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        Two poems by D. A. Ọbasa
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        Two poems by D. A. Ọbasa
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Many words in Yoruba frustrate trans-lingual transportation by the sheer complexity of their polysemic range. Such words are so culture-bound that they do not translate easily to English, especially when their metaphysical polyvalence in Yoruba has no equivalent in English. Therefore, my translation of Ọbasa's poems in the appendices below yields place to mediation, as I am constrained to try out or devise a series of strategies of transposition and transference, which in the words of Ọṣundare leads to ‘kiss and quarrel’ between the concerned languages. According to him, when two languages meet, they achieve a tacit understanding on the common grounds of similarity and convergence, then negotiate, often through strident rivalry and self-preserving altercations, their areas of dissimilarity and divergence.

A brief note on the translation

Many words in Yoruba frustrate trans-lingual transportation by the sheer complexity of their polysemic range. Such words are so culture-bound that they do not translate easily to English, especially when their metaphysical polyvalence in Yoruba has no equivalent in English. Therefore, my translation of Ọbasa's poems in the appendices below yields place to mediation, as I am constrained to try out or devise a series of strategies of transposition and transference, which in the words of Ọṣundare 1 leads to ‘kiss and quarrel’ between the concerned languages. According to him, when two languages meet, they achieve a tacit understanding on the common grounds of similarity and convergence, then negotiate, often through strident rivalry and self-preserving altercations, their areas of dissimilarity and divergence.

Translation, in the context of what I present below, means literally ‘carrying across’, and this implies all other forms that carry the prefix trans-. It also means not only transportation or transmission but also transformation and transmutation, for all these activities take place when translating literary material in an African language to the English language. My approach to the notion of translation should be seen first in the orthodox sense as the linguistic operation that consists in transporting meaning from one language to another. However, as Anuradha Dingwaney points out, 2 if translation is one of the primary means by which texts produced in one or another indigenous language of the various countries arbitrarily grouped together under the label ‘Third’, or non-Western, World are made available in Western, metropolitan languages, this is not restricted to such linguistic transfer alone. For Dingwaney, ‘translation is also the vehicle’ through which ‘Third World cultures (are made to) travel – transported or “borne across” to and recuperated by audiences in the West’. 3 However, translators should be cautious when using Western-oriented, linguistic-based translation theories because some of them are not wholly applicable or relevant to texts in indigenous Yoruba because of the multiplicity of meanings usually attached to specific words in the language. The major weakness of some of these theories is that they do not take into consideration underlying socio-cultural factors in works produced by Africans. A consideration of these factors in African literature will produce what Kwame Appiah has called ‘thick translation’ and which he defines as ‘a translation that seeks … to locate the text in a rich cultural and linguistic context … A description of the context of literary production, a translation that draws on and creates that sort of understanding, meets the need to challenge ourselves … to go further, to undertake the harder project of a genuinely informed respect for others.’ 4

Consequently, my translation below sets out to capture the spirit and depth of Ọbasa's poetry in English by striking a compromise between a literal and a literary translation. My intention was to produce an English text that will be enjoyable and accessible to a diverse audience, including but not limited to students and scholars of African linguistics, sociology, anthropology, history, political science, religion and folklore. Precedence was thus given to accuracy, clarity, simplicity, effectiveness and faithfulness in my translation.

To conclude, I would like to make one quick clarification: Ọbasa's original text are long continuous sequences of lines, but the division into stanzas (and also the spacing between the Yoruba lines) was not the literary/aesthetic choice of the poet – but rather my addition to present the Yoruba and English together and make them accessible to readers of both languages.

Ìkíni [Homage/Greetings]

Aláṣejù [One Who Acts in Excess]

1 See Ọṣundare, N. (2000) ‘Yoruba thoughts, English words: a poet's journey through the tunnel of two languages’ in Brown, S. (ed.), Kiss and Quarrel: Yoruba/English strategies of mediation. Birmingham University African Studies Series 5. Birmingham: Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham, p. 15.

2 Dingwaney, A. (1995) ‘Introduction’ in Dingwaney, A. and Maier, C. (eds), Between Languages and Cultures: translation and cross cultural texts. Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh .

3 Ibid .: 4.

4 Appiah, K. A. (1993) ‘Thick translation’, Callaloo 16 (4): 808–19; quote from pp. 817–18.

5 Yoruba is a tonal language, which belongs to the Kwa family within the Niger-Congo phylum of African languages. The speakers occupy south-western Nigeria and can be found elsewhere – in the Republic of Benin and Togo in West Africa and, as members of the African diaspora, in the Americas. Speakers of the language are divided into many sub-ethnic groups, each with its own peculiar dialect. According to Sope Oyelaran, the dialects of the Yoruba can be classified as follows: West Yoruba (Ọ̀yọ́, Ìbàdàn, Ẹ̀gbá, Ọ̀họ̀rí-Ìfọ̀hìn, Ṣakí, Ìjìó, Kétu, Sábẹ, Benin, Ifẹ̀ (Togo), Ìdásà, Mànígì); South East Yorùbá (Oǹdó, Ọ̀wọ, Ìjẹ̀bú, Ìkálẹ̀, Ìlàjẹ); Central Yoruba (Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Ìjèṣà, Èkìtì); and Northern Eastern Yoruba (Ìgbómìnà, Kàkàǹdá, Ìbọ̀lọ́, Jùmú, Búnú, Ọ̀wọ́rọ̀, Owé, Ẹ̀gbẹ̀) ( Oyelaran, O. O. (1978) ‘Linguistic speculations on Yoruba history’ in Oyelaran, O. O. (ed.), Department of African Languages and Literatures Seminar Series I. Ile-Ifẹ, Nigeria: University of Ifẹ̀ ). This classification, according to Lawrence Olufẹmi Adewọle, is referred to as a ‘dialect continuum’ because the dialects are characterized by a high degree of mutual intelligibility which diminishes with territorial distance ( Adewọle, L. O. (1987) The Yorùbá Language: published works and doctoral dissertations 1843–1986. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, p. 11). As one moves from one end of the continuum to the other, some phonological, lexical and even grammatical differences can be found in the dialects. Thanks to the missionaries and a formal school system, a ‘Standard Yorùbá’ language that everyone can understand emerged as a written language during the second half of the nineteenth century.

6 Egun language is spoken in Porto Novo, the Republic of Benin. However, a number of speakers of the language live and work in Lagos State. So, the language is used in Nigeria regularly.

7 Hausa language is spoken in Northern Nigeria and several other West African countries. Hausa speakers in Nigeria are itinerant traders found throughout the country.

8 In lines 35 and 36, Ọbasa creates an image of himself as a town-based, learned intellectual whose poetic creation (he assumes) is better and superior to those of the countryside-based indigenous oral poets. Here we can see the town–countryside polarity, where a city- or town-based person thinks the countryside bumpkin is an ignoramus.

9 Lines 37–42 are a well-known saying common among oral poets of many genres to challenge members of their audience not to be afraid to expose their (the poet's) inadequacies during the performance, if they notice any. For more information, see Oludare Ọlajubu (1978), ‘The Yoruba oral artists and their work’ in Oyelaran (op. cit.).

10 This is a form of greeting mostly used for the kings, chiefs and war leaders in precolonial Yoruba society. During that time, these individuals owned horses as a form of transportation. Every day, each patron's domestic staff would take the horse of the master out to graze, and to ‘show’ the generality of the people that the patron is well and healthy.

11 This refers to the carved image of a deity, god or goddess (the òrìṣà) that has human features such as eyes and ears but is unable to use them as humans do.

12 That is, we should know that everything has a limit, so we should know when to stop whatever we are doing or are involved in: i.e., learn to leave the stage when the ovation is loudest.

13 Pounded yam is made from cooked or boiled yam that is pounded in a mortar with a pestle to produce a smooth paste that is eaten with cooked stew. Only very few types of yam are useful for making good pounded yam, and the yellow yam is not one of them.

14 This confession of allegiance, known in Islamic tenets as ‘Shadahah’, is usually said to Allah and Mohammad his messenger before initiating anything like eating, drinking, meeting, etc.

15 The poetic ingenuity in his punning on the name of King Napoleon to create comic effect in lines 52–6 is more alive in the Yoruba original than in the English translation. In the original, Ọba nàpó, nàgìrì Napoleon / ọba nà ’kòkò, nà ’ṣaasùn / ọba n'awo-n’ẹ̀gbẹ̀rì / ọba n’ẹ̀ṣọ́-n’ẹ̀ṣọ ́/ ọba n'olóógun-n'olóógun, Ọbasa manipulates two features of Yoruba oral literature, wordplay and euphemism. He is punning on the verb (to beat) in Yoruba and the first syllable of the name Napoleon to describe how King Napoleon brutalized everybody – the rich, the poor, the old and the young – during his reign. This punning on the name Napoleon is a confirmation of Ruth Finnegan's observation that ‘names contribute to the literary flavour of formal and informal conversation, adding a depth or succinctness through their meanings, overtones, or metaphors. They [names] can also play a direct literary role’ ( Finnegan, R. (1970) African Oral Literature. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, p. 427).

16 The expression in lines 65–6 that Napoleon's eyes ‘turned red … black … and glossy light-blue’ means that he suffered greatly while in prison.

17 Lines 104–7 are used as an analogy to describe the ignorance of the Mahdis.

18 To refer to a person as someone bringing up a sneeze by tickling the nose means that the person is picking a needless quarrel.

19 We are not unaware of the ambiguity in ẹgbàá ọ̀kẹ́, which could be translated as either ‘2,000 x 20,000’ or ‘2,000 sacks or bags’. Ẹgbàá in Yoruba numerals is the equivalent of 2,000, but ọ̀kẹ́ could refer to either the numeral 20,000 in Yoruba or a sack or bag of cowries. In precolonial times, when cowries were used as a form of currency or exchange for buying and selling, one sack or bag (ọ̀kẹ́) contained 20,000 pieces of cowry shells.

20 According to Abraham, this is an imaginary numeral to express the idea of many ( Abraham, R. C. (1958), Dictionary of Modern Yoruba. London: University of London Press, p. 178).

21 Shaykh Sai'd Hayyat (1887–1978) was a Mahdiyya follower in Northern Nigeria. He fought a religious war during his lifetime, but was defeated by the government. For more information on Shaykh Sai'd Hayyat, see A. G. Saeed (1992) ‘A biographical study of Shaykh Sai'd Hayyat (1887–1978) and the British policy towards the Mahdiyya in Northern Nigeria, 1900–1960’, unpublished PhD thesis, Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria.

22 The city of Iddah is located in present-day Niger State, north-central Nigeria.

23 ‘Kamaruland’, where Shaykh Sai'd Hayyat was exiled by the colonial government, may be Kamaru town near Jos in present-day Plateau State, north-central Nigeria (Karin Barber, personal communication). A poem like this is further evidence of Ọbasa's interest in social, religious, political and economic events beyond Yorubaland.