Getting lost in translation

(posted by John)

Over this past summer, I had the great fortune of traveling to Tanzania for a safari (shooting with cameras, not guns). It was awesome—we saw pretty much all of the animals one might hope to see, from lions and leopards to hornbills and hippos. But we also had much more than I had expected in the way of cultural interaction with local tribesmen. We hung out with Maasai warriors, Hadza bushmen, and members of a small highland tribe called the Mbulu.

They would help out in our camps, and they taught us about how they lived. We learned how to make a friction fire, how to throw a Maasai spear, how to make Hadzabe bows and arrows, how to find stingless bee honey, among other cool—and mostly useless in my everyday life—skills. Even cooler was learning something about their language.

Tanzania has two official langauges: Swahili and English. Swahili is spoken by most, English, except for a few words, by very few. Then there are the tribal languages. According to the Ethnologue, there are 128 of them with at least one known speaker today. This may not quite reach the number of language spoken in some places, like India, but it’s still a lot.

Tanzania has only had its independence for 50 years. Before this, there was no language spoken across the entire nation. Thus the first president, Julius Nyerere, decided that he needed to pick one for everyone to learn. So which one of the 128 do you choose? What does it mean to select one tribal language and impose it upon the other tribes? According to our safari guides (Tanzanian citizens) it was thought that by choosing any language, Nyerere would be giving preference to one tribal group. Many feared that the simple process of selecting a national language would throw the country into serious turmoil, igniting tribal rivalries and prolonging inter-tribal enmity from years past. To avoid this, Nyerere looked outside Tanzania to what serves as East Africa’s lingua franca: Swahili.

Nyerere hoped that by doing this, he could create a national identity that could be layered on top of tribal identities. He didn’t want to supplant the rich cultural traditions of the tribes, but it was crucial to create some kind of national unity as well. Even so, many people living in the farthest reaches of the country speak nothing other than their tribal language. We’re talking about languages with fewer than 500 speakers, most or all of whom speak not a word of either official language. When we visited the Mbulu, who speak a language with Arabic influence called Iraqw, our guides had to have a translator. It is nearly impossible for us to imagine the strangeness of being completely unable to communicate with another citizen of our country. Talk about heterogeneity—the cultural insularity of these groups is nearly complete!

Having a common language is crucial to creating a national identity. That’s why Nyerere chose one in the first place. One practical reason for this is just how much gets lost in translation when the language isn’t shared.

There was one instance of this that arose a number of times during our trip that is illustrative, and it’s between the two official languages themselves, English and Swahili. It’s mostly trivial—I doubt any tribal wars would be launched because of it—but it’s still kind of interesting.

In Swahili, the word for “you’re welcome” is karibu. It doesn’t, however, translate entirely cleanly from English. Kind of like the Italian prego, it can mean a number of things besides “you’re welcome” in the English sense of the word. You would say karibu to welcome a person (to your home, say) or if you let someone go in front of you in the street (kind of like our “after you”).

It is also used, like the German bitte, when you give something to somebody, before they thank you. When we do this in English, we say something like “here you are.” But when Swahili waiters, for example, brought out a dish, they would put it down and say “you’re welcome.” Translation here becomes problematic; it’s actively rude in English to say “you’re welcome” before someone says “thank you.”

Again, this example is trivial, but the issue of not understanding the correct register is not. When we learn a new language, register is one of the last aspects that we pick up. Knowing when to use formal endings is a problem that plagues English learners of French and Spanish. This is even difficult across dialects of English! Usage of adults’ first names, for, say, a friend’s parents, differs widely between dialects.

Other issues of formality get lost, too. I’m from Virginia. During my first week at Harvard, I was in a restaurant, and I needed to get the waitress’s attention. I said, “Excuse me, ma’am, could I have some more water.” I was laughed at by my newly-made northern friends. They would never have used ma’am. (I think they said they’d use “miss,” or just eschew all titles and say “excuse me.”)

This, again, is kind of trivial. But you can imagine the problems it might present for a country of 128 distinct languages, already struggling to find a sense of unity in the wake of independence. I find it difficult to believe the country would be as peaceful and unified as it is today if Nyerere hadn’t chosen his national language carefully. Of course, you’re welcome to disagree.

Advertisements