Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Landau’s translation headaches: Part 2

I return with more comments on Paul Landau’s Chapter three of Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, 1400-1948 entitled Translations (Missionaries and the invention of Christianity) where he explores the struggles faced by missionaries in attempting to translate the biblical text into Setswana. In this chapter Landau deals with the translation of parts of the Lord’s Prayer (p.90) and certain selected matters such as rain (p.80) & the crown (p.104). While his principal concern is translations, he goes into the field of theology to explain why certain words & concepts posed translation challenges to missionaries. In doing so, he goes into the mucky waters of concepts,


I also find most bizarre the claim by Landau that in pre-missionary period the Tswana could not express the concept “long ago”. And here I quote Landau “One of the missionaries’ responses was to make the biblical era, the time of the tales, “long ago,” when one’s ancestors were men. But there was no easy gloss for “long ago. The same words are also given as “very great,” with ÔÇôgolo, great, repeated, becoming “very greatness (bogologolo)” (p.89). I personally think to gloss bogologolo as “very greatness” is most strange since that is not its meaning in Setswana; actually there is nothing in bogologolo which means very. A direct transliteration would rather be something like: a state of great-great which would also be misleading since it would suggest that, that is how the Tswana conceptualized bogologolo. What worries me most about Landau’s argument here is the claim that Batswana had no concept of “long ago” and that the missionaries contributed the word “bogologolo” to the Setswana lexicon through morphological ingenuity during the translation process. Such an argument cannot be true. In Setswana the ÔÇôgolo root is not just restricted to the greatness of size but its semantics also covers greatness, seniority, adult etc. For instance:

mogolo:  an adult

bagolo: adults

nkgolo: a grand parent

bogologolo:  long time

bagologolo: those of long time ago

kgolo:  big, great; also used to mean hundred

kgangkgolo: main issue; subject matter

moanelwamogolo:  main character

monnamogolo: old man

mosadimogolo: old woman

kgosi-kgolo:  paramount chief

kgotlakgolo ya ditsheko: high court

komiti-kgolo: central committee

mogolowe: elder sibling

mokwaledimogolo: secretary general

The main point to make here is that when the root ÔÇôgolo is attached to various prefixes, suffixes, reduplicated or attached to other stems to result with various senses.

Landau’s commentary on the translations of sections of The Lord ‘s Prayer is worth looking into as well. It is important that when considering translations from English to Setswana, one should be aware that the English text is itself a translation from Greek or Latin. This makes the Setswana translation, a translation of a translation. Additionally, Landau in his discussion is tied in a circle of translations since he repeatedly retranslates the missionaries’ Setswana translations back to English. For instance he retranslates Ya mo lo goreemo as “Who is/are in the sky”. This is interesting since he doesn’t retranslate this as who is in heaven. The question therefore arises: Why is Broadbent’s lo goreemo (legodimo) not translated as heaven or Moffat’s legoreemo only given as “up above”? Also the Setswana bogosi is translated back as chiefship and not kingdom. These are important conceptual choices of terms.


Landau observes that Broadbent “could not completely determine the singularity of “father,” (pg. 90). He seems to wonder what “Hare?” means. However, amongst some Tswana groups such as Batlhaping, the word Hare/Hara is a dialectal variation of Rara, meaning father. It appears that Landau is unaware of this dialectal variation of Setswana.

Landau further observes that lona is sometimes used as “an ultra formal form” while gago would have stood out as inappropriate for a person of very senior stature. It is correct that lona is used as an honorific plural by some tribes such as the Bangwato to show respect. However, honorific plurals are not common to all Tswana tribes. Gago (your), though singular, is not always seen as inappropriate for a person of a senior stature in a number of tribes. To imply that Broadbent’s use of gago instead of lona is inappropriate, is therefore failure to appreciate Setswana dialectal variation.

In his commentary on The Lord’s Prayer in Sichuan by Mr. Moffat Landau argues that “Moffat pursued an agrarian theme”. Because of this position Landau reads “Go lonla ga ga go atela” as “…multiply your bitings” (pg.90). This is because Landau believes that here “The novel usage is go lonla, most likely a transcription error of go loma, “to bite””. I wish to make an alternative error suggestion distinct from the one identified by Landau, because I don’t think he has analysed the error correctly. I believe that the misspelt word is not go loma as he argues. I believe the misspelt word is go laola “to rule”, “to govern” or “to control”. Let’s remember that what was being translated was the expression “Your kingdom come” which I believe here was rendered as “Go laola ga ga go atela” which means “Your rule should spread or increase”. In the current Setswana Bible it reads “bogosi jwa gago bo tle” (your kingdom come) or “puso ya gago a e tle” (let your government/rule come). I am compelled that laola is the right verb here since the verb “laola” falls within the semantic cluster of “puso” and “bogosi”. While I find the discussion of the tasting/biting of the first fruit most intriguing on page 91, I don’t think in this instance is connected to the translation of the Lord’s prayer. It would be most bizarre to have the transcription as “Go loma ga ga go atela”. The tasting of first fruits in Setswana was first done by the chief in traditional Tswana society. However, the chief was not the only one who tasted the first fruits. Once the chief had tasted the first fruits, everyone was free to taste or bite the first fruits. Go loma therefore was not an exclusive right of the kgosi.

So what are we to say about Landau as linguist? I think he does a brilliant job in unearthing the kind of challenges that missionaries faced in grappling with translating English text to Setswana. While Landau exposes some of the challenges facing missionaries, he is not without challenges of his own in dealing with Setswana text.


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