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Glossing Africa

Namwali Serpell
Whenever African writers are on a panel together, we are asked about the continent as a whole. When African writers get together on our own, we talk about glossaries.

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

Côte d’Ivoire, 1972

Whenever African writers are on a panel together, we are asked about the continent as a whole—its literature, its future, its political woes and economic potential. Whenever African writers get together on our own, we talk about glossaries. These additions to the main text, often vetted, if not entirely decided, by publishers, are crucial to how it will be received by readers. But when African writers talk about glossaries, we don’t just exchange tips. (How long? How comprehensive? By whom?) We talk about whether to include one at all, whether to offer glosses within the text or omit all glossing entirely. To gloss, or not to gloss? That is the question.

Most of us reading in the postcolonies never received glosses for the strange foods and weather of Europe. We had to figure out what snow and crumpets were on our own. When Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, his British publisher Heinnemann included a bilingual glossary. Achebe’s glossary was short, a mere page and a half, translating thirty-six Igbo words into English. Its purpose was pedagogical but it could also be seen as a political statement: these words belong here in literature; they are valid; here is what they mean. But it’s not difficult to see how the very fact of a gloss, like all supplements, casts doubt on whether the original word has done its work.

The politics of language in African literature have long been fraught. The very first conference on the subject, “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression,” held in Makerere in 1962, began by begging the question of its own title. Why was most extant African literature written in European languages? the writers wondered. Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, in attendance, would decide within a decade that he would henceforth write only in his native language, Gĩkũyũ. He has nevertheless translated all of his Gĩkũyũ novels into English—full-scale glossaries, so to speak. A footnote to his Devil on the Cross reads: “In the original work, written in Gĩkũyũ, certain words and phrases appear in English, French, Latin and Swahili. In this translation all such words and phrases are printed in italic type.” This is a neat obverse of the norm: in many Anglophone African novels, the words from African languages are italicized. This is the other perennial question African writers toss around when we are alone together. To italicize, or not to italicize?

Chigozie Obioma, the Nigerian author of the Booker short-listed novel The Fishermen, suggested in a Guardian article last year that these questions are part of a larger conversation about audience. Countering a fellow writer’s claim that to explain local terminology is a condescension, and that “provincialism is political,” Obioma made a forceful case that African writing should try to be accessible to all. This requires not just glossing non-English terms but expounding upon them:

Suppose the African author wants to write about the molue, the iconic Lagos bus, and simply refers to it mid-sentence. He might praise himself, or be praised by defenders of this kind of politicised provincialism, for having been brave or authentic. But what does a reader see? Just a bus. There is no doubt that a reader who lives in Lagos might be at an advantage. But if a writer describes it as “a beat-up squeaking yellow-painted bus with a constant metallic rattle,” everyone, including the Lagos reader, will have a clear image of such a bus, as it has been rendered in vivid detail.

For Obioma, glossing so-called “provincial” terms is a matter of artistic technique, not just politics.

Obioma’s fellow Nigerian, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, however, has suggested that technique in fact obviates the need to gloss:

Young writers who are from, not just parts of the world, but groups that are on the margins are often told that in their writing that they have to sort of give the reader some form of entry, which often means a kind of toning down of their specificity…. Often it’s about a failure of technique. I think that there are ways in which you use something in a story and a discerning reader knows what it is, or has a general sense of what it is without being told.

Adichie made this remark at this year’s PEN World Voices festival in New York, during which she and the South African comedian Trevor Noah—arguably the two most famous living African writers at the moment—had a delightfully energetic debate onstage about this question. The moderator, Penguin Random House editor-in-chief Chris Jackson, asked them if they feel they have to be more aware of audience when writing about different cultures: “Do you feel you’re having to maybe even strip what you write for export, so to speak, so that people everywhere get it?” Adichie replied with a forceful No: “The way that I throw in Igbo words in my fiction? I have had many editors who think I should tone it down or take it out.” She refuses to make the Nigerian names in her work “simpler” for Americans. “Does it mean that some nice person in Iowa wouldn’t buy it because the name is scary? Maybe. But I can live with that.”


Beowulf Sheehan/PEN America

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Trevor Noah at the PEN World Voices Festival, May 3, 2017

Noah disagreed, suggesting that his South African upbringing—growing up among many ethnic groups and with translation as a fact of life—makes glossing seem pragmatic to him:

If you can completely not understand the story, if it does not connect to you in any way because of, not an idea… like just a thing that doesn’t exist in your world… I would rather now just give you that little bit of knowledge, and go, “this is what this is, this is what we use it for” and… now you know it, and then we can move on from there.

Adichie responded:

There’s a part of me that just deeply resents the fact that there’re many parts of the world where the fiction that comes from there is read as anthropology rather than as literature. And increasingly that kind of anthropological reading then means that… you’re explaining your world rather than inhabiting your world.

It is remarkable that this Sisyphean debate is still happening more than fifty years since the first conference on African literature. It seems that decades of explanation have not yet resulted in a global “common knowledge” of African words and ideas that would make glossing redundant.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s brilliant novel Kintu, reissued this past May in the US by the independent press Transit Books, doesn’t have a glossary (nor a map nor a family tree). It does, however, italicize non-English words. It offers an object lesson in how African writers these days gloss words without a glossary. Within two pages, Makumbi adopts three modes of glossing.

First: “Kintu was on his way to Lubya to homage to Kyabaggu, the new kabaka. Kyabaggu had grabbed the throne and announced Lubya Hill the new capital, claiming that Namugala had abdicated. No one believed him. The ba kabaka did not give away their thrones like that.” We are in eighteenth-century Buganda so the gloss here is both cultural and historical. The diction—“throne,” “capital,” “abdicated”—is enough to suggest that a kabaka is a king of some kind. Makumbi deftly uses “their thrones” to hint that ba kabaka is the plural form of the Luganda word.

Makumbi then uses redundancy to gloss another word: “Kintu was traveling with a modest entourage of twenty-five men chosen and led by his headman and trusted guard, Nnondo. All the men were warriors. Kintu did not know what to expect of Kyabaggu but taking a large group of bambowa was reckless.” Here we receive an actual definition: “warriors.” It is more explicit than the connotative diction around kabaka and it precedes the Luganda term by a sentence.

Finally we get the most straightforward gloss: “In the quarterly lukiko, the parliament sessions, governors watched their breath.”

Yves Salmon

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, 2014

Makumbi showcases a range of other glosses in the novel, but I find these three interesting because they suggest that there is an inverse relationship between how important the word is to the text and how explicitly it is glossed. That is, the explicitly defined lukiko (parliament sessions) are not mentioned much more and the word is essentially jargon; the bambowa (warriors) are important to the story but are generally referred to as “Kintu’s men,” while other warriors are simply “warriors”; the kabaka (king), the most loosely defined word, appears most frequently as a character and as a concept. This makes some sense—the more a term is used, the more familiar to us it becomes—but it also implies that the least translatable Luganda concepts need to be set in motion within the story to be grasped. They can’t simply be defined, as Noah would have it, or vividly described, as Obioma would have it.

While all of Makumbi’s glosses seem necessary to ground someone who doesn’t speak Luganda, the frequency of the English words—“king,” “warrior,” “parliament sessions”—elsewhere in the text raises another question: Are the Luganda words needed at all? Readers and writers often refer to the “flavor” that non-English words bestow on otherwise Anglophone texts. Occasionally, these “foreign” words are asked to carry a heavier burden, that of the distinctive cultural norms that sit inside languages, particularly oral ones: proverbs, aphorisms, idiomatic sayings, and so on. This fact of language is relevant to all literature.


I once wrote a college paper about James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses in which my whole argument about identity and homelessness pivoted on a question that Molly Bloom poses to her husband when he speaks of metempsychosis: “Who’s he when he’s at home?” The Greek term is glossed repeatedly in the novel. By the time Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus—to say nothing of the many scholars who have annotated Ulysses—are through, we have a pretty good idea that the word Molly mispronounces as “met him pike hoses” means transmigration of the soul. No such luck for the idiomatic British phrase I thought so profound. It took me years before I learned that “Who’s he when he’s at home?” is just a lovely roundabout way of asking “What is that word in plain English?” That I did not know what that question meant in plain English is all too fitting.

Joyce, like many modernists, played with paratext all the time. The very title of Ulysses is a kind of Borgesian pun on Homer’s classical epic. Joyce gave his friend Stuart Gilbert a schema of all the allusions and subtexts that he was playing with in his novel—some have conjectured that the correspondences in the Gilbert schema are fake or meant to be funny. Writers from Vladimir Nabokov to W.G. Sebald to Salvador Plascencia have made great use of paratext and translation for experiment.

It is striking that, given the robustness of African fiction now—it has been heralded as “a new wave” at least thrice in the last decade—its experimentalism still seems to be limited to linguistic play, genre bending, and narrative convolutions of time and space. What about playing with the book? Readers have come to anticipate glossaries and italicized words in African fiction, even demand them. What better way to thwart expectations than to fake or fiddle with these conventions?

Makumbi’s Kintu has laid down one gauntlet. It offers neither the definition of nor the origin story behind its Luganda title. Nowhere in the novel does anyone even tell you how the word kintu is pronounced in Uganda. Who’s Kintu when he’s at home? He’s “Chintu.”

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