Translating the Poetry of Women of Color into Their Mothers' Language

The intergenerational film series "Mother Tongues" is a homage to moms, daughters, and the languages that unite them.

Jul 26 2017, 1:59pm

Photo courtesy of Victoria Adukwei Bulley

Poet Victoria Adukwei Bulley's new project, Mother Tongues, is a homage to motherhood and daughterhood through the lens of the languages mothers and daughters share, and those they don't. Longing for the Ghanaian language her parents didn't pass on to her, this 26-year-old British-Ghanaian writer has turned to translation and filmmaking to build a collaboration between female artists of color and the women that nurtured them.

Bulley writes and grew up in English, in the UK; her parents immigrated from Ghana in the late 70s and both speak English as well as their native tongue, Ga—one of the 250 dialects and languages spoken in the country. At home, they speak among themselves in Ga, which their children don't speak or understand—allowing them a doubtlessly useful privacy.

One evening, Bulley was sitting with her mother, Comfort, watching music videos by a Ga artist, and she took the video to her to translate the lyrics. She then realized she should do the same with her own words: "If I'm a writer, why not have my mom translate my work into her language, so I can understand what it sounds like—but also maybe learn it, because I know what I've written?" she explains as we sit outside St Paul's Cathedral, where she's doing a residency. Later came the idea to make this "happen a few times with different people and different languages"—so she asked three other British African poets to join in.

Watch: Talking with Melissa Harris-Perry

In Mother Tongues, each artist has asked her mother to translate one of her poems into the mother's native language. The result is four short films, directed by Bulley, in which mothers and daughters recite the poems and have conversations about language, heritage, and identity. Comfort, a midwife, translated her daughter's poem Terminal Index, which is about "one evening when my dad was on the phone to Ghana, speaking to one of his sisters, and the quality of the call was really bad, and he kept going up and downstairs saying 'hello, can you hear me?' in Ga."

Bulley remembers growing up with Ga in the background, hearing it like "music." "My parents wanted to give us the best chances. At the time, their focus was for us to have a good education, to do really well in school, to have a really good start. And they didn't think that by speaking to us all the time in their language, that we would be ahead. I don't think it would have sacrificed anything—usually, children become quite enriched—but I understand where they were coming from."

British-Nigerian poets Theresa Lola and Tania Nwachukwu also took part. Lola got her mother to translate into Yoruba her poem about the women in her family; Nwachukwu's piece is about a party she attended in Nigeria wearing no earrings (a marker of femininity, the absence of which can cause shock)—which her mother translated into Igbo. The fourth poet, Belinda Zhawi, was born in Zimbabwe and spent part of her childhood there. She still speaks her mom's native tongue, Shona, but it was important for the project that it be the mothers who did all the translations. It's like the emotional intimacy fills the potential linguistic gaps.

Read more: How Indigenous Millennials Are Using Tech to Save Their Dying Languages

"Even if they get something we were expressing a bit wrong—which I don't think they did—they know us," Bulley says. "Their interpretation is still valid for what it is."

On the set of "Mother Tongues."

Bulley and her mother are now collaborators, and she describes their working relationship in a way that reminds me of how authors and translators often describe theirs. "We went on the radio, and TV, and we were reciting the poem, and it was my turn and then it was her turn … it's like working with another poet. It's a closeness and a distance, which I think is rare." Comfort previously didn't know much about her daughter's work, and had actually hoped she would go into a more "professional, secure and respectable" career after university, such as law, explains Bulley.

"We all learned things about our moms that we didn't know. In Belinda's case, when her mom was growing up she loved poetry and she would go out into the forests and listen to the trees and the birds… The way she talked about the sounds and music, she sounded like Björk!" she laughs.

All four artists are in their 20s, a potentially complicated era for mother-daughter dynamics. "We don't need them—in the sense of feeding, clothing or teaching us—but we need them for other reasons," Bulley says. "And if your mother comes from a different culture, she can't always give you what you need, because she doesn't know what you need—or she expects different things of you.

On the set of "Mother Tongues."

"Our relationships with our mothers are not perfect. We each have difficulties, but the project has been a way of looking at our mothers as humans—as women who are women, not just mothers; who have stories of their own that don't have anything to do with us. And I think that's really healthy, because you can be too close to someone to see them for who they are."

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

After screening the project in London this week and in forthcoming events, Bulley plans to continue it—she'd love to include Native American and Asian languages. Two language nerds, we end our conversation with a heartfelt chat about the saddening fact that out of the circa 7,000 languages in the world, half are not being passed on to young generations; without intervention, they won't survive. "As a writer, language and words are all I have," she says.

The Mother Tongues premiere screening will be this Wednesday at Autograph, in London. For updates on upcoming screenings, go here. Victoria Adukwei Bulley's debut pamphlet, Girl B, is forthcoming.