Translating Mandela

It probably comes as no surprise to most Europeans that Nelson Mandela wished for his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, to be translated into several African languages. It seems the obvious way of making the book accessible to all as well as acknowledging minority languages and the diversity of communities sharing the country of South Africa. But reading an article by Antjie Krog, translator of Long Walk to Freedom into Afrikaans, I was surprised to discover an opposite perspective:

“An important barometer of the power of a language is the number of texts translated into it, so imagine my surprise when I received a request to translate Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, from English into Afrikaans, my mother-tongue, spoken by only 13.5 percent of the South African population.

“I was informed that Mandela wanted it to be translated into Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and Northern Sotho. Why? I wondered. The translation of the Bible into our indigenous languages was frowned upon as a form of colonisation: a way for Western values to gain entry into the traditional heart of the indigenous communities. But as we came to know the man, this request was vintage Mandela.”

As a European translator, I see translation as a vehicle for mutual understanding, the sharing ideas and international peace. Coming across such a view was both striking and humbling.

Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog

Photo: (credit: Philippe Matsas)


Oh Noooo…

There is no shortage of political or diplomatic incidents in international archives caused by mistranslations, often due to false friends. Some blunders, however, are comical rather than harmful.

One such example is cited in John Coleman-Holmes’s book Mâcher du Coton. As a Spanish speaker once started to address the delegates of a conference by saying “Please excuse me, I have a cold”, the French side suddenly burst into laughter. Curious as to the cause of this hubbub, the rest of the delegation tuned into the French channel, looking towards the interpreters’ booths. In a lapse of concentration, the Spanish-to-French interpreter had translated “Estoy constipado, perdónadme” as “Excuse me, I’m constipated”.

Mistakes (and painful embarrassment) happen to us all…

embarrassed bunnyPhotos:

Hope or no Hope?

It is somewhat surprising, if not confusing, that Cape Despair in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Quebec be called Cape of Hope in French. Is it due to different experiences with a twist of irony, or to a mistranslation perhaps?

Breton explorer Jacques Cartier named the cape Cap d’Espoir (Cape of Hope), but the apparent similarity between the French “d’espoir” and English “despair” led to some confusion, with the result that the same spot is now called the opposite in English to what Cartier meant.

Cape Despair in French would be Cap Désespoir.

Cap d'Espoir lighthouse

Photo: Stéphane Gauthier

“International” Art English – but not Universal

Translating texts about art, especially those intended for the media, can be challenging, not just because of the specific terminology (as with any specialist area) but also because some texts can be as abstract as contemporary art itself. Art speak, or “International Art English” (IAE), is unmistakably elitist: you are meant to understand that the person talking or writing is an initiate – whether they genuinely are or not, and whether their use of IAE is apropos, is another matter.

Predictably, IAE relies heavily on French vocabulary – what better language to draw an aura of philosophical intellectualism from! – with long Latin words that express absolute concepts suitably detached from the mundane. Just like modern art, it’s conceptual. You get it and you’re part of the club, or you don’t and you’re not.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that everyone involved with the arts wallows in this abstruse language. Partisans of the grandiloquent clique are far outnumbered by those striving towards the democratisation of art. Many – if not most – of those working in the field are as aloof to IAE as anybody else, or use it, like some translators, simply because it is part of the job.

Having said that, we should be grateful to the IAE speakers, especially to the true art lovers amongst them who can afford to commission or buy art as, without them and their common posthumous donation of entire collections to the public, there would be very little art to see. As for me, I relish the challenge of getting my teeth into some seriously abstract text and re-creating an equally obscure translation whenever the chance presents itself.

Duchamp and his Fountain

Duchamp – anti-art attitude à la French


The Subjectivity of Colours

In Zur Farbenlehre (On the Doctrine of Colours), published in 1810, Goethe advances that warm colours are produced by the weakening of light towards darkness and that cold colours come from darkness brightening up into light, as exemplified by dusk and dawn respectively. Goethe also stated that warm colours evoke “gaiety and happiness”, whereas cold ones made “restless, susceptible and anxious impressions”.

Following the translation of Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre into English in 1843, J. M. W. Turner, disagreeing with Goethe’s theory on what emotions warm and cold colours convey, was inspired to paint two scenes of the biblical Flood: Shade and Darkness – The Evening before the Deluge, an evening of warm colours announcing a gloomy event, and Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge, Moses writing the Book of Genesis, an alleged morning of hope and promises  “alleged”, because Turner did not think that God had held his promise of never taking life again.


Written Somali is 40

On the 10th October 1972, the Somali language gained official status and, out of 18 scripts, the Latin alphabet was adopted for its standardisation.

The country then strove to reinforce its cultural heritage by championing its linguistic identity: dictionaries were compiled and literacy campaigns were launched. Foreign articles and other non-fictional texts have since been translated into Somali, bringing new ideas to the country. Books have also been translated, including children books, and Somali literature has started to be translated into other languages too. Interestingly, and although national institutions promoting the Somali language have stopped their activities due to the collapse of the State in 1991, translation from and into Somali does not seem to have slowed down significantly in the past two decades.

Before the arrival of Italian and British settlers in Somalia, Arabic was the usual vehicle for the written word, making Somali a largely oral language. As a result of its long oral tradition, the language is rich in proverbs, poetry, songs and vivid imagery, which in turn encourage an excellent memory and may explain why Somali speakers are very keen listeners.

However, as speaking is a public activity and reading is a private one, the Somali language will inevitably change over time. For most of human history, languages have been spoken and heard more than they have been written and read. As the more industrialised countries demonstrate, some languages have evolved and spread rapidly over the last two centuries as literacy and education increased drastically, and languages have in turn been affected by the progress of  their respective cultures and societies.

As Somali lost its momentum with the civil war, only 37.8% of the Somali population is literate, according to UNESCO, one of the lowest literacy levels in the world today. The number of Somali speakers is estimated to be between 15 and 25 million worldwide.

Word Creation

In 1604, King James brought together 54 scholars to translate the Bible, a project finalised in 1611. In order to facilitate the popularisation of this new version, one of the requirements was to make the language and style of the translation accessible to all.

Four hundred years on, this Renaissance marketing trick still has an impact on how we speak today. Many expressions or clichés in our everyday vocabulary were originally coined for the purpose of this translation. Here are a few examples:

BibleFrom time to time (Ezekiel 4:10)
The root of the matter (Job 19:28)
Know for a certainty (Joshua 23:13)
Turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6)
No small stir (Acts 12:18)
Stand in awe (Psalms 4:4)


St Ursula and her Eleven Thousand Virgins

The legend of St Ursula, the patron saint of young women and education, says that the Breton princess, who refused to marry the king of the Huns, was tortured and each of her following eleven thousand virgins killed.

Or were there eleven thousand of them? There are various arguments and theories as to the exact original number, but the most common one seems to be that the original text mentioned Ursula being accompanied by one friend, a virgin called Undecimile. This name being very rare, the translator would have interpreted and rendered the name as “Undecim Milia” in Latin, i.e. eleven thousand.

Martyrdom of St Ursula before the City of Cologne, c. 1411Photo: Martyrdom of St Ursula before the City of Cologne, c. 1411.

What is Meant vs What is Said (or the Dangers of Literal Translation)

Because my name looks French, people assume that I am French (which could be a mistake since names can be misleading, especially in the case of a woman). So when I send a thank-you e-mail to someone, I sometimes get a reply saying “Mon plaisir!”, a literal translation of the English “my pleasure”.

Unfortunately, literal translation rarely works. In this case, “mon plaisir” is suggestive of something personal that I’d rather not think about… Why do people randomly mention their pleasure to me? That’s not the sort of e-mails I want to see in my inbox.

PS: The right phrase is “(Tout) le plaisir est pour moi”. Nothing more, nothing less and nothing else.