The History of Translation in Ethiopia: A Journey Through Time and Prominent Figures

Ethiopia’s history of translation is a rich tapestry woven through the centuries, playing a pivotal role in the country’s cultural, religious, and intellectual landscape. Throughout this journey, Ethiopia has been home to prominent personalities who have made indelible contributions to the realm of translation.

Ancient Ethiopia
The Kingdom of Aksum, a historical powerhouse from 150 BC to 940 AD, held a strategic position along the trade route connecting Rome and India. This era necessitated language translation for diplomacy and commerce. Greek, Ge’ez, and Sabaean were among the languages commonly translated, with Greek even influencing the education of King Zoskales. The Aksumites’ translations were essential for governing the kingdom and facilitating trade.

Ge’ez Language
Ethiopian literature and translation are firmly rooted in the Ge’ez language, an ancient Semitic tongue used for religious and literary texts for centuries. By the 4th century, the Ge’ez script was in use, and by the 6th century, translations into Ge’ez became common, still in use in Ethiopia today, representing a unique aspect of the nation’s linguistic identity.

Ge’ez Bible translations, dating back to at least the 6th century, are among the world’s oldest. The Garima Gospels, considered the world’s earliest complete illustrated Christian manuscript, are believed to have been composed around 500 CE.
The Post-Aksumite Period: Zagwe and Solomonic Dynasties

Zagwe Dynasty
Following the Aksumite Kingdom’s decline, Ethiopia experienced a period of instability and fragmentation. The Zagwe Dynasty, from the late 12th to the mid-13th century, continued using Ge’ez for religious texts and witnessed the construction of iconic rock-hewn churches.
Under the subsequent Solomonic Dynasty, which reigned from the 13th century until 1974, Amharic, a spoken language, was introduced as a written language, broadening Ethiopia’s literary horizons.

Solomonic Dynasty
The subsequent Solomonic Dynasty, which governed Ethiopia from the 13th century until the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, witnessed further developments. Amharic, a spoken language, was introduced as a written language, further expanding Ethiopia’s literary horizons.

Prominent Figures in Ethiopian Translation
Ethiopia boasts a lineage of translators and scholars who left an indelible mark on the world of literature:

Abba Giorgis ZeGasitcha (1365 – 1423) earned the title “Light of Ethiopia” and authored numerous works within the Ethiopian Church. . The exact number of his books are not known. Some of the few known books are Hohite Birhan/Mesehafe Birhan- መጽሐፈ ብርሃን, the content is very similar to the Anaphora of Holy Virgin Mariam and Anketshey Birhan, Arganon – አርጋኖን, Sequokawia Dingil – ሰቆቃወ ድንግል : The Lamentation/ sorrow of the Virgin, Wedassie Meskel – ውዳሴ መስቀል : praise book for the Holy Cross, Mesihafe Sibhat – መጽሐፈ ስብሐት : The Book of Praising. Anaphora – መጽሐፈ ቅዳሴ, Wodassie Hawariat – ውዳሴ ሐዋርያት : Praise to the Disciples, Se‘atati Zeme‘aliti Wezeleliti – ሰዓታት ዘመዓልት ወዘሌሊት : Prayers for day and night times, Fikre Haimanot – ፍካሬ ሃይማኖት : Analysis of the Faith, Mesihafe Mistir – መጽሐፈ ምሥጢር : Mesihafe Mistir Book of Mystery.

Atse Zara Yaqob (1399 – 1468) was not only an emperor but also a scholar and writer. He ushered in a golden era of Ethiopian literature. He ruled under the regnal name Kwestantinos I (Ge’ez: ቈስታንቲኖስ, “Constantine”). He is known for the Ge’ez literature that flourished during his reign, the handling of both internal Christian affairs and external wars with Muslims, along with the founding of Debre Birhan as his capital. He reigned for 34 years and 2 months. Ethiopian literature is considered to be in its heyday during his reign; lots of literary works including translated books were produced. Zera-Yacob was not just an emperor. He was a scholar and a writer. He promoted the open discussion of theological and other issues, and took part in them demonstrating the depth of his knowledge and wit. Among several of the books he wrote are Mesehafe Milad, and Mesehafe Birhan. It was during his reign that Tamere Mariam was translated into Geez.

The life history of saints, hymns, books of revelations such as The Book of the Mystery of Heaven and Earth, diverse occult literatures including magical spells and astrological formulas were composed and compiled. The world famous Mesehafe Henok, which survived only in Ethiopia, and Lefefa Sedk, which is comparable to the precious Egyptian Book of the Dead, were preserved under the care of the Amhara Emperor Zera-Yacob.

Abba Gorgoryos (አባ ጎርጎርዮስ; 1595 – 1658) was an Ethiopian priest and lexicographer of noble origin. He is famous for co-authoring encyclopedias with his friend and companion Hiob Ludolf in two Ethiopian languages, Amharic and Ge’ez, both in Ge’ez script.

Zera Yacob (Worke): (1592 EC – ) compared to Descartes on methods of thinking. Claude Sumner says modern philosophy began in Ethiopia with Zara Yacob at the same time as in England and France. Zara Yacob’s thoughts can be simply classified on three perennial topics of philosophy: (1) Method of knowing God and the disclosure of truth, (2) Human Nature, and (3) The obligations of humans. His famous book ሐተታ ዘርዓያዕቆብ.

The Jesuit Missionaries and the Spread of Christianity
The Franciscan friar, Álvarez, wrote about his fears of not being believed for the incessant discovery of new marvels in Ethiopia. The circulation of Álvarez’s first account, translated as The Prester John of the Indies (London 1881) from the Latin and Portuguese originals, and printed in Lisbon in 1540, emphasized the customary use of it as the ‘true relation’.

Pedro Páez, or Paes, or Pero Pais (1568–1622), reporting one century after Álvarez, was a Portuguese Jesuit missionary.
Abu Rumi (about 1750 – 1819) is recorded as the translator for the first complete Bible from Arabic into Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia[4]. Previously, only partial Amharic translations existed, and the Ethiopian Bible existed only in Ge’ez, the ancient liturgical language of Ethiopia[4]. Abu Rumi’s story is recorded by William Jowett (1824), and he was educated in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but it is not clear if he had any official status within the church.

He served as a translator for the Scots explorer James Bruce at the age of 22 and later resided in the house of Sir William Jones in India[4].
The milestones of the modern editions of Bible translations in Ge’ez were the Roman edition of the New Testament in 1548 edited by Tasfa Seyon and the critical edition of the New Testament by Thomas P. Platt in 1830[3].

19th and 20th Centuries Translators in Alphabetical Order
Abayneh Abera generally known for self-help books and medical translation (ካዝና 1982, ጤናችን በእጃችን 1984, ዶክተር ለራሴ 1990, የዕድገትና የደስታ ምስጢሮች 1993, ፍካሬ መዳፍ 1995, የልጆች ዓለም 1996, ነጭ ሽንኩረት የቤት ሕክምና 2004).
Afework Bekele Kelele (1937 – ) a translator who published so many books including የደም ጎርፍ (1997) James Hadley Chase፣ የአሁንነት ኃይል (1999) The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle፣ ወሲብ፣ ገንዘብ፣ ሥልጣን (1998) Sex Money and Power Book by Osho፣ የአምላክ ፈዋሽነት ኃይል (2002)፣ የመጨረሻው መጀመሪያ (2007) James Reid .
Afework Yohannes (Shambel) (1919 – 1976). Translated ችግረኞች ከዓለም ታላላቅ ድርሰቶች (1959)፣ ሐዘንና ደስታ (1970)
Amare mamo (1931 – 2015) translated Martin Luther (1949), Martyr of Kathmandu (1968), Alan Stewart Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (እሪ በይ አገሬ 1968), I Loved a Girl by Walter Trobisch (አንድ ወጣት ወድጄ 1959), አሳረኛው (1984) Naguib Mahfouz work, የጋሊቨር ጉዞዎች Gulliver`s Travels by Jonathan Swift, ሮቪንሰን ክሩስ Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and his most famous translation work ዴዝዲራታ Desiderata by Max Ehrmann.
Amsalu Aklilu (1922 – 2006), lexicographer, linguist scholar translated world best short stories under the title በዓለም የታወቁ አጫጭር ልበወለድ ታሪኮች (1981).
Atnaf Seged Kidane (1944 – ) translator of books entitled የፍቅር እንባ (1994) The tears of love Barbara Cartland፣ ድንግል ፍቅር (1994) Erich Segal (may be the original could be Only Love), የሰይጣን ኑዛዜ (1996).
Awegechew Terefe (Hiruy Minas) translated among many others ያንገት ጌጡ (1979)፣ ጩቤው (1990) Harold Robin’s work, ምስኪኗ ከበርቴ (1999) Honoré de Balzac, ጽኑ ፍቅር (1991) Danielle Steel, የፍቅር ረመጥ (2007) Harold Robinson, ደመኛው ሙሽራ (1982) Sidney Sheldon.
Ayaleneh Mulat (1942 – ) poet and translator. His works include የመንታ እናት (1975) translated to Russian, የተለያዩ ግጥሞች (ምርጥ የአፍሪካ ገጣሚያን ሥራዎች) (1971) translated to Russian, መስቀል አበባ (1982) translated to Russian, translated to Amharic works of Nikolay Alexeyevich Nekrasov, Krilov, Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov, Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, Sergei Alexandrovich Yesenin, Alexander Pushkin, and other poets as well as works of Maxim Gorky and Rasul Gamzatov. ጥበበኛዋ ጋለሞታ (1986) Carlo Goldeni, ፊሉሜና ማራቱና (2001) Di Philipo, የደም ጋብቻ (2000) Federico García Lorca, ዋናው ተቆጣጣሪ (1998) The Government Inspector, farcical drama in five acts by Nikolay Gogol, ዶክተር ጋጋኖ (1996)፣ የእንጆሪ ማሳ (2004) plays written by Anton Chekhov.
Ayalew Miteku Biru (1941 – ) translated አበሻው (2006) The Abyssinian: Rufin, Jean-Christophe, የኮርፓራቶክራሲው ቅጥረኛ ኑዛዜ (2006) New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins, መንግሥታት ለምን ይወድቃሉ “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson.
Belayneh Asegu Mukelo (1937 EC – ) (in collaboration with others) published translated works of Anton Chekhov ምርጭ አጫጭር ታሪኮች (1979) , በረራ 714 (Arthur Hally) (1982)፣ ታላቁ ሤራ (1974) ኢምፔሪያሊዝም ከዘመነ ቅኝ አገዛዝ እስከ አሁን (1976)
Bemenet Gebreamlak (1913 – 1967) translator of በዓለም ካለው ሁሉ ትልቁ ነገር (Henry Drummond), የልጆች ሁኔታ በቤትና በትምህርት ቤት
Berhanou Abebe Gedle, Professor, (1932-2008): lexicographer, French scholar, historian and translator. Among his published translation works: Le Bateau Ivre by Arthur Rimbaud, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 in Amharic. Dr. Berhanou was a lawyer, historian, and linguist, and he had a mastery of several Ethiopian and foreign languages, including Amharic, Geez, Tigrigna, Oromifa, French, English, Italian, Latin, Classic Greek, and Arabic.
Blatta Mersie-Hazen Wolde Kirkos (1881- 1971) was an author and translator. (የጥንት ታሪክ (ሔሮዶትስ እንደ ጻፈው (1949)Brook Beyene: translator of “ሳማድ በጫካ ውስጥ” (Samad bech’aka wist’ in Amharic) from the English “Samad in the Forest”, a book written by Mohammed Umar, London 2019, እንደ ቅምሻ A bilingual book (French and Amharic) of poetry translation from the works of the Great French Poet Arthur Rimbaud in collaboration with Francois Morand 2016), Les Cantiques des Cantiques de Casanchis translated into French from from the Amharic book ማህልየ ማህልየ ዘካዛንቺስ by Tedbabe Tilahun.
Demisse Tsige: journalist, author and translator. He translated የኑዛዜው እስረኛ (1997), ትንግርት (1982) James Hadley.
Epherem Endale prolific writer and renowned translator among his works: በሰላይ ላይ ሰላይ (1982) Spy/counterspy by Duško Popov፣ ፍንጭ (1983) Robert Ludlum፣ ቤርሙዳ ትሪያንግል (1981) The Bermuda Triangle by Charles Berlitz፣ ሰቆቃ (1991) Sidney Sheldon.
Getachew Tadese Woldehawariat: translator of የፍጻሜው ነውጥ ጀምሯል (1994)
Getaneh Anteneh: Translator of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Bichegir (a collection of local and translated folk tales for kids), Topaz (a play by Marcel Pagnol staged at the National Theatre), and Mamma Besemay (Tower in the Sky) and his most recent publication, Manon des sources (ጎቤው) of Marcel Pagnol.
Girma Enchalew Worku (1935 – ) translator of ዤን ኤይር (1981) Jane Eyre and ሥራ ለሠሪው (1984) by Charlotte Brontë.
Girmachew Teklehawariat (Dejazmach) translator of የጥንት ሮማውያን ታሪክ
Hailemelekot Mewael (1943 – ) translated into Tigrinya Othello (Shakespeare).
Kebede Michael (1909 – 1991) translated ሮሚዮና ጁሊየት Romeo and Julliet by Shakespeare.
Kidana-Wald Kefle (circa 1862-July 6, 1944) son of Memher Kifle Giorghis (Wolde Aba Tekele) was an Ethiopian scholar who devoted his life to learning. Born in Wagda, Shawa, and educated first at home, and then in a church school, he went to the Holy Land at the age of twenty to study Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac.
Lema Feyisa Chiksiye (1919 EC – ) translated classics like “The Adventures of Pinocchio”, The Fables of Lafontaine and “Animal Farm.”
Mamo Wedneh (1923 – 2004 EC) was a journalist, author, poet, and translator. Among of his translation works the following are some of the remarkable ones: ሁለተኛው የዓለም ጦርነት (1954)፣ አደገኛው ሰላይ (1958)፣ የኛ ሰው በደማስቆ (1962)፣ የሁለት ዓለም ሰላይ (1964)፣ ምፅዓተ እስራኤል (1982)፣ ሰላዩ ሬሳ (1964)፣ የ17 ቀኑ ጦርነት (1967)፣ የካይሮው ጆሮ ጠቢ (1967)፣ የበረሃው ተኩላ (1957)፣ ዘጠና ደቂቃ በኢንቴቤ (1969)፣ ጊለን የክፍለ ዘመኑ ሰላይ (1969)፣ የኦዴሳ ማኅደር (1970)፣ ስለላና ሰላዮች (1974)፣ የሰላዩ ካሜራ (1980)፣ ሰላይ ነኝ (1982)፣ ሾተለዩ ሰላይ (1981)፣ በረመዳን ዋዜማ (1982)፣ የበረሃው ማዕበል (1984).
Memher Kifle Giorghis (1817 – 1900) initiated the Amharic dictionary, later completed by his son, Kidana-Wald Kefle.
Mesfin Alemayehu (October 1951 – ) is a translator of various works. (ካፖርቱ (1978 EC)፣ ሽማግሌው ባሕሩ እና ሌሎች (1991 EC)፣ የቬነሱ ነጋዴ፣ የመጨረሻዋ ቅጠል)
Sahle Sellassie Berhane Mariam (Amharic: ሣህለ ሥላሴ ብርሃነ ማርያም; born 1936) is an Ethiopian novelist and translator. Sahle Sellassie wrote the first novel in the Chaha language in the mid-1960s. In 1969 Heinemann published his first English-language novel in their African Writers Series. He continued to write novels into the 1980s. Sahle Sellassie also translated books into Amharic. This included novels by Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities የሁለት ከተሞች ወግ), Victor Hugo (Les Misérables መከረኞች)፣ Guy De Maupassant ዕጣ ፈንታ (The Necklace)፣ Pearl S. Buck The Mother እምዩ፣ Richard Wright Native Son ያገር ልጅ and others.
Shiferaw Mengesha (1932 – ) ሕግ ያልገዛውን ነጻነት ኃይል ይገዛዋል (Moshe Dayan) የኦሽዌትዝ ምስጢር Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Miklos Nyiszli (1981)
Sibhat GebreEgziabher: Translated the ሲራኖ Cyrano (work of Edmond Rostand) ዛዚ Zazie dans le Métro by Raymond Queneau
Tadele Gebrehiwot (1938 – ) is the translator of Marie Corelli work Vendetta! translated as ብቀላ, collection of quotes entitled ተራማጅ ጥቅሶች
Tesfaye Gessese (1929 – ) translated ሩብ አያት Omar Khayyam poems (1987 EC) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe የወጣቱ ቬርተር ሰቀቀኖች The Sorrows of Young Werther (German: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers).

Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin (Amharic: ጸጋዬ ገብረ መድኅን; 17 August 1936 – 25 February 2006) was an Ethiopian poet and novelist. His novels and poets evoke retrospective narratives, fanciful epics, and nationalistic cannonations. Among many works the following are most remarkable Shakespeare (Hamlet and Othello being the most popular of these works and directed by Abate Mekuria), King Lear, Macbeth, as well as Molière’s Tartuffe and Le Médecin malgré lui, as well as Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage.
Yilma Hailu translator of ለወሬ ነጋሪ (2004) Left to Tell by Immaculée Ilibagiza.

Challenges and Opportunities
Ethiopia’s history of translation is a tapestry woven with dynamic cultural and intellectual exchange spanning centuries. From its roots in the ancient Aksumite Kingdom, where translation facilitated diplomacy and trade, to modern-day efforts, Ethiopia has a rich tradition of bridging linguistic and cultural divides.

However, this tradition faces challenges, including the preservation of historical translations and the need for more resources and training. Ethiopia’s linguistic diversity, while a hurdle, also offers opportunities for disseminating knowledge in multiple local languages. In the digital age, modern adaptation and the use of technology have expanded the reach of Ethiopian literature and knowledge.

Despite these challenges, Ethiopia’s translation efforts remain a vital tool for enriching its literary tapestry, fostering cross-cultural understanding, and navigating contemporary global issues. With increased investment in training and resources, Ethiopia’s tradition of translation continues to evolve and contribute to the interconnected world of knowledge exchange.

Ethiopia’s historical journey through the realm of translation reflects the country’s unwavering commitment to preserving and disseminating knowledge across generations. The ancient Ge’ez manuscripts, painstakingly translated and transcribed, symbolize the deep roots of Ethiopia’s literary traditions. These manuscripts, echoing the voices of scholars and scribes from bygone eras, serve as a testament to the enduring importance of language and communication in Ethiopia’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

As Ethiopia strides confidently into the modern age, the legacy of translation endures. With a burgeoning literary scene and a newfound focus on making global literature accessible to Ethiopian readers, contemporary translators are carrying forward this rich tradition. The translations of works by renowned authors from around the world bridge cultural divides, fostering a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives and experiences.
In conclusion, Ethiopia’s history of translation serves as a bridge between its storied past and its promising future. It encapsulates the country’s commitment to the preservation of knowledge, cultural exchange, and intellectual growth. As Ethiopia continues to evolve and embrace the interconnected world of literature and ideas, translation remains a powerful force in shaping its cultural landscape and contributing to the global tapestry of human expression.

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Reference :
የኢትዮጵያ ደራሲያንና ሥራዎቻቸው፣ አዘጋጅ ጌታቸው አበበ አየለ፣ 2011 ዓ.ም. አዲስ አበባ ዩኒቨርስቲ ፕሬስ፣ አዲስ አበባ