Green and Brown

by Inua Ellams

"I asked my friend the translator, What was the first known act of translation in the history of mankind? His answer was, Probably something into or out of Egyptian. I thought about this for a while and ventured a certainty: No, I said, it was when a mother heard her baby babble or cry, and had to decide an instant what it meant." Short lecture on translation from Twenty-Two Short Lectures, Mary Ruefle

I found the ‘Short Lecture...’ above on Twitter and instantly saved a copy, because it rang true, because it is sublimely written, because it echoed things I’d said about poetry: the first poem happened when a cavegirl tried describing the sunrise to her caveguy. She was reaching towards the poetic: after internalising the world, she was attempting to capture and externalise her point of view, communicate its personal significance entirely in words.


I was born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother who hailed from different tribes in Nigeria and spoke different languages: my father Uwano and Hausa, my mother Isoko and Yoruba. Their only common tongue was English and this was the language spoken to and around me. English then is my mother tongue but not my mother’s and I imagine, when she tried to understand my babble, she articulated it to herself first in Isoko, then translated her responses to herself in English, before whispering them to the babbling me.

I wonder what happened in the seconds or milliseconds between her decoding of my language and her English kicking in. I wonder what instinctive utterances were lost, what soothings she grew up on that I never got.


A friend, the author and publisher Nii Ayikwei Parkes, described visiting his ancestral village in Ghana after spending years in the capital. There, he said, his mother tongue is used for basic day-to-day communication requesting typical things. However, returning to the village, to its context, to the very grounds on which the language stewed, he realised the deep connection it had to the flora and fauna, that the words and environment cross-referenced each other; the green seemed greener somehow, the browns browner... There were cultures and colours locked inside the language.


The Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o asserts that language is of vital importance to culture and when African writers write in English, they expand and deepen the metaphysical (English) empire at the expense of their own languages and cultures. He had found this so problematic that despite his awards and legions of English-reading fans across the world, he turned away from writing in it and reverted to his mother tongue of Gikuyu. He writes in this tongue first, deepening, I imagine, his connection to himself, his ancestry, his fatherland.


Last year I began working on The Calm, a play and prequel to Shakespeare’s The Tempest for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In preparation, I read and re-read The Tempest and each reading revealed it to be an unsettling play. At turns it is comedic, yet there is a tragic longing haunting it. Though the characters are Italian, they feel authentically British. There’s a young, fantastic love story at its heart, yet the central conflict is around old men and power. It praises the pursuit and gathering of knowledge, yet discards all at the close of the play. Most problematic for me was its treatment of Caliban, who begins the play a slave and though there is forgiveness and everyone else lives happily ever after, Caliban ends the play a slave. Much has been written about Caliban’s dialect, how Prospero gifted him language, which not only did he bastardise by peppering it with the flora and fauna of the island, but used it to curse Prospero relentlessly. However, within the world of the play, Caliban must have had and spoken a language before Prospero’s colonisation. Sycorax would have spoken to him in this tongue, would have translated his babble into this, responded quickly in it, and Caliban would have had a stronger connection to himself, his ancestry, his fatherland. I think his bastardising of Prospero’s tongue was a way of stamping his authority on it, of carrying over aspects of his culture, of making greens greener and the browns browner.


Elias Canetti wrote ‘The inklings of poets are the forgotten adventures of God.’ Taking Shakespeare as a god of the world of The Tempest, and myself as the poet armed with inclination, I wonder what Ariel, a native spirit of the island, and Caliban might have spoken about. Both would know the local language – what words might they have had for ‘Tempest’ or ‘Calm’? What concepts might’ve been untranslatable? What secrets of the island did Prospero never know? What would have been impossible for him to understand? What might have been Island poems and psalms?


In Kenya, Sheng is some way related to Caliban’s tongue. A mixture of the official languages of Swahili and English, it further draws from dialects in its immediate vicinity. In contemporary Nigeria where my play is set, an equivalent to Sheng is Nigerian Pidgin English, which breaks down and mixes English with local languages. Pidgin, spoken by over 50 million Nigerians, is the lingua franca of the country. It was popularised by the lower and working classes and my Caliban figure, domestic servant Jennifer, who is of this class, speaks entirely in this language.


Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.



Mek you no fear; de kitchen get plenty noise
but e dey sweet me, e go relax you, no shaking.
Sometimes na pot and pan go dey play together,
dey rub my ear, sometimes na person voice...
and even if long sleep just commot for my eye,
e go make me wan sleep again. I go dream
sey clouds go open and money wey dey there,
go shower me, and even wen I wake pata pata,
I jus wan dream again.


The governing attempt in my play, is to transpose or translate aspects of The Tempest for a contemporary theatre audience, to, in the setting of modern day Nigeria, make the greens greener and browns browner.

This piece first appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation no. 2 2016.

About Inua Ellams

Born in Nigeria, Inua Ellams is an award winning poet, playwright & founder of the Midnight Run. Identity, Displacement & Destiny are reoccurring themes in his work in which he tries mixing the old with the new, the traditional with the contemporary. His books are published by Flipped Eye, Akashic and Oberon.