Представительство Россотрудничества в Танзании опубликовало в февральском номере журнала «Dar guide» статью известного российского филолога – африканиста «Шаабан Роберт на русском». В ней рассказывается о первых переводах на русский язык и издании в Москве и Ленинграде ряда произведений основоположника современной суахилийской литературы. Среди них «Моя жизнь» («Maisha yangu»), «Кусадикика» («Kusadikika»), «Жизнь Сити бинти Саад» («Wasifu wa Siti binti Saad») и др. Статья была подготовлена по просьбе представительства.
Shaaban Robert in Russian: unknown pages of the great writer’s legacy
Early in January 2019, East Africa and the world have celebrated the 110th anniversary since the birth of Shaaban Robert (1909-1962) – an outstanding figure in modern East African history, culture and literature, a great writer and the founder of modern literature in Swahili. Elena Zubkova-Bertoncini, a distinguished scholar of Swahili letters, in her seminal work “Outline of Swahili literature” characterized Shaaban Robert as a pioneer in the development of the Swahili language, who created a new type of Swahili prose and whose work will remain a link between classical and modern Swahili literature. Also, according to her, “he was above all a serious philosophical moralist. Some of his political and religious ideas, like unity of religions and equality of men and women, were ahead of his time and society”. Another prominent scholar of Swahili lore, Jan Knappert, in his earlier published work gave Shaaban Robert an even more eloquent appraisal: “Shaaban Robert is the first post-classical author who finds new channels of thought in the Swahili language, and opens windows on new ideas. If he was a philosopher, he was also an artist, a person of subtle expression, of delicate feeling, of gentle character. His artistic genius gives his works vision and swift movement, while his philosophical attitude to life gives them perspective and depth”.
Among those scholars who devoted their research to Shaaban’s works are distinguished Swahili language writers, who may well be called descendants of Shaaban, among them acclaimed Tanzanian authors Euphrase Kezilahabi, Said Ahmed Mohammed and Mugyabuso Mulokozi, Kenyan writers Kitula King’ei and Clara Momanyi. The works of Shaaban Robert have also been researched by prominent East African literary critics, such as Tanzanian scholars Clement Ndulute and Tigiti Sengo, as well as their Kenyan colleague Richard Wafula. In different years Shaaban’s works were appraised by famous scholars from European countries, whose names are now part of the “gold portfolio” of Swahili studies, - Ernst Dammann, Lyndon Harries, Greville Freeman-Grenville, Andrew Gibbe, Xavier Garnier, and others.
The heritage of Shaaban Robert is known in the whole wide world, his works are studied in various countries and are translated into several languages. It would be interesting, however, to notice, that one of the very first translations of Shaaban’s works into a foreign language was a Russian translation. The first collection of his translated works, titled Moya zhizn’ (My life), was published in Moscow as early as 1968, six years after the demise of the great writer. In the early 1980s an extended version of this collection, titled Izbrannoye (Selected works), was published in Leningrad (at that time the official name for Saint-Petersburg, the country’s northern capital). All the translators of Shaaban Robert’s works were graduates of the African studies departments from the universities of Moscow and Leningrad. What should be noted is the special role of Andrei Zhukov, Russia’s major specialist in classical Swahili literature, who was the figure behind these publications. A gifted scholar (for several decades he was heading the African department of Leningrad University) and a great popularizer of Shaaban’s heritage, he was largely responsible for the selection of works, authored the prefaces to both collections and also contributed to the translation itself – he translated two works by Shaaban, Utubora mkulima and Siku ya watenzi wote (the latter in collaboration with N.Kudryavtsev). Zhukov is also known to the Russian readers and students of African culture for his scholarly research about Shaaban Robert – in his magnum opus, the monographic study “Swahili culture and language”, published in Russian in 1997, he devoted a separate chapter to Shaaban, where he states that “Shaaban Robert by his significance and role in the Swahili culture and in the modern culture of Tanzania can be compared to that of Pushkin in the culture of Russia, Shakespeare in the English culture and Goethe in German – in the sense that Shaaban, same as these genii of European culture, was awakening the sublime feelings by his lyre and was the echo of the people’s voice” (translated from Russian by the author). In the later years, Russian scholars published a number of critical studies of Shaaban’s legacy; for example, Valery Misyugin and Inna Sidorova wrote about his philosophical and social views, Ekaterina Stupina and Emmanuil Gankin – about the problems of the generic classification of his works. Shaaban Robert’s anniversaries have been regularly marked at the departments of African studies of Russian universities by scientific conferences and festivals, participated by lecturers, students and foreign guests.
The question may rise: how come that this thorough an well-established scholarship of Shaaban’s heritage has taken place in Russia? It would be easier to answer this question, if we recall that, firstly, Russia since the Soviet period of its history has been maintaining close economic and political ties with the countries of East Africa, especially Tanzania. Secondly, it may be remembered that the studies of Swahili language and culture have been established in Russia as early as in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1929, Swahili was for the first time taught at the Leningrad University by Dmitry Olderogge, the founding figure in the African studies in Russia. In 1930s, the academic Institute for African Studies was established in Moscow; the Institute’s Linguistic Commission, headed by G.Danilov and P.Kuznetsov, organized the first country’s conference on African languages in 1934, where research on Swahili occupied one of the first positions; in the same year the first Short Russian-Swahili Dictionary, containing about 5000 words, was prepared (the latest editions of Swahili-Russian and Russian-Swahili dictionaries, containing about 40 000 words each, were published in 2012 and 2018 respectively).
After the World War II, Swahili studies were resumed at the Leningrad University, and started at the University of Moscow in 1960. The following year, Swahili studies were initiated at two other major universities in the country’s capital – People’s Friendship University and the University of International Relations. Currently, Swahili language and culture are also taught at the University of Humanitarian Studies in Moscow (established in 1990s) and at the University of Kazan, one of the oldest and most reputable universities in the country. African languages and cultures, including Swahili, are also studied at academic institutes, such as Institute for African Studies, Institutes of Ethnography, Institute of Linguistics and Institute of the World History. Thus, Russia with its many centers of African studies retains the topmost position in the field in the Eastern Europe (where only Poland and Czech Republic have preserved the studies of African languages and cultures to a certain level) and occupies one of the leading positions in the world.
The Russian scholars who made their prominent contributions to Swahili studies are many, among them those who were really the founders of learning and teaching of Swahili language and culture in Russia and whose names now belong to eternity – Andrei Zhukov, Vyacheslav Misyugin, Nina Okhotina, Nina Fiodorova. The subsequent generations of scholars have enriched the Swahili studies with such researchers as linguists Nelly Gromova, Ekaterina Miachina and Alexander Zheltov, historians Alexander Balezin and Rifat Pateev, literature critics Mikhail Gromov and Natalia Frolova, - currently active scholars with the impressive number of various publications in their respective fields. At the teaching centers and academic institutions, new generations of scholars are being raised.
Today the works of Shaaban Robert are studied all over the world, in many countries on all the five continents. We are confident that the new generations of Russian scholars of Swahili language, culture and literature will made their valuable contribution into the studies of the legacy of the great East African writer.