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Translation as Radical and Fundamental Experience

per Adre Marshall
As a representative of South African PEN at this conference in Girona, I wish first of all to pay tribute to Anthony Fleischer, president of SA PEN for many years, who died recently.

Anthony Fleischer was a very active member of the Committee that drafted the original Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights in Barcelona in 1996. This was subsequently condensed and published as the Girona Manifesto.

As a country endowed with eleven official languages, South Africa is well placed to appreciate the importance of translation in making texts written in one language accessible to other language groups in the country. Translation can contribute immeasurably to improving communication and understanding between our different language communities.

So the observation about translation as a "radical and fundamental experience" takes on particular force in a country such as South Africa. This applies not only to written texts but to all forms of communication. Those of us who know only two or three of the official languages are surrounded by languages we are largely unfamiliar with. Many South Africans struggle to "translate" or understand our various languages and have to resort to gestures, facial expressions or "body language" as a form of communication or translation of meaning from one to another.

Children have an even more challenging situation. After Grade 3, all reading material is in English, so those who do not have English as their mother tongue (the majority) are subjected to the frustration of having to translate, mentally, much of what they hear into a language they understand more fully. This translation process is often faulty or inadequate; many of our teachers speak English as a second language, and poorer communities also suffer from a lack of exposure to texts in any language. Libraries are sadly lacking (there is a backlog of 2,700 libraries). And it is vital in the new South Africa to develop a culture of reading. So I’d like, first of all, to say something about what is being done to overcome these difficulties by means of a sustained project of translation in an area which is vital to our health as a nation – a project which aims to use translation as a way to encourage children to read, to introduce children to the world of stories and thus to a wider world of experience and understanding, and to improve their chances of access to a good education.

The importance of stories, of literature, is often not appreciated. National Book Week in Port Elizabeth last year was disrupted by striking librarians. African writers such as Zakes Mda and Sindiwe Magona were prevented from speaking – and the children denied the privilege of listening to some of our most celebrated writers.

In South Africa, then, with its relatively low literacy rate, it is particularly important to focus on promoting literacy and a love of reading in the young. Children who are English-speaking have easy access to the world of classic stories of world literature, but for speakers of one of our other languages there is a dearth of suitable literature for children.

The following statement by Carole Bloch, Director of PRAESA (The Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa) and committee member of SA PEN, highlights this:

"On International Translation Day we celebrate the invaluable role of children’s literature in bringing children together through story. What greater hope could we have for our youngest citizens than that they grow up marvelling at and wanting more of the treasury of stories from the vast patchwork of world culture, past and present? Stories that have travelled and crossed borders through translation allow us all to discover what it means to be human, in both unique and shared ways."

Of course, the history of children’s literature is also a history of translation, as adult texts were translated or adapted for child audiences. Stories were retold and modified in ways considered appropriate for the young. (So for example the fairy tales collected by Perrault, told in French, were bowdlerized or "purified" for children in Victorian England.)

In addition to translating existing stories from English, African languages and other world languages, PRAESA’s Nal’ibali National Reading for Enjoyment Campaign is engaged in creating stories in several languages and using them daily in reading clubs. Through this process a culture of reading can be encouraged. SA PEN supports this innovative Nal’ibali project which stimulates a love of reading and an appreciation of literature among the young and the adults with whom they spend their time in their communities. Nal’ibali creates bilingual stories which are widely published in 6 provinces. 78-80 stories have so far been translated into 5 languages. To give you an idea of what is being produced, I have brought a copy of the Nal’ibali supplement which is published on a regular basis in our Sunday newspapers. The latest PEN International newsletter also has a feature on the Nal’ibali project so further information can be found there.

Another aspect of translation in SA concerns the translation of literary works from Afrikaans to English and vice versa.

At the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival held recently, this was an issue discussed by the eminent Afrikaans poet, Breyten Breytenbach and a young South African author, Dominique Botha, who recently published her first novel in English and subsequently translated it herself into Afrikaans.

Breytenbach pointed out that "each language brings is own world, its own resonance". Living for many years in exile in Paris, Breytenbach found that Afrikaans, his mother tongue, represented the umbilical cord to his country. He pointed out that Afrikaans tends to be more concrete than English; for example, the English word "complicated’ is translated in Afrikaans as "ingewikkeld", which suggests something entangled, difficult to unpick. The English word "chameleon" in Afrikaans is "verkleurmannetjie" (loosely translated: "little man who changes colour", or "trapsoetjies" (one who walks softly).

Afrikaans as a Creole language, "kitchen Dutch", is simplified; for example, there is no past historic. In translating her novel, written in the past tense in English, Dominique Botha translated it in the present tense in Afrikaans, partly to give it more immediacy and perhaps also, as Breytenbach suggested, to create a more euphonious text by avoiding the harsh succession of ge, ge, used to render the past in Afrikaans. If such a novel were to be translated into French, which tense would be more appropriate? According to Breytenbach, the present tense in French can be ethereal; Marguerite Duras writes in the present tense, for "it is not story space but the space of the mind that is evoked in the novels of M. Duras."

Other South African authors who write in two languages or translate their own work from one language to another the other, or whose work is published simultaneously in their mother tongue and English include Andre Brink, and Richard de Nooy, who was born in SA but lives in Amsterdam. He had to unlearn English as mother-tongue, and learn Dutch. Now a translator and novelist, he points out that "translation is not only from one language to another but one culture to another." He writes in Dutch and rewrites the English version completely.

Ngugi famously claimed, in Decolonising the Mind, that "You can’t harness your imagination in English!"– but most writers write in English in Kenya. For example, Billy Kahora, a Kenyan writer, has chosen to write in English, in just one language; he doesn’t translate his works himself. Writing in English assures more exposure to a wider audience. In Kenya, there are 42 tribal languages, Swahili being the national language. Billy Kahora’s mother tongue is Kikuyu. In the 1990’s, he studied at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. He relates how when he phoned home, he spoke to his mother in Kikuyu, the language of intimacy; when discussing more formal questions, they switched to English, and when his mother shouted at the maid, she shouted in Swahili!

So different languages can be used for different areas of experience. On the other hand, it is important to promote the use and development of indigenous languages. According to

Billy Kahora, Black/Kenyan children are sent to expensive private schools in South Africa, and their parents "pay a lot of money to lose their languages"!

The translation of poetry poses specific problems; Ted Hughes, for example, tended to title his translations as 'versions', perhaps in order to account for this disparity. In the sphere of poetry with all its subtle nuances, "accuracy" is of course an elusive or even undesirable ideal. However, I’d like, in conclusion, to mention an area in which, with the right level of competence, accuracy in translation should be easily attained: the translation of signage from English to Xhosa in Cape Town.

There are of course certain difficulties in translating from English to Xhosa and vice versa.

Firstly, some words do not exist in Xhosa. For example, there is no Xhosa word for happy, surprised, sexy, stressed, to mention a few. This creates a conceptual gap. There is no word for "late", which is rendered as "after the time". With the Anglo-Saxon emphasis on punctuality, this can lead to problems – you all know that offensive term, so-called "Africa time!" The implication might be that "late" is derogatory in English, not in Xhosa!

There are no degrees of comparison, e.g. good, better, best, in African languages; we have good, and very good. Some words have no opposites, for example deep and not deep (there is no word for shallow); full, but no word for empty; just "not full".

Words concerning health are tricky. In traditional medical discourse, we have problems of translation. And it is not done, for example, to name an illness. Instead of saying someone has HIV/AIDS, one refers to someone "wearing a red scarf". Strangely, young African speakers often claim that "Love can only be talked about in English!" Perhaps sentimental terms like darling, sweetheart, don’t exist in African languages?

In grammar, the passive voice is preferred in Xhosa. For example, instead of saying "my mother died", one says "I have been died for by my mother." And a student late for lectures says "I was missed by the bus", not "I missed the bus"! Perhaps English speakers who don’t know Xhosa could see this as a denial of responsibility!

Xhosa speakers tend not to use numbers in Xhosa; they use English numbers, as numbers are adjectival in Xhosa, and have to agree in gender etc. As there are 17 noun classes in Xhosa, this is understandable.

I am indebted to Tessa Dowling of the Department of African languages at the University of Cape Town for the above information as well as for the examples of mistranslation of signage in Cape Town that follow. You can see that some of the mistranslation is simply absurd, but some is offensive and potentially harmful - for example, the one advising pregnant women to phone a clinic when they are in labour, translated as "phone the clinic when your tummy is running"!

A Cape Town road sign proclaiming "no hawking" has been mistranslated into Xhosa as "no walking", completely baffling pedestrians. Presumably the Xhosa translator was unfamiliar with the word "hawking", and read it as "walking". And the sign telling people that drinking is prohibited on a beach informs them instead "there is no alcohol here", which is in effect an invitation to bring their own booze – and risk prosecution.

Instead of making Xhosa-speaking people feel welcome in Cape Town, where the population has until recently been predominately white and "coloured", the signage baffles, misleads and annoys them.

Language experts have blamed carelessness and negative attitudes for the poor Xhosa translations on official signs on roads, at beaches, hospitals and other public places. Translators appear to be unqualified or have relied solely on dictionaries. Xhosa is one of three official languages in the Western Cape, with English and Afrikaans, but the translation into Xhosa at government, provincial and municipal institutions, heritage sites and public spaces has been found to be bizarre, to say the least.

"When people want translations into Afrikaans they will get qualified translators, editors and proof-readers, but when it comes to Xhosa they just drag in anybody," said Tessa Dowling, director of the African Voices language institution in Muizenberg. We remember too the fiasco at Mandela’s memorial service where the "translator" into so-called sign language merely twiddled his fingers in a travesty of "translation" that was frustrating for those deaf people who were denied an opportunity to follow what the speakers were saying, and highly embarrassing to us all.

The former head of translation services in parliament said another problem was the lack of standardization of the language. Xhosa, along with other African languages, was struggling to cope with the new parliamentary, scientific and technological concepts which don’t yet exist in Xhosa. Translators will have to accept the challenge of creating new terms. Many imaginative, creative solutions can be found for translation from one language to another when the need arises.

I hope these observations have given you an idea of some of the interesting issues involved in translation from and into the various official languages in South Africa.

Meeting of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Commitee, Girona, June 25th to 27th, 2014

Isabel Banal: Llapis trobats, sèrie iniciada el 1999.

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