Oral history interview with Dr Cornelius Wambi Gulere

Oral history interview with Dr Cornelius Wambi Gulere
Date Created
24 June 2020
Recorded At
Zoom Call (Jinja-Bugembe, Uganda/Cape Town, South Africa)
Cultural identity
Knowledge accessibility
Tragedy vs Comedy
African Tragedy
Cultural specificity
High School text
African curricula
Language accessibility
Community theatre
African Literature
Total translation
Aesthetic distancing
Permission from RETAGS required for publication or reproduction.


Dr Cornelius Wambi Gulere

Jayne Batzofin


Wednesday 24 June 2020

Transcribed by Jayne Batzofin


Batzofin I'm going to start this session off, with a formal thank you so much to you, Dr Cornelius Wambi Gulere, for taking time out of your schedule, to be in your garden, to share your thoughts and reflections on this adaptation and translation of Sophocles' Antigone as well as your thoughts on the genre of Greek Tragedies on the African Continent, with the specific focus on Uganda, which is your birth country and your home. Uh, so may I ask you if you could briefly introduce yourself?

Gulere Okay, thank you very much Jayne. I am Cornelius Wambi Gulere. A Musoga, and of the Mwase clan. Now, that is a very important aspect within our traditional setup. Busoga is a kingdom or chiefdom in the Eastern part of Uganda, with a population of over three million people. They speak Lusoga language and this is the language of the adaptation of this play Antigone. And when I talk about the Mwase clan, that is the identity of the family from which I belong and that is the people of Light, the Sun and the Sunshine. The introduction could go on and on and on. Professionally, I am a teacher. I am a teacher of English and Literature but specialising in African Literature, in particular, riddles and riddling. I'm also a writer, a translator, a mentor, and an online facilitator…

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere …in this moment of COVID-19, but even before, right from 1990's, I've been trying to help children and other people to access knowledge online 'cause I'm aware that people are not able to get information physically.

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere Even you for now, you wouldn't be able to get any information about this if it weren't for the online services.

Batzofin Yeah.

Gulere So, that is part of me. I have committed myself to do that so we can share the wealth of information we have in the little communities that may reach far and wide to whoever might want to use it in any way they'd like to use it. I'm advanced in age now, 52!

Batzofin That's still so young.

Gulere And I love it.

Batzofin Beautiful. Thank you for such a wonderful introduction to not only your background and your context but also what really inspires you in the reason of why you are an educator, it's really really wonderful to hear.

Batzofin I'd like to start this interview by asking you, we're going to start with the understandings of tragedy and the genre of the tragic text. And then we're going to work our way towards understanding the way in which you approached adapting and translating Sophocles' Antigone, just to give you the structure of the interview. A lot of these questions come directly from the form, so we will be repeating ourselves. However, there are some questions that came out of your answers that I will also, I will also ask as we go…

Gulere Okay.

Batzofin Let us start with these questions around and about the tragic. What do you understand by the concept of the tragic?

Gulere As a person but also as a Musoga. I would say that a tragic event is that incident or happening that is so much out of proportion. It probably could be expected but not expected in the way it happens. It may, it may or could have happened to others but when it happens, it arouses new feelings, new suffering, new challenges. And it deepens the wounds earlier and those felt fears in the future.

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere To be tragic, or to be in a tragedy is not only to die, but also to suffer extremely among my people, uhh, situation is that so unbearable, people would always exclaim as if they were dying or they were dead. And so that dying even while you are alive, and then that culminating into eventual death physical, real, actual and not peaceful but a kind of death that may be surrounded with a lot of other negative inhuman, depersonating, uh, situations that in total mounts to tragedy.

Batzofin And then you so beautifully weave that already into the narrative of how does that relate to tragedy as a genre?

Gulere Yeah, as a genre. I would like to look at it from the perspective. I mean, for me as a riddler, I've mentioned several times that riddles give quality to other genres. Similarly, tragedy is an aspect of form.

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere If we say that Nantamegwa, for instance, has a brother who has been killed by a brother. That is drama. That is poetry. That's a riddle. But it is a tragic riddle, a tragic drama, a tragic, poetic living poetic life. So, as genre it is, I mean - tragedy in any genre gives it that essence that makes it have a different kind of feeling from what the lighter one say the gossip, uh, the comedy and any other lighter conversation could bring out. It is a deeper and far fetching. Not farfetched but far fetching. To take somebody to higher levels, deeper levels; into that particular genre. Yes.

Batzofin That's such an exquisite way of explaining your viewpoint on that. And to - I'd be very interested to hear in a lot of our interviews when speaking about tragedy, the word comedy keeps on coming up a lot. Umm, and I wanted to know what your feelings are about comedy and tragedy being intertwined for us.

Gulere Yeah, comedy is, umm, in a way it's lighter, it's a lighter form of… of this essence we are calling 'life as drama'. Yeah, it's a lighter essence. It brings laughter, it causes a bit of a relaxed mood.

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere Not that you may not have a comic relief within tragedy, there could be a comic moment within a tragic event, but in the sense of tragedy, the comic event is only there to even nail the tragedy far deeper.

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere Take for instance when uh 'Mwami', in this case, the King - the Father, and the King realises how much his actions have led to the destruction of the home, the family. He makes some comments that are laughable, that bring a little smile on the side of his face and that of his wife. But then, from that moment, the wife goes and kills herself. And then he laughs at himself for having been so high handed to these young people thus causing their death. And so it's like a light drama, you did it because you wanted power. You did it because you thought it was the nice thing to do, and therefore it was going to endear you to the people. And therefore it is something that they should be excited and happy about. But the result is that it's terrible, it's negative, you are not giving this young man a burial because he did not please you and you are giving all the rights of burial to another, forgetting that this kind of joke you are making about the burial and the burial of another one is going to become a lasting mark in the life of the other relatives and friends of the person who has not been honoured. So, we cannot completely detach the two because the fool, the person, the tragic character usually also has something laughable about them. Which, if they find like in Shakespeare, when you get the fool who will come and actually make a joke of you and show you that you are the fool. Although you are suffering, that no matter, you are also a fool and therefore everybody will laugh at you for, for doing what you have done. So I think the two can go hand in hand, especially to hammer the tragic moments deeper.

Batzofin Yeah, I wonder if it's also a way of like reflecting the societies we live in here on the African continent, and how tragedy is a part of many lived experiences, and that there is still humour and lightness in how we choose to still move forward.

Batzofin Uh, in this regard, I wonder and I wanted to ask, do you think there is a specific umm African tragedy, or how is tragedy conceptualised from our own cultural standpoint.

Gulere Uh, I think it varies from African society to African society, as you very well know. We have societies that thrived so much on violence and to them deaths- death was part and parcel of life. They could even kill for a celebration. They could kill for, for entertainment. And that has kept on changing with the change of political leadership's, the coming of religion and things of that nature. But it does not entirely change the picture that people whenever they see a death, whether of an important person or of a lesser important person. They have the feeling that it is in a way, a tragic event. But that does not remove the other feeling among the African societies, including Busoga, that sometimes people paid not for their sins only, but also for the sins of others. A kind of a Christ, or religious premonition that was there before even religion was known. The scapegoat thing, that somebody or a group of people or a family like now, the family of Oedipus suffers enormously from one to the other. And we usually get people saying that "Ah, yeah, the great grandfather in that family they behaved like this or suffered like this", therefore, they do not expect anything better, even four or five generations afterwards, that is tragic that people can be destined to a certain nature and kind of life and end even before they are born.

Batzofin So it's not the death that is it's tragedy. It is the continual perpetuated suffering that is the tragedy.

Gulere Yes.

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere Mm.

Batzofin Um, I think on this note we can start moving towards your 1998 translation and adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone - Nantamegwa. I wanted to ask if you consider this to be a true translation, or is it an adaptation?

Gulere I think it's well when you say true translation… What is a true translation? My argument about authenticity of a translation is that it should be able to speak to the target language, target community. Even while it remains faithful, to the original or source language. Not necessarily the source community, but that would also be helpful especially if other aspects like culture have got a close relationship. So, in a good translation the essence is more important than the content. What is the purpose and the reason for the translation? Is it culturalisation or is it linguistic? Is it the moral? What is it? So, for me when I was doing the Nantamegwa, I was more interested in the language and morals. First, I wanted to use this class text to discover new language, among the Busoga within the Lusoga, a language that could speak the language of literature. And not only the language of literature, but the language of tragedy. Without me just making a list of tragic events and the language that is used in connection with a tragic event, I decided that it started so deep like a play like this would give me that kind of language. And indeed, I was able to find a lot of words that address and speak in the form that could be called tragic.

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere I was also able to get the language, the words in Lusoga that mean so many of the literary terms and language used in literature. So that was my first reason for the translation. And in that regard, I say, my translation was very rewarding, it was very good. The second one is the essence, this essence of tragedy, the essence of dramatic - of the dramatic. It is not authentic in my view, to keep the name Antigone …

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere … and then you said this is in Lusoga. The Musoga is going to ask you what is Antigone because Antigone doesn't exist, doesn't exist at all. It doesn't make sense. So, for any translation to be authentic, and a translation to be true, it ought to change not only the physical locations but the entire nomenclature unless it is intended for acculturalisation. If I were intending to bring names and places of Greece into the Busoga culture, then I would maintain Sophocles - sorry, I would maintain Antigone, I would maintain Ismene, I would maintain Oedipus and all those other names. Because eventually I would write them out in the Lusoga structure and then somebody will read them and know 'ah this we are talking about Oedipus'. But after finding equivalents of those names in the Lusoga culture, then I deeply grounded the book, grounded the play in the Lusoga culture. So, that when somebody reads, they can identify with the name, Nantamegwa, they can identify with all the other names that have been used. Lyazi (Laius), Naigaga (Jocasta), Bizibu (Menececeus), Lubale (Olympus), Magombe (Pluto), Mukama (Lacchus), all those are names within the Soga culture context. And by so doing the person who is viewing this play or the one who is reading the play, will read it as if it were in their own backyard. It is in their own society; in their own community. And so, the story has been translated into the Busoga culture, Busoga setting. And that is the transformation that, for me, I call true and authentic.

Batzofin I mean, it is absolutely an art form on its own. I really, I really do believe that. And I wanted to ask like, how did you go about finding the equivalent of the name. Like how did you make those choices about names?

Gulere I used the Google search, I would get the name in the Greek. Find its meaning in the Greek culture. And then I relate with the Lusoga name - naming.

Batzofin Yeah.

Gulere That's how I was able to choose the names. I first of all, in the first edition, I did a direct translation into Lusoga, Antigone, and then I just make it Antigone.

Batzofin Ah, okay.

Gulere Then, yeah, the first response was, "but what is this? It doesn't make sense, doesn't connect". So then I started looking for names, that rhymed, anything that rhymed liked Antigone; I no longer have access to those first texts, but it would be very interesting to go back to those first texts and then we see. Even that didn't work well, until I discovered that actually, I should go into meaning. Where a name did not carry meaning or did not have an historical background, then I created a name that was close to the meaning that had been created by the other names.

Batzofin Okay, okay.

Gulere And I used the dictionary very much …

Batzofin Is naming or having names - being named- in Busoga culture is that very important, is that part of the culture?

Gulere Yes, it is. And we know that the naming in all cultures is very important. Take for instance, the biblical, the Jewish and all those earlier years, after seven days, a child would be given a name, but sometimes a name would to be given to the child before they are born. And the names had meanings either because the mother is being blessed for taking too long to bear a child or because they are pessimistic that they have suffered and therefore, they would like to … So, in the same way, among the Basoga and many, you know, tribes here in Uganda, names tell the story of a people. Tell the story of a family. And so, by giving a name like Nantamegwa, it immediately sparks of the knowledge and the feeling that this person cannot be changed. They cannot be, you know, bent, they cannot be squashed, they are firm and strong in their decision, and exactly that's what Antigone is.

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere Mm.

Batzofin Is this the first time that Sophocles' Antigone has been translated into Lusoga?

Gulere Yes, it is the first time.

Batzofin Okay. And do other Ugandan languages of this text exist?

Gulere Not that I know of. No, I'm not aware of any other language that has this Antigone translated.

Batzofin Okay.

Gulere Maybe Kiswahili? We need to check that properly, but I'm not aware.

Batzofin Because I think it's so interesting this question and again in your intro how important it is about the region and the clan you are born into and how that does texture the translation and why it's so important to make translations as you say that are culturally like authentic to the audience that they're reaching.

Batzofin Um, can you just - the reason you adapted and translated this text was for [a] High School [curriculum]. Is that correct?

Gulere Yes, for High School. I had the task of introducing Lusoga into High School. And there were no texts. We tried to use the Bible, but you know the schools are not only Christian centres, they also have people who are Animists and Muslims, who wouldn't be very comfortable with just using the Bible as a text. We had a few small books, but their narratives, and they were used in Primary Schools. So with the growing youth, they would not feel very comfortable though they had not read any consistent texts in their local language in Lusoga, but giving them a little book of six pages and you tell them that you are reading a secondary school text was really a challenge. So, I had to go for these longer translations, because I couldn't think of a way of writing an original play under such a short time, so I resorted to this skill of translation. That's how I ended up translating about five to six plays for the purpose of giving the young people a choice and chance to enjoy uh drama in their own mother tongue.

Batzofin I mean, it's also - it's so interesting. A lot of the research we're kind of finding in East Africa, is that a lot of High Schools have Greek tragedies in their syllabus. And a lot of the performances are made for high schoolers to help them see it or understand it or unpack that. And I was wondering, what do you… Why do you think that Greek texts have found their way into an African syllabus?

Gulere Well, I've not been a member of the curriculum development, people who have been making the choices. But I know that like for Uganda, we always had a Shakespeare, a Greek tragedy, another from West Africa, and then an East African. Some schools had the choice to have a text from South Africa or Southern Africa and others from the Islamic or Arabic communities. What was, and still is common, among the eastern African communities, including… okay the others had the French from some text from the French colonies. Yeah, so we always had Shakespeare and Greek, probably because of our connection with Alexandria and the first school in Alexandria, that the influence of Alexander the Great on Africa remains very, very, very influe- of high influence, very big.

Batzofin Okay.

Gulere His stay and even being named in a - into our great city that dominates the northern part of Africa and the culture that penetrated from there in Egypt to the rest during the colonial incursion from Egypt down to the south, towards the centre has never been forgotten. But literary, the culture of the Greek is not very far away removed from that of the African peoples. The questioning character of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, is very much the very lifestyle that we consider in riddling. Many children are brought up debating and discussing through riddles. Answers are never given straight and this was also the calibre of conversation among the Greeks. So, when I got to this play, and when I read Medea and all the others, the Lysistrata and the rest of them, I have got a feeling that these people could have lived amongst us. Because what they are doing, what they are suffering, what they're going through is more or less like, what some of our people have gone through in life.

Batzofin Um you know that feeds into one of the questions we've been asking, which is, do you think that the genre of classic ancient Greek tragedies resonate with African audiences? And I think you summed that up beautifully of why you feel that it does.

Gulere Mm.

Batzofin I wanted to ask when you were also writing this translation in 1998, was there a political or social climate that was, umm, at the forefront that maybe made its way into the translation?

Gulere Ah, yes, I would say yes. In 1998 when I started on the first draft, I was doing my master's research in my home village, and I was looking at proverbs and riddles and how they help in poverty eradication. My people were, and still are, poor, struggling, living through very difficult times. We had just gone through a war that had ended barely 10 years, there was another war that was going on and a lot of incursions and, you know, back lashes had influences on that community. So, people were living a life of fear, death. And there was this particular incident, where a group of lost rebels of the Lord of the Resistance Army but who were fighting on the side of Lakwena, fighter was called Lakwena. They strayed into our village. And the villagers, I don't know whether it was out of fear, or out of their nature, descended on these people young and old. Killed them, chased them and buried some alive. That was the time I had decided to get away from the village for fear that these incursions would disrupt my research. And when I came back these were the stories I was given. They buried some of these people alive. And I couldn't express myself better in any poetry; though I did. And so when I came across a very old text of Antigone in my library, I decided that maybe this is one way of communicating with this community. That what is happening around has happened elsewhere, but doesn't have to happen like that, because it causes more suffering. I don't know what they could have done, but at least I was greatly, greatly affected by the fact that human beings could do such a thing to fellow human beings. And worst of all this particular group had one of the fighters as a former Minister of Education in the Ugandan government, and a professor of education by training. But he had been taken over thinking, yes, God is in charge, and therefore, no bullets [evil] can be turned against you. All these conversations were going on, and these villagers descended on these very helpless and confused, lost, misguided people. So when I look at Nantamegwa, when she decided to take the action that she takes, she makes a stand and tells the sister it is a right of burial, it is a right of respect. Nobody should be mistreated by virtue of whether they have done a wrong or right; they have. And these are the circumstances that led me into doing this. After which I did King Lear because King Lear also has a similar… a similar theme. Yeah, so you're right, I had some immediate, but those immediate actions that led to my translation do not necessarily appear in the play. They only help me to think what kind of language am I going to use? What kind of audience am I targeting? What kind of message needs not to be lost in that translation?

Batzofin And if you were to rewrite it, where you are currently today. Do you think you would potentially use different words or that the translation would slightly shift in that regard?

Gulere If I were to rewrite it today, I think I would only make the language a little easier. Because when I was writing this particular version, I had a lot of contact with the older people within the community, but now I'm aware that the learners in the schools may not have as much access to that kind of language as it was in the past before several other languages bombarded the communities and diluted the essence of the original Lusoga language. So I wouldn't necessarily change the tempo or the depths of the tragic events or the way I have crafted it, but I would use certain language that would not alienate many people. The comment I get from some of the readers is that the language is so complex. But what makes it complex is because I tried very much to follow the Greek metre and the Greek structure, the original- the text- the English text structure first, but also the Greek text structure. I would always get to those comments and then try to get the real feeling that the author- the playwright wanted to communicate and then I transferred that into the Lusoga. And when you do that, the Lusoga becomes so complex. Eh, that even myself when I'm reading through again, I, in some cases get a little lost. But when I discover myself, I realise it's so beautiful that I'm glad (laughs) that it was like that. Yes.

Batzofin I wanted to know with your profession and your background particularly being in language and literature. Do you have a personal connection to performance or theatre, or do you think that it's not really a requirement to translate a performance text?

Gulere Uh, I started from a theoretical background but had been in theatre before as a student but also trained some community groups through performance. Even some of the extracts from this play I used to ask some village groups to perform a few things to give me the insight on what was happening.

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere Ah, this particular play has not had a chance to be performed from cover to cover on stage. I think it is important. Given my experience with The Bride by Austin Bukenya which I call Omugole. When we performed that play there are some statements and stage directions and other actions within the play that had to be improvised on the stage. So the text on the stage has to be different from the text in the book, in a number of ways, for this comprehension to be complete. The text as we have it now, is descriptive, because it has to be read. But when you get on stage you have to act it out. So some of the descriptiveness has to go and give way to actions. It would be a total repetition for you to see something on stage and still allow a character to be explaining what others are seeing. It would be to underrate the audience. So, uh, maybe that is an area where I would rewrite but not so much in this Nantamegwa because Sophocles writes it out very well. That the words spoken, accompanied by you know, very smooth and deliberate motion of the actor. That there would be limited repetitiveness, in terms of words and actions but only emphasis where necessary.

Batzofin Mm.

Gulere Mm.

Batzofin Have there been any performances, like- I mean you do mention one. But have there been numerous performances of tragedies in your region?

Gulere In my region no.

Batzofin Okay.

Gulere We mostly have in Buganda, in Luganda, they often have some tragedies performed. But in Lusoga, Busoga not quite, not quite.

Batzofin But are there other kinds of theatre that are happening?

Gulere Yes there are.

Batzofin Okay.

Gulere Community Theatre we call them, Community Theatre.

Batzofin Okay.

Gulere Mm.

Batzofin Umm, I'm just looking through my list of questions and you've just answered everything so beautifully, just like feeding one into the other. Umm, is there anything you would like to mention that I maybe haven't thought to ask in terms of the translation that you've made?

Gulere Ah yes, I can say that umm in order for us to promote African literature we have to develop the thinking that a good translation into an African language should be able to completely de-culturise and in-culturalise the target language, the target community. In that way it will be possible to find the spaces within that translation. To infuse the unique characteristics of a given genre within that particular target language. When I wrote Nantamegwa, and I gave it to people who had never read the original text. They made a lot of suggestions on how it can be improved. They were even asking me "are you sure this happened?"

Batzofin (laughs)

Gulere "In [unclear dialogue]?". (Laughs) They even wanted to know the year, (laughs) which particular King that was. And for me that was very instructive. If I had used names from Greece then the reader or the- yeah the reader would simply come up and say: "okay this is from Greece. Uh-uh, for us among our people this is not there. We cannot refuse to bury a dead person". Yeah, those would be the excuses. But now with that total translation it gives, it tasks the target community to think as the primary community. No longer as a secondary community. And I think that's what drama is for. That we own up, we should be able to own up in any way, and language helps us to divul- to delve into that ownership. However a language that is foreign will leave that gap uncovered. The people who are watching the performance will always think that "uh-uh, this is them. Not us". For me that is a very important point to keep in mind when we are making any translations.

Batzofin So you avoid that kind of idea of aesthetic distancing to make your audience or your reader feel like they are part of that world of the text?

Gulere Exactly.

Batzofin Mm. Well I just want to say another thank you. So much for your time and your sharing of this knowledge. Um and bringing me into your garden for this time as well, I just bring you into my apartment, not nearly as beautiful and sonic.

Gulere (Laughs) Yeah - thank you, thank you very much.

Batzofin Thank you so much Dr. Gulere.

Gulere God bless you.

Batzofin And take care.

Gulere [computer audio glitch]

Batzofin Okay-

Gulere [computer audio glitch]… Jayne, looking forward to hearing from you often.

Batzofin Absolutely.

Gulere Thank you.

Batzofin Take care Dr. [Gulere]. Okay, Bye.

Gulere Goodbye.

Batzofin ends the Zoom meeting