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Zimbabwe’s obsession with Animal Farm as novel gets Shona tran

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” – this famous quote from George Orwell’s satirical novel has found such resonance in Zimbabwe that author Petina Gappah has translated Animal Farm into the local Shona language.

It has long been a favourite in Zimbabwe in English – studied in some schools – and became a huge hit when it was serialised in a local newspaper around two decades ago, with readers blown away by its astute metaphor of a liberation struggle gone wrong.

It is something Gappah and fellow translator, poet Tinashe Muchuri, decided to focus on with their slight twist of the title in Shona, opting for Chimurenga Chemhuka, meaning “Animal Revolution”.

The word chimurenga is a reference to the liberation war fought during white-minority rule that led to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, bringing to power Robert Mugabe, who went on to lead the country for 37 years until he was overthrown in a coup.

Petina Gappah pictured in 2015
Image caption, Petina Gappah says the Shona translation’s use of different dialects adds layers and humour to the story for Zimbabweans

Through the Shona translation, Gappah said they had been able to bring added depth, meaning and humour for readers as their characters use the different Shona dialects spoken around Zimbabwe.

“In the 1960s the language was standardised throughout the entire country,” Gappah told the BBC World Service.

“So I’d be learning standard Shona at school but at home I’d be speaking Karanga because my family is Karanga.

“What we thought we’d do with the book is have the narration in standard Shona but the animals all speak different dialects – almost as though they’re coming from all the four corners of Zimbabwe.”

It allows the story to reflect the power struggles that have played out with the ruling Zanu-PF party, as Zimbabweans know that current President Emmerson Mnangagwa is Karanga, while Mugabe, his long-time ally turned rival, was from the Zezuru clan.

The story is about farm animals rising up against their human owner to create a new and equal society, said to be an allegory of what happened under Communism in the Soviet Union.

When journalist and editor Geoffrey Nyarota took the decision to serialise Animal Farm in 2000 in the Daily News, once Zimbabwe’s best-selling paper, he said many took Napoleon, the pig who gains power through intimidation and manipulation, to be Mugabe.

“Animal Farm is a microcosm of political developments in post-independence Zimbabwe,” Nyarota told the BBC World Service in 2003, a few months before the Daily News was banned by the authorities and he was forced to go into exile for several years.

Someone reading a special edition of The Daily News at the Commonwealth Summit in Abuja, Nigeria - December 2003
Image caption, The Daily News was banned in 2003 under tough media laws – a special edition was brought out for a Commonwealth Summit later that year

In the Zimbabwean context, Mr Jones, the former owner of the farm, represented colonialism while the vicious dogs who Napoleon secretly trains to later gain power, were Zanu-PF’s youth militia, he said.

“The youth brigade… are removed from their families and put through courses of political indoctrination in some camps far out in the rural areas and then they are unleashed on an unsuspecting innocent public and they have caused much damage.”

Voter intimidation and violence have marred several Zimbabwean elections – with the country gearing up for another poll in August and a renewed crackdown on opposition figures and government critics.

The sheep – continually bleating the pigs’ propaganda slogans – Nyarota likened to Zanu-PF’s women’s league “whose existence seems to be for the sole purpose of singing praise songs of… the ruling party”.

The pigs in Animal Farm start to act more and more like humans – living it up in the old farmer’s house, while the rest of the animals toil away, often cold, hungry and over-worked.

Even with changing political events and the death of Mugabe in 2019, the parallels are ones that Zimbabweans still recognise as inflation soars once more and electricity is scarce, making life a daily struggle.

A newspaper poster on the 2023 election is displayed on a busy street in Harare, Zimbabwe - 29 May 2023
Image caption, Presidential elections have been set for 23 August

The book has continued to inspire Nyarota, who penned his first novel last year, which he dubbed “truthful fiction” looking at “endemic corruption”.

“Orwell was able to look into the future, as it were, and was able to forecast the future of our independent nations. Orwell’s future is the present that I now graphically seek to capture in The Honourable Minister,” he told the NewsDay website.

But for Gappah, the Shona translation is less about political comment or resistance and more about making mischief and her love of languages.

Her project began by chance in 2015 when she started to translate snippets of English literature into Shona to entertain her Facebook friends.

“Then I thought to myself: ‘Why don’t I try a larger project?’ So I did the first page of Animal Farm and I invited friends on Facebook, writers and other people interested in language, to join me and it just ballooned from there.”

It grew to such an extent that at one time around 20 people were involved “and it became really messy”, she said.

It was whittled down to a core group and then eventually retranslated, overhauled and edited by Gappah and Muchiri.

“But I’ll be grateful for that initial first group,” Gappah said.

Their translating partnership with House of Books, a small Zimbabwean publisher, is set to continue with Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe – a seminal work that deals with the impact of colonialism in Africa – next on their list.

“And at some point we’re going to tackle Shakespeare, because Julius Caesar, for example is a very Zimbabwean story,” said Gappah.

The play, first performed in 1599, is about a group of conspirators who decide to assassinate a general, saying it is for the good of the state to prevent him from becoming a tyrant.