Careful with translation, interpretation of colours from Western languages into indigenous languages


By Scholastika Mbava Hausiku


FOR modernising African languages and developing new terms in technical subjects like science, translation is one of the tools emphasised by researchers, such as Madiba (2001).  I agree that translation is a valuable tool to use, but it is only possible to a certain extent, because it does not allow all necessary concepts to be translated from one language into another language by means of single terms.

The link between language and culture is complex. One can express any thought or feeling in any language, but the cultural overtones and resonances differ from group to group. The difference occurs because what is true in one culture is not the same in another culture, and what is considered valid in one culture might not be valid in another (Gee, 2003). This includes the way individual ethnic groups do things, and the way each cultural group understands the world. Thus, translation is not workable in every situation, more especially in the lower primary phase, where teachers deal with small children who are still in the early stage of their language acquisition. Some translations might mislead because they will not accommodate all the necessary analogous ‘contextual’ realities, due to cultural differences. One good example of the problems observed relates to colours, due to the fact that the colour spectrum is segmented differently in the English language and indigenous languages like Rukwangali for example.  The conceptual spaces occupied by each ‘colour’ in each of the languages do not always coincide. Certain colours in English might differ from the ‘same’ colours in Rukwangali, so it must not be taken for granted to be the same in both languages. The colour of blood is red and it applies in English, as well as in Rukwangali. At the same time red is used in many cases for various reasons e.g. in English, the colour of ripe fruit such as papayas or lemons is refered to as yellow or orange, while in Rukwangali the same colour is considered red. In this case papayas or lemons are not actually red, but are considered red to indicate that they are ripe.  Also, domestic animals like cattle (red cow, red bull) are categorised in three main colours, black, white and red. These will make brown cattle to be considered red.  In one word ripe fruit and brown cattle fall under the red colour scheme in the Rukwangali language. Learners need this kind of conceptual understanding to make things meaningful in their mother tongue for social communication purposes. The explanation given above would enable learners to differentiate colours, and to know when to use which colour and when to avoid it. Against this background teachers are advised to ‘teach outside the box’ as it were. Therefore, I concur with the suggestion for the new curriculum for schools in Namibia to strengthen and prolong mother tongue instruction at an early age insofar as teaching and learning is concerned for the following reasons. It will allow learners to establish a solid foundation in their language acquisition. Moreover, such a solid foundation in their mother tongue will serve as a ladder to acquire another language, in this case English as the medium of instruction, to pursue instruction in the higher phases of education with ease. When children are able to express themselves well in their mother tongue, they are more likely to develop critical thinking skills and be able to come up with constructive and relevant input in whatever is being taught.

*Scholastika Mbava Hausiku is the holder of a MA and BA Honours degree in African Lingustics. She also holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in Multilingual Education and Literacy Studies from the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


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