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2 posts categorized "West Africa"

14 January 2016

West African Literature and Thought in French

Some of the most important contemporary writing in French has emerged from West Africa. As part of the programme of events accompanying the current British Library exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, the Library is holding a seminar on West African Literature and Thought in French on Friday 22 January from 10.30-1700 in the Conference Centre.

This event will bring together authors (including leading writer from the Côte d’Ivoire, Véronique Tadjo), publishers, translators and other specialists to explore topics including the history of the Francophone West African book as well as the complex processes of translation between oral and literary cultures and across various other linguistic, historical and political contexts.

The programme for the seminar is:

10.30-11.00  Registration. Tea/ Coffee

11.00-11.10  Welcome: Janet Zmroczek (Head of European and Americas Collections, British Library)

11.10-12.00  Opening Panel:  West Africa at the British Library

  • Marion Wallace (British Library), Overview of the British Library’s current major exhibition ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ 
  • Jody Butterworth (British Library), Introduction to the Endangered Archives Programmes based in Francophone West Africa

12.00-12.50  Panel: Introducing West African literature and culture (Chair: Patrick Corcoran)

  • David Murphy (University of Stirling), Négritude and the rest? A brief history of West African Literature in French
  • Chérif Keita (Carleton College), The Sunjata Fasa (The Epic of Sundiata) as the Matrix of Mande Personhood

12.50-13.45  Lunch. A sandwich lunch will be provided.

13.45- 14.45  Round table: Translation and reception (Chair: Charlotte Baker)
With Kathryn Batchelor (University of Nottingham), Georgina Collins (University of Glasgow), Michael Syrotinski, (University of Glasgow), Wangui Wa Goro (SIDENSI)

14.45- 15. 45  Round table: Publishing translated fiction in the UK (Chair: Ruth Bush)
With Becky Nana Ayebia Clarke (Ayebia Clarke Publishing), Suzanne Diop (Présence Africaine Editions), Samantha Schnee (Words without Borders), Audrey Small (University of Sheffield)

15.45-16.00  Tea/Coffee

16.00-17.00 Véronique Tadjo : a reading and a conversation with Nicki Hitchcott (University of Nottingham)

Covers of five books by Veronique Tadjo
A selection of Veronique Tadjo’s books from the British Library’s collections

The seminar has been organised by Teresa Vernon (British Library) and Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool/AHRC) in partnership with the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ theme and The Society for French Studies, with the support of the Institut Français. A book stall provided by the Africa Book Centre will be available on the day.

You can book by following the link to our ‘What’s On’ page or by contacting the British Library Box Office ( +44 (0)1937 546546; [email protected]). Prices are £25 (concessions £15-18, see ‘What’s On’ for full details).

The seminar will be followed in the evening by a performance at 19.00 by acclaimed Malian band Trio Da Kali, who will be performing from their own repertoire, before accompanying Chérif Keita’s recitation of the Epic of Sundiata. Please note that separate tickets are required for this event and for visits to the Exhibition itself (open 09.30-18.00) on the day.

Photograph of the Trio Da Kali underneath a tree
Trio Da Kali (photograph: Youri Lenquette)


21 December 2015

World proverbs in speech, text and image

All the world over, wise people say “Nobody knows his own defects” and “What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over”. 

You may find this an inspiring indication of the oneness of mankind, or alternatively depressing proof of the lack of originality of the human mind.

The current BL exhibition “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song” includes some small figures which are thought to refer to popular proverbs.

  African proverbs weightAs described in the exhibition catalogue, “The gold-weight [above, from the collections of the British Museum] depicting two crocodiles with one stomach embodies the Asante proverb Funtufunefu, denkyemfunefu, won efuru bom, nso woredidi a na woreko, meaning that even though they have one stomach, they fight over food when eating.” (p. 123).

It’s from Ghana, and dated somewhere in the 18th to 20th centuries.

I’m reminded of European  misericords, carvings under the seats in the choir stalls of medieval churches. These often show motifs which can  be matched to popular tales or sayings. The examples below from the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam show a man banging his head against a brick wall and another falling between two stools.  (These two images also occur in Bruegel).  

  Proverbs misericords 1            Proverbs misericords 2

 European popular proverbs are written down, in the context of Latin literature, as early as the 13th century. The most common contexts are sermons and grammar books.

Arabic proverbs (more properly learned than popular) made their entrance in the West in 13th-century Spain, and were printed in erudite bilingual Arabic-Latin collections from the early 17th century on.

African proverbs, at least in those parts which were occupied by Britain and France, were not printed until the 19th century (see Moll’s bibliography).

The BL recently acquired a book which I think is typical of the first printing of African proverbs:

Elementos Grammaticaes tp
Elementos grammaticaes da lingua Nbundu  offerecidos a S.M.F.O. Senhor D. Luis I por Dr. Saturnino de Sousa e Oliveira e Manuel Alves de Castro Francina (Loanda, 1864) YF.2015.a.25009

The context is a grammar of the Nbundu (Kimbundu) language, spoken in Angola. Early printed grammars of French (etc.)  for English (etc.)  speakers regularly included an anthology of proverbs.  And so it is in this book of 1864.

Here the Nbundu original is given followed by the literal Portuguese translation, and then the Portuguese equivalent.

  Elementos Grammaticaes proverbs
Elementos Grammaticaes proverbs

The monkey doesn’t look at his tail

Often the ant dominates the elephant

What the eyes see, causes envy

The rat is an expert in his hole

One who makes water often cannot lie down in a wet place

The witchdoctor starts with his own house and ends up outside


 Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References/further reading:

Walter S. Gibson, Figures of speech : picturing proverbs in renaissance Netherlands (London, 2010) YC.2010.a.7023

Otto E. Moll, Sprichwörterbibliographie (Frankfurt am Main, [1958]) Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 398.9

Barry Taylor, ‘Los Libros de proverbios bilingües: disposición e intención’, in Corpus, genres, théories et méthodes: construction d’une base de données, ed. Marie-Christine Bornes-Varol and Marie-Sol Ortola (Nancy, 2010), pp. 119-29. YF.2012.a.22372

Barry Taylor, ‘Éditions bilingues de textes espagnols’, K výzkumu zámeckých, měšťanských a cirkevnich knihoven, ‘Jazyk a  řeč knihy’, Opera romanica, 11 (2009), 385-94. ZF.9.a.4837

West Africa : word, symbol, song / general editors, Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace. 2015.


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