses when addressing the female head of the household. The male head is pretty much always ‘master’ in English, but there are a number of options for his spouse. ‘Mistress’ sounds like the best fit, but has other connotations: a lover in an affair or, in British English at least, a school matron type. ‘Madam’ is another option, and indeed that is the term Chinua Achebe uses in No Longer At Ease (“I like Master too much, but this Madam no good,” says Zacchaeus.) But I wasn’t convinced: readers were unlikely to think her the head of a brothel rather than a household, but madam has French roots and I didn’t want there to be any doubt that we were in Portuguese colonial Africa.

When translating a novel, I like to read a lot of books from the same region by way of research and inspiration, but they must be written in English, not translated: I try to tune my ears into a geographical register of English rather than read for cultural background. I read No Longer At Ease—set around the same time as The Ultimate Tragedy—for period detail, although Nigeria is some distance away. Guinea-Bissau is bordered by Senegal and Guinea, both French-speaking, but beyond them lie the Gambia to the north and Sierra Leone to the south. So I read Lenrie Peters’ The Second Round, part of the Heinemann’s African Writers Series, and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love. In the former, Annie, the maid, says: “Misses back. Back not quite one hour ago.” Peters was born in the Gambia and spent most of his life in Sierra Leone; if he used ‘Misses,’ that was good enough for me. So ‘Sinhora’ became ‘Mizzes,’ as one might pronounce Misses without having seen it written down. But what to do with ‘criado’?

In English, we feminise certain professions with such suffixes as ‘ess,’ ‘ette,’ or ‘enne’: actress, usherette, comedienne. But ‘servantess’ sounds too contrived for something supposedly misheard. In reality, a ‘criada’ would generally be a ‘maid’ in English, for which the masculine equivalent would be ‘butler’; but they are totally different words—there’s no way Ndani could have confused the two.

In No Longer At Ease, Obi has a houseboy called Sebastian. ‘Housegirl,’ in the world of The Ultimate Tragedy, is a less common term, but it is used, and it being less common was perhaps all to the good: Ndani would be more likely to have heard ‘houseboy’ and less likely to have understood there was a female equivalent. Thus the first line in the first book ever translated into English from Guinea-Bissau reads: “Mizzes, want houseboy?”



About the Author:

Jethro Soutar is a translator of Portuguese and Spanish. He specialises in African literature and his translation of By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, of Equatorial Guinea, was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now the International Booker). He is also the editor of Dedalus Africa and his recent mission statement for the imprint can be read HERE.