Pamela Smith: We must teach our children Yoruba language and culture

Pamela Smith: We must teach our children Yoruba language and culture

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 6:37 am


Pamela Olubunmi Smith

Pamela Olubunmi Smith


PAMELA OLUBUNMI SMITH, a Professor of English, Humanities and Women’s Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha spoke with GBENRO ADESINA about the works of PROFESSOR AKINWUMI ISOLA, Yoruba culture and other issues on education

Congratulations on the public presentation of your recent book. How do you feel?

I feel very great and elated. I had wanted to do this for a long time to honour our Alagba Professor Akinwumi Isola because I would not have been an intellectual and the academic person that I have become if I didn’t get inspiration from his works. If he didn’t do the writings he did, I wouldn’t have had the chance of translating his books. This is his third works that I have translated. I was excited while preparing for the book launch. During the preparation, I joined forces with his wife. I see my publications as my “children”. I call them book-births. It is like having a fifth child.

Though, as a parent, you are not supposed to say that one of your five children is your favourite but this is my favourite book-child. In a way, maybe there is an improvement from the previous ones that I did as early as 2000, 2003, 2005, 2010 and now 2016. I am happy that Isola is very happy. I am also happy to get commendations from my colleagues. Most of those that were here for the book presentation are from my group, the Fagunwa Study Group. I didn’t know that any of them was in Nigeria.

But I am not surprised they are here because Bookcraft had postponed plans to launch a volume of 34 of the essays that we had written three years ago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Fagunwa’s death. I had simply mailed to let them know that my book had been published and that I was on my way to Nigeria to launch it. I added that anyone who is in Nigeria should join me for the event. I was surprised when they responded that they were in Nigeria and would be there. Five out of the seven were in Nigeria and they came for the book presentation. Is that not amazing?

It took you like how many years?

Five years to have it published. The first I did was Efunsetan Aniwura, Iyalode Ibadan and OluOmo (Tinuubu), and it took me about 10 years to publish. It is not that original draft. It is the 15million different drafts that come after the initial translation of the text. The nature of translation is that you can’t translate today and publish next week. Even if this is what you do for a living, it is not possible. And many times, I find myself letting it sit for about six months. You get sort of fresh eyes. You go back to it and look at the original manuscript and sometimes say, “Oh! My God; what was I thinking?” That is the nature of translation. The next time you pick it up, that word you have been struggling with sometimes comes, “voila!”

Between writing a book and translating, which one is more difficult?

Alagba Isola will tell you the answer to that is ‘translation.’ It is much easier to write a book afresh than translating a book. In translation, you have to worry about so many things. It is already somebody’s idea which must not be distorted in any way. So, getting into the mind of the writer is quite difficult. He could mean this or that. I am lucky that he (Isola) is still alive, and I can ask him questions; and I did many times. As soon as I get into town, I come here to see him, to see what he is up to and say hello to him. He will always ask, “Bawo niise? Se e sin ba ise lo?” (How is your work progressing?) I could be here with him for the next three hours,figuratively, sitting at his feet, but I am sitting across from him, asking him one or two questions or mostly asking him to read key passages from the original book to me so that I can “pick his voice” and put it in my head. He will read it.

Then we switch. I will say let me read to you how I have translated that same passage. And 99.9 times, he will say “oun naani”, (you got it right)! He never gets irritated. He will say ‘it is good enough. Don’t change it.’ He is always very accommodating. He is my mentor. He is very generous. He gives. He is not too full of himself. He doesn’t make life difficult for those of us who want to translate his works. For instance, he will say, “don’t bother looking for me to sign anything, just go do it.” That is the level of trust he has placed in me and my abilities.

Pamela Olubunmi Smith

Pamela Olubunmi Smith

Why did it take five or 10 years to publish?

It has to do with the economics and politics of the publishing industry. It happens when you don’t find a publisher. You have to go through that. Almost always, a publisher will want to impose on you, asking you to change one thing or the other and if care is not taken, you can mess up the meaning of the original text. Rather than the editor telling you that he doesn’t understand something in your manuscript, s/he will be suggesting that you change this or that and you don’t lose the soul of your work. You don’t know anything about what I am writing. Many people will let go because they want to publish, and it may end up that it is not what you want that comes out. It could have been three (years) because University Press Plc here sat on the manuscript for two years. The editor was here. Hopefully, by next week, there will be a contractfor a Nigeria/Africa edition.

Why the choice of “Ogun Omode”?

Well, I have already done Efunsetan, and OluOmo Tinuubu. I have always wanted to translate Ogun Omode.

Since when did you know Akinwumi?

I met him in America in unusual circumstances. What happened was that African Literature Association, ALA, had invited him to America for a programme. But ALA likes to buy bargain flight tickets, which they did for him. The ticket did not get to him on time. He had waited and waited. He kept telling them that he had gotten his visa and they should send the ticket but the ALA was telling him to be patient and that his ticket was on the way. But the deadline of what he had been invited for was coming close. Then he thought he should buy the ticket, come and be reimbursed. That was exactly what he did, but things didn’t work that way.

He arrived. In the meantime, the ticket arrived in Nigeria but he had left. He arrived at the airport and found his way to wherever we were, — a three hour-drive, 300 miles away — not a bus, but a $500 cab ride. The woman driver was not leaving. He didn’t know, but he hired a cab instead of a limousine. That was when Folabo Ajayi started arranging how to raise the money. We found enough money and paid this woman. That night, here was a poor and tired Isola. Frankly speaking, he looked spent. He looked stunned. Two years later, the ALA asked me to be in charge of translation issues and bring whoever I wanted to the USA. That was how I submitted Isola’s name. In the meantime, in those two years, I visited Nigeria and started reading his books. Everybody kept talking about Efunsetan’s author. I looked into the author and decided, ‘alright, I could do this for women’s studies.’ I did Efunsetan Aniwura, Iyalode Ibadan and OluOmo (Tinuubu) for Women Studies resource. In between them, I did “Omo Olokun Esin,” translated as The Freedom Fight.

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  • This is an awesome article. I really appreciate this initiative. Thank you.

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