From Fagunwa to Isola: The Translation Narrative of Yoruba Works Continues

The unwritten acceptance of English and French as the languages of literary expression and the seeming neglect of indigenous languages for creative output would fuel Ngūgī wa Thiong'o's resolve years later to write his works first in Gīkūyū before translating into English.


The famous Kenyan writer, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, while giving an account of the 1962 historic meeting of African writers at Makerere University College, Kampala in his book, Decolonising the Mind, observed that the choice of title for the conference, A Conference of African Writers of English Expression, excluded great writers of indigenous expressions from participating in the conference.

Ngūgī noted that while he as a student with two published short stories could qualify, “neither Shaban Robert, then the greatest living East African poet, with several works of poetry, and prose to his credit in Kiswahili, nor Chief Fagunwa, the great Nigerian writer with several published titles in Yoruba, could possibly qualify.”

Ngūgī would go on to question what defines African literature in the essay. The unwritten acceptance of English and French as the languages of literary expression and the seeming neglect of indigenous languages for creative output would fuel Ngūgī wa Thiong’o’s resolve years later to write his works first in Gīkūyū before translating into English. He has since written some of his novels and plays in Gīkūyū, his native language. Some of his notable works written in this fashion include Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) which he co-authored with Ngūgī wa Mīrii, and Caitani Mūthurabainī (Devil on the Cross), a novel he wrote while in prison on toilet papers. Ngūgī wa Thiong’o is particular about the promotion of his native language through his literary output and he only translates into English for wider audience and readership.


Fagunwa, referenced at the beginning of this essay, was another great writer whose medium of expression was his mother tongue, Yoruba Language. Fagunwa’s novels are characteristically mystical, spell-bound, embellished with moral-extracting fantasies, and as well rich in Yoruba diction. His works were what many of the first and second generations of Nigerian writers of Yoruba extraction grew up reading. In these categories of writers are Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Olu Obafemi amongst many others. His novels are Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmọlẹ̀ (1938), Igbó Olódùmarè (1949), Ìrèké Oníbùdó (1949), Ìrìnkèrindó nínú Igbó Elégbèje (1954), and Àdììtú Olódùmarè (1961).

Daniel O. Fagunwa

However, it wasn’t until Wole Soyinka translated Fagunwa’s Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmọlè into English as The Forest of a Thousand Daemons in 1968 that the great writer began to gain traction, especially as it concerns accessibility to his writings, among the non-Yoruba readers. It would take Soyinka about forty years to translate another D. O. Fagunwa’s novel, Igbó Olódùmarè, into English as In the Forest of God (2010). The long hiatus is nonetheless inconsequential as Soyinka’s seminal translation has given birth to children of its own in languages other than English. Not only that, it changed the narrative of the translation of Yoruba works forever.

Following the template of Soyinka’s translation of Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Olódùmarè, Mario Biondi translated the same work into Italian as La Foresta Dei Mille Demoni (1985). Louis Camara also translated it into French as La Forêt aux Mille Démons (2015). There is also 400 İlah Ormanı (2016) translated by Bir Avcının Öyküsü into Turkish.

Over the years, several other novels by D. O. Fagunwa had been translated into English. Chief among Fagunwa’s translators are Wole Soyinka, Olu Obafemi, Femi Osofisan, and Gabriel Ajadi. These translators employed the combination of metaphrase and paraphrase to properly convey to the maximum level English can accommodate the poetic richness of D. O. Fagunwa. That they are able to properly transpose the linguistic richness and choices of Fagunwa’s works or not is a discussion for another day.

Soyinka’s translation has inspired other writers to translate other Fagunwa’s works. Gabriel A. Ajadi translated Igbó Olódùmarè in 1984 to The Forest of God, decades before Soyinka translated the same book. Olu Obafemi also translated Àdììtú Olódùmarè into The Mysteries of God. Dapo Adeniyi translated Ìrìnkèrindò nínú Igbó Elégbèje in 1994 into Expedition to the Mountain of Thought: The Third Saga. Ìrèké Oníbùdó was also framed by Alonge Isaac Olusola into a work with the same title in 2019. Ìrèké Oníbùdó was also translated in his theatrical adaptation as The Fabulous Adventures of the Sugarcane Man by Femi Osofisan.

It is clear from the foregoing that Wole Soyinka’s experiment with D. O. Fagunwa’s work successfully midwived translations of other Fagunwa’s works by other translators. It opened a vista of endless possibilities to Yoruba literature, the literary works written in Yoruba language to mirror the experience of the Yoruba people. More people started translating Yoruba works into English.

A writer of Yoruba expression who in recent years courted the kind of attention which D. O. Fagunwa was given is Akinwumi Isola. Late Isola was a versatile writer whose medium of expression was primarily the Yoruba Language. He was reputable for turning out classical works of tremendous importance like Ṣaworoidẹ, Ó Le Kú, Ẹfúnṣetán Aníwúrà, Kòṣééégbé and many others. Some of these were originally written as scripts for Tunde Kelani’s movies (e.g. Ṣaworoidẹ) while others like Ẹfúnṣetán Aníwúrà had been published before they were adapted into movies.

Akinwumi Isola

Many of Akinwumi Isola’s books have been translated into the English Language by Pamela J. Olubunmi Smith, a Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Smith who had translated Adebayo Faleti’s Ọmọ Olókùn Ẹṣin as The Freedom Fight (2010), took interest in the body work of Akinwumi Isola. Her English translations of Akinwumi Isola’s works include:

  • Ẹfúnṣetán Aníwúrà, Ìyálóde Ìbàdàn & Olú Ọmọ Tinúubú (2006)
  • Treasury of Childhood Memories (2016)

Her recent translation is The Brass-Bells Drum (2022), an English translation of Isola’s Ṣaworoidẹ. The popular filmmaker, Tunde Kelani, announced this development on his Facebook page on August 4, 2022.

This essay would not be balanced and complete if we do not state that the business of translation in respect of Yoruba and English is not a one-way highway but a transactional exchange or mutual transaction as the case may be. Works written in the English Language have also been translated into Yoruba as much as Yoruba texts have been translated into English.

Writers like Akinwumi Isola, Adeleke Adeeko, and Adedotun Ogundeji have translated works originally written in English into Yoruba. Akinwumi Isola, apart from his literary exploits in the Yoruba Language, translated Soyinka’s play, Death and the King’s Horseman into Yoruba as Ikú Olókùn-Ẹsin (1994) and Soyinka’s childhood memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood, as Aké ní Ìgbà Èwe (2001). Adeleke Adeeko also translated Femi Osofisan’s satiric novella, Kolera Kolej, into Yoruba as Kọ́lẹ́ẹ̀jì Onígbá Méjì (2022). Adedotun Ogundeji did something similar with Femi Osofisan’s Who’s Afraid of Solarin, translated as Yéè Pà! Ṣólàárín Ḿbọ̀. Emerging from a new generation of Yoruba translators is Waliyullah Abimbola who won the 2022 Atelewo Prize for Literature with Oko Ẹranko, his translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Ultimately, while translation of Yoruba texts into English opens room for a wider readership which English offers, translation of English texts into Yoruba provides the Yoruba audience with cultural peculiarities, concepts, et cetera encoded in the English texts, bringing about the inclusion of both educated and uneducated Yoruba audience.

The story of the translation of Yoruba texts into English and vice versa is a narrative that has weathered linguistic storm and dearth of materials. It is a narrative that will continue to hold sway in the order of things and encourage the growth and patronage of Yoruba literature.



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