Sunday, December 10, 2023

Landau’s translation headaches

My comments for today are restricted to 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, that is, whether the Tswana had any concept of God or “long ago” before the arrival of the missionaries. He therefore contends that:

 “It makes little sense to think in terms of a traditional religious system, per se, or even a set of     practices and ideas with a discreet religious function, over most of southern Africa. There was     no separate body of practices with an interpretive priesthood or set of rituals; no accepted set     of ideas connected to an afterlife or eternal life; no vision of an omnipotent God standing     apart from men and time. No religious system or spiritual domain can be postulated before     missionaries introduced those ideas themselves” (p.76)

Landau continues

    … the Highveld population displayed no religious worship. There was no realm of the sacred,     and no false idols to overturn…No word to express the Deity by….. (p.88)

This dismissal of a coherent religious view amongst the Tswana during the pre-missionary is used as a canvas that forms the background to translation impediments faced by missionaries. I wish not to deal with the specific arguments of Tswana religiosity save to say that Landau’s position is not shared by many Tswana historians and theologians amongst others these being Setiloane (1976), Nkomazana (2007) and Amanze and a host of other scholars. I think what might have made especially useful contribution to Landau’s Chapter three “Translations” would have been Sotho/Tswana material on theology and the exploration of proto-Bantu roots of the word Modimo and present a cross-linguistic study of what the term means in especially Bantu languages over time.

I must however return to the matter of language.

The greatest challenge faced by Landau (and perhaps all historians who deal with translations) is that he deals with translation theoretical matters without translation theory or translation approach. Nowhere in his dealings with “the processes and procedures involved in any and all kinds of interlingual communication” does he refer to any approach in translation theory to attempt to break down the translation processes of the missionaries. It therefore appears as if Landau analyzed a linguistic process through a non-linguistic strategy. This deficiency impoverishes his criticism of the missionary translation strategy since as Nida (1991:20) notes: “…the processes of translating can be viewed from so many different perspectives: stylistics, author’s intent, diversity of languages, differences of corresponding cultures, problems of interpersonal communication, changes in literary fashion, distinct kinds of content (e.g. mathematical theory and lyric poetry), and the circumstances in which translations are to be used.” I believe historians dealing with translations would benefit much from translation theory. There are a number of approaches to translation, amongst these are:

The Philological perspective: focused on the matter of faithfulness to the text, something which was especially crucial in the case of Bible translations. Arguments around this perspective discussed heatedly whether a translator should bring the reader to the text or bring the text to the reader.
The linguistic perspective: Since translating always involves at least two different languages, it was inevitable that a number of persons studying the issues of translation would focus upon the distinctive features of the source and receptor languages. Important studies of diverse linguistic structures by such persons as Sapir, Bloomfield, Trubetskoy, and Jakobson laid the foundation for a systematic study of the functions of language. Most books dealing with the linguistic aspects of translating have been essentially aimed at meaningful relations rather than purely formal ones.
The communicative perspective: reflects the importance of a number of basic elements in

communication theory, namely, source, message, receptor, feedback, noise, setting, and     medium. It also treats the processes of encoding and decoding of the original communication     and compares these with the more complex series in the translation process.

Second, there are imperfections in certain renderings of Setswana translations in on page 80 of the text.

Page 80 from paragraph two. I was intrigued by some of the things that Laundau writes here in relation to the Setswana expression re nese pula which he translates as rain us or cause-it-rain us. There is nothing faulty about these translations because in many ways they are transliterations. I translate re nese pula as make rain fall on us which semantically is not different from Landau’s renderings. The point that is important to make though is this: care must be taken to distinguish transliterations from translations lest common expressions expressed in the syntax and morphology of a specific language (in this case, Setswana), are unduly perceived as peculiar just because they do not lend themselves to English syntax and morphology. English certainly has unique syntax which if translated into Setswana would be either amusing or result with bizarre Setswana constructions. (For instance the sentence I bought your mother a car.) Landau also analyses the verb go na (to rain) as “entirely unlike “rain” (pula) and in the passive produces “drink” (go nwa)”. This is incorrect. The Setswana verb “go nwa” is not a derivative or an inflectional form of na. “nwa” is a totally distinct verb from na and not its passive form. Actually nwa has its own passive form which is newa. There are two reasons why nwa is not a passivised form of na. The first one reason is semantic which has already been dealt with above, i.e. inflections do not result in semantic change & there are semantic distinctions between na and nwa. The second reason is purely morphological: when a monosyllabic verb (a verb with a single syllable) is passivized in Setswana it becomes disyllabic.

“nwa” is therefore not an inflection of the verb ‘na’ as claimed by Landau, but it is a totally different verb with distinct semantics and possessing its own passive form.

I leave the discussion of some of Landau’s translation challenges here and will develop them in the next column.


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