Lost in translation (Part 1)

The recent colloquium on Traducture & Translation: Creating intercultural dialogue in International Development held at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor, London, United Kingdom from 27 – 29 May 2011,  resembled an African gathering where elders share their wisdom and insights with curious young people around a fire place.  Here Charles Dhewa shares his first impressions of the colloquium.

Before travelling to the colloquium, I consulted my electronic dictionary to figure out the meaning of the word ‘colloquium’ and it said: an academic meeting or seminar usually led by a different lecturer and on a different topic at each meeting.

Embracing a conversational tone, Professor Mbulelo Mzamane from South Africa set a fitting rhythm for the colloquium. According to Prof.  Mzamane, the invention of language mediated dialogues and contributed to knowledge construction in the world.   While there seems to be an obsession with codifying knowledge, oral forms are more concrete in Africa with orality representing diverse forms of dynamism and consciousness.  The introduction of writing in Africa was a setback to orality, enabling subversive knowledge to find its way into African classrooms and communities.

In Africa, we are ignoring epistemology to our detriment. Many African forests and areas around mountains like the Drakensburg in South Africa have over 2000 plant species that are beyond the description of Latin Nomenclature.  Universities do not even have this kind of knowledge.  Ironically, we have foreign scientists coming to Africa with the belief that they can teach African farmers inter-cropping and Conservation Agriculture, among other concepts.  All this is happening at the detriment of local knowledge which remains outside formal education systems. Traducture can assist in correcting this anomaly.

He added that the 19th century was the golden age of African literature and this was linked to political maturation:

I am a classical product of the Bantu education system in South Africa which was designed to take away our power of self definition so that we would become perpetual hewers of water. After 1994, following a realization of what had been taken away from us, we officialized every South African language.  Because we had been all colonially compromised, we had to constitutionally elevate African languages.  It is interesting to note that different African languages are closer to each other than assumed.  A number of words are found in many different African languages, e.g, Umfazi, which means a woman in many African languages.

Language and development are very close to each other, according to Prof Mzamane. There is a definite correlation between language and democratization.  Empowerment outside a language dispensation is impossible. This is why the African language movement is an African Renaissance.  However, a missing ingredient is inter-African translation.  Few works are translated from one African language to another.

Professor Ghirmai Negash, the Director of African Studies Program at Ohio University, weighed in by saying we cannot talk of culture outside a language.  He added that the existence of various types of English such as British English, American English, Kenyan English, Ethiopian English, South African English, Indian English and so on, shows that English has become part of many people’s lives and cultures.  However, there is need to empower African languages through producing tangible products like poems, among other artefacts. We cannot leave everything to European languages which are associated with colonialism and Christianity. Prof Ghirmai lamented the tendency for African languages to cannibalize each other which results in the disappearance of knowledge around languages that are cannibalized.

A translator and literary critic, Dr. Tomi Adeaga said, based on her experiences, many African intellectuals are not literate in native languages and this means they are not able to translate into those languages.  A lot of knowledge can be generated though translating works by such titanic literary icons like Chinua Achebe whose work speaks to many languages.

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