In the 1940s, a student from Kenya named James Jekonyo applied to the Department of Chemistry at Makerere University in Uganda. When asked by admissions interviewers to explain the difference between a solid, a liquid, and a gas, Gikonio said, “I can hold a solid in my hand and it’ll stay there; the liquid will flow on the ground, and I can’t hold a solid gas in my hand at all.” Gekonyo was refused admission – his answer was considered “ridiculous” by the interviewers.
Gikonio’s interview is just one example of how translation between languages and between languages can stumble and fail, writes Morgan J. Robinson. In an article titled “When Wonder Isn’t Wonder: Swahili, Translation, and the Communication of Knowledge” published in Isis: Journal of the History of the Science SocietyRobinson explores these questions in the context of language translation and Swahili knowledge during the colonial and postcolonial periods in Tanganyika/Tanzania.
Swahili has been a written language on record for centuries with roots dating back more than 1,200 years, but colonial-era European academics became interested in the language because they inaccurately believed it represented an early stage in linguistic development. Despite this perception, when British missionaries began working in Zanzibar, they quickly set out to learn Swahili.
They devised a method of writing it in Latin script and produced dictionaries and a handbook of the language, teaching the language to – among others – a prominent Islamic jurist and his companions and students of the mission. The translation was done through this network of interlocutors who suggested, emphasized, and revised word lists until it was all understood.
However, even as missionaries attempted to codify Swahili, their students fashioned it to suit their needs. Robinson cites, for example, the word “kuchenja” – a hybrid the students created of the English word “to change” and the Swahili verb prefix “ku-“. This “linguistic flexibility and creativity,” Robinson writes, shows “that translation has seldom been as simple as hopping between the source language and the target language—both of which were in a state of flux.”
When Britain consolidated its colonial rule in the 1920s, the administration set up a committee to standardize written Swahili into a “developed” language. She sought to bring the language of science into Swahili (which some consider impossible) while creating dictionaries and coining new words. And the commission was sometimes faced with the fact that not only language is a moving target, but also knowledge.
With the dawn of the age of independence, Robinson writes, the problems and solutions of translation began to be framed differently. Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere used Swahili as an anti-colonial rallying cry and symbol, emphasizing the connection between the language and the nascent nation. The Swahili language proved to be a powerful national symbol and provided some solutions to the translation problems that plagued it during the missionary and colonial eras.
The author of a science column published in Mambo Leo wrote shortly before independence from new technology, clearly demonstrating that colonial concern that Swahili could not convey such complexity was a moot point. However, a later column confronted the issue of translating knowledge, describing how nature can astonish experts, sometimes anticipating the wonders and amazement of technological change.
In the paper’s conclusion, Robinson emphasizes the role that power plays in translation, outlining the criteria of accepted language and experience. Robinson writes of the ongoing efforts to translate scientific research into African languages and to bring the research conducted in Africa on a par with the rest of the world: “Knowledge continues to face both familiar and disruptive barriers and stark inequalities persist in the current global landscape of knowledge production and communication.”
Morgan J. Robinson, When Wonders Aren’t Wonders: Swahili, Translation, and the Communication of Knowledge, problems (2023). doi: 10.1086/724869
the quote: Translating Swahili Language and Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Tanzania (2023, 24 May) Retrieved 24 May 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-05-swahili-language-knowledge-colonial-post-colonial. programming language
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