War and peace

By Dr Georgina Collins

Looking down over Cameroon’s capital city, Yaoundé, across the corrugated metal roofs, past the neon lights of the bureau de tabac, busy streets, bars, shops and stalls to the beautiful undulating landscape beyond, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a peaceful urban centre, and in many ways it is. But the tranquil façade hides ever-growing tensions that you could be completely unaware of as a first-time visitor. If you don’t search too far online or venture too far beyond the capital, you could spend two weeks here and be none the wiser about the so-called ‘Anglophone Problem’.1 In fact, bilingualism appears to be promoted around the city centre on signs and displays.

Yet in addition to battling Boko Haram in the Far North region, Cameroon is enduring a bitter civil war, as central government clashes with Anglophone separatists fighting for an independent Federal Republic of Ambazonia in the North West and South West regions (part of the territory previously under British rule). This conflict has a distinctly linguistic element; the remaining eight regions are Francophone, including the Central region – home to Yaoundé and the seat of government (led by President Paul Biya).

Since the peaceful protests in 2016 against the marginalisation and assimilation of Anglophone Cameroonians into Francophone legal and educational systems, tensions have escalated. This has led to hundreds of deaths, jail sentences and several hundred thousand displaced people, further deepening the linguistic divide.2

Before my first visit to the country in 2018, I thought it was bilingual. I presumed that the translation of French literature into English, and vice versa, would be more commonplace in Cameroon than in most other countries, as both are official languages. However, though the country may officially give parity to the two languages, few (if any) locals would say that it is bilingual. During that first trip, I was tasked with conducting a feasibility study on literary translation training provision in West Africa for a project led by Dr Ruth Bush and a team from the universities of Bristol and Exeter.

I also visited Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire as part of the initiative, carrying out interviews with more than 60 writers, journalists, students, translators, academics and other stakeholders about training provision across all three countries.3 While Côte d’Ivoire was in the very early stages of developing literary translation and translation studies training courses at local universities, Senegal was one step ahead with a relatively new MA programme at the Université Gaston Berger in Saint Louis and plans to develop the area of study at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. New agencies and associations had been established to support the growing profession.

However, it was in Cameroon that I found the most striking set of conditions: extensive translation training, a thriving professional translation community, two official languages and a relatively high literacy rate (over 70%), but very little literature translated within Cameroon, exacerbated perhaps by the political climate.

The University of Yaoundé I, the capital’s private Higher Institute of Translation and Interpretation (ISTIC) and the Advanced School of Translators and Interpreters (ASTI) in Buea (South West region) offer translation training to postgraduate level, but literary translation is only a very small part of such provision. This may be because there are so many governmental, commercial and freelance translation jobs, and a large number of legal, scientific and general communication materials that need to be translated into French and English. 

Publishing challenges

Cameroon does, however, have a rich body of literature, in terms of texts both by well-known writers such as Mongo Beti, Ferdinand Oyono and Calixthe Beyala, and by a new generation of writers, including Imbolo Mbue and Patrice Nganang. Many more are coming to the fore through publishing initiatives by organisations such as Langaa Research and Publishing Common Initiative Group (RPCIG) and activists like Dzekashu MacViban, founder of Bakwa magazine. Last year, he highlighted the diversity of Cameroonian writing through 100 days of the nation’s literature with Bakwa, and this autumn he will release Of Passion and Ink: New voices from Cameroon.

So literature is widely produced in Cameroon but very little is translated there. This isn’t to say that interest in literary translation from both newly qualified and experienced translators doesn’t exist. But locally produced literary translations are rare and often released as self-published e-books due to limited publishing opportunities. Prudence Lucha’s English translation of Clandestin sur son propre continent by Alphonsius Ategha is a notable exception.

The most well-established publishing house is Éditions Clé. According to its Head of Literature Services, Paul Lele, it has published very few translations in recent years due to concerns about low sales figures and limited funding. Instead, successful texts travel overseas to be rewritten by Western translators, who may not understand the full range of cultural and linguistic nuances.

The argument, of course, is that – ethically, financially, strategically and professionally – if the expertise exists within Cameroon, the texts should be translated there. This is something MacViban would like to see happening more, and he is keen to publish a greater number of locally written and locally translated texts.

Forging a network

This is good news for the many translators who told me they wanted to explore new pathways to publication. Several also voiced a desire to receive more extensive literary-specific training, others to build a literary translation network or hub locally (expanding into Central and/or West Africa), and many to contribute to or attend a workshop or literary translation event in Cameroon.

This year, meetings were held in Yaoundé for those interested in advancing a literary translation initiative, as part of a project led by Professor Madhu Krishnan at the University of Bristol. The network is expanding rapidly, but ideally it will be run by a local group to ensure it is sustainable in the long term. Cameroon is already home to several formal networks (such as the Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters of Cameroon) and informal support groups (including Amiti), and the literary translation hub could feasibly stem from one of those.

This will be the topic of discussion at a public event in Yaoundé this autumn, along with a debate on the role of translation in Cameroonian society more generally. It will follow a week-long workshop for budding literary translators run by Bakwa and the University of Bristol. Creative writing experts such as Edwige Dro from Côte d’Ivoire and translation specialists including Ros Schwartz will mentor participants as they translate short stories, which will be published in a bilingual (French and English) anthology next year. The will to build capacity locally is there and although network building and training are in the initial stages, we are starting to see concrete outcomes.

Supporting local languages

Of course, none of this tackles the subject of local language literary translation, which has frequently arisen in meetings and will be a topic for discussion at the public event. Around 250 local languages are spoken across Cameroon, and an ongoing literary translation project would ideally embrace translation from and into some of these languages.

To date, much of the work in this area has been carried out by SIL Cameroon and the Cameroon Association for Bible Translation and Literacy (CABTAL). Aside from working on religious texts, these Christian organisations have done useful work in helping the languages to thrive beyond the spoken word, developing local language materials such as dictionaries, grammars, manuals and healthcare documents, both in print and electronically (even in rural areas many people have access to a mobile phone).

The sheer number of local languages makes it difficult to have a group discussion about rewriting in one specific Cameroonian language. Literary translations into local languages would also have relatively small audiences, especially as many are primarily spoken and not written or read. Such translations would, therefore, be largely symbolic and political at this point in time.

Creating translated texts in an oral form – to be accessed through podcasts, for example – would be one potential solution. There could also be a focus on languages with a higher number of speakers, such as Bamum, Kom, Ewondo and even Camfranglais and Pidgin English (although the latter two are sociolects that vary from one region to another).4 This contrasts significantly with the situation in countries such as Senegal, where the prominence of Wolof (the lingua franca of around 80% of the population) makes it much easier to run literary translation workshops using an African language shared by all.

Bridging the linguistic divide

Whichever pathway this project takes, there is no doubting that language in Cameroon is currently one of the most politically charged debates in West Africa. Literature in the country continues to be a platform for expressing personal and societal mood, opinion and analysis. Intrinsically therefore, literary translation can be used as a conduit for the communication of those sentiments across the Francophone-Anglophone divide, and potentially beyond urban centres to more rural locations through the oral expression of literature in local languages.

There is plenty more to debate, and colleagues in Cameroon and at the University of Bristol are keen for meetings, public events and workshops to continue with the aim of further promoting literary creativity, translation and collaborations between African nations, as well as building capacity and ensuring the sustainability of the emerging literary translation network. This, along with tangible results such as the workshop, public event and launch of next year’s bilingual anthology, are intended to contribute to peaceful communication across linguistic divides.

Conflict in Cameroon

1500s Portuguese invaders set up plantations and begin the slave trade. 1600s The Dutch take control.

1884 Colonisation by the Germans.

1916 Britain and France take over, with the French governing 80% of the country.

1960-61 Independence first from France and then from Britain. The south of the Anglophone territory becomes part of Cameroon; the north, part of Nigeria.

2016 Protests against Anglophone marginalisation grow in intensity.

2017-2019 Schools are closed as fighting between the military and Anglophone separatists becomes increasingly violent.

August 2019 Separatist leader Julius Ayuk Tabe is sentenced to life in prison. Tens of thousands flee the Anglophone region.


1 Konings, P and Nyamnjoh, FB (1997) ‘The Anglophone Problem in Cameroon.’ In The Journal of Modern African Studies, 35:2, 207-229

2 O’Grady, S (2019) ‘War of Words: Cameroon being torn apart by deadly language division’. In The Independent, 27/2/19

3 To download the feasibility study, visit georginacollins.com/blog

4 Biloa, E and Echu, G (2008) ‘Cameroon: Official bilingualism in a multilingual state’. In Simpson, A, Language and National Identity in Africa, OUP, 199-213

Dr Georgina Collins is a PEN award-winning freelance translator and writer, who works part-time as a literary translation consultant for the University of Bristol and has extensive teaching experience. Her research focuses on the translation of Francophone African literature, with a special interest in female writers from Senegal.