Until I can freely say what I want to say in any South African language without having to translate it or have it be lost in translation, I’m deprived of being African, says the writer. File picture: Adrian de Kock/Independent Media Archives
As we celebrated Africa Day last week, I observed how people posted pictures of themselves on social media. They wore beautiful and diverse African-print attire and proudly engaged one another in their indigenous languages. It gave me a sense of dignity to be an African.

This reminded me of how much I loved Setswana proverbs. For instance, two weeks ago when I was home, out of the blue I picked up my phone as I left my house and called one of my cousins who lives in the neighbourhood. She answered her phone with a giggle, and from her guilty chuckle, I knew she had been talking about me.

I then quoted a Tswana proverb: “E re go gopola (go bona) tshukudu, o ikanye setlhare.” With a chuckle, we both said its meaning or explanation: “E re ontse o gopotse motho (kgotsa o bua ka ena) a bo a tlhagelela.”

I was making my way to her house.

Even though black people generally make up more than 70% of newspaper readerships, I have to translate everything I say in order to accommodate everyone. The truth is the meaning will often be lost in a loose translation.

Why not learn those few lines if you are not familiar with the language? Why not ask your Sotho friend to explain what I meant by the phrase?

As the late Tata Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

We need to start speaking the languages that speak to people’s hearts.

This “lost in translation” culture or practice should end. English speakers with rich and overflowing lexicons will often use unusual phrases and sound unnecessarily grandiloquent, which defies the purpose of writing - we should be writing to inform, not impress.

For someone like me who has an average or adequate vocabulary, we have to look for dictionaries, or Google what has been written so we can comprehend what the writer is saying.

It is tiring to always have to translate African indigenous languages in our writing. Notwithstanding the fact that it is an English newspaper.

We have idolised and made English superior. As I’ve said before, I understand that knowing, speaking and comprehending English is a necessity in the contemporary world as it is the universal language, but let us not undermine the importance of our indigenous languages.

During a funeral at home, an obituary is read. Most of them are preferably written in our indigenous languages.

What puzzles me is that whoever is in charge of the funeral programme will insist on putting down the name of the cousin who is proficient in only English. It’s baffling. These are the same people who pronounce our president’s surname as Rama-Poser instead of Ra-ma-pho-sa. You ask for the person’s indigenous name, which is Kutlwano, and they will say: “My name is Qui-tlwai-no.”

It is cringeworthy. I shudder in disbelief and shame. I weep.

As a language fanatic, I find myself having to rescue them from reading Setswana, Sepedi and Tsonga obituaries all the damn time. It is annoying. As for their parents, they should be ashamed. 

Surprisingly, they proudly say their children cannot speak an indigenous language - they speak only English. These cousins are isolated during family gatherings. We speak native all the way.

Until I can freely say what I want to say in any South African language without having to translate it or have it be lost in translation, I’m deprived of being African. In my humble opinion, this is soft colonialism. I am not yet uhuru.

As the Sothos say: “Sesotho ha se tolokwe.”

Happy Africa Day every day!

* Kabelo Chabalala is the chairperson and founder of the Young Men Movement (YMM). Email, [email protected]; Twitter, @KabeloJay; Facebook, Kabelo Chabalala

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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