Cultural Differences and African Translations: Fancy a Red Lemon?

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We at Kwintessential love dealing with African language translation. It’s exciting and different. However, as Scholastka Mbave Hausiku tells us, sometimes it can be tough when translating between English and indigenous African languages due to cultural differences.

According to African linguist Hausiku in an article on New Era, translation is often seen as a powerful tool that can modernise African languages. However, she says, this is not always the case as not all African words are suitable for translation.

Hausiku stresses the complexity of the relationship between language and culture: it might be possible to express thoughts or feelings in another language, but the cultural connotation between languages might vary greatly.

According to Hausiku, who refers to research by Gee in 2003, this has to do with the fact that different cultures have different opinions about validity and truth. This means translation is not always the way to go. Especially small children who are still learning their native language, she says, might not benefit from translation.

As they sometimes do not provide “analogous ‘contextual’ realities” due to differences in culture, Hausiku says, translations can be misleading.

She gives the example of colours; when the colour spectrum of a language such as Rukwangali is compared to the English one, it becomes clear that the division between colours is completely different.

Ripe fruit, such as lemons, for example, is labelled red in the indigenous African language, while the English languages considers them these to be yellow. In Rukwangali, red is not used as an indication of the colour of the lemons, but to signal that they are ready to eat. In addition, cattle only comes in black, white and red, meaning a cow we in the western world would consider brown is called red as well.

The above example makes clear that for communication in Rukwangali, it is important to know how a certain culture uses certain words. This is why Hausiku believes schools in Namibia must pay more attention to native language learning. As a result, it will be easier for children to learn an foreign language such as English. According to Hausiku, children that are able to properly express themselves in their indigenous language will do better at school it will improve their critical thinking skills.

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