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(15): Hausa Film English Subtitles: Expanding or Exposing Kannywood?

Muhammad Muhsin Ibrahim
Bayero University, Kano
@muhsin234 (Twitter)

As students of Theatre and Film Studies here in India, we watch drama and films from across the globe, and of all genres. We encounter no hurdle or trouble in getting the movies as the internet has today simplified much access to them, broken many boundaries to any nation, any community, and any film industry except in a few cases. I must, however, admit that only very little is known about Africa or the films produced therein. Despite this, I often ‘boast’ saying my country, Nigeria, is the most populous African country, and its film industry is the third-biggest in the world. But a snag comes up when asked to bring forward the films; I couldn’t, for I shouldn’t just give them any films, for Nigeria’s being a unique country due to its sharp cultural and ethno-religious divide between the North and the South. This becomes necessary because the perceived national films do have little or no bearing at all to do with my culture and religion of Hausa and Islam, respectively. In short, I wanted to give ‘our’ film, but I couldn’t so readily get anyone which was well-subtitled in English. This put me to shame. Therefore, this short write-up aims to make a clarion call to the filmmakers to, among other things, save my (our) face (s).

Nigerian Films: Kannywood and Nollywood
Nigeria is geographically divided along religious lines: the South has the Christian majority, while the North is predominantly Muslim. Like its people, the film-makers in the country are mainly divided along regional, religious, and marginally ethnic, lines. Thus, there are distinct film industries – each seeking to portray the concern of the particular section and ethnicity it represents.

Kannywood is the catch-all-title given to the film industries in the northern region of Nigeria with Kano state as its epicentre, hence named so—after Kano. Needless to mention, the name followed the styles of the American Hollywood, Indian Bollywood and similar other “woods” across the world. This was created beside the ‘national’ film industry called Nollywood, where the films produced are in English, the actors mostly Christians from the South except for a very few from the North. Ali Nuhu, Sani Danja and Bello Muhammad Bello aka General BMB, and a few other stars also feature in Nollywood. Unlike the Nollywood, the medium used in Kannywood is Hausa, which is the dominant language in the North, the most widely spoken indigenous language in Nigeria, and second only to Swahili in the whole of Africa. Nevertheless, some years ago, a few of the films, initially rendered in Hausa, like Wasila directed by Yakubu Lere, were re-filmed with mostly new casts and English was used as the medium. That apparently proved unviable, maybe due to the limited number of viewers these films had, and thus soon stopped.

Hausa Language as a Medium in Films
No doubt Hausa language is incredibly rich as a language and has a vast number of speakers as aforesaid. That is why news using the language is broadcast on some international and reputable media such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Voice of America (VOA), France Radio International (FRI), China Radio International (CRI), among others. This corroborates the fact that Hausa film supposedly has an audience in millions and that crosses over regions in Africa and beyond. Considering this multitudinous audience, many, not all, of the local filmmakers think (and believe) that they have enough.

The Hausa language could be said to be very lucky especially in this era of language death and extinction as many languages cannot stand the onslaught of the conquering English language. Igbo, a counterpart language in Nigeria and spoken as the third language after Hausa and Yoruba, is a typical example. The custodians of the Igbo language have been very concerned and worried about the dwindling number of its speakers even among the native Igbos every day. Therefore, I salute the Hausa filmmakers for doing the language an excellent service by rendering their films in it. It is in this same way that Bollywood became the world biggest film industry that uses a national language—Hindi. This certainly safeguards and promotes both languages.

Hausa Film and the English Subtitle
There is no denying that the number of the audience is substantive, but adding the number will be better. So, some filmmakers in this effort to widen their audience that definitely now traverses tribes in the country and beyond choose to subtitle their films in English, as a universal language. But the construction of the English used is, in many instances, crassly poor; the grammar is murdered, and the spellings so error-ridden. This eventually kills the excellent intention that motivated the deployment of the subtitle and makes it an extremely jocular, nay, mind-numbing something. I often wonder: is that genuinely English or “Engausa”, a hybridised English and Hausa language?

There are, however, sometimes excellent and averagely good English subtitles, but not, sincerely speaking, in many films. Films in this category include: Sai Na Kashe Miji Na (I Will Kill My Husband) directed by Bello Muhammad Bello; Dan Marayan Zaki (An Orphaned Cub) directed by Aminu Saira, Dan Mutum (The Human Child) directed by Ali Gumzak, Maja (Merger) directed by Sadiq N. Mafia, etc. But on the other hand, the poorly subtitled films are numerous, examples: Mai Farin Jini (The Popular Bachelor) directed by Ilyasu Abdulmumini Tantiri, Wata Shari’ar (The Unclaimed Verdict) directed by Yakubu Muhammad, Bakin Zinari (The Black Gold) directed by Imrana S.I Ashir, Azeema (Azeema) directed by Kamal S. Alkali, Gidan Dadi Duniya directed by General BMB, among many others.

The table below shows some of the grossly inaccurate subtitles, the Hausa dialogue and the films they are used:

Hausa (speech)
English (subtitle)*
Correct Alternatives
Me ke faruwa, fahimtar da mu?
“What’s going on, makes us understood”
What’s going on? Explain to us.
Bakin Zinari
Idan ya mutu alhalin mutane sun san muna da…
“If he gots death while peoples knows we are having…”
If he dies, and people already know we have…
Bakin Zinari

Sauran mutane za su ce fad’an kabilanci ne
“Other people will referred it as a tribal wat…”
Other people will presume it is a communal clash
Mai Farin Jini
Shi ya sa ka tsaida ni?
“Is that the reason why you stops me?”
Is this why you stopped me?
Wata Shari’ar

Dr. Hassan ne ya aiko ni in gaida kai
“Dr. Hassan sends me to greets you”
It’s Dr. Hassan that sent me to greet you.
Wata  Shari’ar

Ta na da zabin zuciyarta
“She has her hearts choosen”
She has her choice.

The filmmakers should be in the better position to know that the perimeter of Kannywood audience goes beyond the Hausa people. This is true if you consider these three primary reasons:

1)      Many Hausas living in non-Hausa communities, some even abroad like myself, will like to share their films with their friends and acquaintances. But only the English subtitled movies could be shared, and there is a dearth of that;

2)      Non-Hausa actors like in Maja, Oga Abuja, Wata Shari’ar, etc. are featured. It will be highly embarrassing for, say, the ace Jim Iyke who is a cast in Wata Shari’ar to sit down with his family or friends to watch the film for, if it is going by its subtitle, no one could comprehend anything; and

3)      A film like Bakin Zinari whose thematic preoccupation is to promote unity and integration among Nigerians, but the unintelligible subtitle alone hinders the message from reaching a number of its intended audience.

Expanding or Exposing the Film Industry?
One cannot help but ask: is that genuinely expanding the films to the non-Hausa viewers or exposing, nay, validating the long-held belief that the North is populated by ignorant illiterates that cannot speak any good English? This is true because according to sociolinguistic studies of film, watching films with subtitles can be an exceptional identity-forming experience, primarily by foreign viewers. Many of our southern counterparts pooh-pooh Hausa films, and look down upon the actors, for their being conspicuously absent in Nollywood, which is more or less considered the national film industry. Only Ali Nuhu, Sani Danja and General BMB are cast in Nollywood films; Ali Nuhu’s performance has been greatly applauded, and this way garnered him many awards, while the other duo barely features in many serious movies, but they also perform well. Ali Nuhu too had once, in an interview, opened up about the consternation he had learnt being carried around about them (Kannywood actors) when he began to feature in the Nollywood films.

I believe anything worth doing is worth doing well. If the Hausa filmmakers think it fitting to subtitle their films, then the subtitles should be done in the best possible way. And this should be done by the people who know how to do it, i.e. learned and experienced in English and bilingual translation. The subtitle should undergo an editorial manipulation before the release of the film. These are only a few significant steps to be taken. But that subtitle, which many will not take so seriously, could so quickly alter or modify peoples’ perception of your culture and general way of life. Bollywood films, for instance, use error-free subtitle whenever that is deployed. Since we learn, in fact, draw, much from them, then the subtitle should equally be learned. This will, again, attract the attention of academics to read, and write about the films in, and beyond, Nigeria.


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