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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Defence of Lawino

(tr. Taban lo Liyong)

Okot p'Bitek

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Defence of Lawino

Title: The Defence of Lawino
Author: Okot p'Bitek
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1969 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 107 pages
Original in: Acholi
Availability: The Defence of Lawino - US
The Defence of Lawino - UK
The Defence of Lawino - Canada
The Defence of Lawino - India
La Chanson de Lawino - France
Lawinos Lied / Ocols Lied - Deutschland
La canción de Lawino - España
  • Acholi title: Wer pa Lawino
  • Translated by Taban lo Liyong
  • With a Foreword byS.Raditlhalo
  • With a Preface by Taban lo Liyong
  • Also translated as Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol by the author (1972)

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Our Assessment:

B : strong poem, and an interesting variation in this translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Research in African Lit. . Summer/2008 Mark L. Lilleleht

  From the Reviews:
  • "It would be wrong to think of this as another version of p'Bitek's seminal Song. This is very much to Liyong's Lawino. For it is not just the title that has changed -- which is significant in itself -- but what we read is so very different from p'Bitek's "original" English translation. (...) There is in to Liyong's lines an earnestness and desire to explicate that characterizes the entire work, and that, poetically, does not compare well to the understated yet cutting irony of p'Bitek's meatless beautiful one." - Mark L. Lilleleht, Research in African Literatures

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Taban lo Liyong was one of the leading figures in the (especially east) African literary debates in the 1960s and has remained an important voice. Along with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Henry Owuor-Anyumba he wrote the seminal 'On the Abolition of the English Department' (1968), asking "Why can't African culture be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it ?" (at the University of Nairobi). He has continued to argue for the necessity of an African perspective -- including also (a return to) the use of local languages. In his Preface to this translation he notes:

I advocate not only the use of the vernacular, but much more so, the use of the vernacular for restating and stating the innermost thoughts of indigenous cultures. In other words, the return to African languages is not enough. We should return to African languages to use them as paradigms and lenses for seeing much more clearly the inner meaning abd strength of African culture.
       Okot p'Bitek's Wer pa Lawino is one of the modern classics of African literature, an epic poem in which an African woman, Lawino, laments how her husband Ochol has lost touch with African ways and culture, embracing only and everything European; it is a call for him to remember and return to his roots -- and, by extension, for all Africans to appreciate their own rich culture and tradition, and not be simply dismissive of it in the face of the European alternatives.
       Written in Acholi and, as a 'song' clearly part of the oral tradition, Wer pa Lawino is a seminal text also because it is an example of local, vernacular literature -- and so, in every way (subject matter, form, language), it is a counter-example to European-colonial cultural and political hegemony.
       The author himself translated Wer pa Lawino (see my review) -- but Liyong maintains that p'Bitek didn't do justice to "the darker, more ponderous, more intricate parts", for example, and that:
(W)ord by word, line by line, even chapter by chapter, Song of Lawino is a watered down, lighter, elaborated, extended version of Wer pa Lawino.
       Liyong worked on his own translation, on and off, over almost thirty years (starting in 1970, with the "final touches" made in 1998). He notes that he avoided p'Bitek's translation as soon as he started his own:
I wanted my translation to bear the burdens of Lawino's Acholi version and not to be colored by Okot's mannerisms and poetics of translation.
       Stylistically, the result is certainly different -- beginning with the line-lengths: p'Bitek's English version is almost all a quick succession of short lines, in often rapidly unfolding counterpoint, while Liyong's lines and verses are much more expansive, trying to capture and convey as much of the original meaning. The two versions thus read quite differently -- and it's perhaps no surprise that Liyong declined to call his version a 'song' in the title.
       Significant basic differences also include Liyong's presentation of each section as a 'Submission' -- reinforcing the idea of Lawino's words as evidence and testimony. In addition, Liyong translates the fourteenth and final section -- here titled: 'Concluding Statement: The indigenous culture of your people you do not abandon'. He notes that p'Bitek's translation does not include this:
I asked Okot what had happened? He said he was exhausted after translating Chapter Thirteen. My Chapter Fourteen (Submission Fourteen) is the only conclusion of Wer pa Lawino in English. With it, the various threads that were left loose are brought together.
       Already the last parts of the thirteenth chapter are abridged in p'Bitek's translation, but the poem concludes gracefully and powerfully:
Ocol my husband,
Son of the Bull,
Let no one uproot the Pumpkin.
       In fact, p'Bitek appears to have decided that in English this is the more powerful conclusion, a succinct summary of the final chapter which, in Liyong's translation, among other things, repeats that closing thought in variations on an expanded version -- "Pumpkins abandoned in homesteads are never uprooted". The difference is striking: Liyong may be correct that the fourteenth chapter does bring loose threads together, summing up the song and Lawino's complaints, yet in essentially reducing the final chapter to that one last line and plea of his translation, "Let no one uproot the Pumpkin" p'Bitek arguably makes his case far more impressively and memorably. Liyong's Chapter Fourteen is powerful, and there are parts that are also calls to (and against) action -- "Don't look down on food, however sated you are", etc. --, and the repetition of a similar line, from beginning to end, is also effective, yet it still feels more passive and less direct. So too in what are the closing lines in Liyong's translation of the work:
Pumpkin boles in abandoned homesteads are never uprooted.
Pumpkins in homesteads are never uprooted
Pumpkins are not for uprooting ! That's all !
       The differences, both in approach and attitude, between the two translations are obvious throughout. A typical example is the twelfth chapter: p'Bitek titles it: 'My Husband's House is a Dark Forest of Books'; Liyong titles his: 'My husband has become a slave to European culture through reading books'. P'Bitek abridges some of the poem, but even where he doesn't, the simpler presentation can be more forceful; consider p'Bitek's:
And the reading
Has killed my man,
In the ways of his people
He has become
A stump.
       While Liyong writes:
But these books have taken a heavy toll on my man
For in the oral traditions of his people Ochol is dumb
       Elsewhere, however, it is Liyong's more detailed and deliberate translation that is more effective, as when he writes:
There are illustrations on the backs of some books:
Frightening pictures of witches cover their backs
Baldness is galore, haggard faces and bearded men
All are pictures of dead intellectual men
Visages of ghosts, resembling the diviners we know.
       P'Bitek translates the same verse similarly fully, yet his version isn't quite as vivid.:
Some have pictures on their backs,
Dead faces of witch-looking men and women,
Unshaven, bold [sic ?], fat-stomached,
Bony-cheeked, angry, revengeful-looking people,
Pictures of men and women
Who died long ago.
       Simplicity -- "Pictures of men and women / Who died long ago" -- does work very well, and it's a touch that Liyong doesn't have, but Liyong's more patiently and prosaically spelled-out translation does provide insights, especially to the foreign reader, that might be missed in p'Bitek's.
       The Defence of Lawino may indeed be 'truer' to the original that p'Bitek's own translation, but there is little doubt that Song of Lawino is better poetry. Yet in a text that is also admonitory there is some value to greater precision; poetic though it may be, Song of Lawino is also clearly watered down; more fit for foreign consumption, it doesn't convey the full argument of the original. Not that Song of Lawino isn't a very powerful work, and that its criticism isn't crystal clear -- Lawino's rage, and her reasons, certainly come across -- but clearly some things are missing.
       Ultimately, The Defence of Lawino works best as a gloss on Song of Lawino, a secondary, complementary work that allows the reader more insight into p'Bitek's argument (and also original technique). If not as easily and impressively enjoyable as p'Bitek's own translation, it is nevertheless an important, useful, and welcome text.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 June 2015

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The Defence of Lawino: Reviews: Okot p'Bitek: Other books by Okot p'Bitek under review: Other books by Taban Lo Liyong under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Okot p'Bitek (1931-1982) was a leading literary figure in Uganda.

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