What translation can do for you….


I have always been curious about what led Julius Nyerere to translate Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’. Not being a Swahili speaker, I can only imagine what Mark Antony’s oration must sound like in Swahili. Also in 1930, Solomon Plaatje translated ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ into Setswana. When I look at a text of the bard, I cannot see it Shona. Earlier, Tiyo Soga had translation John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ into Xhosa.


The translation of the Bible from Latin into English was one of the most powerful impetuses to the development of that language. It is interesting how its translation into Shona must have changed the vocabulary and concepts. When people pray in the context the traditional meaning of Mwari, prayer is through the ancestors ‘vari pasi’[in the earth]. The sky [denga] as the place of rest after death is a Christian idea, a Western idea. However, ‘kudenga’ now means ‘heaven’, and ‘mudenga’ sky. There is a sense of ‘sky’ that is not recognised in Shona at present, which is ‘space’. ‘Space’ is the physical area outside the earth’s atmosphere and stretches to the limits of the universe. How can this be rendered into Shona? Another Shona word meaning sky is ‘uzuru’. This has all the senses of ‘a higher place’, from ‘higher ground’ to ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’. People who are fluent in both English and Shona resolve the conflict by simply substituting (switching to) the English word or words whenever needed. This carries the English sense without translation. This then gets ‘Shonarised’ to ‘sipesi’ [or s’pesi]. It becomes easier to use in Shona if it will accept the rules of Bantu grammer: kus’pesi, mus’pesi , ‘s’pesi inzvimbo iri mudenga, etc. On the other hand, the resources of Shona itself could be mined to incorparate the concept of ‘space’. Space can be regarded as a place like ‘Murehwa’, ‘Zimbabwe’ or ‘Africa’. So space could also be regarded as ‘Uzuru’ [kuUzuru]. Both lines of reasoning are valid as methods by which languages acquire new terminology.


English has such an overwhelming dominance over all languages that it is the source of words for most of the world’s languages. At the same time, translation is a constant infusion of ideas and vocabulary keeping the languages current and alive. However, language switching, which is frequent among people with more than one language, allows the separations of languages to persist and works to the disadvantage of the weaker language. In Shona and Ndebele literatures in Zimbabwe, there is very little translation. The few translations include ‘A Grain of Wheat’ [Tsanga yeMbeu] by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, ‘I Will Merry When I Want’ [Ndicha Roora kana Ndada] Ngugi wa Thiong’o  and Ngugi wa Miri and ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’ [Kutongwa kwa Dedan Kimathi] by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo. This was all in the 1980s. More recently, only ‘Nervous Condition’ by Tsitsi Dangarembwa is likely to join the list. This is in contrast to South Africa where there is a literary prize devoted to translation. Literary Shona is confined to the territory of the state of Zimbabwe. This is a disadvantage because the material experience of Shona [ChiManyika and others] speakers in Mozambique has been different for over one hundred years. They must have something to add to the vocabulary of Shona, even if their own literature is poorly developed. Ndebele on the other hand seems to be well connected. As part of the Nguni family, it not only has a vast resource, it also stands to benefit from the rapid development these languages are experiencing and going to experience for many years to come. Both Shona and Ndebele [and other languages of Zimbabwe] have become languages of the diaspora as well, joining others of the world’s languages, but the literature has not. It is time now that the world’s literature becomes reflected in these languages too.


Commentators on the history of the English language often draw comparison with French. There is no regulatory environment in English dictating what correct usage is or whether such and such a word is acceptable or not. As a result it borrows heavily, creates new words with ease and assimilates from common speech. Its vocabulary expands at a relentless rate. At the same time there are many Englishes across the world, all converging and diverging. The dictionary, Hobson-Jobson, which lists English words of Indian origin, lists thousands of words, from pyjamas, veranda, shampoo and many more. In France, on the other hand, there is an Academy that guards the entry of words into the language. On the other hand, the development of the language can be deliberate. Afrikaans is a case in point. In less than a hundred years it went from a language with limited technical vocabulary to full development as a language of science, technology, law and education. Being closely related to Dutch and German, it could essentially plunder the developments in those languages. The closest language that stands in similar relationship to the Bantu languages is Swahili.


In the diaspora people are exposed to vast resources in terms of other languages, their literatures, technologies and experiences that can enrich our languages. Reading the world’s literature in your own language can improve your self image.


Farai Madzimbamuto

published in ‘The Zimbabwean’

22 -28 June 2006







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