‘Mother Tongues’: A Review

By Mishal Bandukda

In honour of Black History Month, FLY* hosts poet and filmmaker Victoria Adukwei Bulley for a screening of ‘Mother Tongues’; a series of films capturing mother-daughter interactions as poets from the African diaspora have their words translated from English into their native languages by the women who raised them. It features Victoria herself, alongside Theresa Lola, Belinda Zhawi, Tania Nwachukwu – and their mothers. Their words are translated from English into Ga, Yoruba, Igbo and Shona, respectively.

Before showing the films, Victoria explains why the versions of the poems in the mother tongues appear first, before the English recitations, by drawing on her own experiences of language:

“The project was born out of a need to connect with my own language, Ga, spoken by people historically based around Accra, in Ghana. I’ve heard it spoken around me since birth, yet don’t understand it. My parents wanted us to be fluent in English as a priority, to make it easier for us to – well, the nicer term is ‘integrate’, but I think a more realistic term would be – assimilate.”

Victoria expresses her sadness at not understanding Ga and her longing to reconnect with a language which is at once so intimately connected and foreign to her. In each of the short films, the mother’s translation of the poem is presented before the daughter reads her work in English. We experience that same sense that Victoria has described to us, as we hear the now rising, now falling, intonations of a foreign tongue, experiencing language for its sounds rather than its meanings. As the mothers recite, the camera-focus moves from gesturing hands, to smiling lips, pausing over a dangling earring. It’s beautiful to experience.

After the screening, we talk about the translation process a bit more. The poems change through translation; English words and phrases do not always directly translate into Ga, Shona, Yoruba and Igbo – meaning that the mothers have to reinterpret the poems and find ways, in their own languages, of expressing their daughters’ ideas. This intimate process emphasises the depth of the maternal bond, made evident through the easy, candid conversations between the women on camera. The films do not, however, shy away from the moments of natural tension in mother-daughter relationships; the camera focuses in on the daughter looking down at her hands whilst her mother speaks, or shaking her head and smiling in embarrassment.

The translation process is something Arenike (FLY facilitator) picks up on in the question and answer session that follows the screening. Listening to Tania’s poem ‘Wine’ in Yoruba gives the sense of almost joyfulness, a complete departure from the dark, pain-imbued tones of the original. Arenike instances the ritualistic expression of joy in Nigerian cultures as not dissimilar from that of grief, that you almost “wouldn’t be able to tell if you were at a birthday party or a funeral”. A member of the audience says this is interesting in relation to their research on how language and culture influence how people talk about and experience trauma. Victoria is excited to hear about it and says: “Let me know what you find out!”

Victoria is clearly in love with language and how it works. It’s evident in the way she speaks about her fascination with the pure relationship between words and meanings in Ga:

“Everything is named according to what it is or what it is used for. In English, with the colour ‘orange’, you can see that it’s named after the colour of the fruit. That’s how language works in Ga. Words can be traced to their roots.”

Her fascination with language is not simply aesthetic, however, as Victoria explains that to her, multilingualism is a way for people to understand one another in a globalised world – without which, people withdraw into separate ‘pockets’ of language and culture, unable to see beyond their borders. Understanding a language means accessing a culture and gaining a wider world view than your own. It’s interesting that this relationship between language and culture seems to work both ways, as evidenced through Victoria’s ability to access a language, Ga, simply by means of being enveloped in Ghanaian culture.

‘Mother Tongues’ was a wonderful way to commemorate Black History Month. It has made me want to explore my own native languages in much more depth, to think about what it means to identify with sounds you cannot break down into their meanings, and how the way we speak dictates the ways in which we experience the world.


For more information about ‘Mother Tongues’, future screenings, and upcoming projects, please see Victoria’s website: https://victoriaadukwei.com/

*FLY is the network for self-identifying women and non-binary people of colour at the University of Cambridge. For more information please see the public Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/FLYcambridge/ 

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