Chinua Achebe and the most widely translated African novel

Chinua Achebe, one of the most – if not the most – revered African novelist, passed away last Friday at the age of 82.

Having written more than 20 novels in his lifetime, it was the Nigerian’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, a damning criticism of British colonial rule in Africa, which has defined his legacy.

The post-colonial era of the 1950s and 60s saw a dramatic upsurge of African literature enter the western consciousness, as quality and recognition increased. At the forefront of this African literary movement was Achebe.

The novel caught the world’s attention upon its release in 1958. Since then, it has become compulsory reading in many schools around the world and has been translated into 45 languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer of all time.

Looking back, these translations perhaps offered a new window for the rest of the world to gaze at African literary culture.

However, the story behind the novel is as revealing as the literature itself. Prior to the release of Things Fall Apart, western publishers had taken very little notice of African novelists. Achebe therefore had to overcome a number of prejudices to get his first novel published.

Having competed a handwritten manuscript, Achebe sought to make a good impression on publishers by having the book typed. He sent his one and only manuscript to a typing agency in London, along with the £32 fee.

Months passed without a response or communication. Achebe’s anxiety grew. But his luck was to take a turn for the better when he mentioned the situation to his boss at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, who was going to London on annual leave. She promised to look in at the typists and indeed she kept to her word. “And when they saw a real person come out of that vague mess of the British colonies,” said Achebe in 2008, reminiscing, “they knew it was no longer a joke”.

The next step was having the novel approved by a publisher, which was by no means easy for an African novelist in the 1950s. Most publishing houses rejected it on the ground that African writers had no market potential. However, after an extensive search, someone at the offices of Heinemann Publishing thought differently. Forty-five translations and 10 million copies on, Things Fall Apart has very much become the foundation of contemporary African literature.

Achebe died in his Boston home on Friday, March 22, 2013.

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