Friday, February 26, 2021

Elegy for Buea


From time to time this blog reprints an earlier post that seems worth reviving. With over 450 posts in its archive, there’s plenty to choose from. This time I’ve chosen one from the year 2009. The choice was determined not only by the content but also by the place where the event that’s described in it took place.

 It’s been my good fortune to visit a number of beautiful, peaceful places in the world  before they were spoiled one way or another: Beirut, Dubrovnik, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by wars, Rangoon (now Yangon) by coup d’état, Bali and Ibiza by tourism, the Taj Mahal by pollution, Cairo by revolution and demographics, Alexandria by neglect. Petra and Granada survive by the skin of their teeth in spite of modern accretions. I came too late to Dresden. To those disfigured by conflicts must now be added Buea.

Buea is a sprawling township at the foot of Mount Cameroon in West Africa, rich in banana plantations. It’s so idyllic that the heads of the first European colonists in the area, pre-1914 Germans, chose it for their summer residence. I spent happy weeks there teaching at its university and lodging in its British-era Mountain Hotel, where one year I witnessed the beginning and end of an extraordinary marathon, the famous Guinness mountain race. Now Cameroon is torn by an all-too-typical internal conflict based on stupid divisions of nationalism and language. I grieve for it and for my erstwhile students.

The event related here was my introduction to an important function of interpreting that’s are rarely even mentioned in conventional courses, namely church interpreting, and to a style of interpreting in which the interpreter does not remain neutral, impersonal or impassive.


Church Interpreters 3: West Africa

When Cameroon, in West Africa, was formed at independence by amalgamating former British and French mandated territories, its enlightened first president, Ahmadou Ahidjou, made it a country that would be officially bilingual in the two colonial languages. But ‘officially bilingual’ doesn’t mean that all individual citizens are bilingual. As in many other officially bilingual countries, for example Canada, the parliament and the national government couldn’t function without a professional corps of Expert Translators and Interpreters. Cameroon gave university graduates scholarships to go for training in France, England, and later in Canada, where I came to know many Cameroonian students. Once the first generation or trainees had acquired experience, however, the government thought the training could be done at home. So a national Advanced (i.e. postgraduate) School of Translators and Interpreters was opened at Buea, in the heart of the English-speaking area of the country. Buea is a very pleasant, scattered hill station township on the lower slopes of Mt Cameroon.

Besides the two official languages, Cameroon also has about 200 native African languages as well as English and French pidgins. In those there is no formal training for translators.

When foreign Christian missionaries started work in the country in the late 19th century, they couldn’t be effective unless they found a way of communicating with Africans in the domestic vernaculars. At most a few missionaries might learn one or two languages with a large community of speakers such as Douala, a Bantu language that is widely understood today because the city of Douala is large and important. But it would not have taken them very far afield. The only solution: interpreters recruited from the local congregations. It’s a method that was put to use all over Africa. In the early days, missionary interpretation was of dubious quality:

“Since early missionaries could not know the language, they had to depend on interpreters whose own linguistic competence might be small and who might lack any knowledge of Christianity. What kind of gospel the missionaries were heard to preach can only be guessed at.” (McManners, The Oxford History of Christianity, p. 478)

But that was long ago.

One Sunday morning in the 1980s, I was coming out of the Advanced School at Buea when I saw a large crowd on the campus. The people were dressed in their Sunday best, the richly coloured clothes of the women looking especially festive. In front of the crowd a stage had been erected, and on it were just two men, the centre of rapt attention. I stopped to watch.

Both men were Africans. Both were wearing black suits. There was not much difference between them of height or build, but one was younger. Both were carrying a black book in the right hand. Both were haranguing the crowd for a couple of minutes at a time, alternately. They had similar voices. They made the same gestures. In fact they were speaking different languages, but I couldn’t distinguish that. It was as if they were engaged in an impassioned mimicry of one another.

After the first few changes of speaker, I realised that I’d happened upon an evangelical church service or prayer meeting, and it seemed likely that one speaker was the preacher and the other was his interpreter. This was confirmed to me by somebody in the crowd; also that the interpretation was from Douala into another African language. So far so good, but which was the speaker and which the interpreter? Either of them, by his strong voice, his intonation, his body language, appearance and dress, could have passed for preacher. They stood there side by side, neither showing deference. However, another question to my informant confirmed what I might have deduced: that the interpreter was the younger of the two. He, like his preacher model, put on a rousing performance that lasted for another half hour.

“Are all the church interpreters like this?” I asked my informant. “Oh yes,” she replied, “How else could they inspire the congregation to turn to Jesus?”

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