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Nigerian writer hits 50-language milestone

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The year 2018 ended on a high note for the Nigeria born writer Mohammed Umar who is celebrating in London after getting his books translated and published into 50 languages.

“When copies of the Kinyarwanda editions of my children’s books were delivered from Kigali recently, I counted the books and realised that it was the 50th language on the shelf. It was such a surreal moment, a real milestone and I was of course very thrilled and happy.” Mohammed Umar, who has written and published seven books, said. 

Born in Azare, Bauchi State of Nigeria, Mohammed Umar graduated from the Faculty of Journalism, Moscow State University in 1991. It was during his stay in Moscow that he wrote his first novel Amina, which was published by Africa World Press, in New Jersey, United States of America in 2005. Amina, a novel about the conditions of women in Muslim societies has been translated and published in 33 languages. “I feel so honoured and privileged to have been translated into so many languages in different parts of the world. It has been a huge experience,” added Mohammed Umar. 

Before he went to Moscow in 1985, Mohammed Umar studied political science at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria. After Moscow, Mohammed Umar went on to study political economy and international relations at various institutions in London, United Kingdom. 

In 1996, he was appointed the Foreign Rights Manager at ZED Books in London. “This helped me a lot in understanding the publishing world and how it works and that was how I met and became friends with Kassahun Checole, the publisher of Africa World Press. Once Aminawas published in English, it was a lot easier for me to present it to publishers in other languages. Aminahas been well received all over the world. The novelist Aminatta Forna described the novel as, “A powerful, beautiful and ultimately compelling narrative. Amina lets in the light upon an untold story.” Triena Ong, the President of Singapore Book Publishers Association said of the book: “The message in this book is universal and timeless. Women in different societies and cultures are still experiencing the issues described. Hopefully in generations to come, the world will be a changed place and this book will serve as a historical record of a long-suffering era.” 

Professor Michael Janis who reviewed the book for Africa – Journal of the International African Institute said: “Mohammed Umar must be considered a literary pioneer of African feminism. Umar’s work is unique in contemporary Nigerian literature as a progressive cry for social justice.”

Mohammed Umar, who was the Sales Manager at Pambazuka Press(2008-2012) added that, “Getting Aminaout in other languages went hand in hand with writing children’s stories and bearing in mind the challenges I faced getting a publisher for my novel, I decided the best way forward was to set up my own publishing house, which I did in 2010. Through Salaam Publishing, I have published The Adventures of Jamil,a story for young adults. The Hunter Becomes the Hunted, a story for six-nine year olds. Samad in the Forestand Samad in the Desert– illustrated children stories for two-six years old. The Enemies Inside– an illustrated spiritual/philosophical story book for children. I have also published some bilingual editions of the children’s stories.”

The writer was a judge for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2009 and has recently published a semi-autobiographical novel titled The Illegal Immigrant, a novel that has received very positive reviews. For example, the former Mayor of London Ken Livingtone endorsed the book saying, “This book is amazing. It taught me more about what it is like to be an illegal immigrant than anything else I have read. Everyone should read it. You won’t be able to put it down.” Becky Clarke MBE, the publisher at Ayebia Clarke Publishing in Oxford wrote that, “This is the best book about the African immigrant experience in London and well worth waiting for. A must-read for anyone interested in walking in the shoes of an African immigrant in a contemporary context. It will become a classic.”

“It was definitely not easy getting publishers interested in my books and I have invested a lot of time and resources in ensuring that the books are published in as many languages as possible – in some cases, I subsidised the translation of the books into local languages. I’m determined to get my books out in more African languages as there is a dearth of books especially children’s books on the continent. Some of my children’s books are published in bilingual editions which I think are beneficial to children a lot.”

Mohammed Umar was the winner of The Muslim News Award for Excellence in Arts in 2010. “All the languages are special but I’m still shocked by one or two like Sanskrit for example. I honestly thought the language was long dead until the Sanskrit edition of Aminawas launched at the first Sanskrit Book Fair in Bangalore, India, in 2010. To be read in Sanskrit is such an honour. I’m particularly happy my books are available in Nigeria in Hausa, Fulfulde, Yoruba, Kanuri and Igbo – all published locally. 2019 should be very busy as I’m expecting the publication of my books in at least ten languages. Of course, I will be out there looking to add more languages to the existing ones, ” continued Mohammed.

Living the dream

It is rather remarkable and extraordinary to be able to write and singlehandedly get one’s books published in dozens of languages around the world. “I faced the usual problems and challenges of being rejected by publishers but I keep trying. As Ghanaians say, ‘It is by going and coming that the bird builds its nest’. By getting one language at a time, here I am with 50 languages. I must say that I was lucky in some cases, but in the end you make your own luck.”

Asked why his books travelled well into so many parts of the world, from Finland to Sri Lanka, from the United States to Japan and have been able to pass through the censors in Saudi Arabia and Iran, Mohammed Umar said, “I think it’s the message but the truth is I don’t know. I am simply enjoying every minute of it. The dream of every writer is to be read and I’m so happy I’m being read. I am living the dream, as they say!”

Languages in which books are published

Acholi, Afrikaans, Arabic, Azeri, Bahasa, English, Farsi, Finnish, French, Fulfulde, Greek, Hausa, Hindi, Igbo, Japanese, Kannada, Kanuri, Khandeshi, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Luganda, Macedonian, Maithili, Malay, Malayalam, Marathi, Mongolian, Ndebele, Nepali, Oriya,  Polish, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Sanskrit, Santali, Serbian, Sesotho, Shona, Sindhi, Sinhala, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Vietnamese, Xhosa, Yoruba, Zulu.

Languages in which books are in production 

Albanian, Amharic, Bengoli, Burmese, Chichewa, Kashmiri, Montenegrin, Oromo, Sepedi, Setswana, Siswati, Thai, Thivenda, Tigrinya, Tumbuka, Uzbek, Xitsonga, Yao.

For details of the books and how to obtain copies, please visit his website: http://www.salaampublishing.com/editions.html

* Mohammed Umar, who is founder of Salaam Publishing House, was interviewed by Pambazuka News. 

The article first appeared on Pambazuka News, and it is republished with their permission.

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