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16 August 2011

Narrating “Titanic” in Swahili (Documentary)

By: Bunmi Oloruntoba

German anthropologists have been documenting Tanzanian performers (wa tafsiri) who narrate/translate pirated foreign films into Swahili for the local audience. Though the art of video narration is more established in neighboring Uganda, it seems the East African roo

ts of the practice goes back to colonial efforts like the Bantu Education Kinema experiment from the 30s or mobile cinemas from the 70s used by Kenyan promoters to hawk their wares in the Tanzania country side.

The documentary below, VeeJays der Film, from Johannes Guttenberg University, Mainz, premiered back in April and is a closer look at Tanzania’s “vibanda vya videos” (video parlours) where average Tanzanians gather not only to watch foreign films from China, the United States, Nigeria and India get narrated by enterprising veejays, but also to have the movies translated–given a “Bongo” flavor if you will– into their local context.

In “Turning rice into pilau: The art of video narration in Tanzania,” Matthias Krings explains the narrator biz:

… narrating live is more demanding, because the brouhaha in the video parlour sometimes makes it difficult to concentrate on the film, but at the same time it is more rewarding because of the immediate response the narrator gets from the audience. Performing live, however, doesn’t generate much of an income because the audience would rather stay away than pay a higher entrance fee which means that a live narrator has to depend on the token amount he gets from the owner of the video parlour who hires him to attract more customers. It is only consequential, therefore, to mediatise video narration and sell the tapes en masse to video parlours and video libraries across the country. According to King Rich, who always makes sure to announce his mobile phone number a couple of times on each of his dubbed tapes, he gets a lot of encouragement from his dispersed audiences. Such positive feedback notwithstanding, he believes that his audience still prefers live-narration, for when he performed in Kobla’s video parlour for about two months in 2007 the room soon became too small to accommodate the daily growing numbers of spectators.

The added value the translators–some of whom do not even speak the language they are translating from–provide is the addition of an enzyme-like layer of information that helps the audience further absorb and better digest the movie better in Swahili – i.e. this information could be anything from the veejay’s own take on what is going through a character’s head in a scene to all the latest juicy gossip about the actor’s life. For example, the scene in Titanic where Jack, after saving Rose, is invited to dinner, when translated by a veejay called Lufufu, sounds like this:

Internal monologue Jack: On this party one is supposed to eat ugali [Maize dumplings] with twenty different spoons. Theses are things I would never get accustomed to, stupid, useless things.
Narration: Jack, still on … like I have told you … still on the welcoming party, he thought that he would get ugali, spinach, beans and cassava, instead he was served only very small portions of food. That’s how it is in a decent place like this. That was not very pleasant. He thought to himself that he would go to bed hungry today (Titanic 1:00:13–45).

Like the katsudō-benshis of early 20th century Japan, Tanzania’s skilled narrator-translators have also amassed a loyal following; in addition to what the film is about, people want to know who the narrator at the
parlour or on the dubbed version is. History of film textbooks talk about how the Japanese Benshis became so popular and powerful to the point that Benshi-narrated silent films remained the norm in Japan into the late ’30s, delaying the local industry’s move to sound. But “In Need of Connection: Reflections on Youth and the Translation of Film in Tanzania” Birgit Englert argues that the growing popularity of the veejays in Tanzania doesn’t pose a threat to local film industry:

Increasing enforcement against the film translation business seems to be influenced by two underlying factors: its recent tremendous growth and complaints by Bongo Muvi filmmakers who claimed to increasingly suffer from competition from the translation business with foreign films (Interview with DJ Mark, 2009; cf. Krings 2010: 29). From my point of view, there is no convincing evidence that the translated films harm the business of filmmakers and actors of the Tanzanian film industry – while pirate copies of these films certainly do. The two genres, are in many respects complementary and are being consumed in different spaces: the Bongo Muvis are largely accessible to a better-off, generally higher educated, audience who can buy and watch them at home. The translated films, filamu zimezotafsiriwa, rather have a low income, generally less formally educated, audience who watches them in the video parlours in community with others. Apart from this, they also have very complementary functions. The genre of translated films can largely be seen as a space where connections to the global space can be experienced whereas Bongo Muvis form a space where the own creativity can be explored. Furthermore, translated films are a space where stories from different parts of the world are being retold in Swahili whereas Bongo Muvis are a space where stories from Tanzania are being told in Swahili.

More: “Titanic in Swahili“, FanzNet article by Sandra-Katharina Gross on (Translation)

About jepchumba

Jepchumba is an AFRICAN DIGITAL ARTIST and DIGITAL ENTHUSIAST who works hard to combine her two passions: Digital Media and Africa. Originally from Kenya, she has lived around the world developing her interest in philosophy, art and technology. An African digital artist, Jepchumba loves experimenting with motion, sound and various digital effects and techniques and has an extensive background in digital art, web design and development, audio/visual production and social media strategies.