Language and Translation in Fofana's "Samori"

So I've recently been indulging in some reading about Samori Touré -- a Manding-speaking West African that at one point controlled a sizable portion of West Africa near the end of the 19th century. Without getting into the details of his mixed legacy as both a colonial resistant and brutal conqueror, I want to focus on some Manding excerpts in Khalil Fofana's 1998 book "L'Almami Samori Touré: Empereur"

One of the nice things about Fofana's book is that it is actually digestable, in contrast the monumental 2,477 page opus of the late French historian Yves Person which is so large that one might as well consider it primary source at times. On the other hand, Fofana's work is curious in how it presents oral testimonies from various figures including former soldiers in Samori's army. Given their education and trajectory as well as the author's own Manding background it seems highly doubtful that the interviews were carried out in French. There's nothing wrong with translation of course, but I question how faithful the work may be when Samori's men effortless produce literary French such as this:

"Bientôt la stupeur apparut sur les visages lorsque "l'intrus", entrant dans la zone de lumière fut identifié: Samori était là! Fonçant sur le coq tel un épervier, il s'en saisit, exhibant du coup sam main gauche reconnaissable aux taches blanchâtres. Plus aucun doute dans les esprits!" (p. 31)

On that note, this is the first post in maybe a little series that will look at some of the written Manding that appears in Fofana's work. Let's start with some of the technical terminology used to describe Samori's military and state hierarchy as per the author (pp. 38-39). Note that I'm adapting and correcting Fofana's use of old orthographic conventions and lack of tones.

bìlákòro 'new recruit' (lit. 'non-initiated/circumcised boy')

  • Attached to a sòfá and responsible for helping take care of the horse

sòfá 'soldier' (< sò 'horse' + fà 'father')

  • A rank obtained upon receiving a gun and a horse

bólotigi 'company commander' (< bólo 'arm' + tígi 'possessor')

  • Reached after an act of bravery

kɛ̀lɛtígi 'army commander' (< kɛ̀lɛ 'war' + tígi 'possessor')

  • Responsible for: conquering new territory; maintenance of order in conquered zones; supply route security; serving acts of justice; promoting Quranic education with the assistance of literate cleric. Considered an important cog in the Samorian state.
  • It's also interesting to note the existence of similar term kɛ̀lɛfá (lit. 'war-father' and sometimes glossed as 'general' by friends of mine) which also happens to be Manding-derived proper name in West Africa (see for instance the New Yorker's <Kelefa Sanneh> who as it turns out is the son of the eminent West African historian Lamin Sanneh

One thing interesting about these terms (and the related kɛ̀lɛfá) would be to know to what degree these rankings also held for other historical armies and political structures in West Africa. Perhaps one place to look would be Segu epic (see Dumestre and Conrad's edited versions?