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I will pay my debt to Achebe

By Isaac Umunna on 19/04/2013

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I have a confession to make: I am owing Chinua Achebe. That I did not pay this debt until the great man breathed his last on Thursday night, March 22, 2013, in faraway Boston, Massachusetts, USA, is one of the regrets I’ll have to live with.

Late in December 2007, I had come up with the idea of translating Achebe’s classical novel Things Fall Apart into Igbo Language. I had felt ashamed that this world-celebrated work was yet to be translated into the mother-language whereas it had been translated into about 50 other languages from various parts of the world.

I quickly sounded out my friend and literary consultant, Richard Mammah, a book activist and publisher, who exclaimed, saying it was a great idea. “This project will give you a new name,” predicted Richard, a devout Pentecostal, in a prophetic-like manner. He added that whereas I had made a name as an international award-winning journalist, I would soon become known as the translator of Things Fall Apart. I sounded out a few other bookish friends who also sounded ecstatic about the project.

It was in this mood that I happily e-mailed Prof. Achebe on December 23, 2005, informing him of my desire and requesting his approval for the translation. In the letter dated December 21, 2005, I wrote:

Dear Prof,

REQUEST FOR PERMISSION TO TRANSLATE THINGS FALL APART INTO IGBO LANGUAGE

It gives me great pleasure to request your approval for a project very dear to my heart: Translating of your all-time classic, THINGS FALL APART, into our language, Igbo. I have been considering doing this for quite sometime and I believe that the best time to start is now.

It is indeed a big embarrassment to all of us your literary children of Igbo extraction that this great work which has been translated into many other world languages, has yet to be translated into Igbo. As a huge fan of yours and especially of THINGS FALL APART, I would be grateful if you do me the honour of permitting me to translate the book into our mother tongue.

May I say, Sir, with a deep sense of humility, that I am well qualified to undertake this great task. A full-blooded Igboman from Abia State, I speak and write both Igbo and English languages. I believe that translating THINGS FALL APART into Igbo will not only give many more of our people access to it, but would also serve to rekindle interest in the book, your distinguished self and our dear language.

To give the translation the best attention, I intend to either proceed on a sabbatical or negotiate a freelance arrangement with my employers, the London-based Africa Today magazine, where I am General Editor but operating from Lagos.

Attaching my outlined schedule for the project and offering my best wishes on his attainment, the previous month, of the age of 75, I prayed for God’s continued blessings on Achebe.

The great man wrote back through his secretary on January 27, 2006, saying:

"Thank you for your email to Prof Achebe and congratulations on your planned translation of Things Fall Apart into Igbo.
Please send all enquiries to Prof Achebe’s literary agent, Emma Sweeney,
at the following address:
The Emma Sweeney Agency
245 East 80th Street
New York, NY 10021

I immediately e-mailed Emma Sweeney, who wrote back, saying: “All translations for THINGS FALL APART are handled through the UK publisher, Heinemann, and I don’t have their contact information. If you have a copy of the UK edition of the book you will see the contact information on the copyright page.”

Burning with zeal for the project, I fed back Prof Achebe on May 29, saying I would be most grateful if he could connect me with Heinemann UK. For effect, I thanked him for his cooperation and signed off as “Your literary son.”

The renowned wordsmith’s reply indicated that in referring me to Emma Sweeney he only wanted to see how serious I was with the translation project.

“Dear Isaac Umunna,” began his reply dated April 2, 2006, “I have been asked by Prof Achebe to tell you that you may translate his novel Things Fall Apart into Igbo. When the time for publication comes your publisher will need to obtain permission to publish. “Prof Achebe also has asked me to inform you that a number of efforts are currently underway or are planned for the translation of Things Fall Apart into Igbo. He wishes you good luck in your own endeavours and hopes this response satisfactorily answers your enquiry.
“Best wishes.
“Secretary to Prof Achebe.”

Bubbling with joy but determined to carry the great man along at every stage of the project, I drafted a press statement to announce the approval and e-mailed to him. To my surprise, late that night I got a call from Achebe’s son Chidi, who conveyed to me his father’s objection to the press statement. He said his father preferred that I should work quietly rather than embark on a publicity blitz which might give the impression that I was the only one doing a translation of the book, thus putting others who had embarked on the project at a disadvantage. I argued persuasively on why a press statement was necessary, saying: “As a senior media man, it is not possible for me to undertake a project of this nature without my colleagues reporting it. The best approach, therefore, is for me to issue a statement to the media which states the true position of things so as to prevent a situation where people would write half-truths about the project.”

In the end, we agreed that I should amend the press statement and clearly indicate that I was not the only one with approval to do the translation.

The next day (April 19) I did as agreed and sent the amended statement for approval. “It is indeed a big embarrassment to all of us who consider ourselves Achebe’s literary children of Igbo extraction, that this great work which has been translated into many other world languages, has yet to be translated into Igbo,” I said in the statement.

Describing myself as “a huge fan of Achebe and especially of Things Fall Apart,” I expressed the hope that “translating Things Fall Apart into Igbo will not only give many more of our people access to it, but would also serve to rekindle interest in the book, Achebe’s distinguished self and our dear language, Igbo, which is presently facing the threat of extinction.” 

The statement issued in Lagos disclosed that “Achebe has been informed of the translation project and has given it the blessing which he usually gives to all those desiring to translate his works. Offering Umunna his best wishes, Prof Achebe however, informed him that a number of efforts are currently underway or are planned for the translation of Things Fall Apart into Igbo.”

That same day I received the following reply:

Dear Isaac Umunna
Thank you for sending the amended press release. It does address our
concerns.
It may interest you to know that Things Fall Apart was translated into
Yoruba by Wale Ogunyemi and published by New Horn Press, Ibadan in
1997.
Yours sincerely
Secretary to Prof Achebe

With the final clearance from Achebe, I quickly bought a new copy of Things Fall Apart and made space for the translation in my “To Do” list but found myself never doing that due to what a friend of mine termed existential challenges. At a point I came to the conclusion that the only way I would actualise the project was by getting sponsorship so that I could take care of my bills and just go to a quiet place and concentrate on the translation. However, no sponsorship came.

In the circumstances, I kept pushing the project forward but always reassuring friends who occasionally reminded me that this is one project I would definitely accomplish no matter how long it takes. Achebe’s death has left me feeling like a prodigal son. I am however consoled by the Igbo adage which says that debt can only harden but never rots – meaning that it must eventually get paid. So shall it be with regard to my debt to Achebe, my literary father.

Source News Express

Posted 19/04/2013 3:46:50 PM

 

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